Learn the main principles of the production of awesome 3d vehicles for video games from Karol Miklas.
Learn the main principles of the production of awesome 3d vehicles for video games from Karol Miklas.
My name is Karol Miklas and I am a professional 3D artist, working in video games industry since 2013, both on-site and as a freelancer.
I used to work on titles like Dying Light, ongoing Cyberpunk 2077 or recent PLAYERUNKNOWN’s Battlegrounds.
Mainly creating cars. And vehicles. And automobiles. Basically, everything that has wheels. And some environments and other props as well.
I have always been very much into car design, in both visual and mechanical aspects, given that my dad worked at a car dealership. This gave me some insight from the very beginning about how cars worked, what they are made of, very pragmatic issues. But I loved to draw as well, so naturally all I was drawing were… cars. Always, no matter the topic given, I tried to incorporate one in them.
Later on, I learned 3D and decided to use Blender thanks to my brother (who was a Linux maniac back then, that’s why!). And it was the best decision, software-wise. Then, I started making mods for games like GTA, and static renders inspired mainly by Syd Mead illustrations and designs to eventually land in the video games industry.
What fascinates me the most about vehicles is that they give people one huge advantage – being mobile, being able to drive and to carry things anywhere, anytime, on time… and often in style.
I think that it applies not only to vehicles, but basically everything what you work on: do your homework and do as much research as you can. It’s that simple… and it’s harder than it looks at first glance, it’s time-consuming, but believe me, it’s worth it.
Trying to understand how a vehicle is made, what era it is from (no matter if it’s a real car or a fictional one), what is its purpose, where does it come from… basically knowing as much as possible about the whole process – from an idea, through designer’s desk and marketing strategies, to the final product – is one approach that gives a full picture. 3D is only a medium that allows to execute the vision.
It’s really important to know the basics of mechanics, human anatomy or perception, as vehicles are built around them. Ergonomics and packaging are the keywords that might help here.
Even if it’s ‘only’ a video game, things that were worked out in reality, even if simplified, will apply to video game graphics. You wouldn’t want to see your character being cramped inside because there isn’t enough space, or not really fitting at all due to skewed proportions. Same for mechanical parts: even if they are invisible, we still subconsciously try to figure out how things work, and the easier to understand the design is, the better the job was done.
For the exterior, proportions of all the elements are equally important – they give a sense of scale and materials. Think of details like chrome trims or rubber seals – if you match the scale, you can tell what they are made of, while some materials just won’t look believable in certain shapes that are, for instance, too thick to match their real equivalent.
Another thing is the whole car culture – the more unique and specific the vehicle is, especially any sport or classic car, there is always a community gathered around the brand’s or car’s quirks and features*.
Besides all that – make sure you don’t sacrifice believability for styling. If you are going to make something, even fictional, make sure it can be understood and that you are confident in your design choices. Simplifying has its own rules as well.
An easter-egg to prove the point – look for it.
When creating a vehicle, I often approach it as a real one: let’s see what the Internet, books, museums or a local scrapyard has to offer. Remember to take your camera and make a lot, I mean, A LOT of reference pictures. They are of gold value compared to what can be found online, especially for unobvious parts.
The Internet has plenty to offer too, it’s just a different kind of knowledge. It lets you find blueprints, dimensions, history of a vehicle model, or, my favourite, forum boards gathering enthusiasts exchanging their knowledge or documenting repairs and restoration processes.
Another good source of references are sites like eBay, where you can find pictures showing details (car offer listings) or parts from various angles (both used and new).
The starting point varies between models, but they are usually elements like bodywork, frame, or a wheel, that gives an idea of proportions. They are also the easiest part to determine shapes, as many other parts are built around them.
Technically, I usually start with an edge outline that works as a 3D blueprint to later carry on from that point. It also helps to plan topology in advance, before moving to surfaces creation.
