Tech talk: Quixel founder Teddy Bergsman
To mark the release of the hotly tipped Quixel Suite 2.0, Quixel’s founder and CEO tells us how he ‘ate gruel’ for seven months to develop a killer Photoshop texturing tool – and how he keeps ending up giving it away for free.
Of all the new firms to enter the CG tools market in the past five years, Quixel is perhaps the most talked-about. Its first product, the Photoshop-based normal-creation toolset NDO, was an instant hit on its release in 2011, and was quickly followed by DDO, a companion tool designed to handle common games texturing tasks.
Last year, updated versions of both plugins, plus new standalone model and material viewer 3DO, were released as Quixel Suite, while Quixel also announced that it was working on a new project, Megascans: a “new breed of material library” comprising a set of thousands of real-world materials scanned with the firm’s proprietary HDR surface capture technology.
Over that time, Quixel has built up a devoted user community, both for the quality of its tools and its habit of releasing older versions of the software for free – but has also attracted flak from some artists for its ‘done when it’s done’ attitude to updates. To some extent, the two share a common cause: until recently, the development team for Quixel Suite consisted of just one person: company founder and CEO Teddy Bergsman.
We caught up with Teddy to discuss how he came to launch Quixel, his early days “eating gruel’ in order to grow the fledgling company, his habit of giving away updates for free – and Quixel Suite 2.0: Quixel’s latest quantum leap, which reinvents its flagship product as a fully fledged 3D painting and texture-baking system.
CG Channel: How did you start developing your own tools?
Teddy Bergsman: It stemmed from a realisation that the existing processes for creating textures were too slow. I was working in my first industry job [as a texture artist at Starbreeze Studios], and I wasn’t talented enough to work efficiently in Maya, so I developed a tool to facilitate the process of creating hard-surface textures, just for myself.
A good friend of mine [Philip Klevestav, now senior environment artist at Blizzard Entertainment] caught me in the act of using that tool and got intrigued, and talked me into letting him test it. He’s basically the reason any of this happened, because one day, he came to me and said, “Hey Teddy, I made a guide for you up on Polycount, so you’d better post the tool now.” It took literally 30 seconds to come up with the name NDO.
There was a lot of interest, right from the start. I was surprised, because I didn’t like the tool at all. I thought it was too simple: it didn’t have much of a UI, and no 3D component – it was a basic Photoshop script.
CGC: So how did you get from that first script to where you are today?
TB: We decided to start Quixel. For seven months, we had basically nothing, so we ate gruel. After seven months we had what was the first [proper] iteration of NDO. And it exploded. A lot of people started using it right away. It was very exciting. Plus, we started to be able to feed ourselves again.
From then, we started building the next iteration of that tool, and DDO, the texturing tool we’ve been producing now for about two and a half years. Around that time, we also started working on Megascans, which is our biggest project. We’ve been working on it for five years as a company, and prior to that, I’d been working on the technology [at Starbreeze] for about four years.
CGC: How has Quixel grown as a company in that time?
TB: For the first version of the suite – NDO, DDO and 3DO – I was the sole developer. For Suite 2.0, we finally hired one more guy.
But we have a pretty big team – about 20 people – working on Megascans, and everything we make with NDO and DDO we put back into it. You could say I’m an investor in MegaScans as well as a developer.
CGC: All of the Quixel Suite tools work in Photoshop, rather than being standalone applications like Substance Painter or Mari. How much of a factor was that in their success?
TB: I think 80% of people using the tools are doing so because they’re Photoshop packages. People can get right into it: there’s not much of a learning curve.
It also allows us to develop tools pretty rapidly because we’re building on a very solid framework: one that people have been using for 20 years. And we can make use of any new features that Adobe releases. It becomes a nice collaboration.
CGC: When you released Quixel Suite, you gave the old versions of NDO and DDO away for free. Why?
TB: I felt that the original DDO had run its course, even though it had only been out a year. I had a strong feeling that procedural texturing could only go so far and I felt the urge to start something new, still under the DDO label, but that would have more longevity.
So DDO became a scan-based tool, essentially, for creating textures using scan data. I didn’t feel right having both versions out on the market, so I thought it would be nice to release [the legacy edition] for free.
