Implementing Low Poly Style in Game Dev

Maciej Szymaś shared some details of his project under development Necropoly and talked about implementation of the low poly style in game development.

Maciej Szymaś shared some details of his project under development Necropoly and talked about the implementation of the low poly style in game development.

Life Updates

Hi! First of all, I should say I started to feel bad lately due to constantly sitting in front of the computer, so I bought a desk that allows working in a standing position plus I plan to get back to running. I strongly recommend everyone working in a healthy way, this really helps to work as effectively as possible.

It has been a while since we talked last time, but honestly, I feel as if it was just yesterday. This might be a side effect of working 100% of the time. And it’s nice when from time to time someone wakes me up and asks about the projects I’ve done.

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Since the last interview, when I introduced The Plasticine World, I’ve actually finished several new projects including a metro station in the pixel art style used for creating an OculusGo game and a new pack of assets (over 700) for village environment in the Slavica medieval atmosphere. These together with 10 smaller projects can be found on my Asset Store.

It’s also worth mentioning that I started to create particles thanks to which my projects can get a more natural feeling. In the future, I plan to create characters and animals that would populate my worlds.

About Necropoly

Necropoly is in the production phase at the moment, but I can share some details.

The project is made for the Asset Store and is going to be a set of thousand assets with the use of which one could create a huge necropolis. I guess, everyone can imagine a typical necropolis. Many people visit Père-Lachaise and Les Amandiers in France or Cementerio de la Chacarita in Argentina. There are probably several films exploiting the motif and depicting a cemetery in the background. There are also several games presenting a cemetery atmosphere, for example, Painkiller on PC made by our Polish game dev father Adam Chmielarz or MediEvil on PSX.

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If speaking generally, a necropolis can strongly stimulate imagination, attract, and feel uninviting at the same time. One of the places of such kind is the cemetery Wadi-us-Salaam in Iraqui, a huge “city” with no houses, but tombs extending to the horizon! This cemetery is my inspiration. When it comes to Wadi-us-Salaam, what inspires me is its enormity, not architecture. When I found it on Google maps, I started to work immediately. I found my old unfinished cemetery project started several years ago and I adapted it to my vision.

I’m convinced that such a way of presenting a cemetery has not been shown in any game so far. I can tell you that now the set that is being created includes 2000 assets. Not all of them are going to be available for sale, however, because I don’t want to give away some of my ideas. Instead, they will be used for something really original one day, some kind of adventure in the world of my assets, preferably VR! In my opinion, it’s worth to bet on the originality and new experience. I hope I’ll create such a game one day.

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I don’t work with concept artists but make concepts on my own. I look for inspirations and collect them in the form of a mind map (for example, in PureRef) which thanks to the system of theme grouping really facilitates my work organization during complex projects. Then, the gathered references are reinterpreted in order to get something original. 

My work can be divided into four phases and each means adding another detail. I never do a model at once. Only when I see my model in primitive but refined shapes I’m able to decide what it lacks.

So far, I created assets only for PC and consoles but I’m getting prepared to the market of assets for mobile games. It turns out that these branches are related as far as the preparation of the models is concerned and I’ll just finish the projects in my first or second phase when creating assets for mobile.

Here’s how my models look in the beginning and at the end:

My observations lead to a conclusion that when making low poly for PC and console games or illustrations and other non-game projects, we tend to believe that 3D models should be as simple as possible as far as geometry is concerned. I see that this approach is especially used by new creators, but there are also professional teams who work in such a way when creating assets for mobile devices. The producers of larger games would expect it, too.

A model with such simplified geometry and common shape can be roughly called a “placeholder”.

The key to a nice-looking model is the proportions and the proper shape. First, I attempt to get the simplest form possible and this can be reached within several minutes. But even though the model looks nice, I would rather spend at least an hour to get a result that could be shown in bigger indie games. And the simple models can be saved to prototype my own game, for example.

A tiny model, which can be used for a mobile game. If you’re creating an indie game for PC and Console, let your models be more complicated.

Models like this are used by mobile games enthusiasts, and I think this approach is correct because the models look nice on the screens of mobiles or tablets and are also efficient. I called this trend of presenting the worlds with the use of really small but nice models “Tiny”.

As I’ve mentioned above, the modeling process is divided into four stages, from the starting point to the final effect seen in the renders. First, basic shape. Next, optimal model development. Then, the shape stylization and adding more details. Finally, adding details on the model surface.

Originally shaped object with simple geometry and its artistic value remained.

Taking into account that low poly doesn’t involve traditional texture and UV, I rather spend more energy on preparing geometry of a model. Indie game creators seem not to be aware of this, unnecessarily trying to simplify the models and optimize them. This might result in haste or divergence from the concept. I don’t worry about this aspect and at the same time do not sacrifice efficiency. Spending on a model only an hour, I get an optimal result and there is only little effort left to get the effect like on the picture.

