How do you make a 3D digital character look human real enough online? You first need to know what you are aiming for and then how much effort is needed to get there. In trying to break-down the key factors in avatar/NPC human character realism we can look at 4 major approaches to digital realism:
- Stylized – major simplification and generally a basic level of detail. Range from: Cartoonish to basic to creative to bland. Penguins are easier to m ake then people of course.
- Pseudo-Real – a select level of realism usually within a simplified environment. This approach worked well a few years ago but now looks low budget and not too fresh. Range from virtual world characters like Second Life, IMVU to 2.5D Flash characters.
- Photo-Real – visually detailed using photo-source materials with well considered mesh/bones. Overall realism depends on combination of other factors including movement flow and the quality of the rest of the scene artwork. If you can't deliver on photo-real is will drop back into psuedo-real.
- Cinematic – The kind of realism you would expect to see on high-end console games and at the far end of the spectrum the latest 3D animated movies. Range from cool to uncanny weird.
11 Key Factors List:
In general the more detail the more realism, but if you cannot spread it out right, then investing effort in just one area may not have the desired overall effect. When designing the look and feel of a game, you need to consider the right balance of the factors below.
This is the digital wireframe structure of the character. The more points, potentially the more detailed the model as well as the more data that needs to be handled by the game engine to move it around.
This is the structure that controls the movement of the of the character. It's a bit odd, but you would put bones in lips, eyes, hair to explain to the game engine how things can move.
The textures wrap around the mesh to create the skin layers. There is an interpretation process from a photo-sourced texture of a real person to match it to the mesh model.
Hair needs to move in order to look realistic. It will therefore need to be boned and have some physics qualities that the game engine can impact.
The characters will need some sets of animations to present various types of movements, such as idle, walk, run, jump and fly. Animations also potentially need to be coordinated with other characters in a scene so they appear to be working together, ie dancing. It is possible to use MoCap tools to bring in more detailed animations, but simplifying that data for online usage can often be as much effort as making animations using desktop tools.
The faces need a good bone structure in order to generate believable expressions. In a real face there can be something like 40-50 muscles involved in an expression. Getting the right balance of detail is critical in managing realism as well as overall animation complexity and game performance. A good strategy might be to make a separate, very detailed Head object for use in camera close-ups or conversation scenes. Then use a simplifed Head as part of the Body for movement scenes.
Speech / Lipsync
How the character matches mouth/face movement in coordination with audio speech. This is really hard to get right. You can do some quick ok things though. Perhaps more important is to get some related gestures aligned with the audio. This can be done with triggers built into the audio tracks. However, that is a manual job.
The detail and range of clothing and accessories a character can wear. This can get really complicated, but is also a major engagement hook for users.
How much the user can adjust, change and customize various features. It is useful to give users templates or more detailed feature adjustment parameters.
Environment Driven Change
How the game play changes the character. A character can get taller, stronger or even grow older over the course of the challenge/game. Or turn them into vampires or zombies...
What does the scene around the avatar look like? In general the scene should be less detailed than the character in order to heighten the character's relative realism. The lighting is actually the most important aspect to amplify the character realism. Our eye can pick-up inconsistencies really quickly and then the overall sense of immersion and realism are compromised.