Character artists are a driving force that fills three-dimensional worlds with people, animals, magical creatures and everything else that breathes life into a chosen setting. They represent a kind of transit station where all the paths of pre-production converge, and the concept art is transformed into a real and concrete 3D model. Next, animators take the baton. However, this is only a rough sketch, an outline of the true functionality of character artists, giving an approximate idea of their functions in game development.

What is remarkable in this work is that it requires a combination of seemingly incompatible qualities. Technical accuracy goes hand in hand with artistic expression, fantasy intersects with precise anatomical knowledge. Thanks to these combinations, artists have a unique opportunity to create game characters and creatures that ultimately become the project’s hallmark. It is not surprising that the role of a character artist is often considered the most coveted in the development of entertainment projects.

Let’s try to look behind the scenes of this fascinating art of creating characters: interesting discoveries are surely waiting for us.

3D vs 2D: What Makes a Three-Dimensional Character Different

Of course, no one is going to arrange a battle between 2D and 3D worlds: each of them has the right to exist. However, 3D models have several advantages over their 2D counterparts, especially when creating games, movies or cartoon characters. The most significant advantages of 3D characters are:

  1. Realism
    3D models make it possible to achieve any level of detail from simple sketchiness to photographic accuracy.
  2. Freedom of animation
    3D characters are easy to control since they are already modeled in three-dimensional space and they do not need to be redrawn in different poses in order to display a new movement.
  3. Adjustment simplicity
    The finished model is easily amenable to adjustments and additions thanks to the advanced features of modern software and is quickly updated if necessary.
  4. Visualization
    A three-dimensional model of the character looks much more colorful, vibrant and solid than a two-dimensional drawing, plus it can be viewed from different angles.

How to Draw 3D Characters: Milestones

Despite the fact that the environment is also important for the perception of the game – it sets the atmosphere and a sense of the virtual world – it is the heroes who remain the main memorable factor. The visual appeal of the characters, their main features, habits, motivation and moral principles – during the game, gamers consciously or not identifies themselves with their characters and for a while become integral with them. Therefore, in order for a character to be worthy of being projected onto the player’s personality, artists put an abyss of effort into the creation of each of them.

It all starts with an idea, collecting references and creating concept art.

Creating a Concept Art

When the idea is framed in words and the necessary references are collected, the concept artists come into play. They are the guides from the world of words to the world of visualization: their main task is to give the primary look to future game characters and set the tone for their further development.

In addition to owning the art of drawing and painting, these specialists are very creative individuals whose knowledge goes far beyond the field of fine art. Having on hand only a verbal description of the character or a sketch, the concept artist should work it out in more detail. As a rule, to begin with, make some rough drafts that show possible options for how the character will look. After that, these concepts are approved by management or the client. When an image is selected, the concept artist must work it out in great detail, taking into account the characteristics of the future character.

When the image is ready and approved, concept artists prepare additional images of the character. They mark different types of body position, various phases of movement, types of facial expressions, main features, posture, costume, weapons, ammunition, key nuances of appearance, color palette and so on.

Images can be either color or colorless. Most importantly, they should clearly make clear what kind of character is drawn and what details will need to be worked out when creating a three-dimensional model. A huge amount of software is used to create digital drawings, both paid and free. But the leaders are programs such as Adobe Photoshop and Corel Painter.

Having collected and displayed a sufficient amount of information about the character, concept artists are ready to transfer their drawings to the next stage.

Character Modeling

Next comes something like digital alchemy. Based on the concept art, which plays the role of a blueprint, a full-fledged, solid and lively (in terms of game reality) model is created, voluminous and almost tangible. Of course, it’s not so easy to imagine a leap from a concept into a three-dimensional space: a 3D modeler needs to be prepared to search for fresh creative solutions and implement a high degree of detail.

This stage begins with a rough formation, followed by more advanced modeling and sculpting, which add more and more details.

The quality and clarity of 3D characters are affected by the number of polygons: the more of them, the better. It is customary to distinguish low poly and high poly varieties.

High poly models are preferable in character modeling for the film industry since a large number of polygons are needed there for optimal detail. However, their rendering can sometimes take several days. But for games, low-poly models are often used: visualization of 3D characters is carried out directly in the course of the game process.