It’s fun to see how many people are still using the old DDO – even though personally, I strongly advise against it. It now has hundreds of thousands of users [compared to over 60,000 for the paid version].
CGC: So what’s new in Quixel Suite 2.0?
TB: First of all, we’ve developed a very high performance 3D painting engine that allows for 8K painting [integrated into NDO Painter and DDO Painter, the latest iterations of NDO and DDO].
It’s a fully fledged painter that emulates all of the brushes and brush systems that Photoshop has, but in a 3D context. It ships with around 500 brushes we’ve made from scan data to cover any kind of painting scenario you could think of, and it has a slew of other features to facilitate a PBR painting workflow.
Another big feature is the new GPU baker in 3DO which enables you to bake maps instantly. That becomes important when you’re working with DDO because DDO uses a lot of different types of input maps to generate all of its wear and tear effects. What the user had to do manually before, we now do automatically. That’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.
Also, the UI is more streamlined. 3DO has persistent settings finally – you can set up cameras – and the UI is generally more performant. There are also a bunch of smaller things, like more intuitive licensing, better exporters, and better compatibility with offline renderers like V-Ray, Octane and Redshift.
CGC: One of the gripes people had with the original Quixel Suite was overall speed. How has that changed?
TB: It’s significantly faster. One of the major things that people remarked on when working at very high resolutions is that Photoshop drags down performance, so we’ve been working on ‘overclocking’ Photoshop and have made some significant breakthroughs there. It’s around 1,000-2,000% faster [than Quixel Suite 1.8].
CGC: What’s the largest asset the new painting engine can handle in real time?
TB: It starts chugging for us around five million triangles with four 8K groups – that is, four meshes, each has with its own 8K image. But it’s still manageable. And anything below three million polys will always be smooth.
CGC: What kind of hardware do you need for that?
TB: We had a beta group with around 300 testers, some of whom had very low-end machines, and they reported that it ran smoothly for them. In practice, you’ll probably need at least a [Nvidia] GeForce GTX 680 – I’m running it on my laptop with a 680M, and it’s super smooth.
CGC: And what kinds of maps can you bake with the new 3DO Baker?
TB: You can currently bake curvature, gradient, AO and object space normals. We’ll be adding colour map painting and tangent space normal map baking, and probably also density maps.
You can bake for high-poly, low-poly or low-poly with normals, and it works with a low-poly-to-low-poly bake: if you’re working on a mobile game where you just have a low-poly model and nothing else, you can bake a curvature map from that. Or if you’re working with League of Legends-style art, you can put in a low poly and a normal map, and it will bake curvature using both inputs. It’s pretty flexible.
CGC: What’s the state of play with Megascans?
TB: We’ve been in beta since January, but we’re doing different phases. We have so many materials – around 10,000 now – that it takes time to test everything. We got some great feedback from the first beta round, so we’ve improved the tiling, and that takes time to compile for 10,000 materials. Each data set is around 500GB.
Alongside that, we built the infrastructure for handling this huge [set of] data. That’s all in place, so we’re gearing up for the second closed beta phase. Megascans turned out to be such a massive, massive thing that we’re taking our time to make sure everything is working flawlessly when we release it. It’s our flagship product.
CGC: Do users get to see any of that work in Quixel Suite 2.0?
TB: All of the existing materials have been updated with the latest standards, and we’re adding more materials to it. It makes for 64 materials in total, around 16 of them new. And some of the old materials are being replaced with newer ones.
That’s just the base materials: with the smart materials – that is, those that use scan data to create an interactive weathered material – we’re adding 1,000 new ones
CGC: And once again, Quixel Suite 2.0 is a free upgrade for existing users. How come?
TB: I have a strong feeling that I need to give something to the community from time to time, because without the community, we’d be nothing. The tools are 100% based on community feedback.
People have been very generous with their time, so I feel that they deserve to get free updates, and since we’re not a huge company with millions of dollars to pay in salaries, we can do it without going bankrupt. For me, money has never been the objective. I can get by fine. And I’m not having to eat gruel any more.