FPS Weapon Creation: How To Match AAA Standards

First-person shooter games are still at the top of the charts since, in the early 2000s, Gamasutra named this genre one of the biggest and fastest-growing revenue for publishers. At least a couple of FPS titles are constantly present in any ranking of the most popular games.  The first-person shooter is concentrated around a weapon and its use. The essence of it all is the player’s ability to experience all the first-person action. That’s why triple-A FPS projects must ensure the weapons’ superior and incredibly accurate key assets.

In this article, we are going to share some valuable tips for FPS weapon creation based on the expertise of the Room 8 Studio 3D weapon team and their lead artist – Kirill Udodov, gained in projects like Overwatch, Call of Duty Infinite Warfare, Moderns Warfare Remastered, WW II, Black Ops. We will elaborate on the pipeline that we use in our work to reach impressive results in modeling weapons for a first-person shooter that makes gamers delighted. In addition, we share some valuable insights on what to consider when involving external artists in a AAA project.

FPS Weapon Creation: Pipeline overview

The Colt Walker from the American Civil War, similar to those weapons you see in the Call of Duty WWII, is a perfect example to illustrate the pipeline for this type of high-density key assets creation.

References. Weapons in first-person shooters may vary widely depending on the historical time frame the game refers to. So, it can be a precise 3D model of the existing historical gun and some fictional sci-fi prototype. In the first case searching for references is crucial because creating a 3D model of a historical weapon requires a deep understanding of how it was made in the real world, which technology was used, and what damage and deformations may appear during its usage. References should illustrate the creation process, wear marks after use in various conditions, and the disassembling and assembling operations.

Google pictures, YouTube, and online auctions of rare vintage weapons are the best tools to find historical photos and other materials for references. For example, photos that you can find at auction sites usually are of the highest possible quality and can be used as references even at the texturing stage. The videos, however, are the best way to see the disassembling and assembling of a weapon, understand the details of its design and catch how the light moves on the shape. In addition, we also search for references that help compare the weapon in pristine condition and after some period of usage to see the processing of the materials of which it was made.

Room 8 Studio artists use PUREREF for organizing all found references, zooming on the most interesting of them, and leaving the less interesting ones smaller. Having all your references well organized in one place is crucial working with partners when each person on a project should be on the same page. Here at Room 8 Studio, we also use online brainstorming creative boards like MIRO (RealtimeBoard) and MURAL to share references and our ideas and get feedback in real-time.

Block Out. Blocking is one of the most important and no less exciting stages of designing a weapon for a first-person shooter. There is no need to worry about any technical limitations at this step. We concentrate on the main silhouettes and how their parts fit together. An experienced artist always trusts their eyes when they build an FPS gun and evaluate the object created in terms of the balance of silhouette and if everything looks solid and consistent.

After we finish with the silhouette and all forms are well thought out and easily viewed, it’s time to think of the functionality of each part. This particular model we can divide into the stock and grip, barrel and cylinder. A good artist should focus on each area to define its functionality and the relation with other components of this weapon. It helps later when adding details to make your design more compelling.

High Poly. Room 8 Studio artists usually use software like Fusion 360 and ZBrush to model all the details of the weapon since their tools offer the best functionality and quality. The main goal of this stage is to create the most accurate render of the shape and geometry of the object being modeled. At this stage of creating an FPS gun, we are focusing on the maximum realism and authenticity in the 3D model of the weapon, which later can be seen in one of the AAA FPS titles.

Low Poly. Having completed the work on the high poly model, we proceed to its optimization because it’s highly unreasonable to use the model in the current condition in a game. The main point is to reduce the number of polygons to the optimal level (which often means a reasonable minimum) and build the correct topology suitable for animation. Thus, Room 8 Studio artists get the “light” model, which can be used in large scenes with many objects and close-ups.

To make a perfect low poly model, we usually go one stage back (to Block Out), where we have everything needed for a good start. This approach also saves time since we ignore the medium level of detail that is already there in HighPoly. For this purpose, I do the same export as the previous stage with some unique settings and choose the right angle to minimize the number of sections and meet the technical limitations of polygons per mesh.

UV Mapping. This stage can be considered one of the most boring in the whole FPS weapon modeling pipeline. Still, each experienced artist knows how important it is to unwrap and layout the UVs correctly to avoid later troubles. To fulfill the UV stage Room 8 Studio artists use both approaches – handmade and autoPACK, depending on the requirements that we have from the client. Suppose there are no specific requirements for multilayer normal or painting with some camouflage. In that case, usually, we use autoPACK – this is easier and faster and gives the same result as packing by hand.

The main tip that we can share that often becomes a deadly mistake and headache for the less experienced artists is always keeping things straight. Straight lines are necessary for efficient UV-packing.

Shading. The standard requirement for AAA projects is avoiding any gradients on the normal. To prevent this, Room 8 Studio’s skillful artists frequently manually set custom normals, which helps avoid any distortion in shading after the optimization step. It’s crucial in making guns for FPS games because it’s rare that your model goes to the game in 100% version. Often weapon polycount is reduced to 80% of what an artist has done. That’s why we use custom normals in a shading stage – to keep clean shading and avoid any compensations or gradients on normal maps if anything has to be removed from the model. Our artists do it in 3ds Max or Maya; the tools are almost similar.

Baking. We highly recommend using Marmoset Toolbag for baking assets because it’s the fastest possible way. In projects like Call of Duty, the artist should manage the process of baking a gun that consists of 30 or even 50 materials. And all this needs to be baked and checked at a time. An alternative software, for example, Maya, shows no less quality than Marmoset but requires much more time. In addition, each small change or rework of the 3D model prolongs the process and makes it impossible to apply and see all your changes at once.

One of the most incredible things about Marmoset is that when you assign correct names to the materials and adequately import them, the soft will automatically pull your content into appropriate groups and their names. Then you can push the ‘bake’ button, and all is done.

Texturing. For many artists, texturing is one of the most beloved stages of the process. To get 3D assets that fit the triple-A project, we approach the process of texturing with the max attentiveness and consistency, using Quixel materials and Substance generators. Room 8 Studio artists typically divide the texturing stage into separate passes to enhance the model’s realism and fulfill them in series. The first pass is essential to work with raw materials, like pure metal, brass, iron, wood, etc. Then, at the surface treatment pass, the artists add details that show the processing of the material and help better understand how the weapon was created – with a hammer or, for example, a cutter. At the same pass, patterns and inscriptions are also added. The third pass shows different traces of damage to the surface; for example, oxides are erased on metal, and drops of color from dark blue to yellow are formed.

The last pass is polishing, during which the artist adds some micro details that complement the final look of the object. For 90% of FPS games, these special details are unnecessary, and 3D models of weapons are approved by the client and delivered to the game without this very final pass. But Room 8 Studio artists prefer to add to the models even some barely noticeable touches like fingerprints, stains from the rain, and cracks on the lacquer covering a wooden handle. It allows us to exceed our partners’ expectations in delivering AAA standards and grow as professionals with each new project.

Conclusion: What to consider when involving external artists to your project

Creating high-quality weapon assets for first-person shooter AAA titles is more than a serious mission; it’s a vital component of the game’s success. Involving top 3D artists in your FPS project will ensure skillful execution of the task and bring proven expertise and full synchronization with the project DNA. Being a separate discipline of game art, creating a weapon design requires solid industry background and the ability to create 3D models that 100% match the style and existing environment of the title. An external art team with a particular weapon-creating expertise can be the extension of your core team and bring valuable experience gained on other AAA projects.

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Vadim Krayevoy
Head of art division
Vadim Krayevoy