Trends in the 3D Art Production Pipeline for Games 2014

Predominantly, job growth for 3D artists is in the interactive and video game industry. Therefore, the main focus for my research was in preparing art for these particular areas of application. However, digital 3D art production for all industries tends to have many overlapping similarities, so what I learned proved to be useful for film, previsualization, print advertising and games. I placed a “game changer” icon next to topics that are recognized as a significant advancement in methodology.


image001There is a rapidly growing trend to model (or sculpt) a high poly model in a digital sculpting/painting software program like Mudbox™ or ZBrush™ and then retopologize it into a low-poly model and lastly, UV unwrap it. I can clearly see this new method as a more logical approach. As an artist, you might set out to make something cool and have no concern for technical restrictions. Now, with this new method, artists can settle into their “right-brain mode” to simply be creative, and give the mathematical left-brain a break!  [See the following heading “Ready-Made Art Assets” for more developments in this area.]

UV Unwrapping

In the last several years, the previously dreaded task of unwrapping a model in order to texture it has become a lot easier, thanks to many newly released and improved tools. I spent some time exploring a core group of these new tools to determine if Santa Ana College’s 3D Modeling and Animation Certificate program needed to incorporate yet another software package into curriculum. I happily confirmed that our program’s current 3D Studio Max’s™ unwrapping tools have evolved to the point where a third-party software solution is not necessary.  

image001An Alternative to UV Unwrapping: PTex is a texture mapping system developed by Walt Disney Animation Studios. It requires no unwrapping of models and has no seams. However, it is not yet supported in game engines. There is, though, a work-around; you can sculpt and paint in the 3D sculpting software using the PTex UV system. Once done, build a simple low-poly version using the retopologize tools (now available in Mudbox™, ZBrush™ and even 3DS Max™). Next, unwrap the model. Finally, bake the sculpted layer (aka displacement maps) and the paint layers from the high-poly version with the PTex mapping coordinates onto this low-poly version and you are done!  


image001“Physically-Based Rendering” (PBR) supported Game Engine

Game engines and some pre-rendering engines (for film) are adopting a new technological advancement called “physically-based rendering”. The program relies on the PBR to calculate correct properties on a material, based on inputs made by the artist about the reality of the material (e.g. leather, metal, etc.). It allows for a more consistent and realistic look under different lighting conditions. This is good news! However, due to this new rendering algorithm, artists must learn to understand how to create their materials (texture maps and shaders) for this new technology. Basically, these are the materials that need to be generated: image002

For a clear explanation for how the new rendering program affects the artist’s work flow, click here:

With or without PBR, the standards for acceptable texture maps is rising, while the turn-around time is shortening. This is partly due to innovative texture mapping creation tools that are streamlining the process and improving the outcome. The leading software that artists are using to prepare their textures for games and film are Mari™ by The Foundry (specifically for film),  Mudbox™ by Autodesk, ZBrush™ by Pixelogic, Substance™ by Algorithmic, and Quixel Suite™ by Quixel. Adobe Photoshop is still dominant and used by most everyone, but is now being used mostly in conjunction with others for texture mapping.

Comprehensive list of texture creation software packages:

Condensed list of texture creation software packages:

Next-Gen Procedural/bitmap Texture Generating Tool-sets:image001

An array of software packages have emerged to help artists create textures more efficiently and of better quality. I explored three leading software solutions; Mari™ by the Foundry, Quixel Suite™ by Quixel, and and  the Substance™ “trio” by Algorithmic. Although Mari stands alone as the best for feature film, c’s products were the clear winner for games supportive)

The Substance Suite Includes Three Software Tools, each providing an important function:
1) Substance Designer: Enables the user to create amazing-looking ­­complex *procedural ­textures that are also seamless. These textures are actually “texture sets” because they include the various maps artists must make for an object. (eg: a metal crate may likely require an artist to create a color, normal, specular and opacity map.) During the creation process in Substance Designer(SB), the artist is able to make all of these maps as a more unified grouping. Another important feature to note is that the procedural texture sets that are created are significantly smaller than the traditional bitmap textures(100X lighter than regular bitmaps) In addition, SD enables the artist to make virtually endless adjustments to the features and have all of these adjustments be changeable at any time…even within the game engine and even by the player of the published final game.  *Bitmap materials may also be incorporated into the texture however, if included this aspect of the texture will degrade if enlarged past its optimum size.
Click here for the: Substance Designer’s User’s guide

