Building Stylized Characters for Games: Tips and Tricks

Building Stylized Characters for Games: Tips and Tricks

Volodya Liubchuk talked about the key things you need to pay attention to during character production for games.

Volodya Liubchuk talked about the key things you need to pay attention to during character production for games.

Skeleton Boss by frame_first on Sketchfab


Good afternoon. My name is Volodya Liubchuk. I realized that I wanted to do 3D modeling when I studied at the university. In the third year I happened to come across Maya and got very impressed by the book by Sergey Tsytsypin. From that time on I almost stopped going to the university and spent all my time with that program. By the end of the university studies, I had realized that I wanted to design characters, particularly in hand-painted style. But it wasn’t easy to get that kind of job. I spent many months with no job at all, worked on next gen projects, on browser games…Moved from one city to another every year or half a year. I started making hand painted style characters three years after it became my dream but even that was just a temporary freelance job. Five years later, I began working at Airship Syndicate. A small company from a large country. In this article I want to share my experience of making the Skeleton King from the Battle Chasers project.

One more thing before we start. In my work I draw strong parallels between the model and the concept. And I don’t just talk about it. I literally project everything I can from the concept to the model. (Through the “Edit projection” command in ext. Editor in 3D-Coat) It lets me minimize mistakes I can make in character proportions, aspects of armor pieces, etc. I only do it this way when level of the concept is much higher than mine. When I’m afraid I can make a mistake somewhere. To not notice something. Miss some information. When the character is below my level, I can just cast a glance at the concept from time to time. All of it goes for hand painted characters.

Workflow of making the skeleton

I began with taking our basic skeleton (it was made by another artist, not me) as a basis. I did it for a several reasons. First of all, the animator wouldn’t have to make a new rigging. Secondly, it saved the time I would need for modeling. I could start adding armor right away. The main thing to keep in mind there was to not move any bones of the basic skeleton. Even if I wanted to do it.

In the concept, the skeleton’s legs are strongly bent in the knees. If you model it right in T pose, you can get serious problems later, when they get bent. That’s why I begin with trying on armor in the required pose.

P.S. If I don’t have a basic model, I can use parts of my old characters or just dummy meshes. If the model is very unique, I can draft a basic mesh for it in ZBrush.

After all the checks, we move to adding the rest of the mesh.

Now I need to touch upon the fur, coat, silhouette and style


Since artist Grace Liu painted it very thoroughly and it seemed to fit well into a plane, I thought I could project one piece of fur in 3D-Coat. Then I could cut different flocks, move them apart, rotate, and round the whole shape.

In other words, first I created part A. Then copied A, moved to the back, copied a few times and got a complete rear part (B). I also made the rear part slightly darker (technically, I copied the UV and texture and then darkened).

After that, to make that copy-paste less visible, I made part C. This part is also in the concept, if you look closer, there are a few flocks on the back.

I must say that the result is always hard to predict. Your work on fur can go quickly or very slowly. 

Coat and cloth

Never cut cloth silhouette in the beginning, you should first draw the silhouette and have it approved. Work with alpha. The keyword here is approval. If you neglect it, you can get a serious feedback.

Speaking of designing good cloth. By looking at the cloak I can tell that it needs

  1. More or less realistic folds (The folds should fade at some point, like glares on metal. Evenly made shadows cast by folds are easy to notice and they don’t look good)
  2. General gradient to the bottom. Shadows from the shoulder pieces and helmet in this case
  3. Eye-catching silhouette.

 To draw a silhouette like that, you need to practice drawing this kind of lines all the time. Try to repeat this style here and there in your work, sooner or later you’ll get a hang of it. Speaking of silhouette.


You need to look at it in an early stage. It’s very important to make sure that your silhouette and details match with those in the concept. Trust me, this is pain, it’s easier to just say “that will do”

work of an artist from Polycount forum)

How to get such a result?

Sometimes I apply to the model a special shader in Maya.

Sure, it causes extra distraction to apply it all the time. But it’s worth doing at by the end of modeling. I’m sure, here or there you’ll see a flat shape. It’s even better to compare in Photoshop with a cool model or a reference

A couple of words about nuances

If your work is difficult, you must check how you judge by the eye. Here is an example.

