Hey! My name is Andre Kent and I'm a 3D Character Artist! I've worked on an MMO called Profane for the most part of my professional life, plus several other (still) unreleased titles. I've never worked for a major company before, mostly indie developers and small teams.
Learning 3D with Limited Resources
As I live in Brazil, I'd say that over the last few years the game industry here has changed and grown quite a lot. When I started, companies expected you to do it all: 2D, 3D, Concept, UI, VFX... all of it. So I learned 3D because I had to in order to deliver whatever game I was working on at the time.
Back then, seeing the amazing 3D Artists at Blizzard, Riot and THQ felt like being a kid and watching your parents drive. You know it FEELS easy because they know so well what they're doing, but you have NO idea how anything works. Curiosity is mostly what drove me. At that time, Game Development oriented courses and classes were close to none, even online, those came later. So I stuck to trying to recreate the works of artists I enjoyed by myself; after I felt that I kind of understood how they composed their ideas into one piece, I'd try to make an original artwork based on the same mindset (and often the same theme). I was very inspired by trying to break down all those amazing pieces, not only technically, but artistically, too, since I didn't have any other sources of knowledge.
Making characters came a bit later after I grasped the modeling process and 3D software well enough and felt I could tell bigger stories through characters (at the time, I believed it would take less time to finish than an environment that would probably require MONTHS of work to be fleshed out). I always loved coming up with character stories and making character designs oriented to what people would "read" when looking at them. Being able to push out features and make a character overly exaggerated really helps emphasize certain traits or just push that idea as further as possible. It's not realistic to have a character with a shield that's twice his size, but it's certainly convenient when you want players to understand he's VERY hard to hit. So that's where I landed.
Paladin Ron: Origin
My wife and I are huge fans of Parks and Recreation. Lately, I've been working on a lot of fan art projects based on the games I care about, and I felt it would be cool to go for a different piece for a change. A stylized hand-painted Ron Swanson sounded like a fun idea. Since Fantasy is my favorite genre, I thought "what's the closest thing to a government in a Fantasy setting?" I figured out that Paladins serve the Church and the King, so that's where Ron would be, hating the order of Paladins and their "inefficiency".
For the references, I used a bunch of pictures of Ron Swanson, as well as a couple of 3D models fans of the show had already made (it's crazy hard to find a profile shot of Nick Offerman). As for the armor, I didn't have a concept for it and just came up with its design on the spot blocking whatever felt right for the purpose of carrying the general idea.
I started with a DynaMesh sphere and built Ron down from the head. I knew the body would be easier because it'd have a stylized silhouette and armor, so I mainly focused on his likeness. Most of the time, Ron Swanson has pretty much the same expression, so I just sculpted him in his default grumpy state, extracted his hair and mustache, and carved the hair chunks with Dam Standard brush to get the stylized look. Then, I polished it with Trim Dynamic and called it a day.
For the armor, I focused on how it'd read in his usual poses (arms crossed or hand on waist holding a cup, basically). I wanted to build over those poses embedding paladin elements, so I gave him large shoulder armor parts (like Blizzard) and tried to keep everything else as straight-forward as possible not to take away from the body gesture.
After I'm done with the sculpting phase, my geometry-oriented workflow takes place in Blender. For retopology, I always explode the character so that the baking phase doesn't rely on the object names and all that. I explode it in rounded increments so that the building of the character is painless later on. I use RetopoFlow which offers me a lot of very convenient tools to place the low-poly geometry exactly where I want it to be. For Paladin Ron, I wasn't really worried about the polycount (the finished version has 14,665 Tris) since I just wanted him to read as clear as possible, so I threw in polygons to ensure the face doesn't have visible corners. I didn't care about that in the armor though.
Blender has a lot of useful addons. For UVs, I use UVPackMaster, which compresses UV islands in the most compact way, so the texel density stays optimal. Since Ron's face was a focal point I didn't mark any seams on the visible edges, sticking to the edges where the skin naturally folds.
Baking & Texturing
When retopo is done, I use Marmoset Toolbag for the bakes. It allows me to control the caging and paint its offset wherever it overlaps, so I don't have to worry a lot about the proximity of pieces when sculpting the high-poly version. Since I explode the character to make retopo and bakes easier (Normal, Curvature, AO and MatID), I don't bake position, worldspace or Thickness. I leave those to be baked in Substance Painter where my character will be built and those maps will actually make sense.
Conveniently, baking the AO with an exploded character ensures that there's no projected AO of loose pieces that might be later animated, helping me a lot with the volumes and contacts of pieces that will for sure be in contact all the time. I can always bake Contact-AO later for presentation, but in-game, the model will often rely on SSAO anyway, so there's no need to overstep it.
When the bakes are spotless, I'll start laying out primary materials: Skin tone, Metals, Leathers, Hair, etc. I have a bunch of those already preset, but most of the time, I will rely on Joe Pikop's SoMuchMaterials (definitely recommend it!) to lay out a perfect base for hand-painting - that's my focus in Substance Painter. I try as much as possible to be objective when using Substance. I use MatID to lay out masks for each of the materials and get everything to an acceptable starting point for paintover. When I get to that point, I proceed to 3D Coat. Often, 2-3 layers between Soft Light, Standard and Lighten will suffice, but that's where I have the most fun, so I often just take my time and figure out what looks best as I go.
Back to Blender, I use Auto-Rig Pro to rig, skin and pose my character. I separate pieces I want no distortion over and just parent them to the controllers. After everything is in place, I just add a couple of keyframes to make it feel like something you'd expect from a game with Ron Swanson in it. There's nothing fancy, I mostly stick to some sense of movement so that the character feels alive and create an idle animation to present the model instead of a statue presentation.
I constantly tell people I'm not an animator (which is true), but I get the feeling static presentation kills a lot of the model's appeal. Subtle animations give out a lot of the character's personality and help a ton in conveying the general tone of the (supposed) art direction. That's why I taught myself how to animate just enough for such kind of presentation and that's where I'm at.
For the lighting, since I have a hand-painted texture which implies there're baked light sources in the texture, I went for an Unlit material, with Normal Map, Roughness and Metalness. An extra light source will project the light on the normal map adding to the volume of the hand-painted texture that's already there. The scene has 2 light sources (A Key and a Bounce), so there's nothing fancy here.