The Inside Scoop on Creating High-Poly Characters for Video Games by Plarium

By Danil Soloyov, 3D artist for Plarium Games

Greetings gaming fans! I’m Danil Soloyov – a 3D artist for Plarium Games. My work at Plarium began some 3 years ago when I was contracted as a 3D generalist. Fortunately, I’ve been able to significantly boost my involvement to the level of 3D character artist. I’ve got a particular affinity to constructing 3D characters, and I’m about to take you on a behind-the-scenes expose into how this is done. I’ll be referencing the Archer character from Plarium’s latest smash-hit social game: Sparta: War of Empires. The picture you see above was actually used as a promo illustration for the game, as opposed to an in-game model. Simply put, this means that I was not limited by memory restrictions – so it’s pretty awesome!

How to Create the Foundation

In order to create a well-balanced character, communication between specialist groups is essential. I worked really closely with the concept artists at Plarium. Step one of the process required us to present numerous concepts, and to pick the most suitable ones with the art director. We delved into Greek history to develop concepts, and we also used our own professional opinions to get ideas on the storyboard. It’s all about how the game looks and feels, and as artists, we have a terrific degree of freedom with plenty of creative expression. By being able to apply our own ideas to the original concept, there is a lot more scope for us to work with.

The Foundation Of Creating Sparta Game Characters

3D modelling requires an intimate understanding of various components. These include gesture, silhouettes, S-curve and C-curve at the T-pose stage and template as you can see in the image that I have pasted below. There are a lot of artists who believe that these parameters can be done post-fact, after the character has been placed in the final pose. It’s safe to say that there is merit in that approach, but in this case it was my opinion that the character wouldn’t be as dynamic or as smooth, when compared to the templated body earlier on in the design process.

3D modelling

With the Sparta model, I used a single templated body for all the units. This modelling project was headed by our team leader – Vladimir Silkin. Here’s how I got started with this modelling project: I applied a low-poly 3D layout to the body to get an idea of the character design and the silhouette. This process requires the use of polygons as well as angles to provide the artist with an elementary version of the dimensional silhouette. With very little effort, you can actually see the silhouette of the main character.

As you might expect, I had many different versions to work with, especially when it came to designing the helmets of this model. Bear in mind that the head features prominently as the most important component of a character. Designing it is a painstaking process. We tried scores of outfits, adding elements here and there until we got it fine-tuned to perfection. The challenge we faced was twofold: being true to our vision and constructing a model that was true to history.

Take a look at what we came up with below: As soon as I was happy with my creation, I required the approval of the art director. After lots of back and forth, the design was finally approved and I could move forward with creating the character. The next step in the process requires detailing character design, with lots of color:

Final design

Intricate Details and Lots of Work

The majority of the work was completed in 3dz Max. This is a common program that is used at Plarium Games to generate 3D graphics, effects and animation. Recall that this was not an in-game model, so this illustration was not limited by map definitions or the number of polygons. By the conclusion of the design process, I had 1,500 polygons and 10 sets of 4096 x 4096 maps. These included opacity and displacement, normal map, specular map, reflection map and a diffuse map. Most every character element received a unique set, the result of which was a really slow scene. During this process, it’s a good idea to turn off the textures in Viewport – that is the area in the screen where the Total Image can be displayed in portions. An example will help to illustrate precisely what I’m referring to here. The quiver is strapped over the shoulder of the model. Since it is made from leather, it shouldn’t be smooth like the way I modelled it using the Turbosmooth tool. This type of tool is used for blending complex geometric shapes into smooth surfaces. For a more real-world example, consider how a carpenter sands a piece of timber. This tool basically allows creative artists to convert low-poly models to high-poly model versions. What I did to add creases to the surface was use the noise modifier tool.

 Noise modifier tool

As you can see from the image I have posted above, the look is far more realistic. The leather is calloused and thick, much closer to what you would expect in real life. Let’s move on to the shoulder piece. The leather trimming creases are created with what is known as an inward edge extruder. This creates the edges that are needed for realism. This effective tool is used in places where creases should appear, to improve the depth of the model. Note that most all of the leather edge trimmings in the body armor are constructed in precisely the same way. Next up, it’s time to bring the quilted leather template into ZBrush.

