Best Computer For Game Design

best computer for game design

David wrote in with this question:

I want to make games but my computer is junk. Blender doesn’t work good. I’m going to get a new one. What graphics card do I need? Is 256bit enough, or should I get 3 gigabytes or 4?

Thank you for your question!

How A Computer Works

First off let’s start by looking at the main components in a computer and how they effect performance.

The processor (aka CPU) is the main chip in your computer and handles most of a program’s calculations. Graphic card (aka GPU, or GFX) upgrades have gained in popularity over the last few years because of many game’s dependance on them for high frame rates and using the maximum texture quality. Some programs depend on graphic cards to replace the traditional CPU because they can run calculations hundreds or thousands of times in parallel on the GPU (Folding@Home is a good example of this) and return the final result very quickly. Now memory (aka RAM) is another important factor to keep in mind. Memory stores information between the hard drive and the processor (or GPU) so that it can be quickly accessed.

I’m afraid that, because of how these components work together and that I don’t know about the rest of your computer, I can’t answer your question. But continue reading and I’m sure you can figure out the answer of what you need yourself!

 

What The Programs Need

Most popular programs don’t even support or use graphic cards fully (yet?).

Blender 2.65 does not use the GPU except if you are rendering with Cycles. You would be better off with a balanced system.

Maya 2013 utilizes the graphics card to a degree, however Maya will perform best with a balanced computer. Check out the comparison between professional workstation and consumer graphics cards.

ZBrush 4 only uses the graphics card to display the window on your screen (like any other program) but the 3d stuff isn’t accelerated by it at all. For ZBrush you would be best off with a 64bit processor and lots of fast memory. Note: ZBrush 4 is a 32bit application, but is large address aware so it can use up to 4GB of memory with a 64 bit operating system. The upcoming ZBrush 5 release is reported to be a 64bit application and will be able to use more memory.

Mudbox 2013 will use a graphic card’s memory for texturing and post FX. Like ZBrush, you would be best off with a 64bit OS and a good amount of RAM in addition to the GPU.

Unity 4 can use a good graphics card for testing scenes but remember that even if a game that you author runs smooth on your computer not everyone who wants to play it will have as good as a system as you (especially if you want to make games for mobile). Also because you likely will need to load numerous assets into a scene, you also should have a fast hard drive.

 

What To Upgrade

For 3d modeling I recommend keeping the power in your computer balanced. Don’t put a $600 graphics card in your system when you have a $50 processor. The processor will bottle neck your graphics card and you won’t be able to use it to it’s full potential. Likewise, upgrading your memory if you have a slow hard drive or CPU will have little effect on improving performance.

A new computer will probably cost you more then upgrading the parts you need to meet the minimum requirements for Blender. I would recommend meeting those and then once you learn more, buy a new (or upgrade to a) wicked fast computer based on what you find that you need.

Also remember that better hardware won’t improve your modeling skills. You might want to think about buying cheaper hardware that will work fine and spend the rest on a few classes.

Triangles or Quads For Video Games?

Let’s start by looking at the basic shapes of polygons used with 3d modeling:

polygons

Triangles are made up of 3 sides which meet at the corners (called vertices). Quads are made of 4 sides. You can see in the above image how every shape can be broken down into smaller triangles.

ngon

Ngon example

There is also what is call an ngon, which is used to refer to a polygon made of more than 4 sides and has not been divided into triangles or quads. Ngons are not acceptable for games.

What to use:

Since all surfaces are automatically broken down into triangles in the game engine anyway which should you model with?

tri-to-quad

Dividing a triangle into quads.

Edge flow on organic models is important when you go to animate them to avoid problems with deformation. In these instances quads are preferred and should give you better results.

Additionally with programs that subdivide your model many times, such as Zbrush, quads will give you cleaner results because of the way triangles are subdivided.

eye-good-edge-flow

Good edge flow around an rhino’s eye.

On low poly (like those used in games) or hard surface (e.g. a table) models, modeling with triangles is perfectly acceptable. Just make sure that you have good edge flow where there will be joints so that during animation the model deforms properly!

Once your model goes into the game the cost of that model will largely come down to how many triangles (commonly referred to as tris) the model is divided into, so plan wisely!

Comparison of silhouettes based on triangles used.

Comparison of silhouettes based on triangles used. Source

 

 

Types Of Texture Maps for Video Games

which texture maps to use

Once you start to texture your models you will run across the different types of texture maps. It can be confusing about when and where each type should be used, and even how they are different from each other.