2) Substance Painter is a texture artist’s “dream tool”, What Substance Painter (SP) offers that Mudbox or ZBrush doesn’t is the ability to redo the UV layout without destroying any textures already created. Along with a user-friendly interface and a long list of practical features, including automatic weathering, parametric masks, and PBR map creation capabilities and viewing, it generates all the material layers simultaneously. In addition, the artist is able to create the accompanying game-engine shader along with the materials, instead of having to do it later and hope it will look like you intend.
Click here for the: Substance Painter’s User’s guide

3) Substance Bitmap2Material 3 generates the best quality normal, ambient/occlusion and  “grunge” map from an photo. (Now PBR supportive)
Click here for the: Substance Bitmap2Material 3 User’s Guide

And what tipped the scale even more to make Algorithmic the clear leader was their growing library of ready-made texture libraries, called “substances” that can be purchased. As time goes on, visual artists will be forced to buy and use these libraries so that they can maintain a competitive edge in the area of quality and turn-around time.

Educational Institution Brochure (including pricing):

3D Digital Sculpting & Painting:image001

The trend is also to digitally paint and sculpt directly on the 3D model. 3D digital sculpting software tools enable the artist to “carve” in detail and paint colors, patterns and apply photographs directly onto the 3D object. In just a few short years, this new approach is already the standard in the art production pipeline. Although Algorithmic’s new Substance Painter (mentioned above) may soon prove to replace the status quo, as of the last several years, two other digital 3D sculpting and painting tools are leading the pack:  Mudbox™ and ZBrush™. For an excellent free alternative, Sculptris ( for sculpting and painting) and Krita (for painting) are amazing! [See sample of what these free programs can create here: Eye Piece.


1 2 3

The “Traditional” Method

The “New Standard” Method

The “Cutting Edge” Method

1. Model in 3D Studio Max™ 1. Model low-poly in  3D Studio Max™ 1. Sculpt in digital sculpting software (Mudbox™ or ZBrush™) on a high-poly mesh to create a detailed model and textures.
2. UV Unwrap in 3D Studio Max™ 2. UV Unwrap model 2. Retopologize the high-poly model inside of the digital sculpting software to make the low poly version.
3. Texture in Photoshop™ 3. Import low-poly into digital sculpting software (Mudbox™ or ZBrush™), tessellate a version of the low-poly to make it high-poly and then sculpt & paint on it. 3. UV Unwrap this low-poly model.
4. Use something like Crazy Bump™ for Normal & Bump maps 4. Bake textures and normal map from the high-poly onto the low poly version. 4. Bake textures and normal maps from the high-poly onto the  low-poly model.
5. Reassemble in 3D Studio Max™ 5. Open low-poly model in 3DS Max™ and apply the newly made textures.


4Using Allegorithmic Tools:Production Pipeline Using Algorithmic Tools


I explored pre-rendered global-illumination renderers and shaders including IRay™ and Mental Ray™ by Autodesk, VRay™ by Chaos, and Unity’s real-time lighting system. I also explored ways to get the best lighting into a real-time game. To summarize my findings, you can bake your global-illuminated (GI) lighting set-up from inside 3DS Max onto the texture maps and them import them into Unity. For the time it takes to bake the light maps out onto the textures, it may be better to forgo this approach and just set-up the lights in Unity. Furthermore, baking the lights into the diffuse maps does not leave flexibility for changing the lights later on, if you wish to. The cost to have real-time lights turns out to be minimal, in most cases. Unity also has a baking solution called “Beast”. With their solution, you set up the lights in Unity and then bake them onto the diffuse maps. However, again, extra hours are required to do the baking process, even though it takes less time to do it with Beast than it does in 3D Studio Max.


