Gears 5: Leveraging the Power of the Substance Toolset with The Coalition

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With its first installment being released back in 2006, Gears of War has become an iconic and beloved franchise in the gaming community. See how The Coalition raises the visual bar even higher in the recent Gears 5 by combining the power of Substance Painter, Substance Designer, and Substance Source to texture the futuristic world in which it takes place.

Hi guys, thanks for taking the time for this interview. Can you introduce yourselves to the community? 

Eugene: My name is Eugene Slautin, I’ve been in the industry since 2007, working on several big franchises, the most notable and most fun to work on being Gears of War. I’ve had the pleasure to work at The Coalition from its inception when we first got to work on Gears of War: Ultimate Edition.  

Pierre-Olivier Levesque: Hi! I’m Pierre, and I’ve been working in the industry for the last 11 years from movies, TV, and commercials to games. I Joined The Coalition almost two years ago to be part of the character art team. 

Geoff Lester: I’m Geoff, and I’ve been at The Coalition for three years, starting late on Gears 4 and coming from previous Tech Art roles at Ubisoft and EA. 

Sand material in Act III

Sand material in Act III

Level Art – Alfie Feliciano, Krzysztof Teper, Adam Bodden
Lighting – Harrison Garvin

What were your respective roles in the production of Gears 5? 

Eugene: I’m the Lead Weapon and Vehicle Artist. Our team also works on some of the hard surface characters, such as Jackbot, and the T800 terminator for multiplayer. 

Pierre: I’ve been responsible for building some of the characters for Gears 5, including the Escape mode character Lahni, Sarah Connor, and the Matriarch boss. 

Geoff: I’m the Lead Campaign Technical Artist. Tech Art works on visual features, performance, and general technical support across all the different art departments, and I personally got to spend some time focusing on character materials and shaders, and landscape deformation. 

Now that the game has been released, how do you feel? 

Eugene: I am extremely proud of the work the team delivered. Our studio’s goal was to deliver the best Gears to date, and I think we’ve achieved that.  

Pierre: It was a great launch and the reception was a big satisfaction for everyone. I wish I had my hands down earlier in the production and I am looking forward to building great things in the future. 

Geoff: Very happy with how it has been received! We had some huge technical challenges, such as hitting 60fps at 4K on the Xbox One X and real-time cinematics, but it feels like all the effort was worth it. 

Snow material in Act II

Level Art – Michael Marraffa, Mark Sayson, William Busby
Lighting – Clint Mar, Eric Tsao

This is the second time The Coalition works on the Gears of War franchise. How is it to work on such an iconic game series?  

Eugene: For me, working on such an iconic franchise as Gear of War is a mix of stress that comes with incredible responsibility to our loyal fan base and the excitement of working on something cool every day. It’s rare that you get a chance to work on a game you are a fan of. I remember playing horde with my friends for years before I got a chance to work on the game. So being a part of the team that shapes that experience is extremely rewarding. 

Pierre: The legacy of talent on that game is huge. It is very scary to put your work alongside some of the work done by Jonathan Fletcher, for example. The fan base is very attached to the characters and we have some pressure to maintain the things that they are passionate about. Nonetheless, it feels great to be part of such a strong franchise. 

Geoff: Very exciting, and I agree with Eugene and Pierre: sometimes a little intimidating! The franchise is known for pushing the boundaries of technology and visual quality, so that informs a lot of what we do on Tech Art. We knew that we had to deliver a well-optimized experience without compromising the quality and direction of the game, because the series has set a very high bar.  

Why did you decide to adopt Substance for the production of Gears 5 

Geoff: So, we already used the Substance tools on Gears 4 across several of the teams, but we expanded the use much further on Gears 5!  From the Tech Art side of things, the increased usage came down to the speed of prototyping new material effects and iteration.  

