3D Character Modeling Techniques Industry Leaders Should Know

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Because you’re a business leader, knowing the different 3D modeling techniques your artists use to build video games might not be on your list of priorities.

But having a basic understanding of what your team does can help you look at your video game project with better informed eyes. It can enlighten you on the workflow behind game development. And it can even guide you in providing your artists the right kind of assistance they need.

What’s more, you can finally grasp the mysterious and taxing work done by your 3D artists on a regular basis. These 3D modeling techniques for video games are simple, and we’ve broken them down with the help of our professional 3D artists. 

But first, you need to keep the following processes in mind as they make up the fundamental pipeline of 3D game art creation:

  • High-poly modeling: This 3D modeling process makes a game asset look as high-resolution or as close to its intended form as possible.
  • Low-poly modeling: Otherwise known as optimization, low-poly modeling ensures game assets seamlessly move within and around the game environment by lowering the polygon count without sacrificing asset quality.
  • Texturing: Texturing adds distinctive characteristics to a game asset’s surface, giving it a rough or smooth, hard or soft, and pale or vibrant appearance. Coloring is also a part of this 3D modeling process.

If this introduction sounds a bit daunting, don’t worry! Expect this article to explain everything simply yet comprehensively. Plus, we’re going to zero in on one type of 3D game asset — the game character.

So without further ado, these are the common 3D character modeling techniques, according to NarraSoft’s digital artists.

3D Modeling Techniques for Characters in Video Games

While varied and numerous, the 3D modeling techniques game artists generally employ when crafting characters can be narrowed down to the following:

  • High-polygon modeling or sculpting
  • Retopology
  • Texturing

These terms may sound foreign to you right now, but we’re going to give you accessible explanations for them in the succeeding sections.

High-Polygon Modeling

If you’ve ever wondered how your artists create visually stunning characters that appear nearly lifelike, then you need to get acquainted with this first step in the 3D character creation pipeline. Aligning with the character’s intended visual aesthetic, regardless of game art style, is the objective of high-polygon modeling.

High-polygon modeling, or hi-poly modeling, is the 3D modeling technique where digital artists meticulously define the physical attributes of a game asset and determine how lighting affects its surface, making it one of the foundations of physically based rendering (PBR).

What makes the resulting output so lifelike is the number of polygons that make up the character. According to our 3D artists, one character can reach up to 5,000,000 polygons.

As the name suggests, hi-poly modeling requires a high volume of polygon count. The higher the number of polygons, the greater the level of detail will be. Think of these polygons as 3D pixels, which are more accurately referred to as “voxels,” the building blocks of a 3D digital sculpture.

Because a hi-poly model can house millions and millions of voxels, you can imagine how slow a game will run should this hi-res version go straight inside the game engine. It contains too much data, making a hi-poly model inside a video game less than ideal. 

So what do artists do? They create an optimized version of the intricately detailed 3D game character without doing away with quality.

Retopology

Speed is a crucial — and even determining — factor in video games. However, a game could underperform because of the scale of its graphics, as it’s heavy on the device’s RAM.

To fix this issue, digital artists create a low-polygon or low-poly version of the dense, hi-poly model through retopology.

Retopology turns a hi-poly model into a low-poly version by converting the topology (surface) of a 3D character into one that’s cleaner and more pliable. It’s done by manually constructing larger polygons — or faces in this context — onto the surface of the original model.

Some of the core changes retopology does to a dense 3D model are:

  • Giving the model less polygons
  • Reducing the hi-poly model’s file size

It’s an effective way to make 3D game characters less data-heavy, more flexible, and well-suited to gameplay. But the extent of retopology’s value goes beyond simply optimizing 3D characters in terms of how much storage they consume. This 3D modeling technique also makes animation possible.

Why Retopology Matters

Because of its high count in polygons, a hi-poly model can be likened to a rigid structure made of very tiny Lego blocks. It’s a breathtaking representation of a 3D character, but other than admiring its design, there’s little else you can do.

By retopologizing a hi-res 3D character, digital artists give animators and game programmers an easier time bringing the asset to life and into the game. This is what makes retopology so vital to creating organic or moving assets. 

So, what are the other advantages of retopology besides reducing file size?

  • Animators will be able to rig and manipulate character models better.
  • Integrating 3D character models into a game becomes faster.
  • Retopologized models have better topology flow.
  • It enables 3D characters to adhere to real-world physics.
  • Retopologized models are the most suitable for video games.
  • Overall, it makes gameplay more enjoyable for the user.

Texturing

Now that the character’s been converted into something a game engine can use, albeit with a low resolution, you’re probably wondering what the point was of hi-poly modeling.

Of course, designing characters doesn’t stop at retopology. While retopologized (or low-poly) models are the ones that make it into the game, their low-resolution features are the things that don’t.

So, after creating hi-poly models and then optimizing them, digital artists will then overlay the details from the hi-poly model onto its low-poly counterpart through UV mapping and texture baking.

UV Mapping & Texture Baking

UV mapping tells the software application where to place the hi-poly model’s texture. Digital artists first delineate parts of the retopologized model. In doing so, the computer knows exactly where to transfer the hi-res texture, which then becomes the retopologized model’s new skin.

After this, texture baking occurs. In texture baking, the computer transfers only the skin of the hi-poly model, not the polygons that make it. It’s through this process that the retopologized model is able to maintain the character’s hi-res appearance and PBR.

These processes work hand in hand to ensure a character satisfies a video game’s requirements in both a technical and visual sense. However, texturing doesn’t end here.

Because in texturing, adding base colors, roughness, ambient occlusion, and other qualities must be done to truly polish up the character. These additional data visually communicate more about the character’s story.

Do they sport metallic armor? Or do their clothes show signs of wear? Do they look sickly and pale, or luminous and striking? All these attributes build toward the 3D character’s narrative. Once these are addressed, only then can the artist say a part of their work is complete.

In Summary

In developing 3D character for video games, digital artists often use the following techniques:

  • High-polygon modeling or sculpting: intricately details the 3D character’s structure
  • Retopology: optimizes dense 3D models for gameplay
  • Texturing: adds final touches to the 3D character

Need More Artists Who Know the Different 3D Character Modeling Techniques for Video Games?

NarraSoft’s 3D artists have years of 3D modeling experience under their belt! We’ve created 3D game characters and award-winning work for our clients in the past. And we want to do the same for you. 

So if you want to work with our team or augment your digital art team, reach out to us today! Email us at sales@narrasoft.com or send a message our way using our chat box or contact form. Let’s bring your game to the next level!

Justine Jordan

Justine Jordan is a content and copy writer. She has written for a popular business daily in the Philippines and for various startups across the globe before transitioning to work for NarraSoft. She graduated cum laude from the University of the Philippines-Diliman with a bachelor's degree in journalism.