Square Enix’s Final Fantasy VII – Substance Helps Remake a Classic

Final Fantasy VII was originally released in 1997 on PlayStation, and is arguably one of the greatest video games of all time. When Square Enix began development on its remake a few years ago, they were faced with the challenge of how to update the original game, including its graphics, while maintaining a balance with its original 90’s aesthetic. Check out how the team accomplished their goal in part by using Substance Painter and Substance Source to texture virtually all the environments and characters of the game.

Introductions

Miyake: I’m Takako Miyake, the environment director for FFVIIR. The role of the Environment section is to create backgrounds that bring the concept art and setting to life while reinforcing gameplay. Many highly talented artists worked on FFVIIR, so I relied on them to create the artwork, while I provided support and facilitated communication between sections. A large part of my job was to coordinate as to prevent any discrepancies in concept or world setting.

Kazeno: My name is Masaaki Kazeno, and I work as the character modeling director for FFVIIR. I presided over the creation of all 3D player character and monster models, and ensured that character design production went smoothly. To be a bit more specific, my role was to think about how the many unique characters in the world of FFVIIR should be brought to life graphically, and to make sure the way we did so remained consistent throughout the game. I also worked with the legal and ethics teams to check every asset, so that all players would be able to enjoy the game.

Suzuki: Hello, my name is Dai Suzuki, and I am the main character modeler & lead character artist. For FFVIIR, I worked on creating models for main characters such as Cloud, Aerith, Tifa, Barret, and Red XIII. I also prepared the development environment for the character team, formulated the specifications and workflow for the game, provided scripts, and worked with the programmers to research and apply a variety of shaders. Lastly, I was in charge of reviewing outsourced work.

Nakamura: Hello, my name is Hiroyuki Nakamura, and I’m a monster artist. I paid special attention to details such as the limb-crippling mechanic and—through trial and error—I believe I was able to help create convincing monsters that immersed players in the game. I also prepared and provided guidance for the specifications and workflows for making effects unique to monsters and summons.

How was it to work on the remake of Final Fantasy VII, which is such an iconic game for players all around the world?

Miyake: I felt a lot of pressure because the original is beloved by people everywhere, but at the same time, it was very exciting to be involved with such an anticipated title. The entire team rose to the challenge of creating an experience that would exceed players’ memories of the original and remained passionate about this throughout the development of the game. It was also a very exciting and rare opportunity to have so many high-level artists working together on the same team.

Kazeno: I was a fan of the original FFVII back in the day, so I was happy when I learned I’d be on this project. At the same time though, I was worried about living up to players’ expectations. In addition to the level of detail required, the most difficult thing about this project was to deliver the game to the players as soon as possible. In order to do so, we had to produce a large number of assets simultaneously. This project involved the largest number of people that I have ever worked with, which made it difficult to track the progress of the assets that were created. Not everything went smoothly, and there were times where it took quite a while to solve some problem that was deeply embedded within the development process. Still, I’m very happy that we were able to overcome these difficulties and that players were able to experience FFVIIR for themselves.

Suzuki: Some people never played the original, but they know the spin-off games. Others know every single FFVII game well, including those we collaborated on with other companies. However, nearly all gamers have had some form of contact with this title. As a result, everyone has a slightly different image of the characters, and it was difficult to weave each of those images together into a single, cohesive one. In terms of appearance, in particular, it was difficult to strike a balance between modern photorealism and the stylized designs of the original. I think we were both excited and uneasy every day, right up until the release date, about whether people would like what we had created. However, I was very pleased to hear many positive comments from people who’ve played the game.

Nakamura: Regarding monsters, we were able to incorporate details that are fitting for modern resolutions, while maintaining the simple-yet-bold patchwork feeling that was unique to the 90s, when the original was released. Monsters in the original had low-resolution textures, and therefore were not very detailed, but each remained unique thanks to the use of bold colors and interesting designs. Simply applying modern photorealistic textures would weaken the distinctive designs and colors of the originals. Instead, we emphasized each monster’s form and strove to keep the colors as impressive as possible while still lending themselves to PBR (physically-based rendering). By making these adjustments, I think we were able to successfully create a modern yet nostalgic hybrid that’s unique to FFVIIR.

Tell us more about the art direction of the game. What was the visual style you were aiming for?

Miyake: Backgrounds were created based on the following 3 major guidelines.
  – Use a wide variety of elements and objects to make something fun and exciting.
  – Create a realistic world that could actually exist.
  – Produce dramatic and colorful environments.