Eugene: We’ve had several different approaches with Substance from before Gears 4, and through 4 and 5, and are always evaluating workflows. An in-engine material layering workflow evolved from a need to (originally) keep Photoshop files manageable and consistent internally and from external vendors. Having many albedo layers potentially from many different sources was problematic in the early days, so we moved toward focusing authoring on layer masks in Photoshop and constructing layered materials from those in UE4. 

Substance Painter was a natural extension to that workflow, with the main benefits being to see the masks right on the objects and having tools for quickly creating common types of masks (rust, wear, etc.).  

Why did you decide to go for Substance Source instead of creating the materials from scratch?

Eugene: The Substance Source materials are clean, PBR-validated, and a great base to work off. Maintaining creative output wasn’t much of an issue, since we are always layering a lot on top of the base materials in UE4, using the custom material system I mentioned. 

What was different compared to the development of Gears of War 4?

Geoff: Pierre and Eugene already talked on this a bit, but it was mostly learning from the strengths of Substance Painter from Gears 4, and really pushing it as the first-class mask generation tool for all our layered materials. So, less modification of masks in Photoshop, more work on them in Substance Painter. 

Leaning heavily on the Generators and presets, as well as the characters and weapons team sharing more of their workflows really sped up our asset creation time and consistency. 

How did Substance integrate into your material system and layering in UE4? 

Eugene: We already had a lot of tools built around the pipeline from Photoshop to UE4, and exchanging data between Photoshop and Substance Painter is easy, so we mostly exported assets from Substance Painter to Photoshop, then from Photoshop to UE4. 

In the Photoshop workflow, correctly named folder groups (with “_m”) will be exported and packed together. 

The export script also creates a metadata file that our custom UE4 Material system (MMS) can read to build/rebuild layers that match what we have in Photoshop. 

We have a simple button for reloading masks for a material: 

Lancer GL in The Coalition Material Masking System (MMS) in Unreal Engine 4 

Geoff: Keeping the Photoshop workflow made a lot of sense; we had some robust scripts that already worked well for the team. 

But since the Photoshop scripts were already in javascript, and Substance Painter can also be scripted with javascript, it was quick to port the scripts over to Substance Painter as well!  

So, we had the option to export masks from either Photoshop or directly from Substance Painter. 

How did you use Substance Designer for mask generation and normal mapping?

Geoff: Aside from some look dev and specific cases on the Environment team, Substance Designer was used frequently on the Tech Art team, especially for landscape materials. 

I worked on sand/snow deformation (footprints, trails left by our skiff vehicle, etc.), with lots of support from engineers, the rest of Tech Art, and the art team.  

UE4 Sand deformation material effect  

For the sand, there were a few important textures that I created very quickly in Substance Designer, such as a compressed sand normal map for around the edge of the deformation, a detail normal map for the sand for the bottom of deformed areas, etc. 

The most fun thing was creating the effect for revealing shards of obsidian in the sand, though! 

I won’t go into the details of the network, but it’s mostly feeding some geometric warped shapes into a bunch of splatter nodes, and height blending them together. 

Obsidian shards material layer in Substance Designer 

I’m exporting color, and a normal map with Height packed into the alpha channel. 

The height map was super important. In the material function in UE4, I used a very high contrast height lerp, and vary the height to reveal more obsidian shards the deeper the deformation: 

Density of obsidian shards adjusted by layer type, in Unreal Engine 4 

We had four different types of sand layers, so I could also modify this height by the type of sand we are driving over.  

For example, “sand smooth” will only ever show 20 percent of the obsidian shards poking through, where “sand swirl” has lots of black swirls of obsidian on the surface, so when you deform it, I allow 70 percent of the obsidian shards to come through (hopefully that is noticeable in the above gif, where there is swirl on the left and smooth on the right). 

This gave us some nice variety for the trails across the map and was all driven from that single height map. 

When I first put this effect in, I had maybe 30–40 shards total in the 2048 texture, but after driving our skiff around in the sand a lot, the tiling was quite obvious and didn’t look very good. 