As finishing touches for surfaces, it’s very important to keep not only their smooth transition of normals but also reflections from one element to another – it’s called surface continuity and it’s especially important in smoothed normals workflow (mid poly).
And the obligatory elements? I could say wheels or seats, but dang, what if we’re working on a flying autonomous drone? I can just say ‘the front’ and ‘the rear’ but that might be tricky…
Metal frame and the wheelbase
The vehicle suspension often works around similar principles – attachment points to the bodywork or frame, to the wheels, some dampers and steering. It varies a lot depending on a vehicle, as there is no single technology that might apply to all of them.
For example, a simple tractor doesn’t have a suspension, but its engine and gearbox act as the frame. A sports car can have super advanced absorption system, multiple wishbone swingarms and plenty of other details. And yet there are trucks, off-roaders or ATVs, motorcycles… each model with their own characteristics and unique solutions.
Apart from suspension and the whole underbody of a car, sometimes there are other mechanical elements exposed to the viewer – engine compartments or trunks – where the same rules apply.
It all comes down to doing thorough research about what I am currently working on and learning how it works. Then it’s a matter of defining the crucial elements, and picking the right details, depending on optimization and time available.
Everything I model is done by hand or with simple modifiers such as mirror or turbosmooth (subdivision surface), either baked or modeled using smoothed normals (it’s sometimes called a mid-poly workflow).
Details are just like any other part of a car, like bodywork, like suspension elements. If you look at it as merely a shape creation, it doesn’t matter how big or complicated the part is. There is no difference in modeling an antenna or a spoiler. It’s all a matter of understanding that shape and (re)creating it.
Indeed, each car has its own unique elements, and again it’s a matter of gathering references (I repeat it like some mantra at this point), searching for dimensions and understanding how these elements correspond to each other.
Especially for interiors it’s very important to make sure that all the elements are in the right place and at the right angle, and seen from the point they are intended to be seen (for example gauge cluster – nothing worse than it being covered by a steering wheel or completely unreadable).
Besides the details that seem obligatory for one vehicle, why not add your own details? The thing is: each vehicle tells a story of its usage, of its owner, of how it was treated over time – it results in damage, material wear, customization, modifications or even specific patterns of dirt and dust.
wiper marks; engine details; era and region detail; customization examples
On the other hand, some parts are interchangeable and standardized between cars. Wheels are a good example. There are tire sizes specified, for both internal diameter, width, tire profile, or for the rims – external diameter, their offsets, amount of holes and their spread. What one can benefit from it, is that they might fit a variety of other cars (a good example below), just like in reality.
left – Porsche 911, right – Fiat Punto; tire: Pirelli P7 Cinturato
It is also good to know tools for various applications – let’s take the tire once again, specifically its sidewall – it was first drawn in vectors (Inkscape), according to a real tire model (P7 by Pirelli), then laid onto the model as a height/bump map and a part of a high poly model. Modelling it would be quite time-consuming for me, while just painting it in Photoshop wouldn’t be that easy as it was in vectors.
bump map vs final model; extra detail: green cap indicated tires filled with nitrogen instead of atmospheric air
Tools I use are Blender (for 3D, but also baking maps), Photoshop and Substance Painter. These three are completely enough to make stunning 3D work, but that’s not all…
I also use my camera for gathering references and sometimes photo-based textures, vectors for logotypes or more complex graphic designs… and a ballpoint pen for drawing, whether I need to sketch out some schematics or design ideas.
Materials that can be found in vehicles are not any different than the ones you may find in any other man-made products. Basically, it’s just painted surfaces (sometimes multi-layered and that can be tricky), glass, metals, various plastics, oily stains, dusty cavities and rusty patches.
The difference between, let’s say, a weapon or a cassette player and a car is that the last one is by default exposed to weather conditions, but also it’s considered a mobile object. Given that, due to atmospheric conditions such as humidity, dustiness, sun exposure, temperature, a different degree of wear and dirt will occur, depending not only on the weather conditions in a specific location, but how often it’s being used and in what way.