It goes without saying that we always try to improve the quality of the artwork by using models and layouts, but for this project in particular, we worked very closely with the lighting section. For example, we had to be careful that model textures were physically accurate, otherwise the lighting wouldn’t be realistic and there’d be no way to make post-processing adjustments for vividness and color.

Kazeno: When we started development on the game, we wanted to use the same proportions as the Advent Children models, but realized if they were exactly the same, then they’d be FFVIIAC characters and not FFVIIR ones. Therefore, we decided to concentrate on making all the characters—not just the player characters—”fresh, appealing, and nostalgic.” With this philosophy, those who know the original would ideally be reminded of when they first played it, but also enthralled with FFVIIR‘s fresh aspects. At the same time, new players would be captivated by all the unique personages in the FFVII universe.

We aimed for “nostalgic” by maintaining any distinctive hairstyles and costumes—even if the characters’ proportions had changed. As for “fresh and appealing,” they took the form of realistic models that were simply not possible to make with the technology used in the original. We referenced the actual musculature of a ballet dancer when designing Cloud, and each character’s skin even has pores. As for textures, we were able to apply realistic ones to all characters—from playable ones to enemies—thanks to the advent of PBR (physically-based rendering).

Why did you decide to adopt Substance Painter for production?

We first used Substance Painter during the development of MOBIUS FINAL FANTASY in 2014—while the program was still in beta. We’d tried a variety of other 3D painting software programs up to that point, but hadn’t settled on an official workflow. I remember the moment we first used Substance Painter, and how shocked we were at its high degree of precision and the fact you could paint materials with it.

Before that, we’d used separate workflows to create different textures. With Substance Painter though, we could make different ones at once and quickly turn whatever we were imagining into reality. This allowed us to reduce production costs while improving quality. It was at that time we decided to use this tool as soon as the official version was released.

Since it already had a track record with MOBIUS, we decided to adopt this new tool at the onset of FFVIIR development and established a workflow predicated upon its use. However, if there is any discrepancy in how a texture looks in Substance Painter and how it looks in the actual game, we have to make adjustments before exporting it, which takes time and effort. To prevent that, we enlisted the help of our engineers, who were able to make the two environments almost indistinguishable from each other. We could then create textures with ease, because everything could be completed with a single tool.

Screenshots from MOBIUSFF, a previous game on which the team first used Substance Painter:

Can you explain more about your use of the Substance Source library?

Miyake: Since our goal was to recreate the world of FFVII as realistically as possible, first we had to make sure the textures looked physically accurate. The problem was that, even if we made a manual outlining what settings to use, there were so many artists working on the project that it would be difficult to truly unify the appearance of every texture—all that work would be for nothing. Therefore, we decided to set restrictions whereby only certain parameters could be changed for certain materials. However, such restrictions would require a rich library. Luckily, Substance Source had an extensive one composed of many appealing PBR materials, so we decided to use it.

For example, let’s consider the background of an alley made of stone, concrete, mortar, brick, etc. You can easily select and combine materials from the wide-ranging lists in Substance Source, which let us try out lots of different patterns of materials until we found what best matched the scene.

How did you manage to keep consistency across textures?

Suzuki: Since games these days are generally based on PBR (physically-based rendering), that was of course one of the common standards we used for characters and background art in FFVIIR. For PBR, we used the Substance Painter guide as a base, and applied the same standards to UE4. Characters and backgrounds also use the same baking parameters for normal maps and ambient occlusion maps, which helps them mesh with each other in-game.

Could you give examples of some of the iconic scenes and characters Substance has been used for?

All the below assets—be they characters, monsters, or backgrounds—were created with Substance Painter.

Could you describe the different tools in your pipeline and how Substance Painter integrated into your pipeline?

Suzuki: For modeling, we often use Maya, ZBrush, and Marvelous Designer. We prepare a low poly mesh for in-game and a high poly mesh for baking, and then bake a normal map and an AO map in Substance Painter, which ensures our smart masks and smart materials work well. Finally, we create 5 types of textures: Normal, AO, Albedo, Metallic, and Roughness. It’s a very simple workflow, and its big advantage is that anyone can utilize it immediately for large-scale development.

Nakamura: The texturing process for enemy characters is divided into the following 5 steps.

(1) Bake the high poly model

There are no detailed indentations or protrusions at this stage. Only ones 5cm or more in difference are baked in.

(2) Classify base textures

Masks for each part are first filled, and then managed in folders. It’s at this stage the base color, roughness, and metallic parameters get decided.

(3) Mask detail textures

A fill is added to the mask, an alpha texture we created especially for tiling is assigned, and then a paint mask is applied with Multiply. This is done to manage all texture details.

