, by Mi-Clos Studio

Texturing the Unknown in a Space Exploration Indie Game

Junior 3D artists Anna and Sarah talk about their first experience at indie game studio Mi-Clos Studio

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  • Interview

Anna: I’m Anna Gaertner, a 3D artist for 2 years. After graduating from high school in 2017, I studied for 3 years at Emile Cohl school in Lyon, France to learn 3D modeling techniques for video games. Like Sarah, I was able to have an end-of-year internship at Mi-Clos and work there as a 3D generalist! I had the chance to participate in the creation of the ships of Out There: Ocean of Time, and was able to help with the creation of biomes.

Sarah: Hey, I’m Sarah Girardot, and I’m a 3D artist at Mi-Clos Studio for 3 years now. After studying graphic design, I turned to game art by entering the Aries Lyon school in 2016. I then got an internship at Mi-Clos and I’ve been there ever since! In the studio, I’m currently in charge of creating environments and implementing them in the engine.

Mi-Clos Studio

Anna: Michael Peiffert is the founder and creative director of Mi-Clos Studio, with a classical art background, he turned to web design for many years and has been creating video games for over 10 years now.

Michael started making games in 2010 but the studio was officially founded in 2013. He started solo with his first game Space Disorder, and then collaborated with Fibretigre, author and JdR streamer on Twitch, on the first mobile title Out There. The production of this game was very difficult but its success was dazzling and propelled the studio to the forefront of the independent games scene. He was able to develop the studio and expand the team and the ambition of the projects: an augmented edition (Out There: Ω Edition) was then released on PC, followed by the cold war simulation Sigma Theory. In parallel, Mi-Clos Studio also released two spin-offs of its flagship series (Out There: Chronicles) and supported several projects of other independent developers.

We have just released Out There: Oceans of Time, the most ambitious project of the studio which required 3 years of development and more than 20 people!

Sarah: We’ve been working on Out There: Oceans of Time since the beginning of the production, but on my side, I was also able to participate in the development of the previous game: Sigma Theory, a futuristic turn-based cold war simulation game. Indeed, for some phases of the game called exfiltrations, it was a question of creating buildings in 3D by giving them an identity according to the various represented countries. All these buildings were then procedurally generated to form cities which I also modified the rendering by associating different lighting and post-processing.

Out There: Oceans of Time

With Out There: Oceans of Time, the idea was to make a worthy sequel to the first in the series while exploring more in-depth the lore we developed with the previous titles. That’s why we kept the exploration/survival aspect but with a more RPG side offering colorful characters, dialogues, and a scenario with multiple endings.

The previous games were in 2D and rather in the illustration/comics style, the challenge was to keep this line while moving to 3D. That’s why we tried to keep as much as possible the “handmade” rendering of Benjamin Carré’s concept arts. This can be seen in the design of the characters and ships as well as the textures which are not as clean as what can be found in current productions.

The 3D art team & pipeline

Sarah: When we started the production of Out There, we were two 3D artists, so the organization was natural in terms of the division of tasks: our colleague Coralie wanted to specialize in the creation of characters, while I was in charge of the environments. Anna joined us very quickly and had a more versatile and generalist role, helping sometimes with the creation of environments and sometimes with the realization of the different ships of the game.

We also had to learn the integration in Unity, as well as the functioning of some shaders, and lighting… Because of our common status as juniors and the absence of a lead 3D artist, we often had to learn, improvise and help each other. Michael gave us his trust and this quickly allowed us to be more creative and autonomous.

Before creating a mesh, we talk to Michael to understand several things: what is the function of the 3D object to produce, and its utility? For example, if it’s a ship whose role is to accommodate a whole population, it will have to be imposing and function differently from a ship designed to travel quickly. We work with our illustrator Benjamin Carré who made most of the concepts of the game. We are inspired by his illustrations to know the shape, the mechanisms, and especially what emerges from them thanks to the color palettes. For some of the biomes and ships, we were trusted to come up with other concept ideas.

Anna: Before the modeling, there is also a lot of reference research. This is what keeps me consistent in what I do. After doing that, I can finally start modeling. With the help of the concepts and my refs, I make a blocking of the ship to have the global shapes and see what needs to be improved as soon as possible. If it’s validated, I can start modeling the ships. I make sure to optimize and take care of the topology of my models to save time. Between steps, I try to import the WIP model into the Unity project to see if everything is well integrated. After unfolding the UV, I can finally start texturing my models in Substance Painter. Once the textures are validated, I import the whole thing into Unity and it’s finally operational.

The Substance 3D tools

We learned the workflow with Substance in our schools, and since then we mainly use this tool to create textures. Sometimes we add a Photoshop pass, but it’s rare.

Anna: I’m a beginner with Substance Designer, but I’m willing to train on it to improve myself! After 5 years of active modeling, Substance Painter has become my comfort zone. I have my favorite noises and smart materials, which I like to use as a base. And most of all, I love Painter because I can work without a tablet and still have that handpainted style that I can change at any time!