Based on which modeling software, renderer, or game engine you use, some map types may work better than others or not at all they also require the maps to be provided in certain formats. I will be focusing on a Maya to Unity workflow, but I will include information for 3ds Max, Blender, CryEngine, and Unreal Engine where I can. For this chart, I am going to be sticking to the types of maps commonly used with gaming, there are many many more which I will not cover. If you want to learn about those, check out the Further Reading section down at the bottom of this post.

One thing that is consistent throughout various software is how texture maps are applied:

Mesh in Maya

Mesh in Maya

  1. First a model has a mesh, the mesh is the polygonal faces that you can see (wireframe draws the edges of the mesh). The mesh is typically represented by a gray color.
  2. Materials are applied to the mesh. Common types of materials are Blinn, Lambert, and Phong. The type of material will effect the quality of the render, how much it costs (cost is how much processor time the render will consume), and which attributes can be changed.
  3. Texture map(s) are applied to the material (these can be color, specular, bump, etc.). A texture map is laid out in a UV texture space from 0-1.
    Blinn in Maya

    Blinn on mesh

    Typically texture maps are square and sized in base 2 number of pixels (ex: 64×64, 128×128, 256×256). Some engines and platforms allow odd sized maps such as a few games made for the PlayStation 2.

Color

Color is what really defines a model. These should have the base color of the model, variation in that color, and even dirt or wear that has come to the surface. Use many reference images to get it right. For the most part, these are the only required maps in a game.

Color Map (Sometimes called Diffuse (3ds Max, Unity) or texture):

blinn-color

The color map is a texture space used for the color. Shadows can be drawn into the color map to define geometry that doesn’t exist on the model through a technique known as “baking”.

It is worth noting that some software (including 3ds Max and Unity) refers to the color map as the diffuse map, however diffuse is something different. This confusion is likely due to a fast developing industry where no standards where in place at the time of naming.

Color Map Examples:

UVtemplateColor

UV Template

Color map for various tools

Color map for various tools

color map for 3d

Color map for tillable floor

Color map for a blue gas pump

Color map for a blue gas pump

Light

Maps can be used to define how light reacts to the material by controlling how much light is absorbed by the material and how reflective it is (ex: metal, wood or even cloth) as well as other emulating other elements we see in the world.

Specular Map:

blinn-color-spec

The specular map defines where in the texture space it is and is not shiny. These maps are drawn in gray scale where white is shiny and black is not.

Specular maps can be used to decrease the shine is areas with dirt or moss.

Specular Map Examples:

checkered specular map

Specular map for example

Specular map for tile floor

Specular map for tile floor

Specular map for wound

Specular map for wound

Diffuse Map:

Honestly, diffusion maps aren’t used in gaming much because of their cost but are baked into the color and specular maps. I am including it here to clear up some confusion that Autodesk’s 3ds Max caused about what a diffuse map is.

Using the word properly, diffusion determines how much of the color you can see by regulating how much light is reflected and absorbed by the material.

Diffuse maps are in shades of gray, with white causing the surface to become more diffused, and black having no effect.

For example a perfect mirror that reflects all light (and has no color) would have low diffusion and be represented by a black diffuse map. Wood has a higher diffusion and would be represented by a shade of gray on the diffusion map.

Another way of seeing how this effects your color map is to set the diffusion map to multiply in Photoshop over the color layer.

 

Gloss Map:

 

Ambient Occlusion Map:

 

Reflection:

 

Texture

Maps that add texture to the model are powerful. They allow models with a low polycount to appear to have much more geometry than they have in actuality. These types of maps do not modify the silhouette (see the rendered normal map example below) so you will need to be careful when adding them near edges.

Bump Map:

The way bump maps are represented is that white is high on the model, and black is low, gray is neutral and is inline with the mesh.

Sides of where the bump maps effects the model can look jagged since they only work in one direction; up and down. Normal maps are an attempt to improve on bump maps and should be over bump maps where they can.

Bump Map Examples:

Bump map for bark

Bump map for bark

Bump map for roof tiles

Bump map for roof tiles

Normal Map (also called bump maps):

textured mesh for 3d video game

Normal maps are an improvement over bump maps and are more commonly used in game design. They are mostly blue, rainbow colored maps.

A very common use is to model a highpoly version of a model and then bake the geometry from it onto a lowpoly version as normals. This technique can save millions of polygons and allow a complex model to be used in a game where otherwise it would cost too much.

Normal Map Examples:

square normal map

Normal map for example

Normal map for K-rail barrier

Normal map for K-rail barrier

 

Other

Alpha Map:

Opacity

 

Further Reading

Photorealistic Texturing for Dummies (mirror)

Resources

 

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