Using Substance & Medium for VR Games with Polyarc

Meet Mike and Tyler

Mike Jensen (left) has been at Polyarc for nearly four years as an artist, and before that was a character artist at Bungie.

Tyler Walters (right) is a technical artist at Polyarc. He has worked on indie games and, more recently, VR games for the last 12 years.

Polyarc’s website

Polyarc

Mike: Polyarc is a development studio located in Seattle that has a strong focus on VR. We have been around for more than four years and have nearly doubled in size since the release of our first title Moss back in February 2018. Our team, now 29 developers, are passionate about the possibilities of VR and what the experience can bring to the gaming industry. As a studio, we’re continuing to develop the world of Moss, developing a new IP, and exploring what’s new in mixed reality.  

James Yavorsky, artist
Corinne Scrivens, artist

Moss

Mike: Moss is a VR adventure puzzle game that brings together the components of a great game with the exciting possibilities of virtual reality. In Moss, players meet Quill, a young mouse with dreams of greatness beyond the confines of her settlement. While exploring the woods, she finds a mysterious Glass Relic, and an ancient magic is awakened. With her uncle now in grave danger, Quill must embark on an epic journey — and she needs you, her spirit guardian, there by her side.

Mike Jensen, artist
Mike Jensen, artist

Why we used Substance

Mike: I started using Substance back at Bungie while working on characters. I think there are several enormously beneficial ways that Substance changed content creators’ workflows. I could ramble on this topic for a while, so I’m just going to pick a few of the highlights on why we use Substance. 

  • Seeing Your Texturing Results in Realtime: Since Substance has been around for a while now, I think it’s easy to forget what it was like to work on textures before. Before, you had to paint your textures kind of blind, guessing what the final result would be in-engine. Then once you’ve got them in-engine, you would probably see several things you wanted to change. The guessing and checking resulted in a fair amount of iteration to get the final look. That whole process has been essentially cut out thanks to Substance.  
  • Consistency: Both Substance Painter and Substance Designer have allowed us to create and share presets much more easily, and having presets on hand means we have much more consistency with our textures. As an example, the enemies Quill has to fight in Moss are mechanical bugs powered by clockwork. One of our artists, James Yavorsky, was able to create the textures for the first enemy in Substance Painter, then save his work as a Smart Material. For all of the enemies after that, we just had to bake the maps, apply the Smart Material, do a bit of painting. That gets us perfect consistency between our enemies and makes it really easy to use instanced materials in Unreal. 
  • Fast Variety: Both Substance Painter (with Smart Materials) and Substance Designer allow us to get much more variety out of our textures without having to create them from scratch, saving loads of time.

That’s just a couple of reasons why, but I can’t really imagine going back to the way we used to texture before Substance. It’s essential. 

Mike Jensen, artist
Mike Jensen, artist

Pipeline

Mike: The other main tools we use are ZBrush, Maya, 3DS Max. We also use Unreal as our engine. Substance Painter in particular comes into play once we’ve created the high poly and low poly and are ready to bake. It replaces a number of tools for us, like xNormal for baking, and Photoshop and Mudbox for texturing. The baking is hassle-free, and when we’re ready to move to Unreal, we use Export Configs to stack several of our maps and have consistent naming conventions.

Substance Painter Breakdown

Play

Medium for prototyping and sculpting

Tyler: Medium has been a wonderful tool for Moss development. It allows us to sculpt entire dioramas with complex organic geometry in a matter of minutes. The ability to see this work at scale in VR is a lot of fun and adds to the overall artistic vision, which can be difficult to nail down using older workflows outside of VR. Once happy with the geometry, we can export the mesh into Unreal Engine, where we then run our main character Quill around to see how everything feels before spending time on finalized assets.  

I can see our use for Medium moving beyond environment artwork. Given the freedom that it allows, I would love to see it used for cinematic block-outs, showing characters in action surrounded by sculpts of what VFX and destructible meshes could look like. 

James Yavorsky, Corinne Scrivens, Mike Jensen, artists

Tips for VR game development 

Tyler: Start simple, test often — especially with VR development. 

Mike: Adding to what Tyler said: If I were to stress one thing as essential, it’d be “get your models and textures in-engine at all stages of their development.” The earlier the better. Scale is a huge consideration when working in VR, and you experience it in such a different way compared to non-VR games, so getting the scale right of your models and texture details can make all the difference. 

Finally, thank you for focusing on artist workflows and making texturing a much more interactive and enjoyable experience.  

All images courtesy of Polyarc.