3D Design
Jun 2023
Gregory Markov

Complete Guide to the 3D Pipeline #0: Overview

This article is for beginners looking to become 3D artists. By the time you finish reading, you will know what pipeline is, why it is needed, and what stages it consists of. A careful study of the text will take about 10 minutes.

This is the first part of the AAA pipeline series. Here are links to all six. Choose the one you need:

  1. Introduction to AAA pipeline (You are here)
  2. Blocking-out
  3. Mesh optimization
  4. UV unwrapping
  5. Baking
  6. Texturing

What are AAA and Pipeline?

AAA games are created and distributed by large publishers. These projects are often produced with higher budgets and more extensive marketing efforts.

It would be better to look at an example. Grand Theft Auto V was developed over three years by more than a thousand people under a budget of $265 million. It is undoubtedly a Triple-A project.

Pipeline is a series of stages in creating a 3D model. It starts with blockout and ends with a model ready to implement into a project. The main aim of the pipeline is to streamline the production process and simplify it by dividing it into smaller, more manageable steps.

Pipeline consists of five stages:

  1. Blocking-out
  2. Mesh optimization
  3. UV unwrapping
  4. Baking
  5. Texturing

There is also one optional stage of the presentation. It appears when you need to post your model in the portfolio. Even good works lose their attractiveness if you neglect an appealing cover.

Why is the pipeline crucial?

AAA pipeline is like a language spoken by professional 3D artists. When applying for a job in a big studio, the test assignment often assesses whether you understand the workflow process. The more a candidate knows it, the easier it will be for them to work in a team. Thus, learning the pipeline is necessary to get a big game studio job.

The stages of the pipeline have a clear order for a reason. They are all connected, and a mistake will affect the entire project. Poor work at the beginning will backfire on the final steps and demand redoing the model.

A typical misstep for novices is to detail the model just from the beginning. This leads to wrong proportions and technical difficulties in the following stages. Complete the first stage of the pipeline before jumping to the third or fourth. If you haven’t finished blockout but try to create textures, you risk wasting time and spoiling the whole work.

Pipeline stages

Stage #1: Blocking-out

A blockout is a simplified model made from basic shapes. Only beginners start creating a car with an emblem on the radiator screen. In the AAA pipeline, it is standard practice for professionals to begin with a blockout.

Blocking-out is creating a model using boxes, spheres, and cylinders that convey the basic silhouette of the object. Blocking-out focuses on building the model sketch to get into the correct proportions. There are no small details during this stage, only large and medium shapes. It usually takes about forty minutes to complete a blockout.

Good blockout. That this clearly a car, not a futuristic microwave. Only boxes and cylinders are used.

Detailing is the next step of blocking-out, during which a 3D artist makes a model more believable for a viewer. It is important to consider the elements that provide the object's functionality and work out transitions in geometry. However, you want to ignore grid issues, such as weird reflections or inaccurate polygons.

Stage #2: Mesh optimization

Mesh optimization is transforming a draft to implement it into a project. Usually, two types of models are involved in game development — lightweight Low poly and super detailed High poly.

Low poly models are the ones used in games. They should maintain a balance between detail and lightness. Developers often set the polygon budget due to the limitations of the target platform. For example, almost all tanks in WoT have less than 50 thousand triangles.

High poly is a model with a high level of detail. There are no restrictions on the number of polygons as long as your computer can handle the file. High poly modeling aims to make extra surface details and transfer them to Low poly as textures.

Also, 3D artists often use High poly models in their portfolios since they showcase their skills well. However, putting such a model into the game will freeze even the most powerful personal computer.

Stage #3: UV unwrapping

UV unwrapping is flattening a Low poly model into a 2D map, similar to a pattern for sewing. Think of it as taking the skin off a 3D model and laying it flat to be painted.

The main goal during this stage is to create a UV map with a minimal number of seams. Then make sure that the textures don’t stretch, the islands do not overlap, the repeating elements lie on each other, and the pixel density meets the project's requirements. Once the 3D model is unwrapped, textures apply without distortion.

Stage #4: Baking

This Low poly model looks detailed thanks to the special texture — the normal map.

Baking is the stage of transferring detail from High poly to Low poly. As a result, a special normal map imitates all the fancy bruises, rounded bevels, welding seams, and surface roughness.

This technology originated in The Lord of the Rings movies and became popular among game developers. You can create colossal detail on Low poly models thanks to baking. Besides the normal map, the process produces the shading map and the model's breakdown into materials. They help in texturing.

Stage #5: Texturing

Texturing is the stage of painting the Low poly model. Developers in modern AAA projects use PBR, which stands for Physically Based Rendering. This method involves multiple textures instead of just one. For example, the albedo map contains the pure color of the model, the metallic map adds reflections, and the opacity map is responsible for transparency.

PBR makes adding a realistic rust texture to a car body or creating a deep crack on the wooden ladder easier. Thanks to such effects, the models look more lifelike to the viewer.

Optional Stage: Presentation

Is that all?

Technically speaking, yes. All the models in the game development undergo the way of five or six stages. Ultimately there are only two requirements for a 3D model:

  • Optimization — to improve performance and prevent freezes in games
  • Clarity and expressiveness — to make it look attractive and visibly legible to users

Knowing the pipeline stages might help with the first, but the second is more complex. You can learn the technical part in a few months and use the same algorithm for years. However, to create gripping art, you should understand composition and color theory, study mechanics and anatomy, and practice non-stop.

How to master it?

It is challenging to find information on the artistic part of modeling. Most lessons consider 3D as higher mathematics, discussing numerous buttons and specific software tools. That is not useless, but you need to develop design skills too.

Therefore, here is a simple plan for you:

  • Explore the pipeline process
  • Master technical stages, as you can’t move forward without foundations
  • Spend most of your time drafting

Drafts are where the real art lies. Explore the AAA pipeline focusing on drafts and become a 3D artist with our complete guide:

  1. Introduction to AAA pipeline (You are here)
  2. Blocking-out
  3. Mesh optimization
  4. UV unwrapping
  5. Baking
  6. Texturing


Based on the material by XYZ Network

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