Stylized Textures for Video Game Characters
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Stylized Textures for Video Game Characters
4 January, 2017
Great 3d artist Nikolay Tsys talked about his approach to modern tools and shared some tips on quality material production.


I am a 3d artist from Russia and I am currently working for Group in studio called Pushkin Games. It’s an awesome place to be right now, and I am thankful to the team and especially my art director Aleksey Moskalenko for this opportunity.

I am graduate of Scream School, a game graphics department. It was a big push for me, in terms of understating industry and spectrum of tasks which I will need to solve. I want to thank my teachers.

After the first semester at Scream School I got a job in Rocket Jump Games, on projects like “Inferno”,  “Under Siege” and a couple of unannounced projects, it was an awesome starting point in my career, a lot of awesome and talented people worked there and most of them currently are working there. I am especially thankful to Marat Latypov who basically taught me all I know about traditional modeling and animation in terms of 3ds max and kinda pushed me to the understating of an ART part of 3d.

Then I moved on to Warhold project, it’s an indie title and it was a lot of fun, especially compared to Office Straight Pipeline of RJ-games. A lot of experiments, mistakes and happy incidents. It was a special time in my life. I want to give a credit to team, really talented Producer Pavel Ovchinnikov who brings stability to the team and really awesome art director Radion Kovalchuk.

Elements of Character Art

I think it’s all about dynamics, when you get a stiff left\front\back concept art, and you are making it in a stiff T-pose, then you add some unclean\mocap\pre-made animation you get an overall stiff character. So you should push as much dynamics in every iteration as you can, as much as your pipeline can handle anyway.

Dynamics is important quality at every stage. So you should enhance incoming design and every iteration must be as artistic as it can be, from high poly to low poly, from test bakes to final textures, every detail must be representative of your and art director’s artistic vision, so even your topology and your UVs part of it, not in reverse. So push your technical skills to the point where it does not make you sacrifice your artistic vision. I think it’s an ultimate goal for everyone who wants to become a 3D Artist as well as my personal goal, and in my opinion, pushing dynamics to your sculpting, topology flow, shape separation, color contrasts etc.. is a way to go.

Stylized Textures

I guess all the credits go to Substance Designer in this case. I came across texturing a bit late in my career, and I didn’t have any traditional background, and I struggle a lot with software, I tried Mari, Quixel, and vanilla Photoshop too. It was a confusing experience. So I decided to go from my needs, and start from basics. So I opened DOTA 2 texturing guide, which is all made in Photoshop and it’s as simple as it gets. It’s a basic step-by-step tutorial, with almost no manual input from artist after 3D iteration. Just get your bakes – AO, Normal, Lights etc., and you are good to go. So I ask myself what software can give me that kind of workflow besides Photoshop, and after some research I found that node-based Substance Designer (SD) will do that.

At the time I was working on Warhold and my manager accepted my two-week self education pause, which I devoted to studying SD. And this was an exciting time for me. Allegorithmic has an awesome youtube channel with incredible collection of free tutorials, so it was easy learning – just sit\watch\try. So I got hooked on SD. I think it’s because it was the first software that gave me ability to get my stuff to final stage without any technical difficulties, only artistic ones. I am not trying to say that SD is the best possible software, but I think you should try and decide what works for you. For me it works perfectly and I am very happy about it existence, and I want to thank Allegorithmic for it.

PBR Workflow

I think my ultimate goal in terms of texturing is to have colors and materials graphically represented so that they have artistic beauty and color variety of old school hand painted textures but at the same time have accurate physical properties, so that it can work in all lightning conditions. For now my textures are not there at all, and I am constantly switching between old school and PBR and it creates a nasty mess, but I hope that some day I will figure it out, all I need are more experiments. It think guys from ID Software got pretty close, and this explains my fascination with Doom in the last couple of months, they have amazing popping colors in a realistic lightning, and overall look of DOOM just drives me crazy. There is no surprise, I think guys were always ahead of the time, not only in terms of technology, but also in terms of design and look of their games, starting with gory heavy metal looks of the original Doom, then pushing it hard with a brilliantly awesome Kenneth Scott‘s reimagining of the original in Doom 3, which I remember started my love with 3d graphics, then we got those delicious mutants and tech designs in Rage, and now we have landed on a beautiful mix of classics with modern, which is the new Doom with an art direction of Hugo Martin and extremely awesome team of character artists like Denzil O’Neill and Jason Martin. I mean just look at sculpt of a new Pinky demon – it feels like you almost can touch it and feel the skin and the bones and those beautiful gradients and contrasts in-between, and it’s all sprinkled with colors which came from original sprites.


My Pipeline is very simple. Every time I do something for a community challenge or some kind of contest, I try my best to give as much information as possible, here are some examples: 

If I don’t have any concept art I start gathering references, I am not a well-known reference user, but I think that even if you want something extremely original you should at least watch how other people manage this task, it’s a nice habit to have.

Then I go straight to ZBrush and get my hands dirty. Sometimes it’s 3d max if I do something more complex like full scene or hard surface, trying my silhouettes and basic shapes and when I am happy with it, it’s just a matter of cleaning and detailing. If I think that something is missing I am just pushing a sphere in to my silhouette and play with it, mostly I am trying to have as much sub tools as possible to have control over my sculpt. As Josh Singh said on his Zbrush UGM: “I find that Zbrush is all about generating geometry, once you have a piece of geometry in there, you can do anything, I feel like Magneto” and this is a pretty fun and awesome analogy and it just lives in my mind. So just get yourself a piece of clay and play with its shape, until you get something awesome on your screen, and if you don’t get it, just have some more practice, and it will appear eventually.

As I said I don’t have enough experience with texturing so I push my sculpt to the point when I get all information I need there. For retopology I use 3ds max, graphite modeling tool, it’s as advanced as Topogun, but I think it is a nice bonus to have all your modeling tools near. Then I have my bakes which is a very important step. For my main bakes like Normal map, AO, IDs I use Xnormal, 3ds max for lights, and for additional maps I use SD Baker.

And here comes a fun part of designing my Graph, what I am trying to achieve when I go for stylized look is an impression of a hand painted textures, and I make it with my mix of Dota 2 texturing
pipeline with traditional miniature paintings, so I use my curvatures as dry-brushing, my AO as Fill, and my lights as directional air brushes. If you are interested in details, recently I was able to get one of my working files on Gumroad just for a 1$, but it’s pretty basic.

Then I get my low poly to the 3ds max and do a basic Rig with a standard Biped tool, I hope to jump on CAT at some point but for now Biped is good enough. I got a lot of experience in animating of states like idle or walking while working on RJ-games and I use it to make my scenes or characters presentation better, I like when you have an organic keyframe animation even in realistic stuff, I think Rage and Halo are awesome examples of animation and if you pushing your skills in stylized animation you should totally check them out. There a lot of showreels out there and they are not hard to find.

The way of presentation deserves attention as well, if you are doing 3d, you should post it in 3d, we live in an awesome time to be a 3d artist, with sites Like Sketchfab and Artstation you can show your dynamic 3d\realtime art. And ignoring those opportunities is just wrong for me. I know it can be scary to put something in a full rotatable mode for everybody to see, with all your unexpected clay brushes appearing in strange places, but I think it’s an awesome way to be honest with your viewers.

Nikolay Tsys, Character artist – Mail.Ru Group

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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