Sorry for the lack of news. Aside from my previous excuses of (chiefly) fatherhood and other issues delaying my progress in updating the asset pack, I now have another reason for the slow progress.
I have a job. Not another freelance short-term contract type of job but a full-time position as Video Games Development teacher at Totton College, near where I live in the South of England.
It all happened very quickly as their previous teacher left abruptly just before the start of the teaching year. Apparently he was quite inexperienced and a recent university graduate himself. I heard about the job on a Friday, interviewed for the position on the Monday and started work on the following Thursday. So my head is still spinning. I’m trying to adjust to the new circumstances as I’ve never taught at this level before: university – yes; college – no. I need to get on top of things so I can plan the year’s units and start teaching to a plan. At the moment I’m teaching by instinct and simply throwing information at the students.
Speaking of which, the students are great, the college is great, the facilities are excellent and the staff are very friendly and helpful.
So what kind of impact will this have on my Unity Store assets? Well, I was nearing the point of being able to release a new version with PBR shader assets but I didn’t quite get to making all the new texture versions. That will now be delayed a few weeks as I shift priority to getting on top of this job. Once I do then I’ll try and get the new PBR version out there.
Longer term I think it means that I will have to plan my releases to coincide with the long-ish holidays that this job affords. I’m using the assets as a teaching tool and as such I’ll build on it and expand the asset family over time to help the students and my paying customers. Luckily for me the college course I’m teaching uses Unity3D. Hurrah!
After that last post I took a break. Something I’ve needed for quite some time. I’ve been burned out for a while so some rest and time with the family was much needed. After a week or so I got back to it. Was it really over a month ago? Time has flown.
Well, what have I been doing all this time? Many things, but mainly I’ve been mired in technical issues with Substance Designer. I know I’ve posted about this before, but essentially (to keep it short) I’ve been seeking a workflow that will realistically let me convert all the assets in the pack to PBR so that Unity 5 and Unreal Engine 4 can use them to the fullest while being sympathetic to authoring substances that end users can tweak. By this I mean create custom colours, add custom decals and add degrees of damage and dirt to taste.
It’s a big ask and a major update so it is taking a while.
Work on the addition of substances to the asset pack has been challenging. Substance Designer, as I’ve previously stated, is very powerful. Furthermore it is a great thing to be able to put a range of customisable options in the hands of the end user. The reality, for me (the dev), is that all this power takes a bit of wrangling to get right.
Substances can be complex. The more complex they are usually points to how customisable they are, and thus how useful. The complex the beast, the more fragile it becomes. For example, I have now discovered that I need to avoid using some of SD’s new node features (version 5) if I am to use published substances in Unity 4.x. That’s not too bad. It amounts to about four new blend node modes. No big deal, I just wish I had known that instead of having to ‘discover’ it when my substances wouldn’t import.
Rather more serious is the fact that it appears that even with my deprecating some SD features I cannot use them in my original target Unity base version – 4.3. They flat out refuse to import. Version 4.5 of Unity, however, works fine. So I am faced with the decision of having to drop support for Unity earlier than version 4.5, which is a great shame. It could also lead to problems for some of my customers.
If any of you happen to be using the assets in Unity in a version under 4.5 then please let me know and I will try and work something out for you.
In the mean time here’s a shot of the barrel getting some substance wear and tear in Unity 4.5
I was all set to leave the environment pack for a while. I’d been working on it for so long I needed a break.
While working on, and enjoying, the character design process for the synth security droids (see posts below) I began to grow uneasy.
It felt bad to release the environment pack but not follow up, as soon as possible, with an update. Great, the assets may be, but they can always do with improvement. I have a roadmap for where I want the pack to be in a few months. I will be increasing the price accordingly, as I add value to reward the early adopters.
One area I felt was lacking was support for Unity 5’s shiny new PBR standard material.
I’d started work on the pack way before PBR had gained such traction in game engines as it does now. Back then it seemed best to develop and write my own custom shaders – which I duly did, and they ship with the pack.
As good as those shaders are, they are old tech and Unity 5 has been out a while now. Other developers on the Asset Store are converting their assets to U5 so mine will look a bit dated (already!) if I don’t move quickly.
Happily this move to update to PBR dovetails nicely with something I’d planned to do all along: Substance support.