I add small details in the end. Over the finished texture.

As for small details that easily fit in a plane – I deal with them just like with the fur above – project, cut, add thickness and so on

These details are from other characters but the method is the same.

It’s easier for me to make additions to the concept and then add depth to it than first model, then go through a long editing while I’m texturing it. The thing is there will always be mistakes.

But doesn’t extrusion bring a lot of deformation into UV?  IT DOES. That’s why after finishing a mesh I copy it and assign a checker to the copy. Then I make a PERFECT UV on the copy and rebake the texture from the old model to the new. And finish the texture.

Here is how to rebake it.

If you don’t check your model at all, you’ll get something like this

The picture is from this article.

Picture 6 is a silhouette, and here you can see how the elements interact with each other Mistake number 2 after silhouette.

What if the concept is distorted by perspective?

Then I try to straighten a certain detail in Photoshop with the warp tool to get rid of the perspective distortion. This is one of the ways.

Let me also show you how I set up a reference.

Let’s say, the left shoulder piece or armor on the leg is closer to me. Then I mostly work on it and then copy to the other side, BUT. I will still look at the silhouette of the detail on the opposite side. If their sizes are very different, I average them. For instance, this shoulder piece is very large and that one is very small. I choose a size somewhere in between these two. And so on.

The stylistics, what is good and what is bad.

Smooth form is not bad but lack of accents is. The form can be rounded but it should be given a certain style.

It took me awhile to understand it. And will take even more to understand better.

I will try to describe general modeling mistakes shortly.

  1. Silhouette 
  2. Elements of outfit. Errors in size, distance between each other
  3. Loss of form. When you make form too rounded, trivial. This is my typical mistake

P.S. A hand is the most difficult for me to make.

Texturing – tweaking the model

For beginners:

In dame development, when they texture a model in this stylistics, many elements are simply copied to a mesh from the concept (and then are made additions to). For example, in Allods Online and Royal Quest. In next gen projects they don’t do it, because there’s PBR and because you won’t be able to use texture from the concept. In projects like HOTS they started with high-poly modeling and then textured it by the eye. Although they had great concepts of hand painted stylistics. Maybe they did it because it was easier to find good modelers than good texture artists.

After projecting, there came the first feedback)

We fixed it and moved on

It’s good to start with getting an approximate image of the model. And then will gaps. add details, colors, glares.

Painting details

At some point we began using stylized details in Battle Chasers and I should admit, we didn’t even think of it at first. 

How to learn to make details like these.

  1. This is stylistics 
  2.  These are shadows used by artists when they draw in pencil.

Drawing from Pinterest

They are not always blurred, sometimes they are pretty sharp. Surely, they should look good on a 3D model.

What brushes do I use in Photoshop and 3D-Coat?

Mostly soft – for general shadows and small details.

Also, I use the brushes by artist Luke Mancini (I got to know about them in the end of the project)

There’s a very important point. A model must have no

  1. super bright glares (leave them to the engine)
  2. super dark shadows (it would be perfect to have an additional color in shadows)

There should be a bottom to top gradient but don’t go too far with it. It’s not a browser game.

It would be just perfect to test textures in the engine, with a ready background or near finished models.

I also recommend you to take a look at this cool tutorial on character design by Valve.

And the last but not the least. How to sell your work. How to make as many people as possible notice it. You need to catch their eye and keep it. Do your best to make them at least open it.

Respect your work.

Volodya Liubchuk, 3D Artist at Airship Syndicate

Join discussion

Comments 5

  • Volodya

    -Babou - its ok. You can use triangles in gamedev, why not? If animator need better topology- i add, fix geo where he wants. Its fast.



    ·a year ago·
  • Babou

    Hey, I noticed you use a lot of triangles, and your topology could be considered.. messy? (no offence ). What is your thought process behind triangles, and topology? Great article !



    ·a year ago·
  • Volodya

    You are welcome guys, thanks you



    ·a year ago·
  • Saferi

    Incredible , mastering(or even learning) such a technique is just a blessing . It trully is fascinating how you get from step 1 to step % , covering every detail as best as possible.



    ·a year ago·
  • Leonid Deburger

    Very nice.


    Leonid Deburger

    ·a year ago·

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