Layered materials isn't anything particularly new in terms of layering multiple textures on top of each other and blending them in something like Photoshop or Paintshop to get a desired look. However, layered materials as an in-engine pipeline tool hasn't really been explored in many engines, until now.
The Unreal Engine 4 now sports layered materials for specular, bump and normal mapping, as well as for additional shader, shadow and lighting effects. Designers and artists alike will be able to combine, layer and pool art assets over a single object without having to worry about individually modifying existing assets to get a desired look.
You want your chrome to have a dirty metal look? No problem. You want your wood panel laced with a glossy glass covering... as a freaking texture? Done and done. How about adding a steep parallax logo to your space-worn rocket with a displacement look to it? Well, watch the video and see it done in real-time.
Dual Shockers spotted the new video from Epic Games, which details how the layered material function work and I have to say that this feature could be a real game changer in the way we view some materials being used in games to give specific aesthetic looks to characters, levels and objects.
Now, as mentioned at the top of the article... this kind of material layering isn't necessarily new, but how you can use it is new. Being able to combine certain material elements together without necessarily having to remove the old material or edit existing material is pretty cool. It certainly cuts down on having to design new assets if you want a certain mixed-material look. Even compared to the old method of taking existing materials and blending them on a single mat in a photo manipulation program is made easier with the new layered material option here.
The cool part about this is that this will greatly reduce a lot of work for smaller teams and help streamline some asset management for art directors on larger teams (assuming bureaucracy over color grades and object representation doesn't get in the way).
My only concern with this feature is that I hope we don't get more grays and browns littering games with “better” material blending. This kind of feature opens up a massive opportunity to explore some extremely interesting visual concepts in the way game assets can be made and displayed (especially with the built-in inclusion of global illuminated lighting). I would imagine that the benefits experienced by gamers on the visual front may not actually come into play until second generation UE4 games are made.
Still, Epic has opened up a lot of great opportunities for developers with the Unreal Engine and this means better looking games that take less time to make and require fewer asset transitions to get them looking great.