I’ve used Substance Designer from the start of this project (since version 3, in fact) and I love it. I love the node-based workflow and how solid and non-destructive it is. The learning curve is steep but the rewards are great.
So the textures that I develop for all my assets are usually baked (normals) then assembled into Photoshop. I link the Photoshop file to Substance Designer and start a graph to develop the texture maps I’ll assign in the game engine. The only thing missing is to allow my users to teak those textures.
This requires unleashing the full power of SD, not just as a texture map tool but as a conduit to allow artists and designers to tweak and customise game assets – in the game editor itself.
The pictures here reveal some of the process and the difficulties I’ve been encountering. It turns out that my way of working when I was merely using it to make textures is quite inefficient when it comes to exposing parameters to end users for tweaking.
All of the screen grabs shown here use my space barrel prop as an example. My early graph shows the stepped left-hand side to the graph showing my ‘layering’ approach to building up my texture.
It worked wonderfully well but restricts the workflow a bit when it comes to integrating weathering effects, which I’d like to offer to users. Changing the colour and roughness/smoothness of materials is quite straightforward. See the shot of the new barrel variants lined up in Unity.
That didn’t take very long. The custom decals took the most time.
The other graph show a messy work-in-progress version of the barrel that is easier to manage and, surprise surprise, mimics Allegorithmic’s own workflow pattern.
Not everything is shown in the one graph, however. There are other, simpler, nested graphs unseen. So the node count will possibly be comparable with my earlier effort but, I hope, it’ll be easier to work with.
The end result of all this will be that end users will have assets that can easily switch between using my custom traditional shaders, the new PBR standard shader PLUS! the ability to customise the look of the assets to an almost infinite degree. A fairly substantial update, I’m sure you’ll agree.
The droids will take a back seat until this update is released.
Soon I hope.
Wow! My appeal for reviews and ratings for the asset pack in Unity’s store has had quite a response.
Many thanks to everyone who took the trouble to click on those stars and jot down a few words. I’m very grateful.
You guys are great!
Work on the synth droids is slow. Life is getting in the way, as usual, but I’m hopeful that progress will accelerate. One of the things that has slowed me down (not family related) has been a ‘re-tooling’ on my part.
The screen grabs you will have seen in a previous post were from ZBrush, which is a new package to me. So I’m essentially getting up to speed with everything it can do. My previous experience with sculpting packages has been the excellent, and free, Sculptris. Now it is also part of the Pixologic stable of programs. But I’ve probably done most of my sculpting in Mudbox over the last few years, but never in anger – not for a ‘live’ project. We teach Mudbox to the students at Solent University on the Computer and Video Games degree course in the South of England. So I knew it well enough to really enjoy it (it is a great program) and to be able to teach it to the students.
My experience with creating game characters is a little dusty. In short, at the start of my career in games (at the end of the nineties) I was an animator and character artist. Gradually I because more of a technical and lead artist, and if I did do much asset creation myself it was, more often than not, environments. So I missed out on the great sculpting revolution that has occurred since then with ZBrush leading the way. Now I want to create characters again it is a real pleasure to use these tools.
I wanted to make sure I was using the right tool. Mudbox is great to work with; it has a fantastic interface and excellent sculpting ‘feel’ (something really important) BUT, and its a big but, it needs decent base meshes to avoid stretching out the polys during a sculpt. If you are freestyling and want to push your sculpt in a radical direction you start to encounter problems. There are work-arounds. The new(ish) retopology tools in Mudbox are good. They solve some of this issue. The thing is they don’t solve it nearly as well as ZBrush with the amazing Dynamesh and Zremesher combo. Amazing! So fluid, it hardly interrupts the workflow.
I also felt I had to explore 3D Coat as I have trusted friends who use it and swear by it. I tried it and liked it. The voxel sculpting and live clay tools are equivalent (nearly) to the ZBrush tool set. You don’t feel restricted on ‘form’ like you do in Mudbox. However, what let it down for me (and your experience may differ) was that the ‘feel’ of the brushes was patchy. Performance in ZBrush and Mudbox was good, for me. Sculpting was silky smooth with almost all brushes. But 3D Coat, I found, had some brushes that performed well, with very fluid ‘feel’, while others were unusable. It’s a shame because many aspects of the package are great.
