Weathering and aging effects in the hand of artists

Version : 1.1 – Living blog – First version was 04 May 2014

With permission of Dontnod entertainmenhttp://www.dont-nod.com/

It is now frequent in game to have dynamic weathering and aging effects: Rain, snow, dirt, rust, dust, pollution… Most of the time these effects are drive by programmers because they require specific code like access to a custom shadow map or perform by a full screen space post process. Before leaving Dontnod I was working on a feature to allow artists to handle themselves these kind of effects. At the time we were requiring a lot of effects and I wanted to allow artists to prototype as much idea as they can. This post will provide explanation of this feature and will give implementation details under the Unreal Engine 4. It aim to work with a deferred rendering engine. These weathering and aging effects feature has been use at Dontnod but there is some pitfalls which may prevent to use it effectively in a shipping game. It all depends on the scale of the game and performance expected. I hope by exposing this idea that others could improve the system 🙂

I thanks Dontnod to allow me to talk about it.

 The weathering and aging effects

We know from graphic literature that a lot of weathering and aging effects can be done through surface properties modification [1]. Of course using complex multi-layered lighting model is the right way to handle it but it is way less flexible, will require a programmer to code every effects, and it will be difficult to get right regarding all supported lights type (like image based lighting or area lights).

As an example, the wet surfaces appearing when it is raining could be simulated with material properties modification: Roughness, diffuse albedo, normal… I talk a lot about this subject in other posts on this blog (see water drops series). However these modifications should be done only were it matter. When it is raining, you don’t want your interior surface to be wet. In Remember Me, we were handling this by adding some extra code in the shaders to modify the surface properties, then artists were vertex painting the part of the surfaces requiring to be dry. But this was not sufficient to handle all cases of wet surface. For example, a player walking in a wet street could, once he get into a dry interior, will let wet footprint on the ground. This could have been simulated with decals.

Taking another example, in Kill zone 4: Shadow fall [2] they perform a full screen space pass to modify the material attributes where normal are pointing up to add dust where it matter (after an explosion for example).

GBuffer modification

Thinking with a deferred renderer in mind, it is possible to identify a set of desired control for artists allowing them to modify material properties and simulating a weathering or aging effect. These controls are perform with GBuffer modification with:
– Deferred decals
– Full screen space quad. I call it material postprocess.
– Deferred effect lights: These are same as lights with shadow map or not, except they behave like deferred decal. The amount of light being use as opacity for blending operation. Soft shadow map also allow smooth transitions between effects.
– Object shaders: Properties will be modified directly at GBuffer generation time in the shader of the object. So this require specific code in each shaders. User could use vertex painting to bring information for an effect.

Every tools will perform some material properties modification to simulate an effect, like darkening the diffuse and boosting the smoothness for wet surfaces. All the GBuffer modification must be done before the lighting pass to be taken into account.

Applying the material property modification for the GBuffer modification control could be done in two ways.  Most common case is to use hardware blending, but it could be too restrictive. The other case is to use read/write ability into the same textures (a.k.a prorgammable blending). Sadly this ability is not widely supported. The PS4 and Mantle support it for example, DX11 doesn’t (I don’t talk about intel’s pixel synchronization but simple read/writing the same pixel).

Delaying the GBuffer modification

To support every platform and to be able to do any customization of material properties, I perform the modification of material properties in an extra full screen pass. Effectively delaying the GBuffer modification. Rather than modifying the GBuffer, the different tools simply output an effect weight inside the GBuffer. This effect weight is read later in the extra pass to apply the effect. There is multiple benefit to do that:
– Applying only one time the effect could save performance for heavy effect
– Accumulating effect weights could allow to clamp it in the delayed pass in order to limit the strength of an effect
– Centralized place to deal with the effect. Easier to author.
Sadly it will require to store the effect weight in the GBuffer.
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