A year+ ago I finally embraced a 'low-poly' art style. Well... I finally got it looking good, I think. Technically I've been making low-poly models since the mid-90's, but mostly I've made 'programmer' art, or more accurately: I grey-boxed as a designer. I am not an expert in 3D, despite dabbling over time.
I think this is pretty decent now tho:
So what is this art style? You've probably seen it, or variations as: Flat-shaded low-poly, or just low-poly. Sometimes it's messy, sometimes it's nice. I like the style when it's clean.
I've admired "clean" art styles for awhile. Getting something looking crisp, readable and also beautiful-- is not as easy as it seems. Like a lot of things: If you do it right it appears effortless.
I'm very happy to get a good production-pipeline laid out to make content like this consistently. I still need to tweak the pipeline a bit, adjustments to my 3D topology to fit the game engine better. Plus there's a lot more shader-work going on than I'd have expected (more on that in a future blogpost).
For a consistent pipeline, I have a primary and a secondary rule:
- Primary rule: No textures. Each polygon is one-solid colour and mostly those are in area-groups. I let the lighting of the scene create variance (IE: tree trunks are initially a uniform brown).
- Secondary rule: Make the polygon scale feel right. By scale I mean polygon-density / sizes, which I tried to calculate mathematically at first-- but a mushroom at the same polygon scale of a tree trunk loses its form and doesn't read as a mushroom anymore. I've learned to eyeball it as an aesthetic and to categorize: The grass tufts and small clutter have denser / smaller polygons than the larger things.
Eyes fill in details they expect. IE: The mushroom caps are just a solid red, but the light plays over the surface and to me they almost look spotted (they aren't).
I will continue to iterate on scale, so that's going to chew up a bunch of my time. I have no idea what something like a mountain should have for polygon count, considering it can be in the distance or closeup. Level-of-detail models are going to be tricky to work with (moreso than most games) because it's going to appear awfully strange if the polygon density changes noticeably as you get closer.
I'm adding tertiary rules as I learn:
- Characters look a LOT better with bevels, even bevels that are so fine they can't be seen directly. Why? Because game engines expect smooth-shading (non-'flat') as a default. Bevels flatten that smoothness back out with better lighting gradients than truly flat-shaded polygons do. For my static models I'm using a shader to flatten things out because default flat-shading means cut edges (which is hard to explain unless you know 3D work), but for anything that might distort (as animated characters tend to do) I find the standard shader + bevels approach makes them appear more 'solid'.
- Rivers and other elements that morph through code / shaders need to be also be 'smooth' but flatten through shaders, otherwise seams pulls apart.
- I may also add subtle bevels to somewhat static objects like trees, because lighting just plays better across them (same reasoning as with characters).
With added bevels comes a higher technical polycount. Which brings me to the unwritten rule (written now, haha):
- I care more about the appearance and consistency of the 'low-poly' look than I do the actual polycount.
Low-poly is a relative term depending upon your age and I'm not very nostalgic about it. I don't personally want to return to an era of Milkshape 3D. No shame to those that do, but any sort of pride in ultra-low polycounts is not my thing. I'm here for the look and feel of this style, which I do love.
Now that I have a pipeline / process, how hard is this stuff to produce?
- The easy stuff to make: Trees. Rocks. Ground. They could be improved, but as you can expect a rock takes just minutes.
- Moderate-to-hard stuff: Anything that moves, even simply. That river was damn hard, but I had specific plans for it. Basic waves are better documented, so ponds and oceans are moderate. Clouds are trickier than they seem.
- Truly challenging: Characters are what I find hardest of all. Not only do they have to be rigged and weight-painted to animate, but I this style brings some challenges where the usual workarounds for characters have to be approached a little differently. I'm going to make a separate post about this process for sure-- and I have lots more to learn as I go.
So hmm, I meant to summarize my art-style and I did that somewhat but I think this is going to lead into many more posts over time. Visual art is the signature of most any videogame, so there's always going to be more to examine on this front.