Designing vehicles for games is one of the most fun jobs a modeler can get. Because cars are awesome, right? They let you quickly get anywhere, anytime you wish…and with style! We cannot begin to imagine a world without the huge advantage cars provide for us. We have all drove cars or at least we’ve been in one and experienced the amazing feeling of speeding past the scenery with the windows down. But let’s take this one step further: Can you imagine how does it feel like to navigate a ship? A six-legged spider tank? Or even a spaceship?
Right now games are your best shot at getting your fill of such extravagant methods of transportation. From the high-end racing cars in NFS series to the precise simulation of driving a spaceship (something that doesn’t even exist in the real world) in Elite Dangerous, video games enable us to experience the joy of speed in all manner of vehicle in a safe environment.
But how does one go about doing that? Industrial car design is a vast field of expertise that students spend years trying to master. Although it helps to have some basic knowledge of this field, artists working in the game industry cannot possibly commit to learning all that stuff just to design a vehicle or two for a game, nor should they have to.
So without further ado, let’s go over how to design vehicles for games without having the game crash & burn.
Like any other endeavor in life that you want to take seriously and perform professionally, Vehicle Design starts with research. Before anything else, you need to research the game you’re working on. As an artist, you may never be asked to read pages over pages of the design documents, but you totally should. That’s the difference between a good artist and a great one.
You should be able to answer these questions before drawing a single line:
- Is the visual theme photorealistic or cartoonish and exaggerated?
- Which era does the vehicle belong to?
- What is the vehicle made of? Materials used in its creation?
- What is the purpose of the vehicle?
- Is the vehicle used by the bad guys or the good guys?
To answer these questions, you need to know a lot more than just the theme (obligatory stuff) of the game. You need to know the time setting (era), the game world (materials), gameplay mechanics (purpose), and the story. Basically, you need to know the game inside out, get to know its heart and spirit.
While this in-depth research method is useful for designing any kind of objects and props in the game, it is especially important for big and loud vehicles. Players pay more attention to them than a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. So you should get your details right.
Other than deep knowledge of the game itself, you need to know the concepts that directly affect the vehicle design. Knowing about concepts like human (or any alien!) anatomy, ergodynamics, basic laws of physics is essential toward good vehicle design. Mind that these ground rules don’t just apply to designing vehicles for games, but for any industry except the actual automobile industry.
Keep it Believable
Even if the vehicle design is for a game and not automobile engineers’ simulation software, players still unconsciously try to figure out how your vehicle works in the game, and your design must make it easier for them to do so. The human mind is naturally curious and must be able to make the logical connections to mark something as “real”, even in a fictional work.
Such a mindset should be applied to the design of the vehicle as a whole, but also to each of its mechanical parts. If you place an antenna on top of your rover, then you better have a communication mechanic in your gameplay. Moreover, if the antenna is simply a short metal stick without any complications, don’t expect players to believe it can communicate with a base on the other side of the planet!
Let’s go over the principles discussed so far with an example. It’s always better to solidify concepts with examples and make abstracts more tangible. Imagine this:
You are asked to design vehicles for Rage 3.
The first thing you should do is to chew through all the vehicle designs done for the series so far. This way you’ll get a general sense of design patterns and the art style. You’ll notice right off the bat that the game is happening in a post-apocalyptic world where the human civilization is practically gone. That means there are no more factories to design and produce fresh new cars, so even though the game happens in 2135, the vehicles should look like the over-used patchworked cars belonging to a much earlier date (before the apocalypse).
The setting of the game is Earth in soon future, so vehicles should be made of whatever material is found here on our own planet. No more spare-parts are produced, so vehicle owners have to repair and restore their rides with whatever is at hand and get creative. They also may cannibalize other vehicles for the same purpose. This means that some parts of the vehicle should look out of place and out of sync with the rest of the vehicle. The vehicle design should be in harmony with the rusty and ragged overarching theme of the series.
Just like the real world, the Games’ vehicle design and their appearance must reflect the role they serve in the world. Is it made for speed, transportation, or combat? A combat vehicle is going to have more armor and bigger guns, with a bulkier design than a farm vehicle for example. None of the vehicles should be in tip-top shape due to old age and it makes sense they make a lot of smoke and noise.
