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An aspiring designer Ross Littlejohn from United Kingdom showed some of his low poly scenes and described the process of creating heavily stylized games in Unreal Engine.
About Ross Littlejohn
I’m Ross Littlejohn, I’m 20 and I’ve just finished my 2nd year at Staffordshire University in the UK where I’m studying Games Design. I’ve always been interested in the development aspect of games since I was very young but didn’t realise it as a career prospect until I chose my college options. My first foray into 3D modelling was probably during my early teens when I played ‘Second Life’, where I enjoyed building all sorts of creations with the in-game tools which transitioned me into experimenting with software, the first of which I used was Wings3D where I made my first 3D models and helped create assets for a few mods on the original Mount & Blade.
About Unreal Engine 4
The Unreal Engine 4 is incredibly flexible and allows an artist to create any style he, whether the focus is on a lifelike detailed FPS or a comic book sidescroller. With the amount of documentation and community support online it’s very simple to capture the look you aim to create.
For example, it is incredibly easy to build your own shaders, which are essentially materials with a list of instructions. Several clicks and drags later and you could create a simple Borderlands style toon outline.
Unreal also has, in my opinion the easiest and most powerful post processing feature I’ve used where you can apply an entire illustrative filter over the entirety of your work, ranging from pixelization to crosshatching or whatever an artist can create. I think the Unreal engine is perfect for all sorts of games and incredibly accessible for studios of all sizes, as well as individuals looking to experiment.
It does seem to be quite a common misconception however that the Unreal Engine only pushes itself as a photorealistic, graphical powerhouse, wherein reality Unreal can offer any look, it’s one of the most visually flexible engines available.
The most important factor in creating a believable illustrative look is the lighting and post-processing. After creating art externally and importing it, just as with any other art style, every aspect of the scene is analysed and adjusted respectively in the game engine itself.
The biggest secret that really brings across this sort of visual style is how the object is shaded. Almost always when creating assets, surfaces are generally smooth shaded which essentially tells the model to smooth lighting around each poly, hiding the fact that it’s formed from several squares or triangles. With this sort of visual style, it’s imperative that the object is flat shaded which gives a blocky, origami looking result.
When working, I don’t limit myself to a specific polygon count, nor do I worry about making a model too detailed, if it looks good or I want a smoother curve I won’t hesitate in adding additional detailed because I can always reduce the poly count later on to refine the style.
I would disagree that it’s for lazy 3D artists as the development pipelines are the same, I still have to research and refine as If I was creating any other scene. It’s one thing to make a low poly asset, it’s another to make it look good and not as if it were pulled out from an early 90s game.
Work with Low Poly Assets
After settling on a particular element for my scene, I gather reference images and break it down into its most basic geometric forms. I do this using Photoshop, painting over reference images to assist me in visualizing that breakdown.
Once those basic shapes are in place I then look for the flair that object has, the attribute that makes you recognize that object for what it is. A pine tree for example is essentially a cone, but in this style would be visually unappealing and wouldn’t match the environment, however, when you look at a pine tree more closely, you’ll see it layers itself upwards with swathes of shadows in between each section, so I created several octagonal sections on top of each other to emulate that and to accentuate the flat shading rather than using a simple cone shape.
After that, it’s just a case of making quirky little edits, the kind that mimics this sort of visual style.
Let there be Light
Once the assets have been created for scene it’s very easy to manipulate the atmosphere using lighting and post-processing. It’s a similar case for more photorealistic environments, but often darker scenes would warrant grittier textures to successfully change the mood and tone. With a low poly style however the lack of detail is what gives it an alluring visual appeal which is why lighting and post processing play the biggest part in the style’s composition, by tweaking the lighting and adjusting the color grading of the scene, you can quickly turn a peaceful paradise into a daunting scene straight from a horror movie.
The reason it’s so simple is because of the lack of detail in such a visual style, the focus of each element relies on only two simple factors, shape and color. Every color has meaning, you might notice that most horror films have a contrasting green overtone; our brains express fear and worry in lieu of that visual effect, whereas bright colors and lights bring a sense of joy and happiness.
Tools of The Low Poly Artist
The best tools are the tools you are most confident with, I personally use Autodesk’s 3DS Max, but if your more proficient in Blender, then 3DS Max is going to offer little else in terms of low poly asset creation.
The way I model low poly assets is no different than anything else, I still use references, utilize image planes and build my model from the ground up, the difference is I won’t go into detail when aiming for this style, instead focusing on the key geometric shapes and creating sharper angles.
I only unwrap my models to give them light mapping information and since the textures are only colors I do it all within the modelling application, rather than painting on Photoshop, I select groups of faces and apply colors to represent it’s real world counterpart as best I can whilst retaining the blocky look.