, by Eric Wiley

Pirates, Plunder, and Parameters with Eric Wiley

  • Game
  • Technology

I always liked pirates as a kid. I liked watching Peter Pan and Treasure Island. There’s a sense of adventure and freedom in sailing the high seas, and getting to find treasure. Freedom that also stems from the lack of borders. It’s dangerous, and awesome.

Artwork by Eric Wiley

I got some inspiration from the other Substance Source releases. The 15 materials had a theme, but I wanted to go further and create materials that, brought together, would create a scene.

I also wanted to try to challenge myself a little bit further and go in a stylized direction. What I had in mind was to mix stylized proportions with realistic surfacing. This style, which keeps a bit of realism in the micro details, is something that you can see, for instance, in recent Disney and Dreamworks movies.

She sails the seas

The ship came first. Of course, it’s what comes to mind when you think of pirates! The mental image it creates evokes sails, rigging, cannons, gun ports, plus an ornate stern with the captain’s cabin windows. That ended up being a great opportunity to try to get a lot of variety out of just woodwork. And that was a new experience for me since, at Blizzard, I focus on natural and organic environment materials.

So, back to our pirate ship. When the time came to get my hands into Substance Designer, the hull of the ship with the gun ports was the first thing I worked on.

Artwork by Eric Wiley

My original idea was to include the cannons in the material and have the hatches procedurally open, but that was a bit too much for the height map. I ended up giving people the ability to choose between having the hatches, remove them if they want, or even leave them open. So the pirates can be pacifists or a bit more aggressive.

In the end, the ship is entirely textured with the signature materials! And for all the little details, to make sure that the scene would work, I created a trim sheet material. That’s fairly standard in game art. You could make anything out of this material; it’s meant for modeling rather than displacing a height map. I used the trim sheet all over the place: on the ropes, the railings, the cannons, and so on.

Artwork by Eric Wiley

Okay, let’s moor our ship and get our feet on solid ground.


Artwork by Eric Wiley
Artwork by Eric Wiley

A shoreline isn’t a static environment. It changes with the wind, the tide, the season — and the island materials had to reflect that. I wanted to be able to simulate the tide rising, and change the number of rocks and pebbles, as well as adding or removing barnacles.

The shape of the sand changes as well, depending on how wet it is: wet sand is flatter, and drier sand has more relief. It’s like five materials in one! You can have wet sand. Dry sand. Dry sand with pebbles, and so on.

Artwork by Eric Wiley

Since the wet and dry sand look so dissimilar, they don’t interact in the same way with the rocks, so it took a lot of tweaking and re-tweaking to get it just right.

I saw that Substance Source had scanned atlases and I thought it’d be cool to have a fully procedural one. Also, on a tropical island, there’s no way around it, you need a lot of lush vegetation, so I needed something procedural in order to be versatile. 

With a scanned atlas, I’m stuck with the state of the plant at the time it got scanned. A procedural atlas gives me more creative freedom: I can make the leaves look more lifeless, or change their entire shape. So that also gives me more freedom to change the general mood of the scene.

In the end, a procedural atlas is a lot like a puzzle: there are so many different possibilities, and your atlas needs to fill as much of your texture space as possible. This is sort of like playing Tetris; I find it relaxing.

The atlas is free on Substance Source, and I’ll be talking about its construction in detail during the October 6th livestream.

Safe haven in the port

The port was an opportunity to introduce new man-made materials, like stone, plaster, metal, or terracotta roof tiles.

Artwork by Eric Wiley

But beyond the variety, since I was working on a scene, I had to think of each material as recyclable. One good example of that is the dock.

I built it with a bunch of layers of wood, so if I needed basic planks, I could just remove the top layer of the dock material. Then I could just use this new version of the material for individual planks in the environment. In the scene, you end up seeing the dock material a lot more than just on the dock.

There’s actually a lot more recycling in the port… If you look closely, the ship materials are reused!

Artwork by Eric Wiley

Speaking of which, I also needed to build my materials as matching pieces of the same environment, especially in the case of the wood and the sea wall material. Since they work hand in hand, I had to make the parameters match. How did I do that? Copy and paste!

It is a pretty useful trick to make your materials feel like they belong in the same scene, and sometimes you don’t need to make your work more complicated than necessary. I used copy and paste for the wood grain as well, and that helped the materials look like they belong in the same scene.

The dock and the sea wall also have a matching sea level parameter, which lets you raise the seaweed, the barnacles and the slime.

Artwork by Eric Wiley

What kind of pirate town doesn’t have loot? I wanted to steer clear of skulls and bones so I created nautical creatures. Look closely, you can find them on the treasure pile!

Artwork by Eric Wiley


Eric will be live on YouTube on October 6 at 10 AM PST. Don’t miss the chance to learn more about this series of materials!

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