Now you need to know if the vehicle belongs to the forces of good or evil in the game’s story. The base design and principles for designing the bad guys differ from that of the good guys, we have talked more extensively about the subject in Principles of Game Art Design under “Elements of Composition”. Generally speaking, bad guys’ vehicles should have more hard edges and menacing features like spikes and strong colors.
You can find out more about designing game narrative here.
I can’t possibly stress this enough: good research and data gathering is everything. Line up a comprehensive set of reference images before you start drawing. The Internet has a lot of those to offer and you can use related books as well, but the firsthand experience is another deal entirely. Take your camera and get out there. The local scrapyard or a museum can be a fount of invaluable resources for you. Take as many pictures as you can, you never know when it becomes useful. These pictures will show you the details that no other source can provide, especially from angles and perspectives that are tailored to your specific needs.
Internet is undoubtedly a great source too, but for a different kind of knowledge. Surf the internet to find vehicle blueprints, dimensions and even a history of the reference vehicles. Another useful is fan forums for car enthusiasts, you can exchange useful information there, or follow the restoration/repair projects going on with car enthusiasts.
Depending on the project, you can choose several parts of a vehicle to start with. However, it’s generally easier to start with the larger parts to better determine the dimensions of the other parts. You may start with the frame or the wheels, and build the other parts around it.
Whichever part you choose to undertake first, you should have an edge outline that serves as a 3D blueprint for the whole design process. Also, determine the topology first, then move on to creating surfaces. As you finish working on surfaces, it’s vital to retain not only their smooth transition of normals but also reflections from one element to another. This is called surface continuity and it’s especially important in smoothed mid-poly normals workflow.
After that? You could continue with seats or windows, but it all depends on the project. What if you are to design a submarine? Or a robotic mech?
Suspensions and Locomotion
One of the most important aspects of game vehicle design is paying attention to how a vehicle operates. You have to make it believable for players, even if not strictly following the rules of physics. Almost every vehicle has these two elements one way or another: Suspension and Locomotion.
The suspension is about how a vehicle stays off the ground. This could be wheels, legs, anti-gravity tech, etc. This is often easily seen by players in the underside of a vehicle, so it pays to pay attention to details here. A suspension system is usually made of attachments and joins that link with the vehicle’s frame, dampeners, wheels/legs, and a steering system.
Just keep in mind that this could wildly differ for different kinds of vehicles. A racecar should have a very advanced motion dampener system, while a farm tractor has none. Each vehicle has its own unique characteristics and requires a different treatment.
The other part of the vehicle which is paramount in design is the locomotion (propulsion) method. What powers your vehicle? What drives it forward? Again, you are not expected to write an article about how a plasma reactor works, but you need to make it believable and in proportion with the mass of the vehicle. A giant 100,000 tons aircraft carrier needs a serious source of power to move. Keep in mind that the kind of technology used has a direct impact on the size of a vehicle’s power source. If your game is set 1000 years from now, you can logically expect that by then smaller locomotion systems can power larger vehicles.
Getting the vehicle’s lights right can be challenging but also interesting. They are multilayered by nature, but most often you have to create them with a single texture layer. That’s why it can be difficult to get that “depth” right. When designing lights, especially that of a fictional vehicle, keep in mind that not only they have to look good, their placement, shape, and intensity must serve a purpose for that vehicle.
A subterranean tunnel digger should have a huge projector in front to light the way in the utter darkness of the tunnels. On the other hand, having lights on its sides while it may give it a cool look, wouldn’t make much sense, since digger’s sides are almost always covered by the tunnel walls.
Detail and Smaller Parts
The amount of possible details you can work into your model can be almost limitless. In the end, it all comes down to picking the right ones. You have to make your decision on details based on the time available, optimization and priority in the visual hierarchy of the game. (Find out more about the visual hierarchy in Principles of Game Art Design)
No matter how complex they may look, a detail is just like any other part of a vehicle like wheels or doors. Approach it as a mere shape creation whether if it is an antenna or a missile pod and you should have no problem. It is just about understanding the shape fully before you commit to modeling it. Most artists model details (and almost everything else) either by hand or simple tools such as mirror or turbosmooth.
