3D models and pixel art

In last post, I was talking about world generation for project Xenos, and how it was working pretty great. This time, I want to talk about models for Xenos… and not everything is so rosy.

Having map creation sorted out (for now, at least. It’s absolutely not its final form), next thing on my agenda was adding a player character, and some NPCs. After all, having a village with no inhabitants would be pretty boring. But there’s a problem with characters: they require models with animations. I can sort-of create static 3D models that are made of boxes – see walls or tables on screenshots – but anything more complex seems beyond my abilities. Especially if it needs animating. But I had a plan: I would find a couple of free humanoid models on the internet, and animate them using Unity3D famed new Mecanim system.

Free human model from AssetStore

Of course, random free models from internet wouldn’t look good, but at this stage I don’t need good, I just need something. Browsing Unity3D Asset Store, I did find some models that were not bad. Actually, they were good, just not in the style I want for Xenos. I also downloaded a set of animations for Mecanim, that Unity Technologies helpfully provide for free. But… it didn’t work out so well. The hyped “retargeting” ability of Mecanim spewed cryptic error messages and refused to apply animations to my models. The system is barely documented, and quite new, so I couldn’t figure out what was going on, and finally decided that it’s simply broken. It was time for plan B.

I had no plan B, so in desperation I went to YouTube and searched for some animation tutorials. Here I was pleasantly surprised. An open-source 3D editor called Blender is, it turns out, pretty easy to use and I learned to create simple animations in a matter of hours. Of course, “easy to use” is relative – most 3D software easily beats aircraft cockpits in complexity, and Blender is no exception. But at least the animation part was manageable.

I made a couple really simple animations (sort of how Minecraft characters move). These animations were looking really weird when applied to relatively high-poly, realistic models. I tried to make some boxy somewhat-human-looking models to go with it, but they were either really ugly, or really minecraft-rip-off-looking (also ugly).

Then I thought about pixel art. I can’t draw, and I can’t make 3D models, but I can create passable pixel art. It’s nothing to write home about, but at least it’s not causing you to rip your eyes out. So – maybe I could use this to make models? Make some sort of 3D pixel art?

"Voxel Art" editor

“Voxel Art” editor

A digital image is a grid of squares, each having a color. When these squares are big enough, it’s “pixel art”. In the same vein, one could create a three-dimensional grid of cubes, each having a color. If the cubes are big enough, it’s “Minecraft”, but they’re smaller… let’s call it “voxel art”. I’m not the first one to imagine this: there are many games that use small cubic voxels, like 3D Dot Game Heroes. And they look pretty good. So, this is what I’d decided to do: create models with voxels.

I don’t know if there’s any software out there to create voxel models of this kind. But it didn’t seem too difficult to create my one tool, and that’s exactly what I did. I think that maybe I would bundle this editor with the final game as a tool to make mods, or something… anyway, for now it’s a standalone tool. And I’m putting it on this site, so feel free to download and play with it.

Human model in-game

It took me all of two days to create this editor, which is about the same time that I spent wrestling with Mecanim and free models. With the editor, I made my first voxel-art human, animated it in Blender and put him into the game. Of course, it’s still ugly, but now I at least have some idea how to improve it. I plan to replace all my models with voxels later, but for now the first priority is adding NPCs. Stay tuned!

2 responses on “3D models and pixel art

  1. Evelis

    I am sure everyone is wodnreing this ..So if I wanted to use a texture (Design for the front of a product box logo etc.) how do I get a material to stick over all the little boxes so when I have them spill or explode each little box has its own chunk of the material mapped on it. I have tried different forms of selection tags with no results. Is this even possible within this? Or do I need to sort it out in another manor?Thanks!Jeremy

    1. nevermind Post author

      No, you can’t use textures or materials or whatever with this tool. Only set colors of individual cubes: that’s sort of the whole point.
      You could probably export a .DAE model and then texture it in Blender or something, but I have no idea why anyone would want this (-8

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *