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Allegorithmic Substance Designer 3.5 - Software Review


Substance Designer is one of those applications I've been aware of for a long time but never made time to try until right now.

You could say I'm late to the party, but I don't think I'm alone. Substance is years old, but until recently I'm not sure I've seen all that much widespread adoption for it among artists outside studio environments.

And that's a shame, because Allegorithmic's texturing software is incredibly capable in the right hands, and it's probably the most powerful application of its kind. So why the seemingly slow uptake?

Well, I think part of it has to do with price. Other recent texturing tools to hit the market like nDo and dDo have been cheap enough and accessible enough to almost warrant an impulse buy, and as a result of that they've spread like wildfire.

Substance Designer has a lot more utility than any one of those single applications, but it's priced accordingly at $590, which is hefty tag even for an all-in-one texturing solution. If you're a studio, fine, that's fair. But for an individual user, that's a pretty big investment.

Thankfully, all that is in the past, as Allegorithmic has begun selling a fully functioned non-commercial license of Substance for $99, which is perfect for portfolio building and personal work. Since the non-commercial version was launched, it seems like there's been a noticeable uptick in the number of individual artists using the software, and hopefully that will continue—Substance Designer is really one of those tools where you don't quite know what you're missing until you've tried it.

Okay, enough speculation; let's go hands on:

1. First of all, what does Substance Designer do?

Substance is a parametric texturing framework that allows you to efficiently create tiling or UV based textures by combining various bitmap, vector, or procedural nodes. For example, you might start with a basic b/w brick pattern. Then you'd overlay a color node and maybe a few grunge textures. Once you have a diffuse map that you're happy with, you can run it through a normal map filter, and apply a levels node to get something usable for the specular channel.

If that sounds a lot like your Photoshop texturing workflow, it's because in a way it is.

But unlike most other texturing applications, SD is almost entirely parametric. The workflow is non-destructive, and all the nodes are scalable. Learning to manipulate the graph to combine nodes in interesting and unexpected ways takes some getting used to, but once you have a handle on the workflow it's exhilarating, and it's entirely possible to create procedural textures that look surprisingly hand-made.

2. Where does it excel?

Tileable textures for games are probably the software's greatest strength. Fractal and noise based procedural nodes are very good at simulating the natural environment and substance designer makes it quite easy to create tiling brick, wood, rock, etc., and then export directly to UDK or Unity.

Speaking of exporting, Allegorithmic's integration with the Unreal Engine is impressive, to say the least. You can export an entire material with diffuse, normal, and spec maps directly into UDK, and send an extensive set of custom parameters to the engine with it. This is invaluable, and means that your textures are tweakable even after you get them into the engine—it's truly one of the software's best features.

Substance also comes with an impressive library of material filters that allows for very quick solutions to common problems (like edge scratches, for example), and a tiling brush engine that lets you paint tiling textures with incredible efficiency.

3. The Learning Curve:

As I mentioned before, there's a fair bit of complexity in Substance Designer, and someone who's never used a node based material workflow would probably be fairly lost if they jumped in without consulting any instructional material.

The software itself is fairly simple to get the hang of, but it does take a moment to develop an understanding of how nodes interact, and how to best combine them to get the results you're looking for.

For example, when I first started in Substance, I was having trouble generating a decent normal map for the brick texture I was working on. I mentioned my issue at Polycount and (within hours) a representative from Allegorithmic chimed in and suggested that I use a blur node on my texture before running it through the normal map filter. Immediate improvement, and incredibly easy to implement.

But since I'm not an expert with a node based workflow, I doubt that's something I would have considered without someone telling me to try it. Parts of the workflow are quite intuitive, and other parts simply aren't.

4. Training:

My mistake in the anecdote above is that I tried using the software intuitively, when really Substance Designer is far to complex for that approach. Experimentation is always fun, but I really recommend you spend some time with the excellent training that Allegorithmic provides, otherwise you'll be missing a lot of Substance Designer's functionality.

Allegorithmic's free tutorial series for Substance Designer is in depth and thorough, and covers most of the software's major functions. There are a few introductory videos to give new users a good handle on the interface and then two workflow tutorials, one covering a hard surface vehicle model and the other covering a character. There's also a relatively quick tutorial from Digital Tutors that introduces SD and takes you through the process of creating a brick wall—if you're a DT subscriber I highly recommend it.

All things considered, despite Substance Designer's complexity, if you're willing to set aside a few solid hours with the training material, you can be up and running pretty quickly.

5. Last Word:

I like Substance a lot. Somethign about a procedural, node based texturing workflow feels very right to me. If I were a game studio with some cash to spare, I would definitely want one or two licenses on hand.

As an individual artist, the decision is obviously a bit trickier, and it just depends on your needs. Someone looking for a handmade stylized look on their projects should probably look elsewhere. However, an indie development team that needs a lot of natural or urban tileables with quick turnaround would probably find Substance to be a huge time saver, and ultimately worth the investment.

This is a fun package to try, and I absolutely suggest you download the free trial. Jumping in does require some training, but not so much that it'll take you more than a few hours to understand what's going on. Substance requires a pretty unique way of thinking about texture generation—you might find that it's not for you, or you might really enjoy it like I did.

At the end of the day, this is a very powerful package that aims for the stars, and gets part of the way there. I wouldn't call it a Photoshop replacement by any means, but there's a ton of potential here, and Substance Designer can be a huge asset in the right hands.

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