Making Materials and Models! Mmmmmmmm (M)Normal Maps?

Not being an artist can seem like one of the most daunting parts of going it alone (or mostly alone) as an indie dev.  I’m a fair photographer, but that’s as far as my artistic capabilities have previously taken me.  Most of my stick figures look, well… disfigured, and things like straight lines are as simple for me as writing in Martian.  But I’ve been really working to increase my skill set here, and be able to create things in Labyrintheer that actually LOOK pretty decent.

In light of that, I started by picking up some great models from InfinityPBR.  Andrew, the awesome dude behind iPBR (as I reference it for myself) includes some great PBR materials as SBSAR files (and recently SBS files) that really helped me delve into how materials work and what was meant by all of the components: normal, roughness, metallic, height (or specular and glossiness depending on your preferred workflow); metallic/roughness versus specular/glossiness; and a bit about what all of those components can do.

But this wasn’t enough customization for me.  As I’ve mentioned before I started using Archimatix to design some architectural models (which is still something I’m getting a handle on, simply due to the sheer variability of AX and its nodes).  As I worked through some (very simple) wall models and such, I realized that I also wanted more control over the materials themselves.  iPBR offers an INCREDIBLE amount of customization, but I’m just a pain in my own arse that way.  So the next step was…  Substance Designer.

For those new to the art game, Substance Designer is an amazing software package that lets you node-author your own materials and export SBSAR files that can be used to procedurally create materials in Unity (and I believe Unreal Engine).

The beauty of the node-driven design is that, while artist-type folk seem to settle into it easily enough, we logic-driven code monkey types can also create some really stunning work since everything can be reduced to parameters and inputs and outputs.  But before you can do any of this, you need to grasp some of the basics.  I’m not high-speed enough yet to really offer a tutorial, but I can share the wealth of tutorial love that I’ve been using.  So, let’s start with normal maps.

Normal Maps

I ran across this tutorial literally this morning, which is what brought me to create this post and share this info.  More blog post, less actual tutorial, the information about normal maps here is presented concisely, tersely, and with excellent clarity.  Even someone who has never heard of a material in game parlance before can probably understand what’s being explained.

The gist of normal maps is to provide interaction between the materials and light in your scenes.  This is not the same as metallic/roughness aspects, but more to “pretend” that there’s dirt, smudges, small deformities or other similar features on your object.  When making a material, you often preview it on a perfectly flat surface.  But you still want to see the details – details that offer a 3D appearance on a completely flat 2D plane.  This is where normal maps come in.

Let’s look at the image below, for instance:

Demon Head Emboss - Coin Face
Demon Head Emboss – Coin Face

This is meant to be the head of a coin I’m working on as sort of a self-tutorial.  The eye can easily see this as an embossed image, but due to the normal map, moving the light around changes how and where shadows happen.  Here the light is off to the left, so left of the “ridges” (it’s still just a flat plane) looks brighter, and right of them produces shadows.  If I were to move the light source to the other side, the opposite would be true.  This is how normal maps help reinforce the 3D appearance of an object that doesn’t have detailed modeling done.  This is a HUGE benefit to game performance – it’s much easier to draw a coin that is perfectly flat on both sides, and apply this material to make it appear 3D than it is to produce a 3D model with this level of detail.  Easier both in actual creation of the object as well as on your GPU for rendering it.

This video shows the coin in Unity.  The scuffs and scratches are both part of the base color of the item, but the deeper scratches are also mostly in the normal map, and allow light to fall into them or be occluded from them based on the light angle.  Note that in the above video, the edge of the coin are NOT flat, those are actually angled on the model itself.  That would not be a great use of attempting to use normal maps to provide a 3D effect (at least not in any way I would be able to do it).

That’s what I have for normal maps, for now.  But I plan to continue this as a growing series of posts on PBR materials to help demystify them for those of us new to this whole thing.

Substances, Dungeon Floors, New Workflow

I’ve picked up Substance Designer and have started working on some better assets for the Dungeon biome.  Right now what I have is a bit busy, but I thought I’d share some of what I’m doing.  I started with a great tutorial on Youtube, where the presenter was kind enough to offer up his SBS file.  I made a variety of modification and exposed some parameters, kicked out the SBSAR and loaded it into my staging project in Unity.

I created three separate materials and applied them to their own GameObjects that Dungeon Architect uses to generate the floor.  Right off the bat, it looked like this:

Attempt 1
Attempt 1

Like I said… busy.  But at least it’s more interesting than what I had before.  I decided to up the game by adding a random rotation – each floor is randomly rotated by 0, 90, 180, or 270 degrees.  That looked like this:

Attempt 2
Attempt 2

Still busy, but at least a little more random.  Then I felt that the stones shouldn’t always be the same size, so I set each to have slightly different numbers of tiled stones per object:

Attempt 3
Attempt 3

Lastly, it still seemed too busy, so I lowered the overall count of each.  One was 4×4, one 5×5, the last was 4×5 making some stones also not square.  That looks like this:

Attempt 4
Attempt 4

Now it’s less busy, more random feeling, and looks decent.  I think I’ll probably go back to the Substance a bit and see what I can do about breaking them up a bit more, but for my first modification of a substance I’m pretty pleased.