Take a look at the image below to see what I am referring to.  With ZBrush, the user is able to sculpt the model in much the same way as you would if you were moulding clay. It is relatively easy to spread with the UV Master Tool when you’re trying to apply an Alpha Map on the surface. This works in a similar fashion to using a stencil vis-a-vis a black-and-white image. Next up, divide the model up into a specific number of polygons.

Now we turn our attention to the Noise Modifier in the Surface tab. To load your Alpha Map, click the Alpha on/off button. Be sure to turn on the UV Effect so that you’ll be able to see the map projected onto the UV Spread. If a glitch occurs, you can just as easily adjust the template.

UV template

Now it’s time to adjust the UV template in order to apply the Alpha Map as it should be. I would recommend completing the creases with ZBrush by using the Dam-Standard brush. This is a tool allowing you to sculpt fine details onto your model. These include things like scars on the face, wrinkles and so forth. The images below show precisely how effective ZBrush can be in this regard. Note that even the bracelets were created by using this powerful tool.
There was an issue when I began to sculpt the lion’s muzzle onto the bracelets. Since the bracelets are asymmetrical, I could not use the symmetry function. It had to be deactivated. I restarted this process a total of three times, ultimately failing. The answer it appears was found in a rather rudimentary solution that everyone learns in basic drawing classes. Allow me to elaborate: I simply ruled up, and measured the bracelets for the correct proportions and symmetry as you can see below:
While it appears blatantly obvious, a valuable lesson can be gleaned from basic design. Designers who regularly use Activate Symmetry can quite as easily make these types of mistakes. Bear in mind that this software feature should not be used for each and everything.

Constructing the Knee Plate

I broke the process down into steps to make it easy for folks to understand:

  1. Your first task is to create a 3ds Max template that covers the entire body. I would recommend ascertaining whether the silhouette and proportions of the model are okay. If you satisfied, continue on to the next stage.
  2. Search ZBrush for suitable designs. In this particular instance, we can basically trust the human anatomy, and get all sorts of fancy lines by creating or reproducing bone outlines and muscle in pretty much the same way as the Ancient Greek blacksmiths were accustomed to doing.
  3. Now it’s time to begin adding details. If you’re happy with the design as well as the proportions, the finer details should be added. Begin with low-poly layout and global simple forms and add intricate details into the sculpture.
  4. Since I’m making an illustration, there are no map restrictions and no polygon. I can now use ZRemesher. This is actually a highly effective ZBrush function. You can convert a million polygon net into a 5K polygon one. You do this by clicking just a single button. As soon as you’ve completed all the details, the knee piece can be transferred back to 3ds Max

I’m not going to delve into too much fine detail regarding texture, but I’ll tell you that I used a standard textbook method found in Photoshop. If you’re wondering about scratch marks, Mudbox is used with Photoshop to create these types of effects. In any event this is my personal preference. All of the developments were automatically completed with UV master found in ZBrush.

My work began in ZBrush, but it proved to be a painstakingly slow process. After failing for several attempts, I opted to take a straight ornament. Next, I decided to apply Edit and then Puppet Warp. The latter is available in Photoshop, and it allows you to bend or even crumple images into all sorts of shapes. Following this, it’s time to mark the control points. Simply press and hold each point and you will be able to warp the ornament until you get the shape that you require. Next up, click the Enter Button and it’s all good. Believe it or not, it’s a fairly straightforward process to create materials on the models. You will need to control the process by using maps.

To keep it as simple as possible, don’t fiddle around too much with the advanced settings. I’d like to show you how to construct a helmet as an example. Several metals like bronze and gold have a yellow coloring. This means that you would need to apply to reflect the yellow/orange map, not the black/white map. Take a look at the following image below as it explains the lighting scheme.

After rendering this image, you can see that there is a clear render with no postproduction required. There are many examples of rendering, such as refractions, reflections and shadows for creating 3D scenes. All in all, I have to say that the construction of the Heavy Archer for Plarium Games was both rewarding and incredibly challenging. This project allowed me to gain an intimate understanding of precisely how much detailing needs to be done for character development.

It is the small details that really keep you ahead of the competition in social gaming. Consider that many times, social games are frowned upon since they lack console level detailing. But as I have illustrated above, nothing could be further from the truth with Sparta: War of Empires. My advice to all the creative geniuses in the gaming arena is to simply do what you do best, and enjoy the fruits of your labor. The litmus test rests with your fans; they’ll be back time and again to show their appreciation.