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Creating Borderlands-style Materials in Substance Designer

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About the Artist:

Hello everyone! I am Şeref Atilla Gürbüz from Istanbul. I am an architecture graduate who has a keen interest and enthusiasm for texture and environment art.

It has become my passion by the time I wanted to try something different after graduating as an architect back in 2017.

Right now, I’m an MSc. Student that focused on Computational Design in Architecture which helps me a lot to further explore the digital design world and I always get my inspirations from the studies in university and vice versa.

For about a year, I have been creating materials in Substance Designer and trying to improve my skills, discover new techniques and so on. In this small article, I am going to tell about how I made my Borderlands inspired materials in Substance Designer. Please feel free to check my other work on Artstation or follow me on Instagram.

Finding the inspiration:

It’s always a bit frustrating if you don’t know where to start. Especially when you’re new to the sector and trying to improve yourself on your own.

I’ve always found very hard to just make the first move. As almost all the other artists do, I start the process by collecting references.

I mostly use Artstation and Pinterest to find inspiration and I check some Instagram channels daily but I don’t limit myself with that. I think the best way to find inspiration for a texture artist is being on the watch.

It doesn’t matter if you’re watching a movie in a festival or going for a hiking trip in nature or playing your favorite video game until you get bloodshot eyes, a part of your brain should be always working in the background, looking for new ideas about your future materials.

I first had the idea of making a cell-shaded material when I was watching Rick and Morty and I immediately started to collect some references online.

As you can easily guess, Borderlands’ art was one of the many things I came across and it ended up being mostly a Borderlands inspired material. So I decided to create my Sobel Filter in Substance Designer.

At that time, I was already working on a material series based on using the same heightmap to create different materials and that was the first time I tried making a Sobel filtering effect.

The first study on how to create Borderlands inspired material

After this, I decided to give it another try in a more sci-fi theme by re-working one of my previous materials which I got inspired by Andy Baigent’s caged foil material.

Preparing the heightmap:

While creating new material, a heightmap is always the first thing to do for me.

For the base shape, I wanted it to have a large cubic patterned frame with folded foil underneath it. For the frame, I used an Alveolus Node, tiling set to 1, and then offset it .375 on Y-axis and blended on top of the original node.

This gave me the basic cubic pattern, but now I had to make sure that foil should look like it’s compressed and clenched with the frame.


Heightmap nodes

First things first, I beveled and blurred the pattern so that I could create some depth for the foil.

Before adding the frame, I created the creases on the edges and blended it on top. After every detail on the foil is added such as damage, aging, smaller creases, larger folds etc. A metal frame is added on top. 


Heightmap creation process

Note: For the creases, I used starburst nodes with 12 branches, randomness around .2 to .35 and blur amount of 4 to 6.

Using two tile samplers blended on top and a map created from the cubic patterned frame to determine that they go underneath the frames.

Forming creases of the foil using Starburst nodes


Creating Sobel Filtering Effect:

Sobel Operator gives a result of outlines around the edges of the image and adding color gradients according to the height of the surface with gives me some extra similarity to Borderlands.

This effect should be made in game engines as a shader + post-processing scripts but trying to imitate it in Substance Designer was a personal challenge for me.

Sobel Filtering Effect Nodes

To create the outlines, I used heightmap and by using Normal Sobel, Curvature and Edge Select Nodes I created the outlines out of it.

The instance parameters of Edge Select nodes changed the height range of the outlines, so I repeated this step 4 times and blended them to fully cover all the height range.

Adding a last edge detect node before blending it with base color gave me Sobel filter result 

Sobel Filtering Effect Process: Height map to Outlines

Creating color gradients was simple where I just used quantisize grayscale and tweaked it a little more. At last, I blended the outlines and color gradients with multiply blending mode to the base color.

A few last touches with HSL and contrast / saturation finalized the base color.

Base color, height, roughness, AO, normal maps


Wrapping it up:

When you’re dealing with photorealistic materials you tend to use your normal, ambient occlusion, roughness and metallic maps rationally because you are trying to achieve a result that is close to real life.

Since I was reworking on one of my older materials and trying to make it Borderlands themed my work got somehow confusing.

I had all the details already such as dust, wear, scratches, micro details, normal details but something was off. When I finished my heightmap and base color, the material’s look started to shift between stylized and photorealistic but it was none of them.

Later on, when I spend lots of time tweaking it I realized that lowering the strength of normal and flattening the roughness a little bit was helping me a lot with achieving a more stylistic look. 

Normal map comparison: High strength / low strength

I used a basic Normal Sobel node with a strength of 1 and a little flattened roughness map.

For the ambient occlusion, there were no restraints as Borderlands was already using it and creating an ambient occlusion from heightmap helped with the overall feel.

Base color, height, roughness, AO, normal maps

Showing it off!:

After working on a material for days and finally completing it, the first instinct is to show everybody else why you couldn’t make it to the meeting last Friday.

Even though I want to just take my shots and post it up on Artstation and wait for feedback, I force myself to find a better angle and composition.

I usually use Marmoset Toolbag for rendering, this time I used Substance’s render engine. I took one of the built-in environments from Substance Designer and just edited it to some warm color and used one of the point lamps to give the extra contrast light from the other angle.

I changed height mode in material definition to tesselation then tweaked the scale and tessellation factor to create nice padding. Tweaking bloom, DoF, tone mapping and more in the camera settings is always the key element of a good render.

After everything is completed I take my shots and get the best ones to share online.

Final Render


I learned a lot while making stylized material and had so much fun writing this article.

I hope you all enjoyed reading and found it helpful.

You can always ask me questions or send some feedback about the material or this article via Artstation. Finally, I want to thank Stylized Station for reaching out and letting me share my workflow.

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