Monthly Archives: April 2015

The Joy Of Rex

TL;DR summary: Lowpoly design is a reflection of modern artists’ nostalgia for 90s video games. Also, get off my lawn. Also also, download Rex’s pram here.

Months ago I designed Robber Rex as a replacement robber token for Settlers of Catan when we lost our original. He is, inexplicably, one of the more popular designs to emerge from The Forge in recent history.

In an effort to exsplick Rex’s success, I present a theory as to why low-poly design seems to be sweeping the 3D printing community lately and it boils down to nostalgia.

Robber Rex

With no statistics or evidence to the contrary I’ll posit that the median age of artists doing enough 3D design work to get noticed by sites like Thingiverse and Pinshape is somewhere around 30 years old. Maybe a little younger.

These people would have been preteens right smack dab in the middle of the 90’s, when games like Quake and Final Fantasy VII were top-of-the-line entertainment. By today’s standards the polycounts of character models in these games were miniscule– I think a Quake character maxxed out somewhere around 200 triangles.

I’m convinced that many of us want to be twelve again, when we were at the top of our game as kids but not yet at the bottom of the ladder as teenagers. Life was pretty good back then, before the acne and taxes and hangovers and freaky stalker exes. It was all Crash Bandicoot, all the time, and maybe a Capri Sun after school with a little not-too-challenging math homework on the side.

It’s natural that these aging children of the 90’s would recreate the entertainment they loved so much as children, the same way their recent predecessors swept 3D design with 8-bit skeuomorphisms a couple of years ago. See here Moore’s Law, writ in plastic.

The current popularity of Minecraft will undoubtedly produce interesting design trends among the designers of 2030, who will be chipping meta-retro lowpoly designs from the silica mines to please our ever-demanding AI overlords.

Having worked through the tail end of this low-poly period, I’m familiar with the design compromises brutally enforced by the video cards of the day. My first gig as a video game artist had a poly limit of 150 per character. Our models were angular at best and blocky at worst, and you can bet your bippy I nearly wet myself with delight the first time I saw a bump map on a realtime shader.

And I had an onion tied to my belt, which was the style at the time.

So, freed now from the design constraints that marked my early career, I’ve got a habit of reveling in gratuitous geometry. Rex is anomaly in my portfolio. He’s low-poly (-ish, there are still microbevels you couldn’t get away with in 1998), totally unlike creations like the Bramble Bloxen.

Bloxen, Bramble

Yeah, that’s like over 200K polygons right there.

But we’re big fans of Giving The People What They Want here at Zheng Labs, and The People clamored for a low-poly sequel to Robber Rex.

pram

So I designed a print-in-place pram for Rex and his newphew, Pip. You can read a quick story about Rex and Pip here, but be warned: the language is a little salty and likely isn’t appropriate for our younger readers.

prototypes

Maintaining the low-poly style was easy, but getting the wheels to turn reliably on a print-in-place model took a dozen prototypes and test prints. The numbers on the sides of the pram are cylinder diameters: the trick is to leave enough clearance between wheel and bearing that the wheels can turn, but not so much that the wheels fall out. 6.3 is too small– the first layer of plastic oozes together and locks the wheel in place. 7.5 is a little too loose, which makes the wheels wobble all over the place.

Oh, and here’s Pip. He’s almost an afterthought in this design, just a little low-poly hatchling tucked into his stroller for a day at the park.

pip

There’s a new design bubbling in the cauldron, and it’ll be out in a couple of weeks. #staytuned. It’s-a-gonna-be-big. Lao Zheng out.

Travelers, Part 1

Peacetime, now, as it had been for half a decade.

Maera bumped the tower door with her hip, held it open with her rump and eased out onto the wall-walk, taking care not to spill any grog from the dozen steaming mugs she bore like a serving girl on the inside of her shield. She puffed a wisp of mousy hair from her eyes and called to the sargeant of the watch. “Elias! Some help, if you would.”

Elias, still quick even at threescore and two, set down his spyglass and hustled over to relieve the chateliane of her burden. “Good morning, milady! Thankee much.” He distributed the hot grog around the wall and offered the last tankard to Maera. “Milady?”

She shook her head and smiled. “It’s yours, please. Still chilly up here, it is.”

The sargeant grinned and sipped daintily at the tankard, one pinky raised in silent mockery of his lady’s educated accent. “Chilly, but calm, at least. The night passed without incident, as they all do of late.”

Maera had taken a habit of posting a light guard in the last six months. Red hadn’t made noise since their victory and the other clans were too far away to mount an attack without messengers spotting them weeks in advance.

Peacetime it was, but of course there were Vile Things out there that weren’t Men and didn’t care a whit for clan politics. Elias continued. “Can’t say as I miss the war, though.”

He scraped the last bit of honey from his mug with a grimy finger, licked, and squinted out over the wall. “Hello, what’s this? Movement at the far marker, if these old eyes tell the truth?”

He unbuckled his spyglass and handed it to Maera. “What is it? Even with the lens I’d never know.”

Maera heard three sharp toots from a warning horn– another wall-walker had spotted the movement and sounded an alert. She sighed. Three notes were a bit excessive at this distance, but then again these men were fairly well starved for something to do lately. She lifted the spyglass to her eye and homed in on the intruder.

The image of a man pulling a two-wheeled cart filled her view. And what a man! A giant, standing tall as a rearing warhorse. His skin was lightly tanned, even so early in the year. His clothing was at once coarse and complicated, with swirls of embroidery up the sleeves and sides of his green… tunic? Robe? Hard to say. It went to his knees and he wore black leggings underneath.

Another man, younger, slept in a padded chair behind the giant. His skin and hair were similar in color, but his robe (yes, definitely a robe on this one) was clearly of finer quality. The man’s head tilted over the back of his seat and he loosely held the neck of a large gourd in his left hand. He wore stockings of the purest white, but only one sandal.

How odd the cart looked; more of a tent-covered chair on wheels than a proper cart, with barely any space for extra cargo. Not merchants, then, nor peddlers, and certainly not warriors, though a sword hung in its scabbard from the side of the cart. Slowly, canopy swaying left to right with each step, the giant and his snoozing master plodded ever closer to the Black Keep.

Maera lowered the spyglass as the wall began to bustle with activity. “Well,” she mused to no one in particular, “this should be a novelty.”