Creating a mesh with a character model, the 3D artist takes responsibility for several important stages:

  1. Topology selection
    It determines the movement of triangles and vertices along the mesh when it comes to animation. Good work with the topology ensures the correct and undistorted movement of the model.
  2. The scale of the mesh
    A character cannot be taller than a house if it is not some kind of fantastic creature for which a similar size is in the order of things. The artist checks the size of the model by comparing it with another finished object of a predetermined size.
  3. T-shape
    A character in a pose with arms apart is an optimal option for further work: this simplifies the adjustment of the armpit area (if it is a person) and speeds up the rigging process, which we will talk about later.

Different projects may require varying degrees of detail, but the main processes and their sequence remain unchanged.

Character Texturing

The creation of textures and their imposition on the 3D model determine its quality, realism and accuracy. A texture is a bitmap applied to the surface of an unpainted model to give it a color, volume, or illusion of relief.

There are the main types of texturing – relief mapping and MIP mapping. Relief mapping is a 3D graphics technology that allows creating the surface of an object in a rich and realistic design. It has its own varieties: bump mapping, normal mapping, and parallax occlusion mapping.

MIP mapping is a method of applying textures in which multiple copies of the same texture image are used, but with a different level of detail.

Texturing essence is the demonstration of each element of the surface, the visual representation of physical properties, modeling of light and reflection effects, as well as the contribution to the most realistic display of the smallest elements: eyes, eyelashes, hair and skin pores.

When texturing is finished, the model can be considered finished. All further steps take place if the model is supposed to be animated.

Character Rigging and Skinning

At the rigging stage, game characters formally acquire a special skeleton, with the help of which they subsequently gain the ability to move with a helping hand from animators. A rig, i.e. a virtual skeleton, defines the main points that integrate the whole body of the character together, and gives an understanding of the interaction of its different parts.

In order for a character to move credibly, it is usually required to create from 20 to 100 bones. The larger their number, the more difficult it is to provide manual manipulation. Therefore, some tools allow you to scale, move and rotate a specific group of bones to simplify the process and make it smoother.

Demanding the exact balance between flexibility, efficiency and realism, a character rig must be consistent with the design of the model, while being able to realize ideas concurrently with the design of the model, while simultaneously being able to meet all the ideas and performance needs of the animation team.

Next comes the skinning – binding of the character’s geometric mesh to the created rig. The appearance of the characters when they perform any action depends on its quality. After that, the model is ready for animation.

Character Animation

This is a very big topic, worthy of a separate article and full of details and nuances. Therefore, we will get by with just a few comments.

In essence, animation is a quick display of a chain of static pictures that differ in minor details. It goes without saying that the main goal at this stage is to achieve maximum realism of the movements of 3D characters. Here keyframe animation of 3D characters comes to the rescue. The designer must indicate the position of the 3D character in the first and last frames of the movement, and the calculation of the remaining frames is entrusted to a special program. In practice, this technology looks simple, but things get much more complicated when one need to create complex movements and achieve realistic movements of 3D characters.

Top 3D Character Design Software

3D modeling is endless possibilities. This is the present and the future. This is all that surrounds us. Three-dimensional models, animation, visualization is a generalized, but far from complete list of features.

Creating a 3D character is a separate category of modeling, requiring not only talent and artistic vision, but also knowledge of anatomy, proportions, plastics, gestures and facial expressions. The best model is the one that most resembles a living person with the right topology, flowing gestures and a natural smile.

The range of software for developing 3D characters is truly amazing: from free to very expensive options, from a minimal set of tools for beginners to an advanced interface with a steep learning curve.

Trying to determine the best program would be to abandon objectivity since each of them has its own advantages and target audience. Therefore, we will list the most common options that will be great helpers for implementing various ideas for creating 3D characters.

