UX Design Trends

Trends in 3D graphic design and game design uncovered in interviews

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How I came about to collecting these insights

I was about to jump on a plane to Oslo three times and each time I had to cancel. First, it was my own doing, I stayed a few days longer waiting for my second Covid vaccine shot. Then, just 36 hours before my second flight, Israel, where I reside, closed its borders for travel, there was no going in or out. Finally, when the Israeli restriction lifted, Norway denied entry for non residents.

So I haven’t physically met my partners before we decided to start a company together and I haven’t met them since. We all shared a passion for unleashing creativity through technology and on that basis we decided to build a tool for real-time 3D creation.

A few palm trees and a dinner in the desert
‘Low Poly’ desert street, Øyvind Sørøy co-founder at Sloyd

We virtually met each other in Antler, a VC venture builder in Oslo, and in order to come up with an idea to pursue, we conducted interviews with over thirty people from the creative industries who use 3D in their daily work. We asked them about the tools they use and the trends they see.

Later, when we looked at the insights we got from these interviews we thought they’d be valuable for others as well. Especially for designers that are considering expanding their toolset into CGI (computer graphic imagery) and design students that are considering a career in game development. With those two groups in mind, this review starts with 3D usages tools in graphic and motion design, then it continues to tools in game design and concludes with reviewing methods for speeding up 3D creation in both industries.

First, graphic and motion design — who uses 3D and for what?

Only a few of the brand graphic and motion designers feel fully proficient in 3D modeling. Yet, most of the motion designers use it in their daily work and so do part of the graphic designers. In addition, about a half of these brand professionals are interested in improving their 3D skills. Even amongst the most skilled, it is common, in complex 3D assignments to outsource the job to 3D artists.

Most interviewees shared the sentiment that CGI is an increasing trend in brand marketing, albeit one of a few trends (others mentioned were ‘authentic’ photography and flat illustrations). Also, most think, that there are more designers getting into 3D and that recent design school graduates are coming out of design school with more 3D proficiency than those only a few years ago.

In some cases, 3D is used as part of a unique style to differentiate the brand. In merchandise and packaging work 3D is an important tool that’s used very often to reduce costs. Printing out packages and doing professional photoshoots cost a lot. CGI is a cheaper substitute either for prototyping concepts or in some cases even for replacing a physical item in the end visual. There are also cases where promotional material goes out before the product is made and then CGI based on product rendering has to be used.

The most used tools by brand graphic and motion designers

There are a lot of tools and the summary here is by no means a comprehensive collection of everything out there. Also, since it was not compiled in a quantitative survey, I’m not proposing that this is the absolute truth. Still, after talking to over thirty professionals, some patterns emerge.

By far, the most mentioned ‘core’ 3D tool by brand and graphic designers is Cinema4D. Apparently that’s due to good integration into After Effects and also because the interface resembles other editing tools designers use, making it easier to learn for these designers. Some, but to a lesser extent, are using Rhino3D and Blender.

One designer is actually using the Unity game engine for his 3D needs. This ties into a trend of tools whose core capability is not 3D but are incorporating 3D into them and are becoming a substitute for the core 3D tool. Illustrators, who are very proficient in Adobe Illustrator are using its 3D capabilities for simple 3D tasks, without needing another tool. Likewise, some motion designers use the 3D capabilities in Adobe After Effects. A designer we talked to, who so far only worked with 2D, finds that he can get a good depth desired effect just by using shading and lighting in Photoshop.

When it comes to ‘speciality’ 3D tools, in the area of package design and merchandise, livesurface is used to display a visual such as a label on a 3D item. Designers proficient with 3D, that do a lot of CGI projects, also use Keyshot for rendering and lighting.

New browser based 3D tools recently emerged. They rely on advancements in WebGL, the standard for running 3D graphics and utilising GPU from the browser, and are often ‘light weight’ and easier to learn than application tools. The designers have heard about them and have tried them out, but they’ve yet to apply them in a work situation. Three such tools that were mentioned were Vectray, Blend4Web and Spline.

A black vintage American car
‘Low Poly’ car, Øyvind Sørøy co-founder at Sloyd

On to the most used tools by game designers and TV animators

Game developers and TV animators use a larger set of tools for 3Ds. In big studios, for every step in the elaborate production process, block modeling, detailing, texturing, rendering and post processing, there’s a speciality tool and sometimes more than one.

Out of the ‘core’ 3D creation tools, for these users, Cinema4D is a lot less common. Instead they are using one or a combination of Maya, 3D-Max, Houdini and Blender (a combination since each tool has a relatively strong point. For example, for Houdini it’s procedural generation). I was expecting to hear from indie developers that they use mainly Blender and from AAA studio designers that they rely more on Maya and Houdini. However, I found that Blender has made its way also into AAA game studios and that paid software is also prevalent in Indie studios (Blender is a free open-source tool).

The speciality tools used for detailing include Zbrush for sculpturing, Medium by Adobe for sculpting with VR and Marvellous Designer for creating cloths. The main tool used for texturing in Substance design but I’ve heard of designers who use 3d coat and in big studios also Artomatix. For rendering I most often heard Keyshot but some mentioned Arnold. Finally, for post processing Marmoset Toolbag was mentioned.

