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Ben Keeling, environment artist at Creative Assembly, who’s currently working on Halo Wars 2 talked to Allegorithmic about the way he approaches game development using Substance tools. Take a look at the highlights of this interview.
Hi Ben! Tell us a little more about yourself and your background.
I had quite a traditional arts background growing up. I studied hard in my school qualifications but focused particularly on creative subjects – art and product design being my main passions. I really loved these, so when it came to University it was quite an obvious choice for me that I wanted to do something creative. I chose a Foundation Art degree when I started, which was a great experience because it was really hands on, like blowing glass and making models out of clay. It was intensive because they squeezed 3 years of learning into 1, but I loved it. I took Graphic Design as my specialization, but decided to have a look at a Game Art course on a whim because I thought it sounded really cool. I had played games since school and I thought it sounded interesting. I ended up switching courses, and 3 years later I posted some work on Polycount which ended up getting spotted by one of the artists over at Criterion. That was my foot in the door to the industry and I started at EA.
Tell us more about your latest project.
My most recent project was working on an abandoned asylum environment which took inspiration from the TV series American Horror Story. I really liked the way they created suspense and creepiness with their unusual framing of camera angles and clever lighting. The sets are always based on one key location which was interesting to me as an Environment project. I am now working on doing a vehicle interior environment, which is always something that interested me. I liked the idea of doing a ship deck and really wanted to try that out. Currently it’s a bit of an amalgamation of the interior ship ‘the Milano’ from Guardians of the Galaxy and some other concept art. I never like to completely recreate things so I add my own concepts and designs into it to keep it from becoming too much of a recreation.
What are your sources of inspiration on this project and in general?
I always try to push learning something new for each project I do, and for the Asylum it was realism and materials. My main sources of inspiration for this were American Horror Story, but also the Silent Hill PT demo that was shown at the time. As I normally default to sci-fi based personal projects, I wanted to try and create something realistic as well in terms of texture and material treatment. I guess my main inspirations are video games and films that I really like, and I take a lot of inspiration from the world around me. I really like to travel to new places and build up a visual library that way.
How did Substance Designer and Substance Painter integrate into your workflow in this project?
For the Asylum I used Designer to create tiling materials that were made for the scene, so this included things like cracked plaster, wood flooring and tiles. The geometry for the scene was quite basic and I really wanted to rely on nice material definition to sell the environment. I used Painter to texture the individual assets that were in the scene. This included things like the desks, chairs, and books. Painter gave me the chance to add individual details to all the assets while keeping the consistency of the main scene materials imported to texture with. This kept the consistency across all the assets of the scene.
Tell us more about what your typical workflow looks like.
I actually have several workflows which I interchange between work and personal work. I tend to only use Designer in my personal work for doing tiling textures. I prefer the workflow for texturing assets in Painter as it feels more creative – Designer is more technical and procedural which suits materials more as you can work knowing that the textures will always tile, and you can increase or decrease the resolutions at any point. I really like Painter’s workflow of working on multiple texture channels at once and being able to work on separate ones if you need to. It gives you the chance to really polish an asset and give it individual details easily which really make it stand out. I use Designer to do everything at work as it supports our tools and workflows. I think this suits a production environment a lot better because you can always iterate on anything that is made across the art team. If you need to change a material, you can go back at any point.
How did your use of Substance change your approach to texturing?
I used to painstakingly texture assets by hand which seems so long ago now. When I was learning, I used Photoshop to texture assets but it would take a long time because I would have to set up one texture and then copy all the layers into a new group and go through them to adjust for the specular maps and other textures. Since PBR was introduced the process hasn’t really changed but moving to Substance allows you to always be focusing on the end result and view all the textures that support that at the same time. It’s mainly speed to be honest, which allows me to focus my attention on the end result which is awesome.
Assets from the Guardians of the Galaxy project
What was your biggest challenge and how did you address it?
At one of the companies I worked for, I had to do some materials for a road. I used to do them by hand which was quite time consuming, but when I moved to Designer it sped up the process by allowing me to work on multiple textures at once, allowing exposure of different parameters. I had to make multiple different versions so I decided to make a procedural road generator with inputs for different tarmac types. It allowed you to put road markings, scrapes, potholes and other imperfections as well as blended edges with controllable sliders.
Do you have any tips/tricks to share with the community or just some things you particularly like doing with Substance?
The main advice when using Designer is to try and look at creating materials in the same way you would have done with programs like Zbrush. I generally start with height maps and try to get as much variation into this before attempting the other textures. Nodes like slope blurs and bevels cross the line between it being a flat texture and something that is sculpted. You can then use this information to generate the other textures quite easily. You have to really look at reference images and try to prevent it looking procedural and closer to something more natural. I always view the textures with tessellation so it’s close to sculpting, in a way. In Substance Painter, I tend to try and layer up generators quite a lot. You can blend these together using layer effects like in Photoshop which becomes really powerful. I try to build up materials in the way they would have existed in real life. For example, a mechanical metal may start with a raw base metal, and then I would add a layer of paint and maybe logos which would be added in manufacturing of the material. I may add grease and dirt that had built up over time and scratches and scrapes which reveal the raw metal underneath. I tend to work on the model with the whole material applied to preview it and put all my work into a group and mask it to the relevant part of the model after.