  1. 3ds Max
    Basically, only professionals use 3ds Max from Autodesk: here you can do almost anything related to 3D modeling and visualization. Not only are characters subject to this software, but also environments and entire worlds. Due to its wide functionality, versatility, compatibility with most plug-ins and the presence of many ready-made models, 3ds Max is popular all over the world. It’s obviously not suitable for a novice, but experts will be able to enjoy creating 3D designs from scratch to the fullest. The program is not cheap, but it is worth its price.
  2. Maya
    Another software from Autodesk, more focused not on the direct creation of 3D characters, but on working with their animations for further integration into the game. Here, the artist can concentrate on the smallest and finest details such as the movement of hair and clothes, adding a maximum of realism to the character. The rendering capabilities and the various environments that are available to create in this program are truly jaw-dropping. A large toolset does not limit the artist’s imagination in working on models and drawings.
  3. ZBrush
    Pixologic ZBrush is another great software for professionals with a wide range of advanced tools. He equips the modeler with a brush that draws strokes with depth. At the same time as sculpting, the artist can also paint the object. An important advantage of the program is the automatic addition of shadows and highlights that look natural without the additional efforts of the modeler. The rendering process usually happens in real time and the artist immediately sees the result of the work.
  4. Blender
    Course free for software that does not require large investments, and here the most famous option is Blender. A free, open source program for everyone, Blender is often used even for commercial projects, so creating 3D objects in it is a common thing. Despite the fact that some consider its interface rather confusing, many beginners begin their journey into the world of modeling with this software. It is important to note that due to this, there are a lot of tutorials, instructions and guides on 3D design and animation in Blender, so no one will be left alone with their problem if it arises.
  5. Daz Studio
    Another free software for 3D graphics and animation. Today, Daz Studio is widely used in the modern gaming industry to create characters. A huge advantage of the program is that it has a large database of relevant additions in the form of different textures, certain 3D objects, working plug-ins and extensions. The application runs on the Nvidia Iray engine and is perfect for quickly creating professional animation models of the highest quality. Daz Studio attracts its users with a convenient and quite logical interface, a wide base of 3D content to do the work, as well as a large number of training lessons.

Where to Find the Best 3D Characters?

Of course, the best 3D character models are those made from scratch. They will best reflect your idea and will not get lost in a heap of similar ones due to a large number of authentic features.

But if we are talking about a limited budget and, possibly, some rough project, which is not yet planned for production, then it is quite possible to use the base of ready-made 3D character models. Their cost will be much lower than creating a model from scratch, and some of them can be obtained even for free. Regardless of the purpose for which you choose a model, you can definitely find something in the libraries below.

  1. CGTrader
    Freelance artists know and appreciate this platform well. It has a large library of high poly and low poly models, some of which are already rigged and ready for active movements. In addition, here one can post vacancies and look for work. Prices for models are very affordable, there are also free options. Convenient filters allow you to quickly cut corners and significantly narrow down your search.
  2. Free3D
    The name of this platform is fully justified: here you will find a huge number of free models of really good quality. Created by a group of freelance artists and supported by users, the base is constantly replenished, providing a huge space for choice. There are models here for commercial use and the prices are more than pleasant. But they are placed in a separate category, and the main asset of the platform is options free of charge.
  3. TurboSquid
    TurboSquid is a resource that is hard to miss. Convenient navigation, user-friendly search system, a large number of rigged and animated models make it indispensable for anyone who does not have enough time or the ability to create a model from scratch. As in other places, there are paid and free options, the quality of which is on top.
  4. Sketchfab
    A feature of this marketplace is support for the WebVR and WebGL protocols, which allow examining the model from different sides in a three-dimensional environment, turning textures on and off, and even exploring wireframes. Interestingly, many models are suitable for 3D printing. Both animated and static models are at your disposal.
  5. Pinterest
    Whether you are surprised or not, but the fact remains: Pinterest is not only a social network with an emphasis on visual content, but also a kind of message board where 3D artists can leave a link to their website or models, which can be downloaded either for free or sometimes for a small fee. Keyword search is very fast and convenient, and a special visually-oriented interface delivers aesthetic pleasure.

How Much Does It Cost to Create a 3D Game Character?

The issue of price always worries minds, especially when it comes to such a complex and painstaking work as creating a 3D character. There is nothing new under the sun, and we will not reinvent the wheel and beat about the bush.

The price is affected by all the same factors as before: the level of complexity and detail of the character, the need to prepare for animation, the number of alternative options (the character can change throughout the game). Timing also plays an important role: if a customer needs a model in a shorter time, the cost of creating it will increase.

To roughly guide you, let’s look at the abstract averaged character model along with the animation. The stage of creating a concept takes up to 20 hours. Modeling is an average of 50 hours. Texturing will take about 15 hours, as well as rigging. And it takes an average of 5 hours to create 1 second of animation.

In total, we have a character model created in about 100 hours. On average, one can talk about the cost of $2000, but again, this is an approximate price for an abstract model. When it comes to a real project, any 3D modeling agency will offer you a free quote with specific estimations.

Wrapping Up

Having glanced out of the corner of the eye into the 3D workroom of the character artist, we saw what tremendous work is being done to make the bright, lively and memorable character or creature see the light of day. But the game is worth the candle: the more enthusiasm and inspiration invested in the characters, the higher the likelihood that they will become iconic in the history of game development.