3D trends in game design and TV production

The game industry is massive and is growing fast. But the cost of AAA game production is growing even faster than revenue. AAA studios are also facing competition from the booming Indy development sector and from casual mobile game producers. All of that makes the AAA model nearly unsustainable, a sentiment reflected by Cliff Bleszinski and Shawn Layde, two gaming executives. As a result, a large chunk of the 3D work is outsourced to production studios taking advantage of international labor cost arbitrage and giving the flexibility to scale the labor force up and down quickly based on the production stage.

Intense competition is likely to continue and will drive a rapid development of technology that pushes the boundaries of game experience and also drives down the cost of development. Since about 40% (according to a few sources) of the labor cost is getting 3D models through the production pipeline, many of the cost cutting technologies will be in 3D.

Game engines’ ability to handle geometry load is rapidly improving. Now some game engines can outperform TV and movie rendering solutions and they have the added benefit of being realtime. Therefore, one of our interviewees, who has worked at the cutting edge movie and game companies, believes that soon movie production will start using games engines. This has already started happening in the production of the live action series The Mandalorian.

Outsourcing 3D with Marketplaces

The centerpiece of a CGI advertisement, the level boss in an adventure game or lead character in an animation, those are usually handcrafted with love. However, the props (i.e. items) next to them, the environments that surround them and even the secondary characters around them, they may very well be taken from a marketplace or a generator.

The marketplace for 3D assets that is top-of mind for professionals across all positions and creative industries is Turbosquid. The people in game design just as often use the Unity asset store and the Unreal marketplace. Those who recall more than one marketplace by name usually mention Cgtrader, Free3d, or SketchFAB. Designers who need a 3D visual but don’t need the 3D file, will source 3D from Shuttersock or another stock site where they already have a subscription. (Turbosquid was acquired by Shutterstock but it is not part of the subscription to the main Shutterstock product). A brand designer, who often needs realistic furniture for his work, reported that he uses Vitra. Vitra is a retailer that creates digital twins for their furniture and offers it for free. There’s also Mixamo, a store for 3D characters that come rigged for easy animation, and MakeHuman an open source alternative.

The amount of usage of marketplace assets is mixed. In general, there’s more usage of marketplace assets in game design then in brand CGI and animation since game scenes can be very dense in items. Still there are some concerns that are hindering further adoption of marketplace assets.

One concern is the lack of consistency in style and quality among assets. Since in a market place, assets are provided by different creators it can be hard to match two pieces from different creators to one artistic style.

Another concern is that by using a finished asset in your project you lose uniqueness, as other projects will also use that exact same item. Some indie developers, whose emphasis is on art, shy away from using marketplace assets even if it could save them a lot of time.

In addition, assessing the quality of the asset is also challenging. The 3D item may look good in preview, but only after you buy it and start using it you find out if it was built properly. Things like how UV-unwrapping and geometry was done are revealed only after purchase. Geometry, especially, when done improperly (over usage of triangles) can have a big implication on performance and having to clean that up defeats the purpose of outsourcing 3D to save time.

In casual gaming, when the business model is based on in-app purchases and advertising, companies are concerned with rights and licensing issues when they use third-party assets.

Automating 3D creation with procedural generators

Another way to cut on costs and save time is to use procedural generators. These generators predominantly take prefabricated assets and combine them together in different ways allowing for many variations. Generators create buildings, cities, vegetation, terrain and even textures. Since procedural generators are built for customisation, a user can get a unique asset out of them, and in that sense they are more appealing than a finished marketplace asset.

There are games who built full procedural worlds, notable examples are No Man Sky and Valheim. However, these games developers built a generator tailored for their specific game and it is not something that is resold to others.

Procedural generators that are available in the market seem to have a very low adoption rate and most of the game developers do not use them. One reason that they are not widely used is that despite the fact that they are meant to save time they are still quite complex. Another reason is that the generators have a very limited set of styles and that game designers think they are not practical to use.

This is probably because procedural generation is only just starting and even some of the most promising ones, such as Archimatix, are just a one person passion project and not a commercial venture. In the near future, procedural generation tools will mature and then they’ll become more mainstream.

While building and city generators adoption has not taken up, Substance Designer’s procedural solution for textures has become mainstream. Also some of our interviewees have used procedural solutions for vegetation and terrain and they mentioned Procedural Worlds and Vegetation Studio Pro.

What all this means

These are exciting times for 3D in media, games and advertising. There’s a lot of innovation that is spurring new creative options. For us, it meant that we wanted to join this creative revolution and we started Sloyd. We are working on automating 3D creative with a new approach to modeling. Instead of models made from a mesh of polygons, we are building models with math and functions. Therefore our models are generated in milliseconds at runtime and are easily customised. We hope this will make 3D easier for people who are just starting and save tedious creation tasks for experienced designers. Let us know what these trends mean to you by commenting on the article.

More on our research method

Sloyd’s interviews were conducted by my two co-founders Øyvind Sørøy and Andreas Edesberg and by me.

The people we talked to held these titles: Indie developer, 3D artist, creative director, technical creative director, VP creative, executive producer, brand designer, senior brand designer, motion designer, UI designer, design lead, marketing designer, motion developer, freelance designer and managing director.

They worked in these types of companies: AAA game developer, smaller indie game studio, production studio, design agency, media startup, media and web enterprise, a digital consulting firm and as freelancers and indie developer hobbyists.

A software interface with two chairs in 3D and one of the “unrapped”
An object exported from Sloyd — created on runtime with an automatic UV unwrapping

Trends in 3D graphic design and game design uncovered in interviews was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.