For example, a vehicle that’s being used daily for commuting in northern parts of Europe will look differently compared to the same car used as a weekend toy in California, and completely different than a vehicle left on a parking in Malta. A different wear will occur if it’s a pickup for working purposes (more hand/cargo contact with its surface, scratches, dents, stains), and different for a car that is driven through highways, sometimes in rain, which serves purely as a personal means of transportation.
A good advice here would be: look around and wherever you see a vehicle that catches your attention, try to guess what is the story behind it, observe how it is used by people.
Assuming you gather all that knowledge regarding the subject of your work, and you already have a full picture of what it is and how it should look like – think how and where these different dust particles, that oxidation and sun fade would appear. Is it a separate substance that just collects in cavities? Is it something that’s position is determined by aerodynamics? How dirty it actually is?
Later on, launch your artistic sense and add something that just looks good, that exposes the shape more, that helps the readability, that even puts more story and makes it more obvious than it would really be. Be creative and just keep trying. I learned that when you take a step, you get actual feedback and idea how to execute something. You can instantly tell if it looks good, or it might just give you another idea.
Car lights are the area of my special interest. Multilayered by design, sometimes it’s very challenging to make them look ‘right’ – especially if they have to remain flat and made of a single texture layer. Often considered visually as ‘eyes’ they attract the sight as one of the first elements.
Building vehicles for games
The first main thing when making a vehicle for a videogame is to gather all the information about the game type and the role of a vehicle in it, as well as the environment it’s placed in, to make sure it fits. Check if there are any specific information regarding the game’s lore, the plot or gameplay mechanics that could affect it.
Technically speaking, it’s very important to make sure that you know what the budgets are – for polygons but also materials (their amount and texture limit), what’s the workflow (is it PBR? Which one? Are there any material charts you could use?). It may sound obvious, but due to the fact that vehicles are quite big objects with a lot of surface area, it might surprise you how quickly the numbers go up. It can also determine which workflow is the most suitable for that very model that is about to be made.
Optimization starts with good planning – think what you are actually going to see in the game, is there an interior needed, engine, or undercarriage? What about tiny details? Sometimes it’s very tempting to put that extra polygons, but the question is – will it be seen during gameplay, and will it be even visible at lower texture resolution?
Think what textures can be reused, which can be mirrored and which rather shouldn’t be. To determine where the areas that attract most attention are, think how it will be used and seen in the game – both in the midst of action and also when just looking at it while standing still.
And what about details? Some can be so important to complement the look of a vehicle, it’s better to even just indicate them with a few polygons, rather than ignore them. Examples can be windshield wipers, washers, tiny bolts, window stickers and more.
left – low quality model for distant viewing and basic interactions; right – simulator games quality
To be honest – I still consider myself a beginner designer, when I think of how much I have yet to learn. What I am missing and still considering is a degree or a training in automotive production or design, that would provide me with even more knowledge and things to consider when making cars. Making models pretty is one thing, making them believable and substantially good is what can make them stand out.
Don’t settle down when the significance of what you are doing is underestimated. Don’t settle down when there’s a lot to learn ahead of you. Everyone’s been there at some point. Be consistent in your learning and honing your skills. These are cliches, yet indeed they work – but it’s discipline, passion and curiosity that makes it all happen.
some of the old artworks – 2009-2011
Books I recommend for inspiration:
Syd Mead Visual Movie Art – a stunning piece not only for the fans, but also for aspiring videogame and movie prop designers. Very inspiring, gives insight into some of his designs (including Blade Runner, which is my favourite of them all!).
H-Point – fantastic compilation and presentation of key knowledge when it comes to car design pipeline. It gives a brief, but a great idea of how cars are being planned before they move to a detailed design process and what should be considered in the first place. For movies and video game car design needs, it’s brilliant.