Substance Source: Beauty and Decay by Ben Wilson

It’s time for another round of Substance Source collaboration with a field materials expert. Joining the team effort this time is Ben Wilson, material artist at Ubisoft Stockholm. He’s worked on many AAA games, including Forza HorizonGears of WarTom Clancy’s The Division, and Wolfenstein 2: New Colossus. He is now part of the team working on the recently announced Avatar game.

Ben brings to Substance Source 15 beautiful new materials, dedicated to the poets amongst us. Take a ride in a world of patterns, erosion, clusters, and melancholy with a collection called ‘Beauty and Decay’.

Ben Wilson:

I believe that Substance Designer’s best strengths are parametric design and pattern repetition. Most of my work until now has focused on real-world or ground materials, so this was a chance for me to try something a little different while playing to what Substance Designer does best.

So much of my inspirations folder is filled with images of decaying architecture, strange abstract designs, and weird combinations of the two! Clearly, I needed to build a set around this.

I’ve always been particularly drawn to modern architecture, with its strong focus on shape language and simplicity, so I wanted to incorporate some of this into the set. The designs I am drawn to are somewhat abstract, hard to clarify, or simply beautiful – while others almost cross the line into chaotic or decaying. This is how I chose to present a spectrum from beauty to decay, two sides of the same coin.

However, it was important to me not to do the typical imagery you might associate with decay: death or overgrowth. Rather, I wanted to keep the set focused on a spectrum ranging from strong pattern design to the shape language of decay.

ben wilson substance source decay
substance source ben wilson decay

Chapter 1: Beauty

‘Carved Layer Stack’ really set the stage for this half of the set. I feel it incorporates everything I want the project to be. It is abstract and simplistic, yet carries the same shape language I was looking for in decay.

Many of the parameters exposed in the graphs reflect the core of the material, either the main feature or a pattern – in a way showing what I wanted the material to be about.

Chapter 2: Decay

Bringing parametric design into the decay set was definitely a challenge. It took some time to really identify what each material’s focus should be, and how to implement this. I went through a few materials before I settled on a full list and even had a few happy accidents on the way. This is actually what happened with ‘Clustered Inflorescence’: it began with a cauliflower reference before I discovered that everyone loves disgusting boils!

There was a lot more room to explore the shape language though and I really enjoyed creating the twisting, distorted features found across the set.

Chapter 3: Bringing Everything Together

One of the main goals of the project was to produce nice color variation reliably with only a handful of exposed color pickers. Building good and controllable color information has always been a challenge for me, and something I’ve explored a lot in the past. It turns out that people much prefer color pickers over typical HSL nodes – so I tried to expose a primary, secondary and tertiary color picker for all the graphs wherever possible.

I didn’t want to tuck away tons of unmanageable color nodes either, so I tried to maximize variation from a single uniform color as much as possible. This was particularly challenging when working with the CPU engine. My first few attempts were Pixel Processor-based and therefore very slow on the CPU! After some iterations, I was able to find a solution using only atomic nodes.

Another goal of the project was to keep things cohesive and relatable. I spent a good amount of time building reusable setups and generators. You can see this in the graphs: every graph is built in the same way, with the same visual features. The debris, for example, is shared across every material in the set.

It was a pleasure to work with the Substance team on this series and I hope you enjoy these materials as much as I did making them!

The team joined Ben in Stockholm for a chat about his material creation technique and an in-depth look into one material. Check out the video here: