Making VFX in Mobile Games with Nikola Damjanov

Vincent Gault on February 22 2018 | Stories, Substance Painter, Substance Designer, Tutorials, Game

If you are already an active member of our community via our forum or our Discord server, there’s a good chance that you’ve already spoken with or read something by Nikola Damjanov, from the games studio Nordeus. As a VFX game artist, Nikola is someone who loves to push the boundaries of the tools at his disposal: this is one of the reasons why we often call him to beta test new features in Substance Designer. And the results are always surprisingly awesome!

Art by Nordeus

Hey Nikola! We’ve talked a lot on different channels, but it’s the first time we’ve really had a chance to interview you! For the people who don’t yet know you, tell us who you are and what you do.

Hello Vinny! Yeah, we’ve e-known each other for quite some time and now I have this chance to introduce myself to the community. Short story - I’m a 3D generalist. Long story - well, that one can be pretty long, so let’s try a short version of the long story. I never actually aspired to be an artist; I was always set on an engineering route. But that's the thing about long-term plans - they tend to be very flexible. I started my higher education as an electrical engineer but half-way through got seduced by the world of digital art. I’ve never looked back since. From day one as a reborn artist, I always wanted to try to do everything, which caused my career path to zig-zag between 3D, visualization, graphic design, UI, photography, vfx, interactive art, and others besides. And then I finally narrowed the funnel and became a game artist, an industry where I can do practically all of those things. #neversettle :) Basically, I deliberately decided not to specialize and am quite enjoying the versatility of my job. That eventually brought me to my current VFX Artist position, which I honestly think is the best way to specialize as a generalist. C’est la vie!

“I’ve been in Nordeus for the past 6 years: I honestly can’t imagine myself working somewhere else.”

You are currently working on a video game studio called Nordeus games. What can you tell us about the studio?

I’ve been in Nordeus for the past 6 years, almost from the beginning of the company, and I honestly can’t imagine myself working somewhere else. I was the company’s first in-house artist, and we went through some highs and lows for a while. But now I’m enjoying the stability of working for an independent mobile game developer. The biggest reason for that is that I get to work on Top Eleven, our first game, which is actually the most successful mobile sports game in the world. That game helped us grow to 30+ artists in a 160-person company. Now we’re both playing to our strengths and trying to explore new and exciting genres.

Nordeus is based in Belgrade but we have worldwide and world-class experts in all fields. It’s really not easy to bring people to Serbia; there’s a lot of historical baggage. But we have some interesting perks and advantages to help encourage potential recruits. We keep the hierarchy at a minimum and maximize the opportunity that everyone has, cross-organization and in terms of cross-product influence. On top of that, we invest a lot in our people, not just in art, but in all areas: development, machine learning, user research, marketing, and so on. It’s a high-velocity environment, and ideas for projects can come from anywhere. So as an artist, you could be working on a live game, a promising prototype, doing some research or making a tech-art demo like the one we just did with Unity. Fun times.

Art by Nikola Damjanov

You’re working on a very ambitious mobile title called Spellsouls: Duel of Legends, that you guys have been showcasing at the Unite Austin Conference. What’s the game about, and what makes it so special?

Spellsouls: Duel of Legends is envisioned as a highly competitive card-based PvP game where you cast spells in order to gain an advantage on the battlefield, and ultimately beat enemy spellcasters. The battles are short and dynamic but they do offer a unique blend of strategy and action. For us, it is very special because it was a venture into the unknown - transitioning the company and talent from a football manager game to a fantasy PvP is not without its challenges. And those troubles aren’t over yet. The game is currently in the soft launch phase, so it’s still being adjusted and shaped, but we have high hopes and even higher plans for it.

Art by Nordeus
Art by Nordeus
Art by Nordeus

The game had a big influence as I think we managed to push some quality bars for mobile graphics, especially for VFX. We couldn’t have achieved that without the talent of the team, but we also needed to build a robust and flexible pipeline. As an early adopter of the Substance tools it was easy for me to show the benefits of Substance Designer and Substance Painter, so we gladly adopted those workflows.

