, by NetEase's Thunderfire Division

Building a Classic Online MMORPG Inspired by Chinese Fantasy

How Substance 3D helps working in a fast-paced mobile game production environment.

  • Game
  • Interview

Revelation Online is produced by NetEase’s Thunderfire game division, which specializes in MMORPG games and focuses essentially on Revelation. After 4 years of development, the game was launched in June 2015. It quickly became a classic online MMORPG, and solidified around a core community of players.

In August 2016, the team decided to release the Revelation mobile game, based on the following design concepts: the sun and the moon are alive, everything has a spirit, love at first sight, and reckless adventure. 

We set out to create an MMORPG with the theme of Asian fantasy. The game has an entire world for players to explore—or to fly through when you are in the sea of clouds—as well as many options, difficult challenges, and a rich character customization system.

Creating the environments

Nowadays, the Substance workflow has become the standard for PBR. Our project is positioned at the domestic benchmark level of quality performance, so it is absolutely necessary to use the Substance tools for our actual workflow. We design stylized fantasy, but we are looking for a realistic effect with the materials we use; the strengths of the Substance tools allows us to achieve this. We’ve heavily leveraged Substance in both scene and character production.

The PBR workflow adapts very well to larger productions, especially when you need to generate a lot of content. On a large scale, you won’t be able to rely on manual processes and remain efficient; your asset management would be out of control.

If you want to work in PBR, you must have a good, scientific set of tools. And this was our case: we felt it was necessary to establish a streamlined material system. 

Because of the complexity of the environments, we prepared basic materials in the early stage of the project—rocks, wood, metal, brick walls, and a few others. As the number of elements increased, we kept adding materials to the library. 

In our fast-paced production, proper classification of the materials was vital, because when we added more elements to the scene, we needed them to be filed accurately so we could continue producing at an ever faster pace. That is a situation teams often encounter in mobile game environments, since the development speed is on average over 1.5 times faster than traditional PC games.

We mostly created our material library in Designer, either from scratch or from scanned data. We started with a number of custom preset templates that allowed a quick output of maps such as albedo, normal, roughness, and metal. 

In addition to using Designer for materials, we also built some Smart Material templates in Painter—which helped a lot to unify the overall style of the game.

These templates were simple, basic Designer-made textures with less surface variation, as well as materials with some degree of corrosion for our different blends. After this, we imported them into Painter for detail painting. The entire process gave us a lot of flexibility.

We also used Sampler (at that time it was called Substance Alchemist) to create blends of different surface materials: we’d use these in various environments. All in all, Designer, Painter, and Sampler were all essential for our environment workflow.

Character design and texturing

Revelation has an oriental fantasy theme, which allowed the team to create a rich and diverse cast of characters. While unleashing the imagination of the original design team is a great exercise in creativity, it also comes with its own set of challenges for the production team. 

For instance, the world includes a wide range of costume styles with drastically different concepts—from ancient oriental to modern popular. To make the character outfits both consistent and gorgeous, we decided to use the PBR material standard once again.

We chose the Metallic/Roughness workflow, which is common in mobile games. This workflow uses a uniform non-metallic Fresnel coefficient: it makes it easier to create projects with more non-metallic materials and takes up less memory. 

Painter is ideal for this workflow, as it can efficiently solve a large number of conventionalized texturing jobs. 

We created many standard Smart Materials for leather, fabric, silk, metal, and more, based on the needs of the characters’ costume setup. This gave us a fast and error-free system to work with textures for outfit resources. After we set the base material, the clothing was then processed and adjusted with details using various Smart Mask tools.

And characters are even more diverse than just in their costume designs! In Revelation we have creatures ranging from majestic dragons to cute cats. In order to express the variety of these designs, we needed to paint the surface and color changes, and make them feel organic. 

Here, we used Painter’s structural mode of layers and masks to distribute the proportions of various shades. We used the Light tool to simulate the light on the surface of the organism and to enhance the character’s three-dimensional appearance. In the unified PBR workflow Painter has enough flexibility to represent different many different creature styles.

For details, we used a four-sided continuous repetitive detail texture map and a two-sided continuous repetitive wrap. We used specific textures for material and pattern details; these were generated with Designer where we could leverage the nodal workflow to remain efficient throughout production. Designer and Painter together can quickly produce delicate fabric and silk effects. 

And of course, Revelation being an Asian-themed game, we needed to have exceptional embroideries, both in style and in pattern.

Initially, we wanted to use Designer to generate quickly the embroidery materials. But after practice and discussion, we decided to paint delicate embroideries by hand in Painter. This helped us reproduce the real embroidery stitch gestures, which we felt placed more emphasis on the charm and sophistication of Asian arts. And Painter’s capacity to edit multiple different channels at the same time was instrumental to achieve this fine organic pattern.

Developing a mobile game through a pandemic

Our team was comfortable working on PC games—but a mobile game was new, and we had to feel our way through many parts of the process. We learned many things during development. 

A lot of our focus was around skin material performance. We knew we wanted to optimize that area, and so we focused our attention on that during the early stage of the project: we adopted a separation of selection and in-game effects, because the in-game textures have higher performance requirements. The separation helped us get a high-quality display for the effects. 

We also chose to use a fixed light and camera angle to optimize the performance and effect. This wasn’t the best decision, since later the player would encounter many inconsistencies in the effects. At that point, taking into account skin effects both inside and outside the game became an intricate balancing act. And to make this even more complex, in the game, we have 24 hours, a weather system, scene light map effects, and more! Finding the right settings in this constantly changing environment got very tricky. 

With what we know now, we probably wouldn’t choose the same approach.

And that wasn’t the only hurdle we encountered! 

Last year, a few days after New Year’s Day, the core team of the project went to Lingyin Temple, originally to pray for the project to sell well. But the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted a lot of plans.

We had planned to conduct a wave of testing after the New Year, and we were already under a lot of pressure to complete the game. With the lockdown, Revelation development became an exercise in team management and communication. 

Every day, we had to work remotely and still make progress, but we also had to deal with the quarantine and make plans. 

Fortunately, everyone did their best, and we all got through that most difficult time together. We were able to release the version number while we were working from home. And ultimately, the test was not greatly affected—but it remained an unforgettable experience.

Mobile games will look even better in the near future

For today’s mobile MMO development, the effect requirements have been on par with the PC game performance of the previous years. In the near future, the handheld game market will produce quality that can be compared to contemporary PC games. 

Getting there will take investment, as well as a higher demand for the evolution of production processes. 

Nowadays, all kinds of methods for process-generated art production are applied more and more in mobile game development, like model scanning, expression capturing, and more. They are becoming standard. 

In this context, solutions like Substance 3D, which can quickly improve the quality of art resources, will be even more widely used. In the future, artists need to have creative skills, but also technical and logical thinking. This is the only way that we believe art quality and production will keep growing.

The mobile version of Revelation launched on January 8 2021, and it has been widely praised by players. In the coming years, we want to continue to optimize and enrich the world of Nuanor, improve the design and production quality of characters and their fashion, meet the needs of players, and present an even more beautiful world for everyone. 

Thank you! 感谢!

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