Arcane University: 3D Art
The 3D Art department takes two-dimensional concept art—usually digital drawings—and uses them to create three-dimensional models to be placed in the game world. The 3d artist must also take into account any special requirements regarding pre-existing lore, and technical restrictions required by the animation and implementation teams.
- 1 General Workflow
- 2 Skyrim Data Formats
- 3 Asset-specific Tutorials
- 4 Basic Software
- 5 Asset Implementation Software
- 6 See Also
With the concept art imported into the modelling software, blockout modeling starts. For the high-polywork flow, the 3D artist sculpts a high-poly mesh. They then bake the high-poly details into the normal map of a retopologized low-poly version of the mesh, and add textures to this low-poly model. After the asset is exported to NIF format, it is given its physical properties such as collision and physics. It may then be rigged/skinned to bones and animated, if necessary.
- UV Unwrapping
- Mesh Export to NIF
- Adding Mesh Collisions
Skyrim Data Formats
Skyrim uses NIFs and DDS file formats to read and render objects in game. That means your mesh must be converted to a NIF and textures to DDS.
- To review the specifics of the NIF data format used for meshes, check Nif Data Format.
- To review the specifics of the DDS data format used for textures, check DDS Data Format.
- Software for converting files can be found under Asset Implementation Software.
- Animating Crash Course - Basic Static Animations in Blender (video) by Hayden Price
- Exporting animated statics using ck-cmd
- Hinge Constraints
Trees and Plants
- Flora Workflow
- Creating and Texturing Grass (video) by David Pynkoski (Beyond Skyrim)
Tilesets and Architecture
- Modularity in Creating 3D Game Environments (pdf) by Mike Bernstein
- Skyrim’s Modular Approach to Level Design by Joel Burgess (Bethesda)
- How We Used Iterative Level Design to Ship Skyrim and Fallout 3 (lecture video) by Joel Burgess (Bethesda)
- Fallout 4's Modular Level Design (lecture video) by Joel Burgess (Bethesda)
- How to Create Tilesets (lecture video) by Zix (Skywind)
- Snapping Tutorial (video) by Zix (Skywind)
- LOD Model Creation
- Guideline for LOD model creation (forum thread) by Grumpycat (Skywind)
As a 3D artist you have to use a variety of software and plugins to achieve the results you want. Below you'll find several alternatives within each category that are suitable for asset creation. You must have a 3D modeling, 3D baking and 3D texturing program in order to create your asset - this is your most basic programs in the unique 3D workflow.
3D modelling and sculpting programs
All 3D artists need a modelling and sculpting program to create the geometry of their asset.
- Blender - free, modelling and sculpting. (also read Blender for Skyrim)
- Maya [$] - modelling. (also read Maya for Skyrim)
- 3ds Max [$] - modelling. (also read 3ds Max for Skyrim)
- ZBrush [$] - sculpting. (also read ZBrush for Skyrim)
- Mudbox [$] - sculpting. (also read Mudbox for Skyrim)
3D baking programs
You'll want to avoid baking in Blender, as the results can be slow, prone to errors and inaccurate.
- xNormal - free.
Some texturing programs are also good at baking. See list below for what options offer baking.
3D texturing program
We recommend these programs to texture your asset, as the tools at your disposal are vastly superior to Blender.
- Quixel Mixer - free, texturing.
- Marmoset Toolbag [$] - baking, texturing.
- Adobe Substance 3D Painter [$*] - baking, texturing. Free with Student License.
- Substance Painter Plugin - free. if you're using Adobe Substance 3D Painter, you'll also want to use the PBR to Skyrim plugin.
- Adobe Substance 3D Designer [$*] Create materials with nodes - not for applying texture to an asset, only to create complex materials. Adobe Substance 3D Designer is not required use, you can usually create the materials you want in Painter, but it's a powerful program for complex materials.
- Blender Blender is not recommended for texturing assets, as all the programs above are much easier to use and superior in features and results. However, it does exist.
2D texturing program
These programs can be used to manually alter texture maps. These are not mandatory to download, but you might need one at some point.
- GIMP - free (also read GIMP for Skyrim)
- Affinity [$]
- Adobe Photoshop [$] - Can be used with NVidia Plugin to convert maps to DDS format. PS: you sign up for yearly subscriptions, paid monthly.
