Updated: Aug 16
(Warning: Long post ahead)
If you’ve ever had a conversation with me about what I do, or asked me how my uni studies were doing, I probably didn’t answer you very well or I gave you a confusing reply. Explaining what I do as a game artist is very complicated as there are so many different things I actually do. Ignoring all the different roles there are in an actual studio, I’m going to try and explain what we do to create the art for games.
Making the artwork for a 3D game is essentially digital sculpting. There are some softwares we use for hard surface modeling and some for soft (organic) surface modeling. Hard surface modeling is anything with a hard surface; walls, guns, cars, robots, etc. The modeling needs to be precise and the edges need to be crisp enough and defined enough to add depth to the game. Soft surface modeling is anything that needs to be sculpted; flora, humans, clothing, etc.
For Hardsurface modeling we use programs such as Autodesk 3ds Max and Autodesk Maya, and Blender. For Soft Surface modeling we use programs such as ZBrush and Marvelous Designer (specific to clothing simulation).
Every artists method differs slightly, but the general process is…
For this blog I’ve decided to make a travel watercolour box to show you examples of the process. I wanted to make this box purely so I would have a compact box to put my watercolours in for taking on the go, but I couldn’t find anything on Thingiverse to 3D print. So the timing aligned perfectly.
The research phase is one of the most important parts of any project, it is used to get all of the details correct when making an asset. Artists will use any research they have done as a reference during any other phase of production. They can look back and find colours, shapes, and textures of any object. Research can be the difference between a piece being period accurate or seeming out of place.
Research is also used to keep the art cohesive, we all have different styles so having a research board and sharing that information keeps everyone on the same page. You don’t want to have an artist make low-poly models for 5 months only to find out that it’s a realistic game and none of the work can be used.
The research I did for the watercolour box started by looking on thingiverse for similar models. I could only find 2 other boxes that would work for watercolours. Most artists sell the watercolours in mint tins, but I hate the rounded edges, it gets rid of so much space you can use for traveling with supplies. The boxes I found online were nice but they all had sliding lids which I didn’t like, and they weren’t compact enough to fit in my pencil case. So I pulled out all my watercolour tins and chose features that I liked. I knew I wanted a square box that could fit 6 pans at most. Anything more and I would be too frazzled to choose what colours to put in the box itself.
Once you’ve built your mood boards and the discussions have taken place with everyone about art style and direction, it’s time to concept! Concepting is one of my weak points so I hand that off to others to do while I continue adding research and putting together mood boards.
Concept is the perfect way to show others what your ideas are for the art. You can have a Ming dynasty vase and explain till the cows come home about how you want to make it fit into a Steampunk style game. The best way to explain to someone is to show sketches, colour palettes, and just a general idea of what you’re envisioning through conceptingl. (I’m not going to even attempt that, sorry.)
Concepts can be as simple as silhouettes to outlines or as complex as photo bashed scenes to full detail art pieces. Also, for anyone who is confused, Photobashing means you take upwards of 3 images and literally bash them together in photoshop. I’m rubbish at it but there are some incredible artists who do it. I’ll leave a YouTube link so you can be in awe of them as much as I am.
For the watercolour box I took measurements of the mint tins for general scale and size. I also took measurements of the pans that hold the watercolour. I really didn’t need anything else. My sketch is crude but I knew exactly what I was getting at and since I could model it, I knew how I wanted it to look. If I were passing this design on to Luke to model without sitting next to him saying “I want this'', I would also give him a technical drawing with a few ideas on the side so he can make multiple variants for me to choose from. I’d maybe even add some notes for the mixing palettes about having the edges curved (we call this chamfering) or how many I want in the lid at the very least.
This is my favorite phase! When all the research and concepts are done, you finally get to model something! I’m more of a hands on-person so doing the research and making pinterest boards is alright, but not what I could spend hours doing at a time (sorry Gabi).
It’s hard to explain modeling without diving into a 6 hour lecture on every tool I use. So I’ve taken videos of me modeling the watercolour box.
Whenever I model, I start with basic shapes. Sometimes I’ll just sit there and play with the number of loops it has and “model” the asset in my mind. I do this a lot to save time and then I don’t need to go back and change things or start from the beginning. I’ve been modeling for 6 years and it’s taken a lot of practice to be able to do this, and I still get it wrong.
Look, if you’re new to 3D modeling, don’t be hard on yourself. It’s difficult. But, as I always say to my coworkers, hide the asset you’ve messed up on, and start again. The more times you make an asset, the better it will be. The highest number of times I have remade an asset/model was 7 times. It was a lamp for a scene I was making in my 3rd year of uni. I hid the bad ones, remodeled it, and by the 7th try, I had something I loved. I then quickly deleted the other ones after taking screenshots for my journal. Please don’t ask for them, I deleted them after I turned my assignment in. What I’m trying to say is, it’s ok to make mistakes. It’s ok to absolutely hate what you’re making, and it’s ok to start again. Chances are, when you’re modeling and making these mistakes, you are subconsciously thinking of a better way to do it. So just hide it and do it again! I believe in you!
