General advice simplifying material design

I’m currently working on my first test game. I want a work a game from beginning to end to get the feel for it. I’m designing for VR. I have a degree in animation, have done some modeling in the past, and even built some simple games when I was a teenager. So, I do have a basic tool set, albeit mostly rusty, that puts me slightly above beginner.

The reality has set in at just how time consuming asset building can be. I know I need to stick with a simple and stylized approach if I plan to build entire environments in a reasonable amount of time. Luckily, with the great lighting in UE4, I think you can achieve some really nice looking scenes with simple designs. That’s my strategy moving forward.

I’m looking for opinions on the material stage of design. This is where I have the littlest experience. I know that intricate high poly meshes are out of the question. (For two reasons - the time drain, but I’m also not convinced that complex normal maps look very convincing in VR - downright ugly sometimes). My focus will be on fairly simple low-poly design that I can get textured out fairly quickly.

I’ve played with dDO and am thinking of making the purchase. While it produces more complex/busy diffuses than I am imagining, I like how you can get some nice spec and roughness maps that will help define surfaces. (Augmented with a toned-downed version of the diffuse maps, selectively placed). Now, here are some random questions on the design/workflow I’d be happy with any input in:

Would it be a good idea to create simple normal maps for little details like rounded corners, etc? Is it fairly easy to create a high-poly from a low-poly without having to retopologize the original mesh?

Can I get nice results in dDo without a normal map?

In UE4, is it necessary to bring in a AO texture (baked out in modo, enhanced in dDo) for a static item - or will the engine’s lighting make achieve the same result.

What is the quickest way to get a simple material bake in MODO that I can use in dDo?

As far as UV mapping is concerned, is it best to have each poly separated in an atlas projection for the lightmap layer? What gives you the best UE4 bakes?

I’ll sure a million other questions will arise I start working, but am just looking for some advice as I’m getting started. For those of you creating a fully-realized project as a single person or small team, what have you done to simplify the asset creation process?

  1. could be, depends on the look you are going for. depending on software it is fairly easy to create a highpoly with rounded corners from a lowpoly. there are modifiers for that in max and modo offers a fairly robust shader with which you can “fake” rounded corners and bake them to a normal map without any real changes to your lowpoly(max/maya has that too, but modo’s seems to be the most robust). the whole process depends very much on the look you are going for, so any examples would be very helpful.

  2. depends on what you consider to be nice. if you want dDo to know where the exposed edges are you will need some way to create a curvature map(sometimes called cavity map as well, but that doesn’t really describe what it is too well). dDo does this automatically if you supply it a tangent space map(maybe world space too, not sure) but you can get a curvature map with other approaches too(xNormal, shaders for max/maya, etc…)

  3. not necessary, but it helps since the engine’s AO solutions usually do not capture fine details very well, so if you want detail AO that responds to the lighting you’ll have to supply the engine with a baked AO.

  4. no idea, don’t use modo

  5. it is most definitely not best to have each poly seperated, as the low resolution for the lightmap texture will most certainly introduce artifacts with that. you generally want to have the areas that will most likely receive continous lighting connected and keep the splits to edges with sharp angle changes. there are a lot of edge cases where you’ll have to adjust according to your needs. Unwrapping UVs for Lightmaps | Unreal Engine Documentation

  6. automate as much of the process as possible. smart modifier stacks in 3ds Max is something i’ve been using a lot on the modeling side. dDo/substance designer are very good tools for the texturing side of things. keep things very modular and re-use things where possible(meshes, material functions, etc). helps to keep the look unified as well.
    most important thing is discipline though. decent amount of planning helps, but don’t overplan. getting burned out before having actually started sucks :wink:

I’m late responding, but wanted to thank you for the reply. Very helpful and much appreciated, Divi!