Sunday, September 17, 2017

Substance Designer / Painter, part 1/3

Last time my girlfriend walked in, froze, and looked as if she caught me in the cookie jar, as I was laying on the ground with a spyglass studying a tiny patch of rust on a metal door strip. “What the hell are you doing?”. “Substance Designer.”, I answered.

Do you know what I’ve been missing lately? Having fun in the hobby that sucked out most of my free hours for the past sixteen years. I think pretty much everyone knows how difficult it is to keep interest and actually *finish* something with a timespan larger than just a few hours. How many birdhouses, books, songs, paintings, websites, or comics did you start? And how many did you actually finish? How often did you smoke or drink with friends, made up the most awesome idea in the world, and never made anything of it? Treehouses remain unfinished, paintings will stay doodles, and Unreal maps are abandoned after a few days sweating, as we figured out playing games is actually more fun than making them.

And here I’m talking about “projects” that typically take days or weeks at most. Making a game takes months or years… even decades in some cases (HL3? Tower22? Anyone?)… Only a good salary or being an obsessed loser like me can keep that ball up. Don’t worry, this post is not about finally quitting. I’d rather die than giving up. I’m lazy by nature, but IF I start on something, whether it’s digging a hole in the garden or making a game, I can’t live in peace until it’s finished and well-done. Something to do with pride.

Yet, even I get bored. Ten years ago I would have started another fresh project, and parked the Tower22 idea into the “great-ideas-to-do-when-you-are older” closet, high above in the dusty attics of my brain. As a note to my older-self. But… I am that older-self now. That closet should be renamed to“things-you-always-dreamed-of-but-never-did”. I’m not THAT old, but I don’t see myself making games when anymore when I’m fifty. It’s hard enough already to keep that fantasy flowing as you get older and more serious (I mean more boring). So just starting another game now is a no-go. And if you never finished something before, you know that next project will get stuck in the creative bogs somewhere just as well.

A RTS based on the Vietnam war... one of those projects that was parked in my "To-do-when-older" drawer.

So, no quitters. And honestly, that playable demo I’ve been talking about really is not that far away – if I get some help that is. But even so, my “hobby” doesn’t feel much like a hobby anymore. More like an obligation to… I don’t know, myself I guess. Of course when working on the same (sub)project for a longer time, the vibes and thrills will vanish sooner or later. No surprise. But that is why I like making games, and the audio/visual aspect in particular; at least you can “wow” yourself with new achievements once in a while.

And that’s exactly the problem here. Like a couple that lost passion, suddenly realizing there is not enough quality time in bed, I realized I’m not wow!ing myself enough. And I don’t mean anything sexual with that. No, I just like eye-candy. Whether I’m watching leaked Doom7 screenshots or palm trees in IKEA to decorate the house with, pretty stuff makes me excited. And so does music or proper game sound, but the thing with that is, besides farts, I can’t make audio myself. And that’s where I get really excited, if I can do it myself.

Oh yeah, now I remember again why I got into shaders and such. When this blog started, I still had to discover a lot of visual techniques. Proper specular highlights, dynamic cloth physics, parallax offset mapping or cubeMap reflections. Not too hard to program, and for that time, still pretty awesome. I was actually able to produce images that weren’t too far below the prime examples of good graphics, such as Crysis. Not too shabby for a hobby-programmer doing that after work all alone. Hence, eventually people praised that effort when showing the first Tower22 clip.

One of the first Tower22 corridor renders. Simple, but pretty satisfying nonetheless.

The glass ceiling
Happy days. But then it went all downhill as I lost myself in booze, cocaine, and cheap sex. Well not really, but of course the market did surpass me with better graphics and superior engines. That damn bar got lifted, and lifted, and… Wowing myself got harder and harder. For one reason, because other games could do it as well or even better. And on the other hand, been there, done that. Accomplishing bumpMaps or real-time reflections for the very first time is pure magic, any self-taught graphics programmer will agree. But in this stadium, I know pretty much all tricks by now. Not in perfect detail, my math is weak, but the improvements are tiny. No first steps on the Moon anymore, no revolutions, just minor improvements.

And maybe the biggest problem is that this is partially beyond my super-nerd powers. Unlike the “Zeroes” where GPU’s accelerated rapidly and all kinds of crazy shader techniques were invented, the graphics-volcano stabilized in the last five years. Graphics still do get better, but that is merely the result of bigger budgets, and thus more (super talented) artists. Not so much because of revolutionary new technical aspects.

And that is where I got stuck, and maybe frustrated as well. I can program more stuff or try to learn a new technique. But I can’t boost my 2D/3D/drawing/creative skills. Well, can’t… Of course you can improve by doing it again and again. But there is a glass ceiling somewhere. My life dictated me to become a programmer with some creative twists, but not a full worthy artist. I’ll never reach the levels other professional artists have, so be it. So in conclusion, I’m still creating (Tower22) stuff almost every day, but the quality is not high enough to please myself anymore.

Happy days
Fine, another depressing blog post, well done Rick. But wait! Sparks of light are penetrating my programmer-bunker… Multiple rays of light! Did I mentioned a playable demo already? Probably… Did I mentioned the Fuel22 website finally coming? Probably not… And did I mentioned Substance Painter and Substance Designer? Don’t think so.

I’ll explain Fuel22 soon, when the website is operational. Basically it should help me finding those missing talented artists that can fix the jobs I wasn’t capable of. Using a website show what needs to be done, and a structured reward system. As for the Substance software from Allegorithmic, let’s say it brought back some fun, and even gave me the capabilities to get on the texturing job myself once again. Well, for as long as the trial versions last at least, but fortunately their Indie licenses aren’t ridicuously high… though I have a new house to make now… If the front-door is missing, it’s because I bought this software to make the painted wall in this screenshot… to be continued