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“Character artists are the driving force that fills three-dimensional worlds with people, animals, magical creatures, and everything else that breathes life into a chosen setting.” (c) 3D Artist Who-Wished-To-Remain-Anonymous

And it’s hard to be more precise.

The character artists are like a station where all the pre-production paths converge and the concept art is transformed into a real and concrete 3D model. Next, the baton is taken by the animators. 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, and fantasy intersects with precise anatomical knowledge. Thanks to these combinations, artists have a unique opportunity to create game characters and creatures, which eventually become the hallmark of the project.

By creating 3D characters, the artists are actually creating the main characters, those with whom the players will associate themselves and with whom they will unite until the end of the game. Not surprisingly, the character artist role is often considered the most coveted in entertainment development.

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

How Does 3D Modeling Work?

3D modeling is the process of creating a 3D model – a mathematical representation of any three-dimensional object, real or imaginary, in a three-dimensional software environment.

Unlike 2D images, 3D models can be viewed from any angle, as well as scaled, rotated, and easily modified.

There are two main types of 3D models that are used in the gaming and film industry. The most obvious difference between them is how they are created and how they are manipulated.

Polygonal Model NURBS Surface
Polygonal models are the most common form of 3D models: they are created by manipulating a polygon mesh. Polygonal meshes are a set of polygons from which the contours of the future object are formed.

Polygon modeling is divided into high-poly (detailed model with a large number of polygons) and low-poly (schematic model with a small number of polygons), which makes it optimal for use in games.
Non-uniform rational B-splines are mathematical representations of 3D geometry that can accurately describe any shape from a simple 2D line to the most complex 3D organic surface or freeform solid.

Due to the highest level of mathematical precision, flexibility, and accuracy, NURBS surfaces are most often used in modeling in the field of mechanical engineering and automotive industry.

In continuation of our story, we will talk about polygonal models as the most common form of 3D models.

Strange as it may seem, intricate, highly detailed 3D models that inspire admiration start with primitive shapes such as a sphere or a cube. They are the primary basis for creating a model. The artist manipulates this figure, giving it the desired shape and outlines using special digital tools.

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Starting simple and moving towards complexity is the golden rule of 3D modeling. This is how you can create a 3D character.

To understand the principles of polygonal modeling, you need to understand the basic concepts:

  • A polygon is a plane in the form of several points in space connected by faces. Polygons can be either triangular (tris – common in game modeling) or quadrilateral (quads – common in character and organic modeling). The more polygons in an object, the more realistic its final look will be.
  • An edge is a two-dimensional object or line consisting of two vertices. Accordingly, three edges form a triangle.
  • A vertex is the intersection point of three or more edges. Vertex manipulation on the x-, y-, and z-axes is the most common method of shaping a polygonal mesh in traditional modeling software such as 3Ds Max, Maya, etc.

Creating a 3D model requires patience – the artist has to work hard to place the vertices in order to properly contour the model. The polygons that make up the outside of the mesh can be subdivided into smaller pieces to add detail. This is especially important if the model will be animated – smooth movement can be achieved only if all movable places such as knees and elbows have a sufficient number of polygons.

Did you know? To simplify the life of artists and save them from routine tasks, 3D modeling programs include various techniques such as mirroring an already finished part of the model. With its help, the artist can complete the object with only half or even a quarter of it. This is especially true for 3D modeling of characters, as it allows you to create a perfectly symmetrical model, reflecting the work along the desired axis.

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:

Advantages of 3D characters - The Complete Guide to 3D Character Modeling for the Uninitiated
  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 manipulate because they are already modeled in 3D and don’t need to be redrawn in different poses to show new movement.
  3. Adjustment simplicity. The finished model can be easily adjusted and supplemented thanks to the advanced capabilities 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

While the environment is also important to the experience of the game – it sets the atmosphere and feel of the virtual world – it is the characters that remain the main memorable factor.

The visual appeal of the characters, their main features, habits, motivation, and moral principles – during the game, players consciously or not identify themselves with their characters and become whole with them for a while. Therefore, in order for the character to be worthy of being projected onto the player’s personality, the artists put a lot of effort into creating each of them.

How to make 3D models for games? It all starts with an idea, collecting references, and creating concept art.

Character Concepting

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

In addition to mastering the art of drawing and painting, these specialists are very creative individuals whose knowledge goes far beyond the fine arts. With only a verbal description of the character or a sketch at hand, the concept artist must work it out in more detail. We can talk about the following sequence of actions:

  • As a rule, to begin with, several rough sketches are made, showing possible options for how the character will look.
  • After that, these concepts are approved by management or the client.
  • When an image is chosen, the concept artist must work it out in great detail, taking into account the features of the future character.
Concept art - Rogue octopus concept
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Behind-the-scenes fact. When the concept is ready and approved, 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 show what kind of character is drawn and what details will need to be worked out when creating a three-dimensional model. To create digital drawings, a huge amount of software, both paid and free, is used. But the leaders are such programs as Adobe Photoshop and Corel Painter.

After collecting and displaying enough information about the character, the concept artists are ready to take their drawings to the next stage.

Character Modeling

Next comes something like digital alchemy. On the basis of concept art, which plays the role of a blueprint, a full-fledged, solid, and alive (from the point of view of game reality) model is created. It is 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 must be ready to look for fresh creative solutions and realize 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.

As we have already said, the quality and clarity of 3D characters are affected by the number of polygons: the more of them, the more detailed the model will be.

High-poly models are preferred when creating characters for the film industry. These models are distinguished by smooth curves, strong smoothing, and photorealism. However, their rendering can sometimes take several days.

