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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.