My name is Danil Soloyov and I’m a 3D artist for Plarium Games. I was hired three years ago as a 3D generalist and over time evolved into a 3D character artist. As constructing 3D characters is one of my passions I wanted to share a behind-the-scenes look into my process. I will be using the example of the Archer from our latest Facebook release, Sparta: War of Empires. This character was used as promotional illustration for the game, rather than as an actual in-game model, meaning I was not limited by memory restrictions.
Communication between each specialised group is essential for well-balanced character creation, so I needed to work closely with our concept artists.
The first step was to present a variety of concepts and select the most suitable ones with our art director. Our concepts were selected by studying Greek history and our own professional opinions. Of course, it came down to how we wanted the game to look and feel. As artists, we enjoy a unique level of freedom of choice and expression of creativity. There’s a lot of scope for us to apply our ideas to the original concept.
When creating a 3D model you must understand the significance of silhouettes, gesture and the importance of S-curve and C-curve at the stage of T-pose and template (as seen in the image below).
Some artists would argue these parameters can be applied to the character after it’s been put in the final pose. While they’re not completely wrong, in this particular case I felt the character wouldn’t be as smooth and dynamic as compared to applying them to the templated body early in the design process.
In the case of the Sparta model, I utilised one templated body for all of the units, which was modelled by our team lead, Vladimir Silkin.
I applied a low-poly 3D layout to the body to get a quick idea of the silhouette and character design. Low-poly 3D layout is a process that utilises polygons and angles that provide the artist with a basic version of the dimensional silhouette. This allows you to see the silhouette of the main character design with minimal expenditure of effort.
I ended up with many different versions, especially when designing the helmets for the model.
The head is one of the most important and meticulous elements of character design, so we tried on a multitude of different outfits, adding some elements on the fly until it looked the way we imagined it. The challenge came with walking the fine line between building a model that was true to history while also being true to our vision.
Once I was satisfied with my creation, I needed to receive approval from the art director. Finally, after a process of preening and primping the design, all was approved and I could move forward. Now I was able to move into the details, and to start using some colour!
Most of the work was done in 3ds Max, one of most common programs we used at Plarium to create 3D graphics, animation and effects. Since this was an illustration and not an in-game models for the game engine, I wasn’t limited by the number of polygons or map definitions.
I ended up with 1.5k polygons and 10 sets of 4096×4096 maps (diffuse map, reflection map, specular map, normal map, displacement and opacity). Nearly every element of the character received its own set, resulting in an incredibly slow scene. For this process, it helps to switch off the textures in Viewport (the region of the screen used to display a portion of the total image).
As an example of the process, let’s discuss the quiver located over the shoulder of the model. It’s made of leather, so it shouldn’t be perfectly smooth like I modelled it previously using the Turbosmooth tool. This tool is normally utilised for blending geometrically complex shapes into smooth surfaces. It’s similar to sanding your image as a carpenter would with a piece of timber; allowing you to convert low-poly models into high-poly versions. So, here I needed to use the Noise modifier tool to add some creases to the surface.
You can see in the above image that we get a more realistic look. The leather is thick and calloused, which is more like it would look in real life. Now we need to move on to the shoulder piece!
The leather trimming creases are made with an inward edge extruder, which creates the edges you need for realism. The tool is applied to the places where the creases should sit nicely and improve the overall depth of the model. All of the leather edge trimmings in the armor are made in the exact same way.
Now we need to bring the quilted leather template into ZBrush (You can see this in the image below). This allows the user to sculpt the model in the same way you would mould clay. We can spread with the UV Master tool to apply an Alpha map on the surface (taking a black and white image and using them as you would a stencil), and then break the model up into the maximum number of polygons.
Open the Noise modifier again in the Surface tab, and click Alpha on/off to load your Alpha Map and turn on the UV effect so that the map is projected on to the UV spread. If the Alpha Map applies incorrectly, you only need to adjust the template and try again.
For the next step we adjust the UV template to apply the Alpha map correctly.
Finish the creases within ZBrush program using the Dam-Standard brush, a tool that allows you to sculpt sharp details on your model like wrinkles and scars on a human face. The results of this stage can be found in the following image. The bracelets have also been achieved using ZBrush.
When I began sculpting the lion’s muzzle on the bracelets, I realised there was an issue. The bracelet is asymmetrical, and I had to deactivate the symmetry. After restarting the process three times and inevitably failing, I realised the answer laid in the elementary solution that everyone learns in drawing class. All I had to do was rule up, or measure the bracelet for the correct proportions and symmetry like this:
It might seem obvious, but it teaches a valuable lesson about the importance of basic design. Those who also use Activate Symmetry on a regular basis could easily make similar mistakes to mine. It shouldn’t be used for absolutely everything!
To make the following easier to understand, I broke it down in steps:
Step 1 – First, create a 3ds Max template covering the body. Then check if the proportions and silhouette are ok. If so, you’re good to continue.
Step 2 – Look for a suitable design in ZBrush. In this case, we can trust the human anatomy and get fancy lines by reproducing muscle and bone outlines, just like the Ancient Greek blacksmiths used to do.
Step 3 – Start adding details once the design and proportions look good and you’re happy enough with the results. It’s a widely used practice for general-to-specific modelling – start from global simple forms (low-poly layout) and as you progress add smaller and smaller details, creating more intricacies in the sculpt.
Step 4 – As I’m making an illustration the model has no polygon or map restrictions I can use ZRemesher. This powerful Zbrush function allows users to convert a million-polygon net into a 5k-polygon one (completely digestable for 3ds Max) by clicking only one button. Once all the details are finished, the knee piece can be therefore be transferred back into 3ds Max.
Without going into too much detail on the textures, I generally went about it using the usual standard textbook methods in Photoshop. In order to make the scratch marks, Mudbox was also used alongside Photoshop. While there are other methods to achieve the same outcome this is my preference.
All developments were done automatically with UV master in ZBrush.
Since Sparta: War of Empires is based in Ancient Greece, I needed to make traditional Greek designs or patterns along the edge of the fabric so that they appear as an extra layer on the cloth.
I first tried to make them in ZBrush, although the process was tedious and slow. After a few more failed attempts, I decided to try taking a straight ornament.
Next, I applied Edit, and then used Puppet Warp, a function in Photoshop that allows an artist to crumple and bend an image in whatever shape they wish.
After this step, mark the control points. Press and hold at each point and warp the ornament until you get the desired shape. Click Enter and it’s done.
Creating materials on the models are not as difficult as one might think. All you need is to control the process using maps. I find that if you don’t try too hard by fiddling with the advanced settings it’s a very simple process. Let’s look at constructing a helmet for instance.
Remember that some metals like gold and bronze have a yellow glint. So you need to apply to reflect a yellow-orange map, not a black and white one.
This image explains the scheme of lighting.
After rendering the image, we get a clear render without any post-production. Common examples of rendering include adding reflections, refractions and shadows to make your 3D scene a photorealistic one.
Constructing the Heavy Archer for Plarium was both a challenging and rewarding experience because, professionally, it allowed me to experience just how much detail goes into character development. The smallest of details are what set your character design ahead of the competition.
Hardcore social games are at times are looked down upon for their lack of console level detailing, but as illustrated this can be far from the case. All we can do is continue to do what we do best, and the reward comes from the fans who return time and time again.
Thanks to Daniel and Plarium for this article. Be sure to check out Sparta: War of Empires!