Archimatix: A New Tool and Some Thoughts on Labyrintheer

So… how’s things?  Yeah, that’s cool.  I’m over here playing with Archimatix (AX) and it’s pretty much the best thing ever.  I’ve been watching this great tool develop over the past several months (though the dev has been working on it for much, much longer than that), and I have to say that I am incredibly impressed.  I’ve been fooling around with tutorials and random stuff for the past day to see how things can fit into Labyrintheer.

If you recall my earlier posts on the topic, I am not an artist.  I am especially not a 3D modeler.  Much of what I’ve been able to accomplish thus far has been thanks to the incredibly awesome 3D assets provided by InfinityPBR.  I’ve seriously considered how I’d ever get those sweet, custom models for some of the things I’ve considered in Labyrintheer over the past few years, and AX is the answer (I hope).

I’ve been messing with some of the node types just to get a feel for it, and one of the things I wanted to be able to do was some oddly modern, organic shapes as structures and “art” statues in some areas – mostly towns and wilderness, but not so much dungeons and caves.  This was my first attempt at using the FreeCurve node to knock out from a block and have a very open and extremely simple thing.

Ignore the robot – I don’t think that Labyrintheer is going to have robots.  But Robot Kyle is the AX spokesbot and it here just for scale.

While this won’t make it into the game, I don’t think, I plan to use this concept to create monoliths that showcase the twelve elements in the game.  This was actually an attempt at using something like a freehand drawn Fibonacci spiral as a cutout.  It didn’t do quite what I expected it to, but that’s part of the true fun with AX…  the things that don’t work the way you expect, but give you interesting new ideas.

At any rate, I’m sure I’ll be posting about AX now and then and maybe even showing off some assets that could end up in the game.  But for now I cannot recommend Archimatix highly enough for any Unity developer or artist.  It’s an utterly fantastic tool.

Material/Texture woes…

I’ve been working with the extremely awesome material generators from InfinityPBR.  However, I can’t quite figure this issue out.  In the demo scene provided with the generators (and sitting inside my staging project), the walls looks great.  When I export them, bring them into my game project and attach them to my walls, they look awful.  So…  now I need to figure out what I’m doing wrong.

In staging:


In game project:

screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-11-27-16-am screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-10-25-38-am screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-10-26-22-am

Gelatinous Cubes – Congealing and Melting

As soon as I started understanding BlendShape options for some of these models, I really wanted to dig into programmatically using them for some interesting effects.  First up is a gelatinous cube that starts out melted and waits for a player to get into proximity.  Currently, it only moves to its idle animation, but there will be FIERCE combat eventually.  And not all gel-creatures will start in this state.  Some will likely roam around, hungry for adventurers.  Some might fall from the ceiling with a plop, or squish out of a hole.  And this is just one type of critter that will be around to sway our Labyrintheer from his or her mission.

Big Changes, Small Update

So, after a considerable amount of back and forth, I’ve decided to go with a fully 3D world and a fixed isometric camera.  The 2D method was intriguing, but ran up against a few issues:

  1. Physics in 2D isn’t quite as…  real?  I’m sure 2D physics can be made to feel real to some degree, but our worldly physics exists in a 3D world, and I just wasn’t a fan of the flat feeling.
  2. Art in 2D is harder to make and get made.  This one surprised me the most.  It seems far easier to create and find 3D models and assets than 2D.  It’s even easier to find 3D modelers than it is to find sprite artists.
  3. Partly related to #1, lighting, LoS and other similar bits are much more difficult in 2D (for me, at least).  These things sort of exist naturally in 3D worldspace.  They seem very shoe-horned into 2D.

So, I’ve found some tools and assets that are helping me move this along.  After spending months (literally) trying different methods to create the levels, I’ve settled on a tool crafted by Code Respawn called Dungeon Architect.  It’s a fairly extensible dungeon/level generation tool that is giving me playable spaces out of the box.  Over time I will need to modify the underlying code a bit, but for now it is a HUGE time saver.  If you’re interested in checking it out, they also make a version for the Unreal Engine here.

One of my other struggles was art.  I am not an artist.  I can modify art like crazy, but aside from my past experience as a semi-professional photographer, creation of new art is difficult for me.  That led to a big concern; I could pay thousands of dollars that I don’t currently have to artists to create fresh new content, or I could find cheap, existing assets and have a game that looks like other games that use those assets.  Neither are great options.  Lo and behold, a third option presented itself via the absolutely amazing and customizable assets from InfinityPBR.  Tons of 3D models, materials and substances that are extremely malleable right inside the Unity engine.  The brick wall in the image below is created from their Brick Generator.  The options are incredible enough that I spent an entire evening – literally hours – making, remaking, and fine-tuning a wall just the way I wanted it.  The image below isn’t great (it’s not runtime, it looks better in the game), but it’s a fine example of some of the stuff from InfinityPBR.  The torch is also theirs, with a few particle effects and a point light added for effect.

If you are trying to break into game development and need assets, I cannot recommend InfinityPBR highly enough.  The assets range from US$45-60 each, but each asset isn’t a static thing – it’s a small library of things.  They also offer a $25/package option to pick up every new package (seems like a couple each month) at a HUGE discount the day they come out, before they are available on the Unity store.  Even if you get some assets you might not use now, it never hurts to have a great 3D library, and at that price you really cannot go wrong.

Wood Torch with Particles
Wood Torch with Particles