Justin: Hello, my name is Justin Wagner. I’m an environment/lead material artist at Bluepoint Games. I’ve worked on titles such as Mortal Kombat X for mobile, Injustice 2, the Shadow of the Colossus remake, and most recently, the Demon’s Souls remake.
Arvin: Hi, my name is Arvin Villapando. I was a material technical artist on Demon’s Souls and also one of the world owners where I oversaw all the art production that went into that world.
Daryl: And a cameo appearance by Sr. Producer Daryl Allison. I usually get to stare in awe of what Justin and Arvin create. I’ll jump in on a question or two that touch on Bluepoint’s history and methodology.
Justin: Bluepoint Games is best known for its recent remakes of Shadow of the Colossus, Demon’s Souls, and before them, the remaster of the Uncharted Collection. Some have deemed Bluepoint to be the “Masters of the Remaster,” but the talent and technology at the studio are always improving and looking to take that next step forward. The company was established in 2006 by Marco Thrush and the late Andy O’Neil and has raised the bar for what the industry expects ever since, such as kicking off next-gen graphics with Demon’s Souls on the PS5.
Expertise, approach and philosophy
Justin: Before anyone at Bluepoint begins work, we dive heavily into what made the original game so beloved, what experiences and feelings were the original developers trying to get across, what are the small quality of life improvements we can make to modernize the title without fundamentally changing its original intent, and finally, what do the fans remember seeing/feeling when they first played this title. From there, it’s our job to bring the title up to the modern era and re-interpret what the game would look, feel, and play like if the original developer were to create it today. It’s no small feat, but one that we take with great pride and consideration.
Daryl: The amount of involvement varies with each IP, but we always aim to respect the developers’ original vision for their world, gameplay, and narrative. The original version of our remakes is much lower fidelity than our final version. This requires careful interpretation of the original intent and it is much appreciated when we can discuss details with the original developer.
Often the original developer has advanced their craft, possibly making sequels that improved in some ways upon the game we are remaking. It’s a balancing act to determine how to enhance the original to be the best version of that type of game while keeping it true to what made it a classic. Throwing a bunch of extra features into a game that wasn’t originally designed with them can often backfire, throwing off balance and flow. We choose the cautious approach to preserve the original’s greatness, so it is good when the original developer encourages us to push the remake in specific ways.
Pipeline: remakes & remasters vs classical game production
Arvin: Bluepoint Games started integrating the Substance Suite in 2015. We heavily use the strengths of the Substance tools, especially in terms of procedural workflows and iteration.
One aspect is that we reuse certain techniques over multiple materials. Not only does this speed up our production, but it also ensures consistency over an entire world. We use reusable node structures for things like edge chipping, cracks, fractures, and general dust and dirt. Having a predetermined structure ensures all the materials work well together within a scene.
We leverage both Painter’s and Designer’s scripting capabilities for creating tools to speed up workflow. We utilize pixel processors, custom shaders, and the scripting APIs to create various utilities ranging from version control and path exports to denoising and color variation nodes.
Daryl: Almost all of the Bluepoint team comes from classical game production prior to joining Bluepoint. It has been fascinating to see the differences in process between a remaster and a remake. A remake requires many of the same techniques and phases of classical production, but with the benefit of starting from a fully functional and well-tuned blueprint that is the original game. Whereas on remasters we used Substance to create higher quality versions of existing textures, remakes give our artists the agency and the necessity to craft from the foundation up. It’ll be exciting to see what our artists do building atop what they have achieved.
Justin: We set out at the beginning of each project to raise our quality bar, not only for art but animation, UI/UX, combat, sound, etc. We reassess how materials are created and rendered, always looking for ways to improve. Among plenty of other feature advancements in the Bluepoint Engine, lighting and materials have been an area of recent focus. The direction we set forth for materials has been raw, gritty, and detail-rich that beckons exploration, all without creating too much visual noise for the player. We often don’t have the luxury of moving onto the next iteration of an IP, but instead, we have to rethink development from the ground up with each subsequent project. Substance is pivotal in creating a texturing pipeline that allows us to quickly test and iterate during the heat of development, while also delivering the quality we’re aiming for.
Texturing pipeline and material library
Arvin: We developed a layered material system for our asset texturing pipeline. This allows flexibility and consistency for the look of an entire world. Rather than each asset having its own unique textures, we use tileable materials that persist from one asset to another, then use asset-specific masks to add details.
In many cases, we also reuse base materials for texturing our tileable materials, allowing us to remain focused on creating height maps. This provides consistency and a straightforward way to make art direction adjustments for entire worlds.
For walls and grounds, we use a layered material system that height blends between standard and damaged variation of materials, then stacks dirt and puddles on top. This allows variation on the material and gives environment artists opportunities for storytelling. Substance Designer helps us quickly iterate the standard and damaged versions of each material by adjusting a few parameters.
Standard Material and Damaged Material
Justin: Being a smaller material team of only 2-3 artists, we decided early on to focus more on efficient use of materials and empower the team to create variations rather than sheer quantity. We are able to pull this off due to an asset texturing pipeline we internally call Shared Material Method. This utilizes a preset handful of tiling textures that get repeated over an asset and layered with differing attributes such as crevice dirt or edge wear, all driven through Painter authored masks. This allows the team to have artistic freedom over each asset while also giving the material artists the ability to alter a given biome’s primary palette of base materials. If art direction wants to see what the level looks like wet or even a slight color shift, it is achievable with a few clicks rather than days/weeks of rework. We create tools, smart masks, and even exporters within Painter that expedite the asset texturing time to only a few minutes rather than hours.
Images of some of the basic materials used with Substance
Arvin: The most valuable aspect of the Substance toolset is allowing near-infinite customizability and extensibility. We build tools that are specifically tailored to enhance our pipeline. When we need image tweaking, we write a pixel processor. When we need pipeline control, we write exporters. We add shaders to visualize assets and materials that suit our workflow. Having such a mature and flexible toolset makes material work efficient, productive, and rewarding.
Substance gives us the ability to iterate on ideas quickly. Having a robust reference system and procedural tools lets us promptly test adjustments to color palette, damage amount, micro noise, weathering, etc., all in a non-destructive environment.
Tips & tricks
Justin: Take the time upfront to create “helper nodes” that you can reuse, such as cracks, edge wear, mask generators, and even nodes to help balance albedos to adhere to a common palette. It may not be the sexiest of work, but your future self will thank you for it.
Secondly, slope blur is a very powerful node, but it should not be used as a crutch. The look of an “over slope blurred” material is very easy to pick up on. Feel free to use the node but think of ways to break up the look. Also, the values can go below zero, which often are more useful.
Arvin: Non-Uniform blur is a great node. It’s handy for creating organic, slimy materials. Also, unlike slope blur, where you typically want samples maxed, having lower samples gives a different, sometimes more desired result. Don’t be afraid to jump into pixel processors or API coding. It’s not that hard. Learning some of those tools can increase your productivity and overall satisfaction level working in Substance.
Some general material advice is to consider your final output platform. Sometimes highly detailed materials may look amazing close up and with full non-compressed textures but washed out and messy at a distance with mapping and compression. Also, consider how the material will interact with everything else in the scene, especially lighting.