So that’s a very long-winded explanation of why I’m taking my sweet time. It’s a big decision, choosing the right tool. It’s a pity that ZBrush’s interface is such a nightmare to learn. Another reason progress is sluggish.
I’m reflecting upon sales of the assets in the Unity store.
When I first got the idea to sell some assets in the store it was quite some time ago. At that time there didn’t seem to be much in the way of competition. There were some high quality assets packs of the sci fi persuasion out there, most notably from the excellent Manufactura K4, but even his pack was of the classic dirty, industrial sci fi look. So in choosing the clean look I thought my assets could stand out.
It’s my own fault. Too much time has passed and now there are plenty of other assets competing for screen space in the store pages. It’s tougher to stand out. Like any on-line store, assets are sorted by attribute chosen by the user: by date; by rating; by name; by popularity. When you click through to the category you are interested in (3D Models/Environments/Sci-Fi in this case) the default attribute for the page sort is by ‘Popularity’. So naturally this makes it the most important ‘sort’. If you are on page one for this sort then your asset will be seen first. First in the queue is always best. It takes more work to click through and sift out what you want so naturally the assets near the top get more clicks. Its not because people are lazy, it’s just that we are all restricted by time. Many customers of the store are keen hobbyists so they are doing this in their spare time – time which might not be plentiful.
So, from the publisher’s perspective, how do you get more clicks and thus more sales? Because if you don’t get more clicks and sales then soon your asset sinks down to the bottom of the pile. That is very dispiriting, especially if you have sunk a lot of time into an asset like I have. What to do?
Well, I can’t do anything about sort by ‘Name’. That’s not a criteria which matters much to buyers. It’s important to give your assets a descriptive and memorable name but simply choosing something like ‘Aardvark Acme Sci Fi Pack’ just to get to the top of the list is silly.
Sort by ‘Date’ is really out of my hands. If I update frequently then it keeps the asset ‘young’ which is a good thing, and something I intend to do. I’m working on version 1.1 now.
‘Popularity’ is plainly based upon a mysterious algorithm used by Unity based upon (I’m guessing) sales, ratings, review count and even clicks. So its easy to see how people with assets near the top of this list are likely to stay there, unless they let their asset stagnate and do not provide updates regularly. A young asset like mine is going to have a hard time climbing this ladder, which is depressing as it is the most important.
Lastly sort by ‘Rating’ is something that I can hope to improve upon. I’ve made a good quality asset (I think) so I think it deserves high ratings. (I hope that doesn’t come across as arrogant. I just think I do need to believe strongly in my product and project that to potential customers, and I have the experience in game art production to back that up.)
I’ve been lucky so far, in as much that two users agree with me and are kind enough to give me reviews with 5 stars. Thanks guys!
If I can get more users to give me 5 star ratings then my asset pack will climb the sort by ‘Rating’ ladder. Looking at the asset store, by my calculations, I think I need another 2-3 five star ratings to really make a difference.
Of course I cannot contact my customers directly. For obvious reasons buyers details remain anonymous. But I can at least appeal here to anybody reading this who has bought my Clean Sci Fi asset pack to take the trouble to post a rating/review (however short). Please make it a 5 star rating!
That’s very cheeky isn’t it? There’s a good reason why I’m asking this, besides the obvious. Looking at the sort by ‘Rating’ ladders it is obvious that if your average review rating dips below 5 then you cannot possibly make page one. No chance. If I have just one four star review then my rating prohibits me being on that crucial page. Everyone on page one has five stars.
Now, I don’t want anyone to be dishonest. If you are loving the assets and think it deserves five then your conscience is clear. For those of you who want to help but cannot, in all honesty, give it five stars then please do contact me (either by commenting here or emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org) and tell me what would make it five stars for you. If I can I will respond to that feedback and try and make it worthy in your eyes.
20th May: Just a quick addendum. If anyone out there really likes the asset pack but just doesn’t want to have to compose a review, it turns out you don’t have to write anything after all. At least, not if you don’t want to. In the Asset Store/Downloads page where you have the entry for my asset pack and the option to download/import into Unity there is also a row of 5 stars. Simply click on the stars to set your rating.
Just published a short playlist of videos to support the asset pack.