Discover the Substance 3D workflow for Square Enix’s FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE

Square Enix

All images courtesy of Square Enix. © 1997, 2020 SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. All Rights Reserved. CHARACTER DESIGN: TETSUYA NOMURA/ROBERTO FERRARI LOGO ILLUSTRATION: © 1997 YOSHITAKA AMANO.

By Patrick Faller

Posted on 09-17-2020

Final Fantasy is one of the world’s most beloved video game franchises, and FINAL FANTASY VII (FFVII) is arguably the most iconic and remembered game in the series. When Square Enix, the video game developer and publisher of the Final Fantasy series, announced its remake of FFVII, fans of the game rejoiced with much anticipation. The team selected to design the remake’s visuals was rejoicing too, albeit a little nervously. How would they update the original game, including its graphics, while maintaining a balance with its original ‘90s aesthetic?

“I was a fan of the original FFVII back in the day, so I was happy when I learned I’d be on this project,” says Masaaki Kazeno, character modeling director for Square Enix, who presided over all the 3D character and monster models for the game and ensured that character design production went smoothly. “At the same time, I was worried about living up to players’ expectations. In addition to the graphics, the most difficult thing with this project was to deliver the game to the players as soon as possible. In order to do so, we had to produce a large number of assets simultaneously through parallel processes.”

To create and manage the production of all the visual assets of FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE, the team turned to Substance Painter. Read on to learn more about their character and environment design workflows and how they managed to create a remake that left fans new and old satisfied (and critics delighted).

Paying tribute to the ‘90s original while modernizing the visuals of FFVII with Substance Painter

Square Enix decided that the remake of FFVII would need to feel at once familiar and new, so its character and environment design teams were tasked with creating visuals that would strike a balance between the ‘90s aesthetic and modern graphics.

“We were able to incorporate details that are fitting for modern resolutions, while maintaining the simple-yet-bold patchwork feeling that was unique to the ‘90s, when the original was released,” says Hiroyuki Nakamura, the artist responsible for creating character models for all summons and boss monsters.

A monster

The FFVII Remake design team emphasized the original designs of the monsters from the 1997 game while adding physically based rendering expressions.

“Monsters in the original had low-resolution textures, and therefore were not very detailed, but each remained unique thanks to the use of bold colors and interesting designs. Simply applying modern photorealistic textures would weaken the distinctive designs and colors of the originals. Instead, we emphasized each monster’s form and strove to keep the colors as impressive as possible while still lending themselves to physically based rendering (PBR). By making these adjustments, I think we were able to successfully create a modern-yet-nostalgic hybrid that’s unique to FFVIIR.”

The FFVIIR design team used Substance Painter for all characters, monsters, and backgrounds. Square Enix has been using Substance since 2014 and has come to rely on it for its high precision in texture design and intuitive material painting concept. With the pressure of remaking such a beloved game and the need to create so many assets quickly, Kazeno adds, ”It was a natural fit as the tool-of-choice for the FFVII Remake.”

MOBIUSFF

MOBIUSFF, the first game Square Enix created using Substance Painter, in 2014. © 2015 - 2020 SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. All Rights Reserved.

“Before that, we’d used separate workflows to create different textures. With Substance Painter, though, we could make different ones at once and quickly turn whatever we were imagining into reality. This has allowed us to reduce production costs while improving quality,” he says, adding that Substance Painter has allowed them to save time during development, as well as during the design phase.

“I asked the engineers to make Substance Painter and the in-game environment the same, to the greatest extent possible. This allowed us to apply the textures that were completed in Substance Painter with minimal issues. We could then create textures with ease because everything could be completed with a single tool.”

