Cheap And Realistic Characters For Indy Games

Getting characters right is one of the most difficult topics in the 3d realm. While today’s technology allows for companies pushing characters in offline renderings way beyond the uncanny valley, and even into the realm of super-photorealism, games still make it difficult and expensive to achieve believable characters.

We have already witnessed smaller budget games going for incredibly detailed characters, as seen in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice:

However, Ninja Theory, the developers of Hellblade, still had a budget of about 10 million Dollars to spend, of which they probably invested quite a sizeable amount into getting the look of their main-character just right. Since many indy studios can only dream of having these budgets, it’s probably not worth for them to try and push their visuals even further? Wrong!

Having spent a lot of time on tweaking the realism of people in my game, I want to highlight a method that I think should not only save small indy devs a lot of money but also tie into the pipeline of character creation and animation nicely.

It’s all about the scanning

While it is certainly possible for experienced artists to get close to the level of realism that most AAA games please their customers with by hand, it’s even more expensive if you need a lot of humans in your game.
The way that most studios today achieve their characters’ realism is by scanning real, living and breathing humans. This way, even blendshapes can be scanned and transferred onto a rig, allowing for incredibly detailed emotions and facial animations.
Also, since the faces actually belong to real humans, it makes facial motion capture easy and fast, thus needing less cleanup afterward.

However, scanning still comes at a price tag that is way above what many indies can afford. At least if you want a specific person to be scanned just for you, that is.
If that’s not the case, my method might be exactly what you want:

Cheap face scans for indies

TEN 24’s 3D Scan Store offers a lot of extremely detailed face-scans to customers, at price tags between 70 and 300 dollars per face. Some even come with scanned emotions and phonemes, if you are looking for perfect facial animation.

I, however, still wanted to make the process easier. I wanted rigs that easily worked with Unity3d, I wanted premade blendshapes and I did not want to create special clothing for every character with Marvelous Designer. Previously, all my characters would be made with Reallusions Character Creator, allowing for incredibly fast clothing, morphing, animating and direct export to Unity.

Making life even easier

After a lot of searching, I stumbled upon an amazing piece of software,
called Wrap, which allowed me to do exactly what I needed. I could export a base mesh from Character Creator to Wrap, along with a textured head scan from TEN24, and Wrap would automatically deform the base mesh to match the head scan. Wrap also automatically transfers the texture maps from the head scan to match the head of the Character Creator rig!

Then, I could reimport the altered base mesh (which is still the same mesh as before, regarding the topology) into Character Creator as a morph.
At that point the workflow would be as usual: Clothing, changing some skin textures (paying attention to the difference in the skin texture between the scanned texture for the head and the normal body texture), morphing the body and finally exporting to Unity3d.
The coolest part about this process for me is, that the final character will have an easy to use iClone rig, it’ll have blendshapes without needing to import several other face scans, and characters can still be made in less than half an hour.

The final results

While face scans will elevate your visuals to new heights, they still require a lot of attention and shader-finesse in your game engine. Unity will not have important features like subsurface scattering until they release their new High Definition Rendering Pipeline, but with the amazing skin shader included in Lux Plus, you can get similar quality.

Facescan in unity

The final result is way beyond what I had dreamed to achieve, and I’m quite satisfied since I only spent about 300$ on the character. While the results, of course, won’t be as groundbreaking as Hellblade’s were, I think this method might be a solution that many indies hoped for.

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