Courtesy of Turn 10 Studios

Forza Motorsport 7: Visually Stunning, Packed with Substance

Vincent Gault on October 9 2017 | News, Substance Designer, Stories

Few are the game series that are awaited, not only because players want to play them, but also because they have the potential to redefine an entire game genre. Forza Motorsport definitely belongs to this category, and the seventh edition, developed by Turn 10 is once again raising the bar a step higher.

Simply put, the game is huge and gorgeous. To texture so much content, while preserving a stunning visual quality, the Art team decided to rely on Substance Painter and Substance Designer for the texturing part. We had the opportunity to talk to some of this talented folks, so they can share with us some of their tricks to get the most of our products, and some of their secret to preserve the Art Direction until the final product.

Hey guys, first of all, congrats on the release, and thanks for taking the time to answer our questions! Could you introduce yourselves to the community?

Thanks for reaching out to us! I’m Arthur Shek, the Technical Art Director at Turn 10. I’m responsible for leading our team to optimize content authoring workflows and take advantage of new tech. I have some folks from our art team with me, so I’ll let them introduce themselves.

Hi, my name is Tyler Finney. I’m the Lead Concept Artist for Turn 10. Our Concept team is not only responsible for pre-production concept and visual direction throughout production, but also high-concept asset creation in special cases, such as our driver suits.

Hello, my name is Toren Lehrmann and I’m a 3D Artist at Turn 10, specializing in shaders and materials. I was responsible for creating, editing, and managing the shader library for cars, tracks, and drivers on the project. Shaders are the backbone for a material in our proprietary ForzaTech engine, and they contain the instructions, textures, and parameters which determine the look for assets in the game.

If we include the Forza Horizon Franchise, Forza Motorsport 7 is the 10th game developed or co-developed by Turn 10, with an average score of 88% on Metacritic (some developers would kill for this)! How do you organize and motivate yourselves to constantly improve your franchise?

As a first-party studio at Microsoft, one of Turn 10’s goals is to showcase Microsoft hardware and software, namely Xbox and Windows Gaming. We certainly feel that challenge and that motivates a desire to be best in class. Our studio has a great blend of automotive fanatics, combined with a strong passion for cutting-edge graphics and gameplay. Hiring the right mix of people has always been key to our success.

Let’s talk about Art Direction: despite being visually stunning, and hyper-realistic, the Forza Motorsport franchise has its own unique "touch". How would you describe this, and what kind of techniques do you use to reinforce this visual identity?

During production on Forza 7, we adopted a term that we used to summarize our visual initiatives - “Beautiful Racing”. We organized a strike team around this topic to determine what visual features we wanted to drive to support our core gameplay and new design features, such as dynamic weather and the intense thrill of racing. That team had a lot of discussions – A LOT of discussions. We created a bunch of prototypes, new production techniques, and visuals that also fed back into the design. Our biggest challenge was taking an abstract term like “Beautiful Racing” and turning that into a list of specific work to do, but somewhere in that magic mix, we hit on something that worked. We’ve been incredibly pleased to see reviews calling out our beautiful racing because it means our work paid off when it comes back to us in the words that we started out with.

“We’re in a place where Substance has evolved into a place where we see it used commonly in AAA game production. Turn 10 uses it for entire classes of assets.”

You started using our product in your texturing workflow on Forza Motorsport 5, a few years ago: How has your Substance implementation evolved since then? How do you think it will evolve in the next iteration(s)?

[Arthur] I remember when we first met with the Allegorithmic team, there was nervous laughter when your team brashly proclaimed your intention to take over our texturing workflows. After that meeting, there was a lot of confusion from our team about how to think about a "Substance". Should we consider it a texture? Is it a shader, a material? There was something super compelling about the tech, but it took a long time to soak in before we were able to overcome the initial confusion and just start using it in production.

Fast forward several years, and now we’re in a place where Substance has evolved into a place where we see it used commonly in AAA game production. Turn 10 uses it for entire classes of assets. It’s crazy to think back to those initial proclamations from your team and see it becoming a reality.

As Substance moves forward, I hope to see a lot of focus on automation and pipeline integration work so that we can straight up ingest the work from talented artists and use it in our content build pipelines to output game-ready assets without a lot of manual exporting of texture sets.

“In recent meetings on future workflows, we’ve seen our artists clamoring for an investment in Substance integration.”

Did you noticed an evolution as well in the team perception of the product between the moment you decided to use it and now?

[Arthur] As someone who has worked with artists for most of my career, I’ve noticed that any significant change we introduce to art workflows can be met with wailing and gnashing of teeth. One interesting thing we’ve noticed in the games industry, including our own studio, is that Substance is making its way into the general artist awareness and usage by stealthily coming in via grassroots evangelism by individual artists, rather than a mandated technology switch from the top. This has made it much easier to propose integrating Substance into our content pipeline than if we issued a proclamation making it so. In recent meetings on future workflows, we’ve seen our artists clamoring for an investment in Substance integration, which I can tell you is a far cry from the typical interactions!

“With so much pressure on accurate layers of matching textures feeding PBR assets, Substance is more and more appealing to us because of its central workflow”

You are both using Substance Designer and Substance Painter: could you give us some details about their specific usage? What do they bring to you pipeline compared to the previous workflow?

[Arthur] Turn 10 re-worked our ForzaTech engine to adopt physically based rendering (PBR) techniques right around the time that Xbox One was being developed. With so much pressure on accurate layers of matching textures feeding PBR assets, Substance is more and more appealing to us because of its central workflow where artists paint all layers of a material at one time. Accurate materials are very important to the visual fidelity of our title, and we try to play up material differentiation as much as possible. On top of that, we’ve seen wins working in a procedural workflow where we can output multiple resolutions after the fact to accommodate all the platforms we publish on.

[Toren] The decision to start using Substance Designer for the project was an easy one.  Our car asset library benefits greatly from a Substance workflow, as it consists of many materials which rely on detailed tiling textures for a high-resolution look with a low memory footprint.  We have leathers, plastics, metals, cloth, and much more. Most of these have a preset normal map, created in Substance Designer, but things such as color and gloss intensity can be customized in-engine.

Leather, for example, has several normal map texture variations created in Substance Designer to satisfy the need for leather materials ranging from a smooth to a coarse feel. Color options are then derived from a list of preset RGB values, and another list for gloss values representing the appropriate range for that material type in our editor. Substance Designer was also terrific for creating custom grunge and variation maps to be used on everything from scrapes when the car becomes worn or damaged, to dirt for the car's exterior, as well as subtle variation maps to break up the specular highlight of the tires. Substance Designer provides an advantage over other texturing applications due to the real-time, physically based previewing of the output, and quick editing to achieve additional variations. Artists can adjust the resolution of maps on the fly, and customize the previewer to play with different scenarios (such as increasing tiling amounts on the fly to spot repetitive shapes in the output maps).

“Within 2 weeks, our entire team was capable of painting high quality, detailed suits for the game in about a third of the time it would have taken previously”

[Tyler] When we entered pre-production for Forza 7, we had concepts and design for a new feature - driver customization. Since our studio hadn’t made a character-centric game, we didn’t know what capacity we could achieve with our small team. While we were scoping out work and outlining what we wanted to create, I was introduced to Substance Painter by our character modeler and was immediately excited by the possibilities. During the production of Forza 5 and 6, I painted the textures for the single driver gear the old-fashioned 2D way after the ZBrush model had game-usable topology. So, the notion of creating our desired 300 unique suits seemed daunting. I spent about three working days getting up to speed with Substance Painter and was so impressed that we immediately shifted to producing game assets with the software. Within 2 weeks, our entire team was capable of painting high quality, detailed suits for the game in about a third of the time it would have taken previously (for a single suit). We were able to create a texture authoring pipeline around Substance Painter that we could roll out to our vendor partners.

What are your favorite features in the Substance Suite?

[Toren] One of my favorite features of Substance Designer is the ability to expose parameters and make simple adjustments that have great effects down the chain of your graph.  On Forza Motorsport 7, this was very useful for carbon fiber, where a weave pattern could be quickly adjusted not only by amount but type of weave.  All the additional effects layered on top of the basic pattern (such as the detail in the actual fibers) were automatically updated when the amount and size of each weave were changed.  Another commonly used feature was the Tile Sampler, which was used for creating those tiny flakes in our metallic car paints.  That and the other Generators are a great example of a single node giving you almost unlimited possibilities.  Finally, I have to mention the Slope Blur - a tremendous node that can give you subtle variation and help your final texture get away from that "procedural look".

[Tyler] For our use on driver suits, we typically find that the designs are graphical in nature to align with motorsport authenticity. To achieve that, fill layers with a solid color and layer masks are invaluable. Once we lay down the designs, it’s really fulfilling to experiment with the huge library of Generators to create wear on materials such as cloth and leather. Those were used a lot and we found the diverse library and easy usage to be extremely time-saving.

Did you develop custom home tools (that you can speak of) that are pushing the limits of Substance, beyond what is feasible by default?

[Arthur] I wouldn’t say we’ve pushed beyond the boundaries of where Substance allows artists to go. We’re still getting familiar with the tech and where it can best integrate into our content pipeline. Artists have been using Substance to generate textures that we check-in to Perforce, but I’d love to get to a point where they’re just checking Substance files without the need to do any extra steps. We’ve done some initial work with the batch tools to automate some processes and are really excited about the possibilities of the Substance Automation Toolkit.

On a visual aspect, what do you think (or wish) could be the next (r)evolution in racing games

Over the years, members of our team have attended numerous real-world races and captured tons of reference. The one impression that always sticks is the pure assault on the senses that make up a motorsport event – the ever-present haze of rubber and gasoline, the visual chaos of drivers, crews, and audience milling around in a festival atmosphere, the overwhelming sounds. Striving to match that experience at a solid 60 frames per second at 4K or higher resolution will keep us busy for years to come.

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