Irfan Haider shared his experience of working in the industry on vehicle art, talked about their peculiarities, workflow, materials, decals, polycount, and more.
My name is Irfan Haider and I’m from New Delhi, India. I have been working in the video games industry since 2013 specializing in vehicles and hard surface. I also had the opportunity to work on different projects that allowed me to be a part of environment art and props. I’m a passionate gamer and an experienced video game artist. I have had the opportunity to be a part of several AAA titles which include Forza Motorsport and Horizon series from Playground Games and Turn 10 Studios, and DiRT and F1 series from Codemasters Studios to name a few.
I would say my passion for video games is the main reason I got into this industry. I remember seeing my eldest brother playing Contra on the TV and it was so much fun to be the 2nd player whenever I could. The first time I saw my brother playing a 3D game I was just blown away. Seeing objects move in 3D was great and I thought “hmm… I’m playing this, but someone has to be making this, right?… I want to be this person”.
I’m a self-learner and like to explore stuff. I first started learning CG stuff online and practicing modeling at home after I tried to take a 3D class at an institute but found it was not good enough for me. Sometime after that, I tried to apply for a job and got my first position in the industry in India.
Crafting Vehicles for Games
Video game assets have a poly budget and you have to stay within that number while maintaining quality. I would say it’s good to have some technical knowledge for vehicle modeling – how things work and connect in real life definitely helps in the poly distribution and line flow, reflections, shading, etc. I remember when I was learning 3D a senior artist said: “If you are adding an edge/vertex/poly, make sure it has a purpose, otherwise you don’t need it”. Basically don’t just keep on adding edges because you want to add them, make sure there is a reason behind them and you maintain the polycount and keep the mesh clean.
Also, keeping animation and rigging in mind is a good thing so that later on, when someone takes over your work, the process doesn’t get slowed down otherwise it can result in overtime and crunches. It’s just a loss-loss situation if you don’t keep these basic things in mind because when you are working on a game, you are not alone involved. Help others and yourself by having a clean and solid start.
Do not hesitate to look up for more references if the provided ones are not clear and bring some confusion. Internet is a powerful tool, so make sure you use it as much as you can to find the things that you are looking for. If you can’t see the undercarriage of a vehicle in the provided references then look it up on some shopping websites, individual part images, etc. A lot of games have modding communities and groups – join them if you want to see way more stuff.
One more important thing: model accordingly to your needs! Do not spend your precious polys and time on the places where no one will see the details. For example, make the interior details that are hidden basic, do not spend a lot of time on them. Focus on the areas that matter, the areas where the game cameras will be, like the cockpit and rear view, etc. Try to look at your vehicle as a gamer and not just as an artist. Try to think of the replay cameras and how they will showcase your vehicle. Also, when doing vehicle art, do check your assets in the orthographic view as things often look great in perspective but could be a total mess in the orthographic view.
My workflow depends on what I’m provided with. If there is a CAD model I would just start making a surface over it as you don’t have to worry about a lot of things. You can start anywhere you feel like and just continue detailing as you proceed. If I’m provided with references then I would start with the dimensions of the vehicle, make a proxy box and place cylinders as wheels, then do a camera match. Sometimes your first camera match would be perfect and other times you just got to tweak your camera along the way. If I’m provided with blueprint, it can serve for some basic shapes and details but you still need to crosscheck if the blueprint is missing something and if all the parts are correct for the model that you are attempting to make. Crosscheck it with comparing to a real-life vehicle. Once all is set I would generally start with the wheel arc area and then continue making the model until I have a basic shape that covers up the reference/blueprint/CAD. Then it comes to tweaking and improvements. When all the shapes are in, I would do the body cuts.
Vehicle Part Libraries
Quite a lot of studios have libraries for brake, caliper, suspension, etc. that help with placing the objects where they belong. If that sort of library is nonexistent, you have to make it by studying references (or not if you are lucky to get a CAD mesh). Having a shared library for the interior is quite difficult as the interiors of vehicles vary a lot, so if you don’t have one, there goes the same: searching for references, camera matching, searching for parts and stuff and then modeling the pieces accordingly.
From my experience so far, I can say materials for cars are quite easy. The cars are generally made pristine, hence just basic PBR materials can do the job quite well. In some cases, studios have their own material and shader libraries so after proper unwrapping, you simply apply those materials and shaders and you are done. In other cases, there are PBR spec sheets you follow as to what color range you can be in and what values for roughness/metallic, etc. you should have. If nothing is provided and/or available, you proceed as you normally would: a base material, a car paint on top of it, texturing… you get the drill.
Dirt & Use Marks
My experience might be different from what people are used to be doing, for example, you see a lot of vehicles in games which are dirty from the start. They have a story already and look like they have been already used before. A lot of work that I have done so far is a bit different: the car changes its look over time according to how the player uses it. Most of the cars are made pristine and look fresh out of the factory. When the player gets to use it, I have to design and pre-apply custom maps to preprogram the way dust/dirt/snow/etc. is supposed to appear and in which areas. It has to look believable and you have to study the references (I guess I should start counting how many times I say that!) for the grunge, dirt, and dust on the vehicles in use. Then you check everything on the mesh either in the game engine or a 3D program, and the rest is up to the player and the game engine programming.
Photoshop is the boss here. Again, everything depends on the pipeline and sometimes you can be required to use a different program, but I mostly use Photoshop. All the decals are made in vector form because of two very specific reasons: the ability to rescale and apply wherever needed. This way might take a bit more time compared to using an image but it is worth it. Let’s say you get feedback or something changes in the licensing and you have to rescale your livery parts or replace them. If you have the decals in the vector form, you will not lose any details: whether you scale them up or down, the quality stays.
How to Keep within Poly Budget
Focus on the parts that define the shape and the silhouette of the vehicle and are always visible. If needed, you should delete some objects that are small. Even LOD1 is quite far for the player to see everything. For the exterior, the process usually starts with removing the supporting edges on the body cuts and then differentiating with the smoothing groups to achieve the same result. At a certain distance shared smoothing does not matter much, antialiasing is good enough for that. Then try to see how much else you have to reduce, convert that into percentage and then apply that percentage of reduction in polys/tris to every object that you have (hood, door, etc). Constantly look at the things you are optimizing from the distance they’ll be seen at. If you’re at the stage of LOD1 try to look at the objects at LOD1 distance and so on.