Even in far-off worlds and fantastical settings, we as players always seek a connection. And that connection is almost always found in the characters. People we can identify with, empathize with, understand, or even hate!
The connection is what drives players to engage and care about the story or the world you’re presenting. We spoke with some of Ringtail Studios’ 3D character artists to learn what makes a 3D character design go from good to great, drawing players in immediately, and keep them engaged.
For the most part, we’ll be focusing on the technical aspects of character creation and what exactly the teamwork towards delivering in an AAA project.
Pillars of Quality
Our artists put a lot of importance on three key aspects of their work. Talented and creative artists, working towards a single goal, modern and evolving toolsets, and a strong base of communication.
A skilled and driven artist is worth their weight in gold. Simply seeing a character task through for the joy of watching it evolve and come to life means our artists maintain motivation and inspiration.
Keeping up with the modern toolsets means both evolving qualities of work and a refusal to stagnate. That refusal means the studio transitioned almost entirely to Blender for the majority of work. In some cases, programs like ZBrush, Maya, Substance Painter, 3ds Max, and Marmoset may be used in special cases. The tools can change or drop in and out of use depending on the project. And sometimes the creation must be done in-engine, which usually means working with Unity and Unreal.
What Makes AAA Work?
This answer, according to our team, is split into a few parts. Four to be precise! Quality of the model, storytelling, time, and references.
Quality of the model is directly related to pillars as mentioned above. A great artist with the right tools and good communication across the teams will be able to deliver AAA results. Regardless of the style, whether it be hyper-realistic or stylised, if the quality of the model itself isn’t good – there is nothing else to be done. And this quality is rooted throughout the process. A solid concept needs to be refined and then executed by a modeler. This needs to then be handled by a rigger before finally being handed off to the animator. Quality can be gained and lost throughout the whole process.
Storytelling is a big deal for character design. By the time the 3D modelers get a hold of it, a lot of the detail and visual storytelling will already be set but there’s always room to have the character be expressed. We live the game experience through the characters and we have to understand them from the beginning. If you look at some key characters in the media, you’ll understand what we mean by visual storytelling. Look at God of War’s Kratos or Horizon’s Aloy. Their story is practically written on their bodies and clothes!
Time is simple enough but often it is something that is wrestled across any given project’s pipeline. Games are complicated and vast and there’s a lot to do. But give a good artist time to work and breath and real AAA quality can be created.
Finally, references. As many of them as possible! These are used for every aspect of character creation. Shape, style, posing, equipment, aesthetic, all of it. From references, the team can establish what the style the project is aiming for and emulate it. For individual characters and designs, references offer distinct insights into the initial character idea. Along with the brief from the client, these form the core of characters needing creation.
The secret fifth ingredient, our team likes to joke, is love. And with all joking aside, it is the individual love and passion for the craft that can truly bring quality to a character design. The trick is finding those artists for your team!