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Supposedly, a week is a long time in politics – but a year tends to be the amount of time it takes to crunch down and develop your next generation piece of gaming middleware. Or at least that’s the experience of Sébastien Deguy, CEO of innovative French outfit Allegorithmic.
It was back at the Game Developers Conference 2008 that the company first started talking about Substance, its real-time procedural texture generation technology. Since then it’s been working on getting the idea ready for frontline production; both in terms of nose-to-the-metal tasks such as optimising the runtime, but perhaps more importantly liaising with development partners to ensure Substance has the flexibility to fit within the various types of workflows required.
The first result will be Substance Lite, which is expected to be available mid-January. It’s a replacement for Allegorithmic’s breakout product ProFX, which enables you to create very lightweight textures offline using its procedural engine. Designed particularly for use with games where install size is important, such as downloadable content and MMO clients, Substance Lite offers better performance and accessibility than ProFX thanks to the new Substance architecture and graphical user interface.
As for what Deguy jokingly calls ‘Substance Heavy’, the plan is for a GDC 2009 launch. “We’re working closely with some big names in the industry to fulfil their needs in terms of streaming data and continuously generating the textures without impacting the framerate,” he explains. “It’s a case of getting to grips with real-time constraints to ensure we have a product that fits people’s needs.”
The main feature for Substance is the ability to bring the advantages of lightweight textures that involve very low memory overheads into the realm of games that require streaming from physical media: effectively using the size of such textures to increase the real-time capabilities of consoles. Talking to developers has seen Allegorithmic broaden the number of ways in which Substance can be used, however: most notably in terms of mixing the traditional bitmap images with its procedural smarts.
“The ability to also use bitmaps is a way to ease the process and get artists working more efficiently,” Deguy explains. “But even if it means the memory requirements of the finished graphics aren’t as optimised as they would otherwise be, there’s still a 93 per cent saving.”
The mixing of the traditional texture pipeline with procedural techniques works well in terms of fitting into traditional ways of development too. “You have technical artists and production artists,” Deguy says. “The production artists don’t generally want to get deeply into the tool. They want to create.”
This split has lead Allegorithmic to highlight some different ways of working with Substance. What it calls the hierarchical workflow sees one technical artist working on procedural base materials which are then composited by the production artists. Alternatively, artists can start working on the base materials, which the technical artist refines throughout the production cycle; what’s called the parallel workflow. A final option is non-linear working, where inherited textures are automatically updated when modifications are done on base materials.
“Most of the studios we deal with understand the value of hierarchical and non-linear ways of producing content,” Deguy says. “Another advantage with this way of working is that it makes it easier to share assets between studios, so if you have a studio in Singapore producing great textures you can to use them in Montreal or London, too. You don’t want them recreating yet another brick texture.”
But textures aren’t the only thing that Substance can be used for. Another technique that’s being trialled is its use as a compositor for real-time post-processing affects. The idea came from Allegorithmic’s experience with MaP Time, its plug-in for After Effects and Combustion, which applied animated noise effects to an image to create effects.
“Substance is real-time so you can handle many more complex effects,” Deguy points out. “For example, you can apply effects direct to your framebuffer, which means you can create waterdrops on the screen or do blurring and depth of field. Substance is way faster than any other compositing software and it can also run on the CPU so you don’t impact the framerate. Eventually, we will see see people using Substance as a real-time post-processing engine, which I think is very exciting.”