World Building Spider-Man’s Manhattan with Substance

World Building Spider-Man’s Manhattan with Substance
By Anne McKinnon

At the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, March 19, Insomniac Games presented their biggest game to date in the panel “Marvel’s Spider-Man: A Deep Dive Into The Look Creation of Manhattan.” They covered designing a world with Substance- Adobe’s 3D painting software that is used for 3D material and texture creation in gaming and entertainment, among other tools.

While world building and game design for 2D and virtual reality are different, the principles are very much the same. In VR, detailed design is especially important as the environment must past the test where it allows the user to set aside their disbelief.

Our brains easily pick up on the nuances of the spaces we occupy, and in VR, every detail must be rationalized or risk interrupting game play.

In this 2D world building panel as an example of the extensive attention required to design, Ryan Benno, Senior Environment Artist at Insomniac Games, Brian Mullen, Senior Lighting Artist at Insomniac Games, and Matthew McAuliffe, Texture Artist at Insomniac Games lead us through the development of Spider-Man’s Manhattan.

“We wanted to capture what it was like to be in the city of New York,” said Benno. The city has diverse people, businesses, and culture, that all make up the atmosphere of the city.

“It was our first time using Substance Designer as a team, and it became an integral part of what we do,” he said.

They started doing some early block-outs of the city, based on more polygon like structures as the building blocks for their open world game.

Overall, this was the most significant and dense city the team had developed to date with 9800+ buildings. By hand, this process takes 30 minutes to 4 hours per building, however, they were also able to do a modularization pass with Houdini that cut this time down to 5-15 minutes, giving them more time to dress and polish the open world.

They also used the Polyline tool to turn the standard building blocks into the varied architecture that is representative of New York. Generating building from polylines cut more time on the process and after modularization, the artists again were able to focus on customization.

It’s this attention to detail that makes the game seem so recognizable as the real streets of New York. By splitting the city up into the major districts such as Greenwich Village, the Financial District, Upper East Side, Upper West Side, Chinatown, Midtown, Harlem and more, and then breaking these districts into smaller neighborhoods, they were able to create micro stories and themes within each district.

Using Substance in depth in specific areas, “beautiful corners” would represent the style and dressing for each district and neighborhood. Storefronts also had several pre-fabrications depending on whether the game play took place during the night, or day. For example, storefronts would be open or closed, and the material lighting would change- all textures had to be enriched, and saved in Houdini with an “on” and “off” switch.

“We had to let the lighting assist in the storytelling, and to make sure the lighting was conveying the story mood,” said Mullen.

Often, this means balancing real world measurements with game play challenges and targeting. With the materials often in flux, Mullen would use a base plane to allow the lighting to live independent from the rest of the game, and then would make adjustments when the materials were finalized and lighting was imported.

To get the lighting right, his team actually went outside and took real measurements. They used a gray calibration camera to photograph a gray card in the shade, and in direct sunlight. Then, Mullen used these RGB ratios and adjusted for the different times of day.

Contrary to what I would have expected, daylight is actually the most finicky lighting to work with. Using real world measurements, if a character is standing in the shade and looking into the light, the city would appear entirely washed out. Also, Spider- Man moves really fast and the constant change between light and dark would make the game play disorienting. To adjust for this, they carefully baked in the blue sky without too much blue in the light grids that would otherwise give the city an overall blue appearance. Mullen also reduced the contrast between the direct and indirect light.

On the other hand, sunset is the best time of day to work with as the “golden hour” where city textures and sky have a solid contrast. The team also brought in some fog to have more control on the lighting. “The sun comes through at a raking angle through all sorts of peaks and angles in the city,” said Mullen, which means they have to identify where light “leaks” through the building and disrupts the overall mood.

When a “moody” environment is needed, overcast is the atmosphere players see at low points in the story. “Overcast is a very tough sell. It’s just gray everywhere and people generally don’t like gray or being outside on a rainy day,” said Mullen. Gray is also very easy to wash out. With all the lighting coming from the street, they had to balance this with lighting from the rooftop. In Spider-Man, this is okay because he could be on the rooftops just as much as he could be on the street.

Night also comes with its particular challenges. “It needs to look and feel like night, and feel alive without having lights everywhere,” said Mullen. They also balanced this with lights on the rooftop, with variations in light temperature as a character looks up the street, and specifically having no more than “500 lights on at one time.”

They would first light up story points, and major landmarks, then add lighting that was a part of the visual appeal. “We need to cover a very large surface area, and introduce a lot of variety,” said MacAuliffe- all without overloading the game.

In VR, this is a similar issue. Slow rendering with slow wireless can result in repetitive crashing out of the game. In both Spider-Man and VR games, they use streaming zones that are broken into tiles. “Whatever part you are standing at in the world, we load that part of the world and the surrounding tiles so that it is all high resolution,” said Benno.

During the 1.5-hour panel, these artists were only able to touch on the basics of the design required to bring Spider-Man’s Manhattan to life. In virtual worlds, 3D environments come with their own challenges. Many of these techniques used for 2D design will need to be applied to building open-world mulitplayer games for virtual reality, and new techniques will also have to be developed.

For anyone who spends a great deal of time in VR, we recognize that design in many cases is still rudimentary with polygon-based shapes. Although, taking into consideration what we are now able to create in 2D, this is a hint of what’s in store for the future of immersive games.