Tag Archives: design

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.

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

My maternal grandfather was a painter. Not by trade but by passion; by day he designed lingerie patterns in The City and by night he retreated to his Bronx basement to exorcise his demons with oils and canvas. Or so my narrative of his life goes, cobbled together from snippets told by his wife and children.

Grandpa Joe died of cancer when I was six, so I never had the opportunity to know him well. My strongest memories of him are of the kind man who walked us to the corner candy store on every visit, and of the dried soil in the flowerpot next to his sickbed, dappled with orange seeds.

The smell of cigar smoke still conjures hazy, pleasant images of his presence.

To this day you can’t attend a family gathering without seeing one of Grandpa Joe’s paintings. Every uncle and aunt had (and still has) at least one of his pieces, every one a silent witness to history, now thoroughly infused with lasagna fumes and family drama. Some have even filtered down to grown grandchildren; we have one proudly displayed in an honored spot in my house.

One of his grandest works hung in our home throughout my upbringing. It’s a huge painting by a six-year-old’s standards, and still looms larger in my mind than it actually is. He painted this in 1946, in a world still reeling from war.

1946

There are two distinct sides in this conflict; left and right are rendered differently in style and tone. Panicked innocents flee from the blast of a fantastic sunset in the center. Michelangelo’s God touches no Adam here and instead judges from the middle of the battle.

Staring down from the family room wall, this painting spoke to me like Sauron’s Eye to Frodo.

“I see you,” it rasped.

I’ve felt this painting’s pull all my life. If computers hadn’t caught on in the 80’s I’d have eventually made a living airbrushing heavy metal scenes on vans. But despite years of 10 PRINT "HELLO", the notion that I could be an artist myself had already been planted in my head by Grandpa Joe’s work.

Grandpa excelled at painting details. Look at the capitals of the columns on either side of the painting and you’ll see delicate details and almost-arabesques. These are exactly the kind of decorative motifs I’d like to include in the Faire Play parade armor. Another painting has an appropriate flourish I’d like to include as an homage to my precursor, so I’ll burgle from this:

1967

My guess is that this is a depiction of the Virgin Mary appearing to my uncle and mother as children. I don’t think this is a rendering of an actual event, because you can bet your britches if Mom had witnessed a Marian apparition we’d have heard about it every Thanksgiving for the last 40 years.

Here’s the detail that I’d like to use as a recurring motif, from the lower left of the painting.

flourish sample

My old workflow for this involved tracing the flourish in Illustrator, importing the EPS, creating a planar trim and then tessellating to produce a polygon model. That’s the quick and easy path, but ultimately that journey is beset by N-gons and nonmanifold geometry, difficult to seamlessly join to an existing model.

Instead I’ll bring the image into Maya and trace the outline with the combination of Create Polygon tools, edge extrusion, and vertex pulling. This helps me to keep a model that’s built exclusively out of quads; it’s much less likely to cause me problems later on when I boolean the many flourishes into the base cuirass mesh.

flourish grow

This is going to be a slow, but easy, process, so I sip my coffee, put in the earbuds and some Quirks and Quarks podcasts, and achieve Csíkszentmihályi’s flow as I work. Twenty minutes later I have this.

finished flourish

The translated flourish doesn’t fit the space in the armor exactly, so it needs a little lattice work to deform it to the space above the bird’s wing.

flourish molded

And finally some extrusion and mirroring and it’s ready to become part of the parade armor.

extruded and mirrored

I’ll be appropriating details from both of these paintings over the next few weeks while I decorate the Faire Play parade armor.

A note to my future grandchildren, yet unconceived, osmosing this post with retinal HUDs on the shores of Central Park: do not judge my low-resolution geometry too harshly, and please pilfer your ancestors’ work to better your own.

Also, thanks to Dad for photographing the paintings and sending them my way.

Quercus Leafreader, Squirrel Mage


When widow Winter refuses to yield to youngling Spring, ragged claws clutch-raking tattered tailfur.

When the kits, mewling, lick the last milk and teats sag empty in the frozen morn.

When fox and owl scour the ground and starving we fear to leave the nest.

When these are the times, the Leafreader comes and leads us to snow-forgotten treasure. Not a feast, but Enough.

And we live.


Quercus is the latest in my series of Magic: The Gathering Creature Tokens.

When your squirrels start getting up to +3/+3 and higher, you’ll need a model that conveys natural majesty. Enter Quercus Leafreader, Squirrel Mage. He holds aloft his Slimesinger (Sam the Slimesinger, if you must know) and dowses for acorns for the Scurry’s good.

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SQUIRREL!

Saving the Beast for Last

Here’s the last in a series of posts describing my process for creating a 3D-printed Magic: The Gathering Beast token.

beast_token

After many iterations and test prints, I settled on this pose for the Beast token. The neck and limbs are angled with minimal overhangs so that the printer can build the model all in one go.

And here’s the final model, preening in front of a pile of test prints.

beast_token

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This model is free to download and distributed under the Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 US license. Please remix and enjoy.

I have another MTG token in the pipeline, so stay tuned: follow this blog or find me on Twitter for updates from the Forge.

MTG Beast Token, Test Print

This token and an ever-expanding list of others like it is available for free in The Forge.

I like to run a test print before I start posing a model, just to see where the problem spots are going to be. Consumer-level printers like the Replicator are hindered by gravity and overhangs; one can’t print too far out into empty space without the melted plastic drooping and bunching up.

beast_token

The base pose for the Beast isn’t too bad, but I can see that I’m going to need to angle the head and chest up so that the printer creates its own support as it prints.

The long filament coming off the back of the base is leftover from the printer clearing its nozzle at the start of a print.

You can download the completed model here, completely free.

No printer? I’ll print you as many as you need at my Etsy Store. A half-dozen should do it for most games.

This model is distributed under the Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 US license. Please remix and enjoy.

MTG Beast Token, Day 7

I’m preparing the model for posing now. No more geometry edits.

The idea is that each bone in the character’s skeleton affects the vertices around it. Rotate, translate, or scale a bone and the vertices go along for the ride. This is Character Rigging 101, no fancy dynamics or muscle deformers or puppeteering controls.

Maya does a pretty good job of deciding which vertices are affected by which joint, but sometimes it needs a little assistance. I help it along by painting weights on a per-joint basis. Black vertices are not affected by a given bone, white vertices are totally affected. Gray vertices have a percentage assignment, which helps smooth out transitions between two joints.

Read my original post showing the completed model, or you can download it model here, completely free.

No printer? I’ll print you as many as you need at my Etsy Store. A half-dozen should do it for most games.

This model is distributed under the Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 US license. Please remix and enjoy.

MTG Beast Token, Day 5 and 6

beast_token

Here’s the Beast Token on Day 5. I’ve added some rhino armor and replaced the tail and horns. I have maybe one more day of details and then it’s on to the posing process.

I’m going to pay for adding the armor when it comes time to weight the vertices to the skeleton, but Rule of Cool trumps all.

And here he is on day 6:

beast_token

I added some final details in the shoulder and eye socket, and scaled everything down to fit the standard base I’ve been using.

There might be some minor edits after this, but for all intensive porpoises the modelling is finished.

The next step is to rig the model with a test skeleton to make sure all the joints deform properly without too much distortion. In theory, I’ll be able to pose this model any way I like.

You can download the completed model here, completely free.

No printer? I’ll print you as many as you need at my Etsy Store. A half-dozen should do it for most games.

This model is distributed under the Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 US license. Please remix and enjoy.