Low poly does not need to be simple. Use your 1000 tris limit and create an outstanding model. Try to work on the shape of model as much as possible. Emphasize details trying to capture the surface character.

The model with little geometry does not need to be simple and you don’t have to fight for each poly. 3D models just have to be shaped properly and originally and have proper surface.

While working in such style I have in mind that metal can crush, wood wears out on the edges or break into two pieces. In order to make my models look reliable, I try to emphasize such features. But BE CAREFUL! When making such models in microscale one cannot overdo the details. The game performance would be worse and the project would not profit visually.

To sum up, I believe that making a PC or Console game in low poly, one should not take care of optimization as much and can safely stylize the models through more sophisticated geometry. Such models will make a proper impression and get appreciated. What’s more, the game in such a style will remain alive forever unlike highly realistic games which can be discarded after a decade.

Layout Density & Performance

The surface details of the models are only one of the factors influencing the art perception, so as a creator, I keep this in mind. Another thing that enriches the piece of art is the proper order of these models in a world. As a level artist, I take care of the maximum density of objects in the scene. I also often try to place some objects that don’t seem to suit my world at first. These two things alone can make the project unique.

It’s fine to place models that don’t suit the world at first glance. This will, however, double the effect of the message reception.

The trend of dense asset spawning allowed by continuous improvements of the engines and creators’ awareness can be noticed in the games made within several recent years.

When it comes to my experience, the focus on low poly gives a huge boost to efficiency from the very beginning and noticeably makes the game engine lighter. The lack of necessity to use maps other than diffuse, the usage of one huge texture atlas and several materials for the whole project with the LOD technique additionally reduces the weight of the project. Several other optimization methods will be mentioned below.

Shading, Texturing & Coloring

Shading in all my projects, except for the latest Necropoly, comes fully from post-processing, namely from the Ambient Occlusion effect counted in real-time. Except for the post-processing, my project will be enriched with special albedo texture with a properly prepared color gradient. The texture is made for the need of showing moss, dust, and marks of time on the walls of the graves. It will, however, not need a traditional UV.

When it comes to the color choice, I usually do it intuitively. Recently, I have also found an ambitious tool I’m testing right now called Color Constructor.

Under the photo text: I enrich my models look with modifiers, escaping from the typical “low poly” style

The style of my objects is not completely flat. When modeling assets in Blender, I started to use face smooth shading or Edge modifier, using marks Sharp and operating normals in data models. These new methods let me achieve more interesting surface structures. What I mean is that they are more oval, smoother and as if they were sculpted. But BE AWARE that this is not done at the cost of the geometrical density of the model. The number of tris in such a model stays the same as in the models made with the original method.

Wireframe / No lightning:

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With lightning / With lightning & post-processing:

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Advantages of Low Poly Games

Generally speaking, the main value of the low poly style used for a game is that it allows sustaining the game alive over time. This can be reached even without relying on realistic reflections.

The productions that aim at realism become archaic quite soon. We can take the game by LucasArt Day of the Tentacle made in 1993, for example, to prove a properly stylized game can live a long life. It’s a cult game that was remastered in 2016.

Low poly games are efficient due to the lowered geometry of the models. This makes the creation process unrestrained. Advanced post-processing (which as we already know cannot be baked) can be freely used to make the game more beautiful. There is no need for complex UV creation just to show nicely shading gradient colors. The gradient effect can be reached either with material shaders, Ambient Occlusion or even primitive UV. Other optimization methods like light baking, mesh baking or even Occlusion Culling let you place much more models (even twice the number) into the world!

When creating scenes, I unavoidably use such broad tools as Easy Scatter, Enviro Spawner, and Object Placement Tool. I use them reasonably, however. Building reasonable worlds cannot depend on random spawning with tools like this.

Advice for Game Developers

Except for the practical tips I’ve given before, I can also mention that as a level artist you need to play games a lot.

The lack of atmosphere and cohesion might crush your work. Without these two factors, your world will not meaningful, and the story that must be shown mainly through images will not attract the player’s attention.

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Different books are also helpful if you want to get inspired by the worlds described in the literature. They stimulate your brain cells and you’ll surely produce something original. If you, however, would like to shock your viewers/players then it might be reasonable to get inspired by action films premiered within the last 2-4 years.

And here’s my basic thought: before you start the production of your life, first, spend several years filling yourself with different images, inspiration, and experience, and every day, spend at least 4 hours on 3D art and game engine testing. It’s also important to learn how to manage your time and team (which you might employ in order to produce the work of your life). That’s it!

Maciej Szymaś, Level Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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