I used CAT™ rig and the Skin Modifier in 3D Studio Max™. After the exploration of all aspects of 3D art creation, the most frustrating step was skinning. Skinning took forever and mysteriously kept shifting on me. I found it to be a cumbersome tool and the area in most need of improvement.  [See the following, “Ready-Made Art Assets” heading for more developments in this area.]


Coyote Clay character was rigged using Autodesk’s CAT system


I found significant advancements in the tools for creating animations, other than in the “automation” trend. I put into practice Disney’s “principles of animation”, while becoming more experienced with Autodesk’s CAT™ animation system in working on my coyote animation. [See the following, “Ready-Made Art Assets” heading for more developments in this area.]

Testing for “Game-Ready” – A new required step!

Today, artists need to see their models in the real-time 3D game engine, in order to see how it will look in its final state. Therefore, having access in the classroom, to one or more types of game engines is a fundamental requirement. The game engine is a complex software package in itself and learning how to use it takes time. There are currently two predominant game engines: 1) Unreal™ by Epic and 2) Unity™ by Unity Technologies. I chose to utilize Unity™ due to its ease of use. First, I had to become oriented with the basics. This is no small task. It is similar to learning 3D Studio Max™, (which I continue to learn after 17 years) but also enables the user to create interactivity. Most of the interactivity requires knowledge of programming, which I do not have. I came across a nifty plug-in for only $49.99 that allows one to add-in interactivity with visual scripting, called PlayMaker™ by Hutong Games, LLC. In their words, “no coding required!”. Excited, I immersed myself in the tutorials with gusto, only to realize that visual scripting is still alien to someone with no programming skills. In the end, I managed to make considerable headway, getting my models imported, looking pretty nice and making it more fun and interesting by incorporating some limited interactivity.


Ready-Made Art Assets – Are they our future?

Probably the biggest overreaching evolutionary step in the area of game art (and programming) production is seen in the growing number of companies peddling textured, “game-optimized” 3D characters and props. These models can easily be searched through key-words, on their website and then downloaded for a reasonable price and within minutes! You can also buy pre-made animation loops that their automated system can set up for you on-the-fly. Miximo™ is the leader in providing a friendly and easy to use site that allows you to upload your own model (or buy one of theirs) and have it rigged like a pro, in seconds! You can then test the animation loops they offer on your model right on the spot! After testing as many animation loops as you like, you can organize your favorites to play, one after the other with the fluidity that only a well-trained animator can do! When done, you can download your rigged character with its animation intact and drop it right into a game engine, like Unity3D™, or bring it into 3DS Max™ for further editing. The character model still needs to be set up with interactivity, but the rigging and animating stage they do for you (not to mention the modeling and texturing, if you buy their model ) can save months of time. It is priced at a fraction of what it would cost a game developer, if they were to hire an artist. In regards to the daunting task of actually programming the game, Unity3D’s Asset store is helping out with this, considerably. On their site, you can buy game-ready models for next to nothing, but you can also find a world of help with your coding needs. Their site is like a candy store for the game developer, where you can find the most tantalizing effects and programming time savers, for pocket change! As exciting as these accelerated technological developments are for everyone, I am faced with the serious responsibility of evaluating all of this information to see what I must alter, add or eliminate from my course curriculum each semester, so as to best prepare the artist for tomorrow. Ultimately, what does this all mean for the future of the commercial artist? With so much automation, will we soon witness the extinction of professional visual artists? Actually, no. In fact, this trend, which in essence, is to make tasks easier, has been going on since the dawn of mankind. It affects all professions. Whether one defines their profession as artist, musician, computer programmer, manager, doctor or teacher, each will take on more and varied tasks than such professions typically did in the past. To make a good living in any field, one must recognize emerging economic opportunities as they are revealed. Characteristically, the arrival of a particular or combination of technological advancements reveal themselves to those who are looking. In other words, those who do well have always been the ones with the ability to see and act upon an opportunity a little sooner than the rest.

Next > Hands-On Projects


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