The 3D Art Pipeline: From Asset Modelling To In-Game Integration

Within a game production studio, one of the core teams responsible for creating the captivating visuals that shape your gaming experience is the 3D team. The team is responsible for materialising your heroes, their adversaries, and the immersive worlds they both inhabit.

The term “3D” technically encompasses a wide range of elements. While the game’s animations are indeed three-dimensional, the animation department handles that specific aspect. The explosions you witness in a game could either be genuinely three-dimensional or designed to appear that way, but falls under the purview of the VFX team. So, what exactly is the responsibility the 3D team?

In the gaming industry, a 3D artist primarily focuses on modelling, texturing, and rendering assets that will be incorporated into the game. Their work spans from creating characters to constructing the environment and everything in between. A 3D artist should possess the ability to transform 2D artwork provided by the art team into the vibrant, three-dimensional world of the game. They act as the bridge between dimensions!

Should we be wary of the robots?!

With the rapid advancements in AI technology, this bridge might soon become shorter. There are already technologies capable of generating 3D models based solely on 2D images. Although these technologies are not yet flawless, they may become proficient enough in the near future. Considering Mighty Bear Games’ commitment to leveraging cutting-edge AI to drive innovation and optimize our processes, what implications does this hold for our 3D team in Mighty Bear Games?

While the company is excited about the potential of AI technology, we understand that it is merely a tool to enhance and improve our artistic capabilities, rather than be a replacement for us. Automated generation would be just one part of our comprehensive production pipeline, for which we are accountable.

Creating 3D assets represents only the initial stage of our work within the 3D team, comprising roughly 40% of our process. The majority of our efforts revolve around preparing and ensuring these assets are seamlessly integrated into the game and delivered into the hands of our players. These assets need to be usable, appealing and fun:

  1. Usable
    The assets created need to be able to hit our tech specifications so they are able to be used in the game without problems to the game’s performance. This involves collaborating with other departments in the studio i.e. tech art or engineering to ensure frictionless integration into gameplay.
  2. Appealing
    While adhering to the tech specifications above, the asset needs to also still look appealing to the player and meets the visual standards of the studio and the art direction. Turning assets from 2D into 3D will also bring new considerations with the added dimension, for instance its readability for the player.
  3. Fun
    In combination with the two points above, these assets should ultimately be fun for the player. Fun can be a subjective aspect. Visual satisfaction contributes to the fun of playing in the game world — for example seeing how the world evolves as you progress. You as the artist working on it are one of the main persons to make that judgement.

Currently, these qualities cannot yet be reliably determined by a learning model. They rely on your artistic input and human sensibility.

So should we then be wary of outsourcing to other humans?

It is no secret that 3D artists are far from a rarity. You could consider outsourcing studios as the biggest competitors for 3D artists. These studios specialise in producing assets for your game faster than a single in-house artist could! The artists working in these outsource studios are focused solely on their craft and have honed their skills to do so. Could they be more effective than in-house 3D artists?

Outsource studios are one of the resources we at MBG employ to supplement and expedite our timelines, yet once again they can only get us to 40% of the work required. This at least however does free up more time for the team to work the rest of the pipeline and allows us to meet deadlines to get our product into the hands of our players quicker.

Where we put on our developer hats

With that 40% mark crossed, the bulk of the rest of the 3D team’s work comes in. Our job scope then involves the integrating of the assets with the game and all the challenges that comes with it. This part of the development pipeline varies greatly based on what purpose each asset is used for. For example, character assets requires going through different production hoops than environment assets – like close collaboration with our animation department to ensure it goes into the game as a living digital avatar and not inanimate props. The inanimate props, however, have their own hoops too!

What separates us as in the 3D team from just asset creators to game developers is the ability to establish, work within, and then refine the pipelines and processes from handover by the concept art department to seeing it through till it is in the game. Implementation can be a tedious repetitive process and is rarely ever perfect. Identifying at what points in the pipeline can be automated with tools and streamlined or what pain points are not working and need to be reassessed is one of the distinguishing traits for us as game developers. We also work collaboratively with every other 3D-related art department (animation, vfx, tech-art) as the size of our 3D team here at Mighty Bear Games (just two!) necessitates us to know a little bit of everything in order to achieve our goals more effectively.

To put it simply, it requires us to think much more!

For me personally, I am seeing this distinguishing factor myself as my work continues with MBG, having joined the company initially as a 3D artist contractor. Before, my job scope consisted mainly of producing assets to be handed over to the full-time 3D team members. After having made the jump to full-time 3D team myself, I instead had to think about the entire journey of the asset I’m making and all the possible friction and conflicts it could face on its way into the game to face the player, and figure out the best way to help it get there. These new considerations I’ve had to adapt to in my role as a 3D artist at MBG have helped me be a better game developer.

The 3D Art Pipeline: From Asset Modelling To In-Game Integration was originally published in Mighty Bear Games on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.