In games, modellers aim for efficiency and organization by keeping the polygon count as low as possible for the intended shape. However, models are still high resolution where more detail is needed, such as a character’s hands or face, and low resolution in low detail areas of the mesh.

When creating a mesh with a character model, a 3D artist takes on several important steps:

  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, unless it is some fantastic creature for whom such dimensions are 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. Here are some examples of 3D characters made by the Kevuru Games team.

Find more 3D characters in our portfolio

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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 varieties: bump mapping, normal mapping, and parallax occlusion mapping.
  • MIP mapping is a texture mapping technique that uses multiple copies of the same texture image but with different levels of detail.

The essence of texturing is to demonstrate each element of the surface, visually represent physical properties, simulate the effects of light and reflection, and also contribute to the most realistic display of the smallest elements: eyes, eyelashes, hair, and skin pores.

When texturing is finished, the model can also be considered finished. All further steps occur 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 the help of 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 make the process easier and smoother.

3D animation - Grapple

Requiring a precise balance between flexibility, efficiency and realism, the character rig must be consistent with the design of the model. It must also be able to implement ideas simultaneously with the design of the model and meet all the performance needs specified by the animation team.

Next comes skinning – binding 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 nuances. Therefore, we will get by with just a few comments.

In essence, the animation is a quick display of a series of static images that differ in minor details. It goes without saying that the main goal at this stage is to achieve maximum realistic 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 needs to create complex and 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, and visualization – this is a generalized, but far from complete, list of features.

Making 3D characters 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.

How to make a 3D character? 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 making 3D characters.

3D character software - The Complete Guide to 3D Character Modeling for the Uninitiated
  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’s worth the price.
  2. Maya
    Another software from Autodesk is 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 possibilities and the different environments that can be created with this program are truly jaw-dropping. A large set of tools 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. It 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
    It is a low-investment software and one of the most popular options for newbies. A free, open-source program for everyone, Blender is often used even for commercial projects, so creating 3D objects with it is a common thing. Despite the fact that some consider its interface rather confusing, many beginners start 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
    This is another free 3D graphics and animation software. Today, Daz Studio is widely used in the modern gaming industry to create simple 3D character designs. 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 get the job done, as well as a large number of tutorials.

Where to Find the Best 3D Characters?

Of course, the best 3D characters for games 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 will definitely be able to find something in the libraries below.

3D character libraries - The Complete Guide to 3D Character Modeling for the Uninitiated
  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 for commercial use, and the prices are more than reasonable. 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, a user-friendly search system, and a large number of rigged and animated models make it indispensable for anyone who does not have enough time or the ability to build a 3D character 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, 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 to Hire 3D Character Artists?

If libraries of ready-made characters are not your choice, then you should think about choosing an artist who can implement your 3D character project. There are several main places to find them.

Freelance Portals

The opportunities to work with people who prefer per-project pay are huge right now: the Upwork, Fiverr and Freelancer platforms are at your service. Here you can select specialists according to different criteria, for example, work experience or hourly rate. Freelancers usually charge from $ 25 per hour and more, depending on skills and abilities.

In-House Employees

There is essentially only one advantage of in-house staff – you see all your employees and can communicate with them live. Some find it easier to work in this mode: remote work requires discipline and organization, and the office automatically stimulates this and helps to set up for the working mood. But that’s where the positives end.

It is necessary to take into account a significant increase in the cost of renting premises, purchasing equipment and software for each employee, equipping workplaces, providing the office with food and drinks, and so on. At the same time, salaries for character artists start at $ 50 per hour according to Indeed for the USA.

Outsourcing Studios

The transfer of individual tasks or even entire projects to an outsourcing company is a very popular trend. This is not surprising: the team is already assembled and can start working immediately. This method of cooperation is used by the world’s leading video game development companies. For example, Epic Games, EA, and FoxNext have already appreciated the advantages of working with Kevuru Games in different game art areas.

The prices for outsourcing studio services vary depending on the region of their location. In the USA and UK, prices are the highest – from $ 50 per hour, in Germany – from $ 35 per hour. The most attractive price-quality ratio can be found in Eastern Europe, for example, in Ukraine: here rates for 3D artists start at $ 25 per hour, while the quality of work is in no way inferior to the more expensive services of American studios.

We’ve already talked about specific pricing for cartoon and realistic 3D characters: check the article on character design pricing if you are interested in specific numbers.

What Type of Collaboration is Better?

Now let’s summarize all of the above information.

Comparison chart - The Complete Guide to 3D Character Modeling for the Uninitiated

Based on this, we can conclude that the most reliable and effective way to hire a 3D character specialist is an outsourcing studio. These companies have well-established work processes and high-quality standards and always strive to exceed customer expectations in order to ensure a good reputation and credibility in the gaming market.

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

The issue of price always worries minds, especially when it comes to such complex and painstaking work as making 3D characters. 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:

  1. The stage of creating a concept takes up to 20 hours.
  2. Modeling is an average of 50 hours.
  3. Texturing will take about 15 hours, as well as rigging.
  4. 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 $3000, but again, this is an approximate price for an abstract model. When it comes to a real project, any 3D character modeling agency will offer you a free quote with specific estimations.

3D character creation time - The Complete Guide to 3D Character Modeling for the Uninitiated

Wrapping Up

Having glanced out of the corner of the eye into the 3D workroom of the character artist, we see what a colossal work is being done so that a bright, lively, and memorable character or creature comes to life. But the game is worth the candle: the more enthusiasm and inspiration invested in the characters, the more likely they are to become iconic in the history of game development.

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