After the initial modeling is done, we throw the assets into an environment we’re building to test scale. Now this is where it can be different for each artist. I usually pull in other assets from the environment, a door, a wall, a table, something I can use to judge scale. Then I model the prop next to it and test it in the engine against the whole scene. Some artists will completely model and then test the scale, or they will test it as they make large changes starting with the initial shape and maybe again when they’ve started adding in detail. The important thing is that we test it. I once made a uni dorm room for a VR game, tested it and it was tiny (VR scale is a whole new thing, trust me, it is not real world scale). Luckily I hadn’t unwrapped or textured anything so changing the size of everything was easy.
Now I can hear some of you say, “Can you change the scale in Unreal Engine 4”.... Look… if you ever do that and I find out, I will be mad. Yes, you can change the scale in the engine, BUT if you are using the prop in multiple places, you will be wasting so much time going around, finding the asset and re-scaling it. It’s a lot easier for an artist to just change the size once and let it be. You know who you are and what you’ve done (Zack (my brother)).
From here you either continue to unwrap or you remodel and adjust some bits. I didn’t test the scale of the watercolour box because I’m not putting it into a scene, I’ll be 3D printing it which will be my test for scale.
This. This is the dreaded part of being an artist that everyone hates… everyone except me :D This is the point of the project that I put on Pirates of the Caribbean for the millionth time and just work. (I’m not even joking, ask my friends from uni or my house mates).
Have you ever had an Easter egg that has a fun pattern on the foil, and you unwrap (Ha! Pun not intended) it carefully and flatten out the foil and the design looks kind of funky? That is what unwrapping a 3D model is. We are taking a 3D form, cutting it along the seams and flattening it so we can paint on it. We unwrap models because games read 2D images to translate the colours and textures onto 3D points on the model/asset. It is confusing, and messy, can take hours, and it leaves you with nightmares, but if you have the right software, it’s a breeze. I use RizomUV which is a program just for unwrapping, nothing extra, and it’s amazing! I can’t unwrap models any other way now.
I’ve added another video showing my unwrapping process. It won’t make any sense to you but you can watch me struggle to flatten a cube with an inset. Also, I did go back and add a small watercolour pan off camera, so you might see extra pieces on the unwrap map near the end.
So you know how I said everyone hates unwrapping but I love it? Well I hate texturing and everyone loves it. Ok, I don’t hate it, but I would happily pass all my unwrapped models on to other artists to texture. And usually I do it because I’m art lead and can delegate but also, everyone gives me their models to unwrap so it’s a win-win.
Texturing is a lot easier with Substance Painter, which is basically photoshop for 3D models. But when I started uni, I didn’t know what that was or that it existed so I was using Photoshop and if you don’t use Photoshop at least once to texture a model, you will never appreciate how easy Substance Painter is.
I’ve also taken a video of me texturing the watercolour box, it's nothing fancy, I just wanted to show you how we put an asset in and some basics. The number one rule for texturing in this program, once you have imported your model, bake the mesh! Baking takes all the 3D information, details, shadows, etc. and (for lack of a better term) bakes it down onto the 2D unwrap you’ve created. So all the 3D information you can see with your eyes is transferred over so the programs can detect it.
I use fill layers and masks to texture: 1. Because it’s easy to colour the whole unwrap map and tell it specifically where to show the colours and 2. Because I can go back and change the colour easily.
With the paint layer, you have to choose a colour, paint what you want and that’s it. If you want to change the colour you have to find the colour and re-paint everything. But you can’t go back to a previous colour. There might be an update I’m missing that stores colours you’ve used (I doubt it, that would be too easy), so I do it this way.
There are a load of presets in Substance already that you can just drag and drop, but I enjoy building things from the ground up. Base colour, textures, details, everything. I do use the presets if they fit nicely. The one I use the most is a wood effect which I use for door frames and floor boards. It has a lot of realistic details in it that I can just edit to the way I need.
Rendering/Placing in Engine
The final step is to either render the asset to show off in a portfolio or to put the asset and its textures in an engine ready for the environment artist and level designer to place in the scene. I have done neither of those because this blog is already so long, and I 3D printed the boxes.
As you can see, the first attempt at printing wasn't the best. The box was slightly too big on one end and too short on the other and the watercolours were popping up in the middle. Also, I couldn't put the lid on. Luke did and then we couldn't get it off for 10 minutes. So I went back and adjusted the size of the models and re-printed.
The second print was perfect! We did run out of white filament so we had to splice in the gold (I'm honestly surprised that worked). Now I have 2 travel watercolor boxes I can take anywhere. And I can choose between 4 and 6 pans. I hope this clarifies what game art is, it's a lot of planning and research with a lot of digital work but it can be a lot of fun. I'll be doing a more in depth post about the diffrent types of job roles there are in a studio later but if there's anything you want to know or read about, let me know in the comments.
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As always, thanks for reading and see you next week!