Asset Implementation Software
When you've finished your textures and low poly mesh, they must be converted into Skyrim friendly formats, and implemented into Skyrim. In some of the Partner Projects your work as a 3D artist finishes here, and an asset implementer takes over. However, in most projects you are encouraged to implement your own asset. This is also what we recommend in the Arcane University, as it allows you to see and fix errors in your mesh and textures that's not visible until you see it in game.
Asset implementation is a big topic, and more complicated assets require a thorough knowledge of NifSkope and Creation Kit. However, something as simple as a bowl can easily be done!
All programs and plugins from here on out are free.
Convert Texture Maps to DDS
Skyrim uses the DDS file format for all their texture maps. Export your textures in PNG or TGA, prepare your diffuse and other maps, then convert the images to DDS.
- Paint.Net (also read Paint.net for Skyrim)
- Cathedral Assets Optimizer converts only TGA to DDS. Allows batch conversion.
- Nvidia Texture Tools Exporter can be downloaded as standalone program, or as Photoshop plugin. Standalone program allows batch conversion.
- GIMP primarily an image manipulation program. Plugin not required (v 2.10.24). Does not support DXT10/BC7 export. Results can be inferior to other DDS export methods.
- Crunch is designed for more advanced compression, and is a command-line tool, but it also outputs excellent quality DDS when configured properly.
- Compressonator requires an AMD graphics card, but outputs good quality and has a nice GUI. Also supports command-line use.
For information regarding the various export settings, and how to convert your texture to DDS, read the DDS page.
Convert Mesh to NIF
|NOTE: Special Edition uses a different nif format from Skyrim/Legendary Edition. However, nearly all Skyrim/LE nifs will work in SSE, and are easier to work with. SSE nifs are also less precise. For this reason, most projects use LE nifs. If you do need to convert either way, you can use Cathedral Assets Optimizer or SSE Nif Optimizer.|
There are a variety of methods to convert your mesh, including both software-specific plugins, and standalone converters that are software-agnostic:
- Sofware agnostic:
- CK-CMD - can convert both ways between .fbx and nif. Also can handle havok behaviors.
- Outfit Studio - can import .obj or .fbx, and export LE or SSE nifs. Also used skin armor, creatures, or npcs.
- Blender Niftools - For Blender 2.8+, Export/Import tool between Blender and the Nif format.
- PyNifly - Export/Import tool between Blender and the Nif format. Supports SSE Meshes
- 3ds Max:
- 3DS Max Niftools Addon - Niftools Addon for 3DS Max. Might not work with versions after 2016
- Apenov 3DS Max Plugin - Another Plugin for 3DS Max, works with versions up to 2018. Supports some SSE Meshes
Add Collision to NIF
Your mesh needs a collision to become solid in the engine. Read the collision wiki page for details on what program to use.
- NifUtilsSuite (includes ChunkMerge) - Can transfer collision from one nif to another, or convert TriShapes to compressed mesh collision
- Chunkmerge Utils - templates for use with ChunkMerge
NifSkope is a program that allows you to open NIF files, view and alter NIF's properties and contents, and export NIF files into other file formats readable by other programs such as Blender. Nifskope is where you attach your textures to the NIF and specify shader settings for it to appear correctly in game. Nifskope also allows you to browse the Skyrim meshes BSA (archive) without using a BSA unpacker.
|NOTE: Nifskope is essential for all asset implementation.|
Skyrim and Creation Kit
To view your asset in game you'll need the game. You can use Skyrim Legendary Edition, or Skyrim Special Edition.
Depending on which Skyrim you own, you must download the Creation Kit that goes with your version: Creation Kit Legendary Edition, or Creation Kit Special Edition. See Creationkit.com for more information.
And finally, if you use Skyrim Special Edition, you'll want to download Creation Kit Fixes to stabilize the program, reduce loadtimes and CTDs. SSE Creation Kit Fixes
- NIF Data Format explains NIFs, the file format Skyrim uses to read meshes
- DDS Data Format explains DDSs, the file format Skyrim uses for texture images
- Start to Finish Game Asset (Video on Twitch) By Bartalon
- How to Model Anything in 3D - Modeling Fundamentals (Youtube) by FlippedNormals
- 6 key principles for 3D modeling (Youtube) by CG Cookie
- How a Team of Modders Use Substance Painter to Recreate Skyrim article on Substance Painter blog by Hayden Price
- What is Texel Density and How to Master it (Youtube) By malcolm341
- What is Texture Padding and How to Master it (Youtube) By malcolm341
- UDIMs - Modelling and Texturing Essentials (Youtube) By FlippedNormals