This was where Substance Designer really saved me because changing the tiling from 30–40 shards to 10 times that amount was about 10 minutes of work! Adjust the tiling in the splatter nodes, tweak some of the height levels, and re-export. Being able to come back and iterate quickly is one of the things I love about Substance Designer. 

Tell us more about your use of Substance Source for weapons and vehicles texturing. 

Eugene: We share lots of base materials that are created from a mix of texture sources (including Substance Source), and each Weapon/Vehicle/Character is built from many masked shared layers in UE4. 

So, for example, here is our Autopistol material in UE4: 

Autopistol material in MMS 

Each of the layers is a material that is shared between lots of different models. 

The steel, for example: 

Autopistol material in MMS 

Some of these base clean materials use Substance Source, particularly later in the project. 

All the detail in the final materials comes from masking these simple layers together in UE4, so the masks are what we focus on in Substance Painter, and here’s what that setup looks like: 

Autopistol in Substance Painter 

We work mostly in Unlit mode, and we don’t spend time trying to make the materials look exactly the same in Substance as in Unreal; having the quick pipeline for import to UE4 and testing in engine is key. 

We keep our Substance Painter files as clean as possible, and as mentioned earlier, rely heavily on Generators and presets for mask creation. 

Here is another example with the T800 multiplayer character Substance Painter setups, and the results in UE4: 

T800 in Substance Painter 

T800 in Unreal Engine 4 

And the Lancer with mask layers, and then the final asset: 

Gears 5 Lancer in Substance Painter 

Gears 5 Lancer in Unreal Engine 4 

How about your character texturing workflow?

Pierre: We followed the same workflow as the Weapons team, mostly. 

One extra thing that is worth mentioning here, we also exported normal map details that were generated from the Substance Painter layers. 

Re-combining the Substance Painter generated normals with the unique normals that we baked in other software (Maya, etc.) really helped with extra detail on some of our character materials. 

Gears 5 Kait in Substance Painter 

Texture and model courtesy of Bruno Melo Desousa (Lead character artist)

Gears 5 Kait in Unreal Engine 4 

What are your favorite features in Substance? 

Pierre: The Pick Color feature when using ID masks is great! Generators were probably the No. 1 timesavers for us switching to Substance Painter for making masks. Also, it might seem obvious, but being able to work straight on the model in real-time (and swap between 3D and 2D quickly), is very helpful. 

Eugene: Generators for sure as mentioned, and re-usable presets! 

Geoff: In Substance Designer: Shape Splatter is my go-to for any new material. Oh, and I love the Gradient Picker, in the editor for the Gradient Map node. Being able to sample anything on my screen to quickly colorize a greyscale map is super useful! 

Any tips or tricks with Substance that you want to share with the Substance community? 

Pierre: This may not be an issue anymore, but we have a trick that helped with characters. 

If we change the bounds of a character (add asymmetric detail), then the center point of the character can change when re-importing into Substance Painter. This makes sense, but in the past it could cause existing 3D strokes to move, and even if it didn’t, it’s nice to have control over the center point of the character; you might not always want it to be the average of all vertices! 

One simple trick to help with this was create small planes that are a little outside the bounds of the character that create an artificial bound, then the center won’t change between imports. 

How do you see your use of Substance evolve in future projects? 

Eugene: There are only so many unique materials you really need, so having a base library of existing, clean, PBR-compliant materials, then focusing the art effort on layering and masking is where I see the future focus for our material work. So, leaning into Substance Source more, continuing to expand on our masking workflow. 

Pierre: For characters, I’m interested in more tiling detail materials from Substance Designer and looking into the newer de-lighting features in Substance for scanned materials. 

Geoff: With more people using Substance Painter, there are some great possibilities for Tech Art and others on the team to create new Generators in Substance Designer that help speed up Substance Painter workflows, so that’s something I’m personally interested in learning more about! 

All images courtesy of The Coalition.

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