3D Character Modeling • How to Create 3D Characters for Games

February 14, 2022

The pipeline of how to create 3D character models might differ from one studio to another, but the core stages of the 3D character modeling workflow are the same. Below we will discuss the basic approach and key stages of modeling 3D game characters.

Main Stages of the Pipeline: How no Create 3D Game Character Models

  • Concepting - Creating a 2D sketch/concept that would reflect the future 3D character model's shape, pose, materials, and a general style direction. This conceptual phase is crucial to create a 3d character that is both unique and resonant with the game's audience.
  • Sculpt - Creating a high poly model in Zbrush
  • Retopology - Converting a high poly model into a low poly one - Maya. To create a 3d character for game environments, artists must balance detail with performance constraints.
  • UV mapping - transferring a 2D image onto a 3D model’s surface - can be done in any 3D software such as Blender, Maya 3DCoat. UV mapping is a critical step to make 3d character textures look realistic and seamless.
  • Texturing - Substance Painter works great for the general texturing tasks but can be assisted by a 2D artist to create hand-painted textures in Photoshop. Texturing breathes life into a 3d game character, giving it color, depth, and emotion.
  • Rigging - creating a “skeleton” with “joints” for the character to work with animation in the future - can be done in Blender or Maya. Rigging sets the stage for animating 3d characters, defining their range of motion.
  • Animation - if needed, can be covered in Maya as well. Animation transforms a static 3d character model into a dynamic entity within the game world.

Creating 2D concept for 3D character design

3D Character Modeling, How to Create 3D Characters
2D concept that can be utilized as a basis for creating 3D character model

Without a proper concept, the 3D artist won’t be able to re-create the character as precisely as it has been envisioned by the game designer or a partner studio whose project we work on. Artists who create 3d characters must work closely with the concept to ensure fidelity to the original vision. At this stage, it’s better to show the character from at least 3 angles (front, back, side), make all the materials and accessories distinctive and easily recognizable. Sometimes the concept artists create such a high-quality concept it can be directly pulled on the model - but that’s something used for the props, rather than for the character art.

3D Sculpt

At this point, the concept should be re-created as a 3D character model. There are various tools for sculpting like ZBrush, Autodesk 3ds Max, Maya and Blender. However, when it comes to learning how to draw 3D characters, Zbrush is considered to be the first choice for sculpting work.

3D Character Modeling, How to Create 3D Characters
Sculpting is very similar to working with a ball of clay. You can mold the sculpture into different shapes, adding and taking away material until you are satisfied with what its surface looks like.

The ability to create a 3d character with depth and personality starts with effective sculpting techniques. In sculpting, the artist blocks out the character’s general silhouette. Blocking out, sometimes also called blocking in, refers to the use of cubes, cylinders, planes, spheres, and other primitive geometric shapes to show the scale of a game environment or the 3D character and plan how it’ll move through it. Using different brushes, the artist then sculpts the basic forms, hard surfaces, and more detailed forms like wrinkles, creases, and muscles. 3D character modeling advances from rough shapes to fine details, each step adding to the character's realism. In topology, the artist creates a way to define the shapes that’ll make up the mesh. The artist can expect to do a retopology later where they’ll clean up the mesh for easier animating. Efficient workflows to create a 3d character include iterative refinement, from sculpting to retopology.


This is the process of adjusting the surface of the model to lower the number of polygons while considering how to make a 3D character model for games. As most of the games rely on players’ hardware to work properly, it’s crucial to have all 3D game assets well optimized so that the system requirements will be acceptable for a smooth gaming experience. Blender can offer quite useful solutions such as SpeedRetopo, Retopoflow 3, Softwrap, and Instant Meshes. Maya, on the other hand, offers quite powerful tools for retopology that can be equally efficient and sometimes automated. Ultimately, it all depends on your preferences and the goal - for the complex sculpts it comes down to working manually with all its planes and edges.

