Character Art & PBR In Less Than an Hour
12-Step Workflow for Developers, Students and/or Non-Character Artists — Mobile Class Optimization
One thing worse than not having what you need to really ramp up your game; overspending. Especially when resources are scarce. This can make or break.
Imagine you have finally received funding about one year after starting your studio. It is just enough to hire a small team to get you to the next round or 2nd Tier. There’s just two issues, art is expensive and there’s not a lot of time before you meet with investors. So you scramble and risk more.
Currently, I do consultation in my spare time. This started because I had extraordinary people mentoring me while in school, between class and after. It inspired me to pay it forward and become a mentor. Then… the bills arrived. I was still applying for full-time jobs while working on props remotely. My portfolio was (and to some degree, still is) a steaming pile of burning tractor tires. I had no industry experience save for my internship and volunteer job. I had to churn out good stuff quickly. This was easier said than done. So, I decided get creative in how I utilized my limited resources.
For start-ups, calculating burn rate and runway with a team full of developers, doesn’t always include knowing what to spend on game art. The solutions often considered: store assets, students or interns.
Right before graduation and following, I was witnessing a hideous montage over the course of a year. I heard a plethora of horror stories to boot. Developers and small businesses were hiring desperate young artists and students. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. Some artists fudged their skills, others over charged and some thought they could just acquire a good portion of their skills by, “learning on the job” (non-internship role). Equally upsetting, people were burning out before they could start their careers or their companies. Some businesses just dropped like a drunk guy carrying a safe full of cash. Many demos in VR/MR/AR at conferences and game dev meet-ups were dragging in performance. Some projects lacked basic, but proper, seamless textures or shaders to enrich the experience. Other projects appeared to be a tattered patchwork quilt of half-cooked prototypes. Worse yet, some were chalk full of cad objects. There were only a few that stood out, in both quality and functionality. Incidentally, these teams were well versed in the production pipeline for game art & design. Maybe I sound harsh. Or, maybe my mentors drilled high standards into my head. Likely, it’s the notion that people will not invest apps that look like functional junk. I know, because at my very first hackathon, our team haphazardly did just that. We sat there embarrased through the entire team presentation.
Viable products tend to be more appealing when art and development are carefully balanced.
Let’s cut to the chase — there are shortcuts to building what you need until you have the funding. To put it simply, funding gets you a hiring manager, director, leads, principles, and all the other lovely people who handle what’s what for your design team.
You need a character but do not have the time or funds to hire AAA and make a majestic humanoid? Would you like to maintain quality while still shaving that turnaround time? Need a dummy with context to prototype with?
STEP 1: Download Adobe Fuse — It is still in beta so be mindful that performance is not top notch. Save often or create a back up. Explore the many options; Head, Torso, Arms and Legs. Remember, you can adjust skintone, weight, eye color later.
STEP 2: After you have selected all the desired parts for your character, choose the Customize option for fine tuning. This includes, but is not limited to, the appendages of your character. It’s tempting to get lost in the features, but let’s keep moving.
STEP 3: BAM. Clothes. Just like that. If it were only this easy in, “real life.” Now, the next step is to adjust the details of your newly sported garments.
STEP 4: Tweak some details and book it to the next step.
NOTE — A concept artist would be helpful before this juncture. That way you don’t spend too much time making decisions… or having fun.
STEP 5: Now save your file as .obj or .fbx. As a precautionary measure, select the, “Save to CC Libraries” in case your PC vanishes into thin air or shutters like it ran out of funding.
IMPORTANT NOTE: There are resolution options in the“Texture” tab BEFORE saving the .obj/.fbx file and materials to your computer. Go ahead and select your resolution first. Then save.
STEP 6: Now we are ready to add the skeleton through a ‘quick rig’ process. Go to www.mixamo.com/ and upload your mesh.
STEP 7: Once you’ve uploaded your mesh (just a couple of minutes), you can now assign joint positions. Click and drag the named color circles to their respective joint position (it magnifies location while dragging).
STEP 8: After Mixamo processes your mesh (skinning/weighting/bone placement), you can now select which animation to apply to your character.
STEP 9: After choosing your animation (if single) you can download the FBX with the skin. If multiple animations, keep your original mesh and download each FBX without skin (the information of the animation is still stored here). Now select “DOWNLOAD.”
STEP 10 (developer optional): Return to your original T-Pose downloaded mesh, start a fresh project in a PBR package. I chose Substance Painter. If no PBR edits are required, skip to step 11.
Even if you’re not an expert on PBR, you can still create a new paint layer and use a Substance material (with respect to the material ID [diffuse] map you create). I do not encourage using default presets with too much haste, lackadaisically or willy-nilly. I do, however, encourage you do a tutorial or hire a texture artist. It’s possible to cause subterfuge and besmirch, bamboozle, snooker, hornswoggle or botch the integrity and “hard work” you put into Adobe Fuse. That’s not a hootnanny for anyone. The PBR community has lovingly referred to the misuse of this package as, “Substance Abuse.”
STEP 11 (developer optional): Import your asset with downloaded relevant fbx animation files into the engine. Set up the material for your mesh and apply. Set up your animation as you normally would with animation clips and animation controllers.
If you’re a developer you may omit this workflow and proceed with hiring an artist to finish the clips and technical work. Congrats, you just saved a boatload of cash by creating the character yourself! Skip to step 12 and enjoy.
If you are interested in learning more about setting up Animation Controllers:
STEP 12: Hit play and enjoy! Repeat steps 8 & 9 if additional animation clips are needed from Mixamo.
While all of this might be a quick leap for prototyping, or a quicker way to get on with texturing, it’s best to balance and add quality/time where applicable.
Amazing things started to happen when the, “work smart, not hard” mantra finally made sense. I took to coaching at hackathons and encouraged new teams to do the same. My first question, when consulting for a new company, often pertains to the level of experience the prospective (or current) artist(s) has on their team. My follow up questions — “How many artists do you have and what are their roles?” to gauge the team production pipeline. Upon inevitably finding snags, lastly I ask, “Do you want to save money or time?” The answer is almost always a resounding, “YES!” For the artist, the question is often, “Do you want to keep the quality or the deadline?” Both, please.