And speaking of Unite Austin, that was a milestone for us on another level: we did a joint tech-art demo with Unity. The goal was to showcase Unity's future performance-boosting tech by making something epic. With that in mind, our vision was to use the universe and characters from our Spellsouls mobile game, scaled up to eleven, and to expand the battlefield to present thousands of minions fighting and being crushed by powerful spells. All of that live and in 6K real-time. We had to increase the details of a lot of assets, and you might think that was a lot of work; it wasn’t though, at least in terms of textures - Substance Painter came to the rescue. We just rebalanced details, adjusted colors and exported in higher res. I wish we’d had a similar tool for meshes and rigs. Everything was done in basically four weeks, and we are super-proud of this one.

You made a presentation around the game’s VFX, and we were very interested to see that Substance Designer is one of your tools of choice. Can you give us a little more information about this?

Substance Painter is currently used by almost every artist in Nordeus. Substance Designer, on the other hand, is not that widespread - which is OK. Due to its more technical nature, it’s harder for artists to adopt it. Personally, I like it more and I think it’s an amazing tool with ever-growing applications. For us, one of those uses is making textures for real-time VFX. In my presentation it’s clear that Spellsouls is a very VFX-heavy mobile game, so we need to make a ton of optimized stuff. And in the real-time VFX world faking something to look good is king. The vast majority of in-game spells are, simply put, some kind of texture scrolling over some other kind of mesh. The quality of those textures carries a lot of weight when it comes to the final look of the VFX. So things like tileable noises, custom patterns and all kinds of shapes are being used and abused on a daily basis.

At first, we made everything in Photoshop, which was tedious, but when we switched to Substance Designer, our workflow changed dramatically. First, we got automatic tiling, which by itself is a huge time saver. The iteration speeds were boosted as well - there’s something magical about getting a variation with just a mouse click. Then comes the consistency - by building a library of shapes per magic school, and then combining them, we can make sure things match. In general, it’s way easier to make, control and modify our textures.

What do you think the Substance tools can bring to the VFX world? (And what should we implement to make this even easier/stronger?)

I think that they already bring a lot. If you watch the trend of modern games, content is being burnt through faster and faster, and that eventually forces production to be faster and faster as well. That means that procedural and non-destructive workflows are the future, where they aren’t already present. Compared to the competition Substance tools are already ahead of the curve, so what you need to do now is stay there, make even more forward progress. It would be a shame to lose the momentum you’ve gained over the past few years. I’m not really sure what kind of concrete advice to give to help achieve that. Sure, listening to the community is always great, but people tend to give feedback and suggest improvements that will just speed up their current workflows - which isn’t necessarily useful; you need to be revolutionary. For example, in Substance Designer, I would LOVE you to implement some serious tools for animating substances, exporting sprite sheets, making flow maps and baking depth/height maps from imported objects. Substance Painter, on the other hand, could benefit from a better brush system, a lot more control over painting height (bevel profile!) and the ability to blend bakes with and without averaged normals. I would also like a seamless and real-time integration between Substance Designer and Substance Painter, just for the fun of it.

Did you find a hidden gem node combination that you would like to share with the community?

Oh, these are always tricky because what works for me might not work for you. Plus I can’t keep track of whether the combo is something I’ve discovered or borrowed :-). There are some obvious gems like bevel + curve node for any type of edge profiling. Or using the non-uniform blur on your masks to get variation of sharp and soft transitions.

Is there a person that you would like us to interview? What would be your question for him/her?

I think you’ve already covered all my Substance heroes. And thank you for that; I learned a lot. I can’t drop any names right now but I would love to discover and hear from people with non-standard approaches and results, the crazier the better. I’ve seen people making tires and breakfast in Designer, I’m sure there are even more radical examples. Please find them.

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