Indeed, each car has its own specific components, and it’s again a matter of collecting comparisons (at this stage, I repeat it like a mantra), looking for measurements, and knowing how these components correspond to each other. It is really important to ensure that all the components are in the right position and at the right angle, particularly for interiors. Interior elements are should be visible from the point they are supposed to be seen (camera angle).
Why not include your own details, besides the details that appear obligatory for one vehicle? The thing is that each vehicle tells a story about its history, its user, how it was managed over time, resulting in damage, material wear, modifications, upgrades or even unique dirt and dust patterns.
Many components, on the other hand, are compatible between cars and are standardized. A good example is wheels. The inner diameters, rim sizes, external shape, number of bolts, etc. These are almost the same across a wide variety of real cars and you may use these smaller components across you other car designs, just like in reality.
Tools and Materials
The standard tools for modeling vehicles (or anything!) are Photoshop, Substance painter, and Blender. With only these three you can create amazing 3D models, but your greatest tool is a physical one: your camera. Use it to gather great references and even create entire textures based on the photos you take with it. You can use your camera to create vectors for logotypes or to assist you with complicated graphic designs. Don’t forget your humble ballpoint pen either! Many great models had their beginning with a pen and paper.
Vehicles are made of materials that are surprisingly common in any other artificial product. As far as a modeler is concerned, they are all composed of painted surfaces, plastics, glass, metals, dust and stain marks, etc. The major difference between a car and a cooking pot is the mindset with which they were designed. As mentioned earlier, it’s absolutely vital to know the purpose and the function of the vehicles you design.
A car is openly exposed to the elements: it might get stained with rain, bruised with accidents, have patchwork from accidents, etc. A cooking pot will definitely have some burnt marks on its surface eventually. So, as a designer, you have to keep in mind the wear and tear effects that happens to your model over time. This is affected by the purpose of the vehicle and the way it was used. A surprisingly common mistake by many industry artists is that they model and paint objects as if they are fresh out of the factory!
Remember, Practice Makes Perfect
To practice your sense of imagination and improve your work, always keep an eye out for vehicles that catch your attention. Observe the physical evidence and use them to try and guess the story behind it, how it was used. It is this unique story of each vehicle that determines how it looks should be polished. When you see a truck by the farm with dried mud on the rims and dusty surfaces it immediately tells you a story behind its long years of service in that farm. And in doing so, make it look believable and generally awesome.
Beside paying attention to real world references, don’t be afraid to let your imagination take wings. Employ your artistic sense to add stuff that make the vehicle look better, pronounce an aspect of the vehicle, or increase its readability. Stay creative and try until you get it right step by step. Don’t try to have all the details in mind before committing, as the next step often becomes clear only when you take the previous one.
To Sum it up….
When making a vehicle for a videogame, the primary thing is to gather all the information about the type of game and the role of a vehicle in it, as well as the environment in which it is placed, to make sure it fits. Check if there is specific information about the lore of the game, the plot, or gameplay mechanics that could affect your design
Technically speaking, it is really important for you to know what the budgets are for polygons and materials (Limitations in volumes and texture). It is equally important to be familiar with the workflows like PBR to choose the right one for the model you want to create. Remember to check with the team to see if they use any content charts. It may sound simple, but since cars are quite large with a lot of surface area, you may be shocked by how easily the numbers can get out of hand.
Planning ahead is vital for proper optimization. Understand what the player is actually going to see in the game, and prioritize those. Be careful with the details, more polygons mean more polished models, but the question is: Will it make a visual impact enough to justify the cost? Can it even be seen at low resolutions?
Reuse the textures where possible, mirror them in other occasions, and remove them entirely if they are wasted on a part of the vehicle that is not going to be noticed by the players.
Last but definitely not least: No matter if you’re making a classic Porsche or a shuttle, make it believable!