, by Arkane Studios Lyon

DEATHLOOP’s Award-winning Art Pipeline with Substance

Arkane Studios Lyon's JB Ferder talks about the game's bold visual style

  • Game
  • Interview

I am JB Ferder, Assistant Art Director and Lead Character Artist at Arkane Studios Lyon. I work under Art Director Sebastien Mitton’s supervision, and my role is to ensure the visual development of the characters and the weapons, and to endure his jokes about the fact I’m from a French region named Alsace (which by the way is the coolest region ever). It’s my job to make sure our artists feel empowered to create stunning assets for our games. On DEATHLOOP, I created the Substance 3D material library used on the weapons and characters.

Reception by the community

We are delighted by the successful response after the game’s launch. It is difficult to anticipate what the reception of our games will be. Even up until the very end of production, you don’t really know if everything will click. We always strive to take bold decisions both visually and in terms of game design, but your work can only shine if the full experience is satisfying to the player. Thankfully, that’s definitely the case this time. Arkane fans as well as a much larger audience love DEATHLOOP, which we’re super happy about.

Pipeline and development

The early concepts for DEATHLOOP started right after Dishonored: Death of the Outsider. The game design, the game scope, and main pillars evolved a lot during those initial stages. To me, the real intention of DEATHLOOP started to kick in when Dinga Bakaba, our Studio Director, presented us with the concept of the time loop. I think that was the point when the entire studio started to feel we were working on something quite special. I felt a real enthusiasm from the studio and I’m happy we saw the same enthusiasm in our players when the game launched.

Our art pipeline follows the industry’s standard, with a big emphasis on iteration. We are not afraid to start over and test repeatedly, especially at the preliminary stages of production. As artists, we strive for the best and are aware this means we cannot be conservative with our work. If something needs to change to feel better, we’ll change it. Our style and intentions mature as the project takes shape and making sure all our assets are cohesive and consistent is particularly important to the overall experience. We tend to raise our characters and assets up to 80% quality during development and only fully polish them during the last months of production, so we have the freedom to keep iterating for as long as possible.

A warm color palette and retro vibe

Our Art Director, Seb, has a soft spot for the 60s and saw great potential in that era. He saw a good opportunity to refresh our artistic brains by moving away from the Victorian era we had been working in for many years with the Dishonored series. However, we didn’t want to go for some of the clichés of the 60s. The idea was to take the pinnacle of “cool” that can be found in this period and to revisit it our own way. We drew inspiration from the likes of Tarantino, James Bond, and films like Guy Richie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and John Boorman’s Point Blank, as well as many other sources.

Keeping things flexible, organized and iterative

The Substance 3D suite is helpful from the beginning of our pipeline when we’re doing heavy testing and iterating, all the way up to the final polish of our assets. We organize our Substance 3D Designer graphs and Painter folders to be able to tweak everything until the very last stage of the production. This is especially true for the weapons (and their many variations) and all the NPC variations we have in the game. We used a broad but limited palette with some selected tints, it allowed us to make sure all our art assets worked together in harmony. Using Substance 3D Painter and Designer we could afford to make bold changes until the very end of production.

For most assets, we could test texture designs directly on the 3D assets without having to request additional work from the Concept Art team. We could mock-up things quickly, test them and review them in the game. Judging the work within the right context (lighting, environment, mood…) is a must.

Workflow with the Substance 3D tools

I think the best way to discover our Substance 3D pipeline is to check the video we made with Adobe for GDC 2021: Arkane Studios: Texturing pipeline for the characters of Deathloop (GDC 2021). The main takeaway is how we keep things clear – making sure our Designer graphs and Painter files stay organized and easy to navigate in – since we are constantly re-opening them to iterate.

