Reducing Mobile Game Size Through Texture: When Gameloft met Substance

My name is Nikita Krasikov. I worked for more than seven years with talented game teams at Gameloft on games of different genres, tech, and architecture. 

Games such as Asphalt Nitro, Sonic Runners Adventures, and Dungeon Hunter Curse of Heaven were all created with extensive usage of Substance Designer to suffice the ultimate goal of ours at the time: best visuals in a game under 30 Mb.

And today we will dive into the history of an amazing cooperation between Gameloft and Allegorithmic, which started six years ago.  

In search for solutions

In 2014, a team of more than 13 people in Gameloft Kharkiv, Ukraine, started a research on the tech to make an arcade racing game with a quantity/quality of content being up to standards of 500-800+ Mb — games at that time being packed in less than 30Mb. 

One of the studio’s teсh leads conveyed to us some rumors that our sister-studio Gameloft Montreal was using a new technology for the reduction of a game package uploaded on stores. And after some talks with colleagues, we got a first look at Allegorithmic’s innovative tool: Substance Redux.  

We’ve found the tool interesting, but we needed more size reduction and we kept on searching further. 

It did not take us too long, though, as our lead 3D Artist Tit “Titus” Lavrov heard about another product of Allegorithmic. The name he told me was Substance Designer, and we couldn’t even imagine at that time what we would do with it years after.  

We reached out to Alexis Khouri, who gladly introduced us to the lead SW engineer Eric Batut (who helped us so much during our course of development) and provided the tool for a test.  

I recall that after a couple of days of reading docs and digging into the tool, I asked Titus how things were going, and we had a dialogue: 

Me: So, we are good to go with it further? 

Titus: Well, I looked up on the official forum and internet and found a couple of topics with someone posted “I can’t figure it out guys, can someone help me please!!” and…. No one replied to the guy. But … let me have one cigarette and I will give you my final decision. 

Once he returned, we continued: 

Titus: Let’s try. I need three weeks to make a single texture, fully optimized, and the one suiting our project’s constraints.  

Me: Deal! 

In almost three weeks, we got the first Substance texture of Asphalt Nitro. It was an asphalt surface texture by the way. 

Asphalt Nitro released in 2015 exclusively for Android. It featured 14 racing tracks in 5 biomes, 10 cars, majority of game modes, all in 15 Mb game file size (this is a download file, the game weighs more when installed on device).

Road forward 

In less than two weeks, we fully locked the deal and got the license and SDK.  

As the tool was quite new at a time, our team needed some consultations on integration of  Substance Engine into our proprietary game engine. The amount of work done by Roman Yatsenko and Alexander Soor in their teams is tremendous, but I’m specifically mentioning efficient and rapid support provided by the Substance Team all the way through our development stages; they got our requests covered within several hours of contacting them. 

With the growth of our cooperative strength and mastering of the Substance toolset, we’ve successfully delivered Sonic Runners Adventures and Dungeon Hunter Curse of Heaven, led on the graphics side by Sergey Melnikov, Alexander Nadein, and Ekaterina Lebedeva.  

We did this under the platform of the powerful SEGA franchise, with the brand’s famous specific visual style with very simple textures painted with vertex color (for volumetric look) to action-adventure RPG with tons of props and environmental textures. 

Substance Designer suited us in all cases, always fitting the genre, scale, and architecture we had in our games.  

Dungeon Hunter Curse of Heaven  

Sonic Runners Adventure 

Speaking in average numbers, Substance Designer allowed us to decrease our texture pack more than 30 times* having individual .sbsr textures weigh up to 200 times less than the similar size/complexity .tga ones. 

*Because the whole texture pack consists of more than just Substance textures

With Dungeon Hunter Curse of Heaven’s architecture approach, innovative tech, and Substance Designer integration, we got a 3-plus hour Solo campaign, tons of gear, vivid visuals, and vast environments to roam in 24.1 Mb  

Another huge benefit from the Substance Designer/Engine package was textures auto-scaling.  

That translated into effortless adaptation of textures per a wide range of devices running equally good on 2010’s Xperia X10 mini with ARMv6 architecture and Galaxy S8 with 4K auto-scale. 

Challenges 

We had quite an experience defining the best pipeline of setup-creation-integration of node textures into our game’s architecture and existing flows. We never had a need for so much contact between 3D artists and programmers before, and we could have done things faster if we would have involved the aforementioned two departments in a mutual pipeline from the start. 

Next was the balance between the CPU load and heaviness of textures. 

It follows the simple rule: The fewer nodes you have in your texture, the faster it will be processed by a device’s CPU. As our game was considering low-end Android devices (2-core CPUs, ARMv6), we had to fine-tune it to the end. 

So, three points of advice based on above: 

  1. Facilitate as much collaboration as possible between your programmers and 3D artists from the very first days of integration. 
  2. Do some performance tests to define the window of sizes for .sbsr textures, considering node amount. 
  3. Have your pipelines and constraints well documented. 

Evolution  

No doubt, throughout six years of Gameloft-Allegorithmic collaboration, our specialty skills and processes evolved a lot.  

Our timing for the creation of simple textures of environmental objects like granite rocks or vegetation stems with up to 20 nodes decreased almost four times during the first year of practicing with Substance Designer.  

The next step were characters and complex patterns. Below is the comparison of graphs of magic portal objects from Dungeon Hunter Curse of Heaven and an environment texture from Asphalt Nitro.

That evolution would not be possible without systemic approach to documenting flows and making it “dynamic.” Each of the newcomers who learned Substance had been encouraged to modify and widen the details of our Substance Guides as they learn. This allowed us to produce an always up-to-date document used by several Gameloft studios around the world for training. 

Rival Wheels done by Gameloft Minsk.

Conclusion 

Transparency of deal conditions, rapid and personal support, and, of course, Substance Designer’s great capabilities. That was our experience from the very start six years ago, which is still valid. 

We at Gameloft Kharkiv would’ve hardly been able to achieve that level of quality/quantity under tiny build size without Substance. 

Stay tuned for more games from us at www.gameloft.com. We are yet to surprise you.

Oh, and don’t forget, with many nodes comes great responsibility… to your strict lead programmer!

All images courtesy of Gameloft.