Nolimits 2 Materials: Specularity and the Shading model

The following is a tutorial for some of the more advanced features of Nolimits 2.

I’ve been guilty of doing this myself, but your method for creating materials in NL2 may well be to create a new material, add the diffuse and normal maps, take a step back and look in wonder at your lovely new texture:

A default normal-mapped texture

If that sums up your method, I’ll silently weep for you when I see your creations. But don’t worry, I suspect most of the people who are using bump mapped textures are doing this now. So, specularity might seem like an unusual place to begin for a series of material tutorials, but it is in one person’s humble opinion, the most important setting in getting a realistic appearance with your material.

NL2 Shading Modes

There are 3 main shading types in NL2:
3 shading modes

  • Constant – All pixels of the object are shaded the same colour, with no shadowing or other effects. Useful for anything that emits light (bulbs/filaments), or things only designed to be seen in-editor.
  • Simple – Affected by shadows and ambience, but otherwise the same colour throughout. The editor is largely correct in saying it’s for decals. Anything gaseous or particulate should use this mode. It also evidently does not like high-poly spheres
  • Lighting – Has both smooth shadow shading, as well as a specular highlight

Options such as Wave or Vertex lighting are essentially “manual” lighting control. Bump lighting is for the purposes of this tutorial identical to regular lighting, bump mapping will be explored in a future tutorial.

Explaining Phong Shading

Taking a look at the specular highlight “dot”, especially on abstract objects like the untextured sphere above, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, or at least, it doesn’t look like any real object. I’ll show some examples in the following section, but now I’ll take a look at what it’s simulating in terms of light waves.

Not all objects look “reflective”, i.e. the mirror finish we refer to when we use this term, but obviously, all objects reflect light, as light is reflected off the object and into your eye, allowing you to see it. This type of light reflection is called “diffuse reflection”, light rays hit the object and disperse more-or-less equally in all directions. this type of reflection is responsible for most of the sphere as we see it above.

When a surface is smooth enough, reflection occurs without scattering, and light is focused directly from the angle of incidence to the angle of reflection, allowing you to see a reflection.

In fact, and it’s not entirely surprising when you think about it in terms of light waves, every surface has both diffuse and specular reflection to some degree, specular reflection just usually occurs at a very specific angle of incoming light.

reflection of light on a surface
As a fun experiment, grab a piece of regular A4 printing paper and hold it perpendicular to your eyes, as if you were a tiny person stood in a giant field of paper. At the right angle, the seemingly matte paper will produce a reflection. If you could hold the paper flat in a very specific orientation, it would reflect like a mirror.

It’s this specific angle of reflection which is responsible for the specular dot we see. Light is reflected far more at this specific angle, usually, this dot is reflecting a light source, causing the white dot.

Phong shading includes an approximation of this effect, it is performed on every pixel on the surface, and at certain angles will cause the specular dot. Its formula for the specularity, if you are interested, is , where Theta is the angle of light hitting the object, and n is the “shininess value you’ve probably seen in the NL2MAT editor. Take a look at the graph for that formula:

sin of angle, power of shininess

Just imagine the height of the line to be the brightness of the specular dot, and you start to see how the formula forms the shape of the dot. full white in the centre and the curved edges cause the light to smoothly drop off around it.

Aside: An odd thing about the NL2 editor is that it allows a range of 0..128 for shininess, which is odd, seeing as sin^0 of anything is 1, meaning the specular highlight will completely engulf the object. Values of up to around 200 are often used in real-time graphics elsewhere. Ole plz fix.

Shininess

So, we know the “shininess” value in the NL2mat editor affects the size of that odd-looking white dot, we’ll take a look at various values for that now:
spheres of various shininess'

Despite allowing you to choose a shininess between 0 and 128, there aren’t any times you’d want to go below 4 or so, and interestingly enough there are times when you’d want to go higher than 128, but the allowed range is fine for most real objects. A high value would be reminiscent of a Malteser chocolate, and a low value might be reminiscent of a ball made of velvet. The reason for the slightly tortured comparison there is that low shininess materials often need to be combined with a lower specular colour, as they reflect less specular light in general.

Back to our texture

If you’d like to try this yourself, download the texture and mesh here

A default normal-mapped texture
Here’s our texture from before. The texture work isn’t too bad if you don’t mind me saying, but it looks noticeably wrong in some aspect. The highlights are completely blown out to white, (try find that in a photograph) which also exaggerates the detail in the bump map. Rookie Mistake: Your normal map won’t magically make a texture look 3D, so don’t try and make it do so, use meshes to add large detail to your materials, and bump mapping for minute detail.

Think about our shininess values from before. The rock clearly isn’t polished like a Malteser, but also doesn’t have the odd ‘all-over’ reflection of velvet. I went with a value of 8 (changes are more sudden at the lower end, so this is quite different to 4). I also reduced the specular colour to 70-grey, as the rock wouldn’t have much of a specular reflection at all. The result looked like so:

adjusted version of our old texture
Specular highlighting is still there, but it’s so subtle you only notice it when told it’s there; looking at the areas which were blown out white before, they’re now just gently brightened. This is now pretty realistic. Bump mapping looks a little harsh in the shadow, we can either smooth the normal map, or we can

increase the ambient colour (best to do this in the env, not the NL2MAT, as that’s a global change).

As one final experiment, we’ll change the rock to look like it’s been out in the rain. It’s going to gain shininess now. I chose a value of 96, which would be suitable for a rock that had been quite thoroughly rained upon. I upped the specular colour slightly to 90-grey, but be careful not to go overboard with that, in most cases we never want the specular highlight to be blown out to full white. I also darkened the diffuse colour a little, which helps give it a damp look. This isn’t necessary if your entire scene is wet, but if you have a dry and a wet version of an object near to each other, it will make the transition more believable.
adjusted version of our old texture

As before, subtlety was kept a priority. Specularity hasn’t wildly increased, but the highlights are now tighter, and more localised to the cracks and crevices of the surface, rather than the flatter areas, which wouldn’t be covered in a film of liquid.

An in-Scene Case Study

an example scene
If I asked you to describe the wooden floor shown below, hopefully, a word along the line of “polished” or “shiny” would come up pretty soon. This clearly isn’t some antique oak plank with cracks showing, it’s a smoothly finished modern flooring. In the past, I have jumped to conclusions with wooden textures. Wood isn’t reflective, besides, the NL2 wooden supports aren’t shiny, why would I make my floor shiny? Think about your materials not only in terms of the physical material they represent, but think of the various forms and finishes this material takes, and which one of these your texture map best represents. I also mixed in a little cubemap reflection, as seen on the far right, more on that later.

(shininess:64, specular colour:default)

You may have noticed, by the way, that there are several specular highlights in the floor here. Each light casts its own highlight on the surface. I haven’t created a light fixture model for this scene, but they’re omni lights placed directly between each beam, for reference.

an example scene
The plaster looks especially nice in motion. The broad specularity just looks like the light hitting the surface, but bumps in the surface still show noticeable highlights

(shininess:16, specular colour:50,50,50)

Concluding points

hopefully, that’s given you some things to consider when making your materials, and some new insight on how the shading model actually works. Some concluding hints to refer to when making your materials would be:

  • Think about the variations the physical material you’re mimicking can take. For example, don’t say “This is rock”, but “This is well eroded and smooth rock, but not polished”.
  • Set your shininess value to the right value before touching the specular colour, this will result in a more realistic result.
  • If in doubt, image search and find a reference photograph for the object. Spot the diffuse and specular reflections on the surface, and compare them to the examples I’ve shown.

If you have any questions or any specific materials you’d like suggestions for, comment below.

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