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How Hard Is It to Make 3D Models for Video Games?

How Hard Is It to Make 3D Models for Video Games?

by James borne

Creating 3D models for video games is both an art and a science. It involves not just the creative flair to design compelling characters, structures, and environments, but also a deep understanding of the technical aspects that make these models functional within a gaming environment. Let's explore the complexities and challenges of this fascinating craft.

Understanding the Game Vision

1. Understanding the Game's Vision

Before one even begins modeling, understanding the game's vision, setting, and narrative is crucial. This will influence the art style, be it realistic, stylized, or abstract. An artist needs to create models that align with the game's universe and its mechanics. Most artists even study the story of the character that is being told in the game to get a representation of what features or properties the character will need to enhance the storyline or characteristics of the character, a good example is the main character of GTA5, it is a realistic character with the appearance of a troubled man.

the art of topology

2. Technical Constraints

Gaming platforms, be they PCs, consoles, or mobile devices, have limitations in terms of processing power and memory. This means that 3D models need to be optimized to ensure smooth gameplay. High polygon counts might make a model look detailed and impressive, but they can slow down a game's performance. Thus, game artists often work with a "budget" of polygons and have to balance detail and efficiency. This is crucial for games that are competitive, to ensure the higher frame rates they will set a budget to characters and other objects within the game to increase the frame rate, this also has to be balanced in order to keep both the environment and character at a certain detail level so that it does not look like a strange mix between low budget assets and a high budget character as this will be very noticeable.

Understanding the Game Vision

3. The Art of Topology

Creating a 3D model isn't just about sculpting it to look right; it's also about ensuring the model's surface, or 'topology', is structured correctly. Good topology ensures that a model deforms properly during animations and is more efficient in terms of rendering. There are a handful of games where mistakes were made, most of the time during "rag doll" animations it can go wrong horribly with the animations within the characters, but most game engines like Unreal Engine and Unity are aware of these issues and got a solution for that already.

Texturing and UV Mapping

4. Texturing and UV Mapping

Once a model is created, it needs to be colored and detailed. This process, known as texturing, involves wrapping 2D images around the 3D model — a bit like gift wrapping an oddly shaped present. UV mapping is the process of laying out a model's surface in 2D space to make it paintable. Both steps require skill and can greatly influence the final look of the model. Most artists start with a sketch of the character where also the colors are given by the drawing artists, they will carefully try to paint the model as a sculpture to get as close as possible to the end result, RuneScape has a great example of this, however due to the lower poly count you can see that the end result will contain less detail than the drawings.


5. Rigging and Animation Compatibility

If a model, especially a character, is going to be animated, it needs a 'skeleton' or a 'rig'. Rigging is the process of building this skeleton and defining how different parts of the model move. A model's design can heavily influence how easy or difficult it is to rig and animate. For human characters this might be an easier task, when you are trying to animate a human character you can mimic the movements yourself and bring it over to your character, but when you have to animate an insect or a fantasy monster it can become tricky on what the animations have to be for certain actions.


6. Iterative Feedback Loop

Game development is collaborative. Modelers will often receive feedback from designers, animators, and even play testers, leading to several iterations. Adapting to feedback while maintaining the integrity of the model is a skill in itself. This is a great example of expertise, it is rare to see someone who can get all the steps in this process done by himself, as most artists have an expertise in one or more of the steps it will take to get the final end result.

Nvidia Hairworks and Gameworks

7. Keeping Up with Technology

The tools and techniques for 3D modeling are always evolving. Game artists need to stay updated with the latest software updates, plugins, and industry best practices. The most common software programs used for the modeling are for example Blender, Maya, 3ds Max, modo, cinema4d, ... and even Nvidia has certain features in the game industry like Nvidia Hairworks, TressFX Hair for hair animations.

8. The Need for Specialization

In larger game studios, the process of creating a 3D model is often broken down into specialized roles: concept artists, modelers, texture artists, riggers, and more. Each role requires a unique skill set, demonstrating the depth of expertise required in the field.

9. The Reward of Creation

Despite the challenges, many artists find the process deeply rewarding. Seeing one's creations come to life, move, and interact in a video game world offers a sense of accomplishment that's hard to match.


Creating 3D models for video games is a multi-faceted task that demands both creativity and technical proficiency. While it can be challenging, the result is an immersive gaming experience brought alive by the intricate details and dynamic characters made possible by these 3D modeling endeavors. If you're considering diving into this world, remember that like any other skill, practice and persistence are key. The more you model, the better you get!