UV mapping

3D Character Modeling, How to Create 3D Characters
UV mapping in Blender

You can think of a UV map as an unwrapped, flattened 2D skin of the 3D mesh. UV mapping is crucial for making 3D characters for games as it's used to add texture and adjust the composition of a scene and its lighting. Often at this stage, the artist will do further retopology and bake the high poly details into a low poly model. Creating a 3d game character involves techniques like baking to ensure the model looks detailed yet runs smoothly. Baking here refers to preprocessing data at build time or compiling for use in the game. The data is preprocessed because it would be unrealistic, time-consuming, and expensive to do it in real-time in the actual game. Baking is often used to pre-compute lighting and texture information.

Texturing and Shaders

The texture artist received a 3D model with a shaded, flat color. They create and apply textures, combining skin or fabric scans with hand-painted textures, including color, reflection, displacement, reflection, grime, damage, illumination, and other map layers. Not all 3D models require textures, but sometimes they do. Textures add the final touch to 3d characters, making them ready for their roles in the game's universe. Texturing in fact can become a whole standalone process, especially if the hand-painted textures are involved. There is a specialty within the game art - texturing artist that focuses solely on creating textures and materials. Some of the most popular tools for work with textures are Substance Painter, Substance Designer, and 3D Coat. 


Also known as skeleton animation, rigging refers to the process of adding control to a 3D character model. It defines the range of gestures and actions of your 3D model character. Any object can be rigged, not just human models. A well-rigged 3d character model can significantly enhance the animation process, adding fluidity and expressiveness to movements. The artist adds bones, sockets, and connections according to the game’s guidelines. Rigging simplifies the character animation process and, by extension, enhances production efficiency, making it an essential step in making 3D characters for games.

3D Character Modeling, How to Create 3D Characters
3D rig in 3Ds Max. Source: anetav.art.blog


One of the steps involved in how to make 3D cartoon characters is animation. This is another time-consuming part when you create 3D characters. Here, game developers complete all the animations in the animation tree, including walking, falling, running, stooping, throwing, dying, shooting, taking damage, talking, etc. The animator uses the bones added during rigging to move the model, rotate, and scale it to mimic different movements and poses. Once the animator is satisfied with a certain position of the model, they save those positions on the timeline.

Notice that not all 3D artists can cover all aspects of 3D game character design. Some focus only on modeling, while the others take on riggning and animation.

3D Character Modeling, How to Create 3D Characters
Animation motion path in Blender


Instead of using 3D character modeling, the VFX stage leverages physics-based simulation to create more complex elements of a 3D game such as explosions, fluids, fur, etc. They use high-end effects software such as VEGAS Effects.

3D Character Modeling, How to Create 3D Characters
Gases simulation in VEGAS Effects. Image source: VegasCreativeSoftware.com


Effective lighting heightens a scene by depicting the location, time of day, mood of the shot, etc. The idea is to make the shot and the 3D model look more realistic and convincing. An expert lighting artist can use lighting to manipulate the viewer on where to focus when exploring the game environment or the 3D model character.

3D Character Modeling, How to Create 3D Characters
Lighting and shading in Autodesk 3ds Max. Images source: Autodesk.com


This is the final part of the production stage, where every scene is rendered separately in layers, including backgrounds, foregrounds, colors, objects, highlights, shadows, etc. Rendering a single scene can take as little as a few seconds to complete or as many as several days, based on the scene's complexity. Once rendering is complete, the production process moves to post-production for fine-tuning and final tweaks.

Many professional 3D artists looking to learn how to make 3D characters for games should utilize separate hardware for rendering - this allows them to continue modeling on the main machine, while the rendering can take hours on the secondary one.

Compositing and color correction

The post-production stage is the last stage of a 3D game character pipeline. All final details and polishes happen at this stage, and the game development team renders the final product. They add the final touches to make the project look professional and polished. In composting, game developers bring together all the rendered 3D elements. They then color-correct or color-grade the composite images to even out any coloration and create a polished, consistent, cohesive look.

Final output – complete 3D character model

This is the end of how to make 3d characters for games that the players can play on their gadgets. The game development process continues even after production is done and the game has shipped; some team members shift to maintenance (creating patches and fixing bugs)  and creating downloadable bonus content. Other artists can move to the next project. Often, debriefs or post-mortem discussions are held to determine what worked and what didn't and how the game development team could improve the process and output for the next project.

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