We created about 40 alpha textures for tiling—some organic in nature, others mechanical—and designed them sharper than normal so they can appear as realistically as possible in-game.

(4) Add detail texture variations, process edges and indentations, and tile procedurals

Variations for dirt are added by the same method as described above. In addition, smart masks are used for dust on edges and indentations, while procedural tiling is used for simple patterns.

Unique textures that the above method doesn’t work on are painted manually. Except for these, all textures are managed with masks, so it’s easy to change the vibrancy of a color’s texture or the amount of dirt on it.

(5) Check in UE4

Apply emissive settings in UE4, and you’re finished.

Let’s dive into environment art. How did you use materials from Substance Source and Substance Painter?

Miyake: Allow me to explain with an in-game example: boxes of supplies covered in a vinyl sheet that has accumulated dirt.

Our texturing process consisted of the following 4 steps:

(1) Prepare the high poly mesh, and then a low poly mesh that is used in the game

The high poly mesh is a more elaborate version of the object with lots of detail, while the low poly mesh, which appears in-game, is more like a silhouette of the object that uses the high poly mesh as a guide.

(2) Bake the high poly mesh information onto the low poly mesh

Load the raw mesh into Substance Painter, and then use the Bake Mesh Maps function to bake. We used the same baking parameters for both characters and backgrounds to maintain a consistent scale of lighting.

(3) Assign materials and apply masks

Search for suitable materials in Substance Source. Here, we’ve chosen Vinyl Heavy for the vinyl sheet and Forest Ground Needles Roots for the dirt that’s built up on it.

Assign a dirt texture layer from Substance Source and apply a mask. There are various masking methods, but smart masks do the job most of the time.

Apply masks to all layers, and you’re finished. Substance Source makes it easy to obtain materials, so you can stack as many of them as you need without creating too many layers. This makes the work simple.

(4) Check the final product

There are often no problems with creating the assets because they use PBR materials from Substance Source. However, parameter changes or layer overlay errors could affect how they are authored. In such cases, we used the Substance Painter PBR guide to check the asset.

For the development of this project, first the Visual Works division (movie production) photographed the IBL images, which they then shared with us so we could check the textures.

We rotate the IBL in order to light the asset from a variety of different angles, then compare with the IBL images, and hopefully the colors and contrast will feel natural.

To clarify, we check the asset with a variety of IBLs that represent different situations and locations, not just a single IBL. For these, we used ones provided by Substance, as well as ones created by the lighting team.

Are there any tips and tricks with Substance that you can share with the community?

Nakamura:

(1) Alpha texture customization for tiling: we created derivative textures for raised cracks in Photoshop based off the alpha texture lines, then used Substance Painter to create the look of raised cracks along a groove. If an item looks to be versatile, we’ll make it a smart material.

(2) Tip for alpha tiling textures: Even with a rough alpha such as the one shown below, you can create a more delicate texture that still retains its energy if you add a mask to adjust its shading.

(3) General-purpose Dirt Effects: First, create a detail texture for the plate polygon (see the figure below). Next, assign the color, metallic, roughness, and normal maps you’ve created to one fill layer and mask it.

(4) Managing manually-painted textures: When manually painting areas that are difficult to tile, you can use a multiplicative mask to preserve the original paint job, and then easily manage the object by adjusting the gradation.

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

Miyake:

I think the strong point of Substance is that it allows artists to design textures intuitively. We’re now able to change the shape of an object in addition to the texture itself, but I look forward to the program giving us even more freedom as time goes on.

In the future, I’d like to see Substance used not only for the creation of in-game data, but also to help artists spark their imaginations from the very beginning of the design process.

People often conceive of Substance Painter as a tool that’s paired with Substance Designer, but I believe it’s a very powerful program even when used alone.

Being able to create multiple textures at the same time is wonderful, and the ability to make model adjustments and resolution changes on the fly speeds up the painting process considerably. Furthermore, the program makes mass-producing and managing assets simple—using procedural tiling to add detail is so simple, and so is handling sculpted detail textures in layers. Also, by saving these objects as smart materials and sharing them, you can maintain a consistent level of quality and use the materials as assets. We are very grateful to the Substance team for developing such a great tool.

Thanks from all of the environment artists and character artists involved with FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE.

All images courtesy of Square Enix.
© 1997, 2020 SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. All Rights Reserved.
CHARACTER DESIGN: TETSUYA NOMURA/ROBERTO FERRARI
LOGO ILLUSTRATION: © 1997 YOSHITAKA AMANO
© 2015 – 2020 SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. All Rights Reserved.