Our use of “Master materials” with Designer

We use Master materials that we divide into several subcategories. Everything starts with the CORE. A simple node with only tileable and mostly procedural input. In this node, we choose the basic aspects of our material, like the colors, the roughness, the tiling, etc. The CORE gets modified by the ALTER. Here we add mesh texture input, like the curvature, the world space normal, and the AO to give some life and volume to our textures. Then comes the WEAR modifiers, divided into up to three categories: POLISH, BLEMISH, and TARNISH. They give life and story to the surface, adding sun bleaches, scratches, worn areas, and so on. All the WEAR modifiers are applied using generators, but we can hand paint them if we feel it’s necessary.

Whichever way you organize your materials, making sure you divide them into categories and subcategories is very helpful to keep things clear in your mind. It’s even better if these categories can be subgraphs. You will know where to go if something needs to be modified, without having to figure out the entire material again.

Layer-based texturing workflow for character art in Painter

In Painter, we start with a set of base colors that have been specially curated for our characters/weapons, and we define what is metallic and what is dielectric. We name this BASECOLOR. After this pass comes a DETAIL group (when necessary) where we handpaint our albedo to add more life to our plain colors.

We then overlay our TEXTURE group, this is where the materials that we created in Designer are added to our Painter mix. We have some cloth, leather, plastic, etc. materials, that are added on top of our basecolor layers, allowing us to tweak the material and/or the color independently. These materials are full of options as seen in the Designer part just above.

We then add a PAINT layer. On the island of Blackreef, the time loop is considered a big party, and our characters all decided to paint themselves in crazy ways. That’s what this PAINT group is for. The painted patterns are created by hand using in-house tools to add variety and details. We have the ability to change the colors on the fly across multiple UV sets.

On top of that, we add a DIRT group – that speaks for itself – and we finally have a FINALISER group where we blend a touch of baked maps (world space normal, AO, etc.) into the albedo to add a bit of volume to our textures.

Visual consistency and variety with NPCs

In DEATHLOOP you play as Colt, a man stuck in a time loop on the frigid, isolated island of Blackreef. Every looping day is treated like a big, carnivalesque party by the inhabitants of the island, who see the time loop as a means to eternal life. Since your goal is to break the loop and put an end to the party, the islanders will do anything to stop you.

We knew we wanted to have a large variety of NPCs, but, of course, with high-quality standards. Unlike the guards of Dishonored, who all wore similar uniforms, this time each character needed to look unique. It was important to illustrate the festivity and, frankly, it adds fun to the experience.

If a player kills an NPC we don’t want it to be spawned again straight away. That would take away from the experience. We had to create a large number of NPCs and use a smart spawning system that would do its best to avoid clones. In our case, prioritizing the texture variety seemed to be the best solution, and the Substance 3D suite came in handy in this domain.

As we added more and more characters and textures, we wanted the entire group to stay uniform, to make sense visually. And with time we started to get a grasp of what we wanted in terms of palette. We therefore allowed ourselves to tweak our textures over and over up until the very end of production to ensure this visual consistency.

Our main takeaways with Substance

Simple is good. The best way to create a library of materials and to be able to maintain it over time is to keep it as simple as possible. That doesn’t mean that you must refrain from creating dense graphs. It’s more about thinking of achieving your goal in the simplest manner. The fewer nodes you have, the easier it will be for someone else to read your graph, or for yourself to get back to it later. Simple does not mean basic. Our materials are rich and full of options, but they are also the simplest options we could think of to achieve our desired quality goals.

Also, iteration will bring you quality. Consider your pipeline with the concept of iterations at its core. Making a game is usually a lengthy process, and points of view and perceptions will change during production. This is part of any game development and it’s something to embrace.

Playing DEATHLOOP

It’s really hard for me to play a game I worked on for years. I have never played a game I contributed to after its release. I would spend my time dissecting every asset and wanting to change and polish them till the end of time. So, 0 runs for me! However, during production, we are constantly running the game and testing our work in context, so I know the island of Blackreef very well.

I’m catching up on games I didn’t get to play at launch and am currently having a wonderful time with Control. The Remedy Entertainment crew did a really fantastic job and I’m loving it.

Read more