Beginner's Guide to Creating a Game-Ready 3D Creature from Scratch
Recent graduate and now instructor at M3DS Academy, Mario Stojanov, shares his beginner's guide to creating game-ready 3D creatures from scratch.
Graduating top of his class at M3DS Academy in October 2021, Mario Stojanov was immediately hired by the Academy, and is now an instructor there. After finishing the Academic year he and a group of fellow graduates, under the mentorship of the M3DS Academy decided to create the game “Ohja” with which they also entered the Rookies Awards 2022, alongside their own individual entries.
Read on to discover Mario's full process for creating the game-ready Final Boss Character, “Lazuli The Spider Queen” for the game Ohja.
As a 3D artist, the main goal of this was to create the final level and boss for the game but for me, it turned out to be a little more than that. Being an arachnophobe, this was both interesting and challenging for me, as the group decided the final boss would be a spider.
After some initial concept work, I took on a few iterations myself, despite my aversions.
One night while waiting for the bus I was thinking of what Lazuli might look like. I didn’t want it to be a basic spider, like a Black Widow or something similar. So, I started associating the spider and how she would be represented by different words and adjectives, but the one that stuck with me was death.
Nothing represents death better than the grim reaper. To represent the grim reaper, I started my drawings with a skill, trying to fuse the spider with the skull. I wanted them together to look like they came from the same otherworldly environment. These are the results I came up with for the concept:
The total time spent creating everything from concept to final gameplay was about three months. The workflow I used is one of the most basic game-ready asset creating workflows out there. This will be good for beginning artists trying to learn the workflow for making game characters or assets.
- Photoshop for the concept;
- ZBrush for the blockout and sculpting;
- Maya for retopology and UVs (for some assets and props I used Maya for blockout);
- Adobe Substance 3D Painter for texturing;
- Maya for rigging and animation;
- Unreal Engine for implementing everything and level creation;
- ZBrush and Marmoset Toolbag for some rendering.
The game Ohja is a stream-lined, single-player game focused on combat and visuals. The first level is like a tutorial introducing the game mechanics to the players. The following levels introduce wonderful visual elements and eerie environments including the one I created.
The cave in which Lazuli The Spider Queen is located tells a story in itself. It is an abandoned mine for the crystal…yup you guessed it lazuli crystals. The big boulder at the beginning shows where Lazuli entered the mine from. You can see the mining equipment scattered all over as the miners did not have enough time to pack due to unfortunate events. The broken weapons, armour and scattered bones show a more tragic story, where past adventurers tried to exterminate Lazuli but were unsuccessful.
For my reference gathering, I used PureRef which is just a phenomenal software that every artist uses, and I recommend it to everyone, especially beginners.
References are one of if not the most important part when creating something 3D, especially if you are creating the concept yourself. I cannot stress this enough.
My reference process was gathering spider anatomy at first, so that even though I was creating a character that doesn’t exist and is not real, I still wanted it to look believable. And since I wasn’t creating an anatomically correct and realistic spider, I only kept some of the more important references.
I also had a ton of other references as well; some for the characters, and some for the environment.
Aside from the internet references, I had a ton of book references I used that I borrowed from the Academy. The ones I used the most and were most useful are: ZBrush Characters and Creatures, Sketching from the Imagination: Creatures & Monsters, and Sketching from the Imagination: Dark Arts.
Creating the final boss concept was tricky and an even earlier version of a spider was created even before the first concept I showed you in the first picture above, which looked less like a final boss and more like a minion. As a result, I had the idea to create smaller spiders to defend the Queen, with her acting more of a summoner than a battle mage.
There were three ideas that came to mind: the defender, the jumper, and the exploder. Below are the processes and passes of the smaller spiders along with the final looks.
Looking back on how many times I changed the concept for Lazuli until I got the desired result, I would like to tell artists that change is good. It is ok to change a lot of things especially early on. Better earlier than later. Also, this is a point where you would want to seek a lot of feedback and be able to receive it, not negate it.
Seek feedback on what people think is bad or what they don’t like but don’t ask them directly like “What do you not like about this?“ because everyone has different opinions. Ask them questions like “Which of these two is scarier?“, or “Should I add horns to the front or sides?” and so on. You don’t have to change anything but sometimes they will give you a great idea, making you change your concept for the better.
Modeling and sculpting
Creating Lazuli I started with the skull because I knew that would be a very noticeable part of her. For the spider body itself, I tried to make the head alien-ish with a predator-style mouth, keeping the most normal amount of eyes which is eight, but decided to go with six pairs of bony hard shell legs and a pair of t-rex-like arms that splits in the middle.
The ZBrush process of creating Lazuli from start to finish took some time and as I said, a lot of changes were made along the way making it a very interesting and educational experience for me.
Aside from learning spider anatomy, I learned a lot of processes and new ways to create textures, details, and even base meshes and making concepts in ZBrush. A huge thanks to Michael Vicente for sharing his Orb brushes and the material which helped a lot in making and rendering the final product.
The retopology and UVs were all done by hand in Maya using quad draw. Contrary to many artists I really enjoy this part a lot. Put on headphones and music, and I can click and make good topology all day.
When doing retopology I like to start with the most important edge loops first and then fit the rest of the parts in between.
It is very important to make good topology so that when you add the rig and animate the mesh it doesn’t break and look weird. This comes down to the size of the quads, the way they are facing, the loops, and many other things.
Some really good guides and videos that helped me when I was learning were EVERYTHING You Need to Know About Topology by J. Hill and How to Master Topology and Edge Flow in 3D Modeling On Mars 3D (Aunmar Mohammed).
Painting and texturing
The painting part was very interesting. Almost everything was hand-painted in substance painter, however, an interesting detail at the end was made by exporting the base colour layer and importing it as a texture but inserting it in a layer as the height map, giving it that realistic/comic book/borderlands mix of detail; playing with the levels afterwards.
Rigging and animation
After doing all that, I created the rig and animations and inserted them in the Unreal project. Meanwhile, I created the environment and the props for it and placed them accordingly, to enhance the storytelling.
While doing this I was keeping in mind that this was going to be used in gameplay and in cinematics, so I had to think about how it would work for playing the level and where the cameras would be placed for the cinematics.
Organisation is key. In all aspects, it saves you a lot of time and everything is much easier. From naming all the subtools immediately in ZBrush once created, to having a schedule for your day created the previous night.
The amount of times I see students open their Maya homework and just have the outliner filled with unnamed shapes and undeleted empty folder and then spend so much time looking through the outliner looking for the specific mesh they wanted to show me, is unreal. So try to be a bit more organised: get a notepad to write stuff you think of at any moment random good ideas can come at any time.
I appreciate you reading till the end and I hope I helped as much as I could.
If you would like to see more of Mario's work and get in touch, you can find him on The Rookies, Artstation and Instagram.