Sarah: The feature allowing us to create smart materials was very useful in the workflow concerning the creation of the environmental assets, insofar as they allowed us to create a texture base, let’s say of rock, for example, having masks or generators (curvature, grain, AO…) which keep the same parameters, thus easily creating a visual coherence between the various sets.

The second strong point in the production: each biome has several color sets that help to create different atmospheres by reusing the same 3D models. The advantage of Substance Painter is that it was very easy for us to change the color palette completely by modifying the layers of the file with a few clicks.

Breakdown

Painter:

Sarah: There are certain phases in the game called expeditions, where the whole crew goes to a planet in order to explore it. For these phases, we had to create different points of interest such as an alien village housed on a bamboo trunk or temples or resource lodes.

First, I bake the high-poly in Substance Painter in order to extract the different maps that will be the basis of the texture and the generators. I then start by applying a solid color to each element in order to find a good match and to have a global view.

In order to add some depth, I also often use the “oil paint” filter, very softened, in order to create a brushstroke effect and some nuances to my colored base. I then work by iterations, adding gradients, then different layers of generators (dust, grain).

To enrich the stylized side of the art direction, I also often used the “baked lighting stylized” filter to add light shadows and colored lights directly into the color base. I also lighten some areas with a large diffuse brush and an overlay layer. Finally, I hand-tinted some areas affected by the model’s emissivity to accentuate the feeling that the light is indeed impacting the asset.

Anna: In Out There: Ocean Of Time, the player must travel through space to accomplish his objectives. In these journeys, one can find several abandoned ships or various unlikely space objects, like the Storage Bay presented here.

After having finalized the modeling of the object, I can move to the bake in Substance Painter. The objects don’t have a High Poly, so I bake them on themselves to unlock all the maps.

Then I do some tests with smart materials to see if everything works. Sometimes, some unexpected materials give me ideas for the creation of textures, like the “stylized bones”, my favorite. I then block out the colors and the metal parts to make sure it all fits together from the start.

I add detail to the texture with some patterns to create a coating on my vessels: I have fun testing different noises and stretching them to create atypical shapes. I then add some wear and tear by putting dust generators, and some breaks in some places where the ship could be damaged. I also use a lot the “blur slope” filter.

And finally, to add volume and accentuate the stylized side of the textures, I use the ambient occlusion passes in the mask to be able to change the color of the shadows. To highlight the object, I invert the occlusion mask to bring light touches. The curvature pass is also very useful to lighten the edges.

Finally, if the object emits a strong light in one place, then I add it upstream with emissive. The emitted light will cause bounces of light in certain areas of the object, which I paint by hand.

I very rarely use the graphics tablet to paint textures, because I’m lazy. I personally find that Painter lends itself very well to an exclusive use with the mouse if you use the generators and noises!

Designer:

Sarah: Being a beginner in Substance Designer, I used it mostly for making textures of some planets seen from space, but also for the floors visible in the expeditions. For example, I created a texture of rocks that form strata, inspired by Benjamin Carré’s concept so that they could correspond to the mountains of eroded peaks.

As for the planets, I used Designer to create noises that were then added and used in a shader either as a deformation vector or sometimes as a normal map or base color.

How do you feel about the release?

Sarah: Relieved! Haha, seriously, it can sometimes be hard for us to have an objective point of view on our work, I think it’s well known that working on the same project for several years our attention can tend to focus on the small flaws as well as on what could have been improved…

Anna: The fact that players will be able to play with the ships creates a kind of accomplishment (especially since two years ago I was just out of school). It’s cool to be able to work on a pro project, I’ve really noticed that I’m much more comfortable with 3D, from practicing and getting constructive feedback!

But clearly, we think that with a bit of hindsight we can be proud of having accomplished so many new things for us, trying to adapt to the constraints that being such a small team can bring. We had to learn how to work on a big project, coordinate with each other, and sometimes even learn new software (the team switched to Blender during the production) and we think that considering all these steps, we managed to have a very cool result!

Next steps with Substance

Sarah: I think there are still a lot of features I have yet to discover! Over time it often happens that we acquire some kind of automatism in the way we work, and I think it’s important to be able to explore new features and try things and get out of your comfort zone.

I have to admit for example that Substance Designer has long seemed to me to be a complex and not very accessible software… yet there are incredible resources of tutorials on the net, all made by patient and passionate people who made me change my mind. Helping each other, whether through different communities or between colleagues, by sharing tips or resources seems to me to be an essential pillar to creating emulation and discovering new things!

Anna: I’m going to try to get out of my comfort zone to try new styles in Substance Painter. And above all, I’m going to try Designer, because as Sarah explained, it’s a very intimidating software where you have to learn the logic behind it… But as soon as I see what she can do with this tool, it also makes me want to get started!

3D is a field that can become very technical and intimidating! The cliché advice we would have to give is to be able to progress at your own pace, to stop from time to time to see how far you have come. There are artists on the net who are sometimes so experienced that it can sometimes be unavoidable to feel a little discouraged. We think that it is essential to give oneself time to learn and progress!

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