Creating a ‘fresh, appealing, nostalgic’ appearance and managing asset consistency to maintain it

“When we started development on the game, we wanted to use the same proportions as the Advent Children models, but realized if they were exactly the same, then they’d be FFVIIAC characters and not FFVIIR ones. Therefore, we decided to concentrate on making all the characters — not just the player characters — ‘fresh, appealing, and nostalgic,’” says Kazeno. “We aimed for ‘nostalgic’ by maintaining any distinctive hairstyles and costumes, even if the characters’ proportions had changed. As for ‘fresh and appealing,’ they took the form of realistic models that were simply not possible to make with the technology used in the original. We referenced the actual musculature of a ballet dancer when designing Cloud, and each character’s skin even has pores. As for textures, we were able to apply realistic ones to all characters — from playable ones to enemies — thanks to the advent of PBR.”

A character in the game.

Modernizing Cloud in Substance Painter. They aimed for “nostalgic” by maintaining hairstyles and costumes, even if the characters’ proportions had changed.

For the game’s backgrounds and environments, Miyake followed a similar process, but with three guiding principles in mind to ensure the world felt both familiar and new at the same time:

To do this, she and her team needed to pay attention not only to the models and layouts, but also lighting. “I really focused on making sure every element cooperated with the lighting. I had to be careful and make sure the physical textures models were physically accurate, because if they weren’t, the lighting wouldn’t be realistic, and the post-processing would be useless,” she says. In short, all environmental elements had to work together in unison, and textures influenced all other factors of the design.

Scene from FFVIIR

Extensive detail was paid to the way textures and lighting worked together in FFVIIR.

All of the above needed to be done across a large team of artists and designers. A simple instruction manual for how to implement correct textures on characters and objects just wouldn’t do. Instead, the team used Substance Source’s library to source and house their considerable amount of texture assets, while also defining restrictions on them; they set restrictions that defined which parameters artists could, and could not, change on textures. Since PBR materials are so entrenched in Substance Source, working this way allowed artists to create quickly and with a certain degree of freedom, while still maintaining consistency of texture across the game’s characters and environments.

Managing textures in Substance Source.

Managing textures (and their editable parameters) in Substance Source.

Key Substance tips and tricks from the FFVIIR design team

The FFVIIR design team spent countless hours working in Substance Painter, striving to create the best look and feel for the remake. Looking back at their successful process, they shared these tips for working effectively in Substance Painter on a large-scale product.

Alpha texture customization for tiling

We created derivative textures for raised cracks in Photoshop based off the alpha texture lines, then used Substance Painter to create the look of raised cracks along a groove. If an item looked to be versatile, we’d make it a smart material.

Increasing and decreasing the height.

Tip for alpha tiling textures

Even with a rough alpha such as the one shown below, you can create a more delicate texture that still retains its energy if you add a mask to adjust its shading.

Adjusting shading.

General-purpose dirt effects

First, create a detailed texture for the plate polygon (see the figure below). Next, assign the color, metallic, roughness, and normal maps you’ve created to one fill layer and mask it.
Detailed texture.

Managing manually painted textures

When manually painting areas that are difficult to tile, you can use a multiplicative mask to preserve the original paint job, and then easily manage the object by adjusting the gradation.

Adjusting the gradation

A blueprint for future game projects

With Substance Painter, the FFVIIR design team was able to create textures with a high level of detail thanks to the use of procedural tiling. With such a giant project ahead of them, they also needed to make asset production and management easy, which they accomplished using layers and by converting objects to smart materials and sharing them. With these discoveries and workflows, they now have a blueprint in hand for texturing effectively at scale, using tools that allow them a great deal of power and artistic freedom.

Looking back on the experience, the whole team is grateful they were able to establish a strong workflow and system of collaboration. As Kazeno says, the pressure of remaking FINAL FANTASY VII was immense, but with the right collaborators and toolset, they were able to achieve something great.

Characters in the game.

“In terms of appearance, it was difficult to find a balance between modern photorealism and the stylized designs of the original. I think we were both excited and uneasy every day, right up until the release date, about whether people would like what we had created,” he says.

“So, I was very pleased to hear many positive comments from people who’ve played the game.”

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