A Brief History of 3D Texturing in Games (Topic)

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A Brief History of 3D Texturing in Games


Senior Environment Artist at Insomniac Games Ryan Benno wrote on Twitter for a brief history of 3D textures. In his long post, he shared interesting facts from the history of texturing, as well as its key points. We have added some images to the material.

“Development has come a long way since the early days of real-time 3D graphics on home consoles and PCs. However, there are still techniques that developers have been using since those days, ”begins Brian.

It's worth remembering the basics. Real-time rendering and pre-renderer. The first technology is the most widespread and is used in most modern games. Your system creates a live image using the available resources. The prerender, on the other hand, requires much more resources, power and time even to work out one frame.

Because of this, it often happens that scenes in games have different levels of quality. Games have interactivity, they need real-time frame processing. But static elements [cinematics or backgrounds] can be created in advance. The differences between the two can be enormous. As an example, the author cites Final Fantasy IX from 1999, the image shows how the pre-rendered images differ from those created in real time.


The prerender is good in its own way. When using it, you can use many expensive functions, due to which the processing of even one frame can take several hours or days. And this is the norm for films or cartoons. However, games need to support 30-60 fps per second.

On the one hand, Star Fox was an early example of real-time 3D texturing on 16-bit consoles, and on the other, Donkey Kong Country, which used a pre-Legendary CG reworked into sprites [with a highly simplified color palette] ... After that for a long time, real-time rendering could not achieve such a result.


With the advent of more suitable consoles like the N64 and PS1 that could draw 3D, we saw what real-time painting couldn't. For example, you cannot use a light source to anchor shadows and lights in a scene. The texture geometry was very low resolution, and artists constantly had to work around these limitations.

There were cases when information about lighting [depth, shadows, highlights] was directly in textures. For example, the shadows were regular textures that followed the characters but did not cast the correct shape.

Basic information about shading [shading] on models could be obtained, but, alas, it was often incorrect. Older games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Crash Bandicoot used a lot of light information in their textures and geometry vertex rendering to make certain areas appear lighter / darker or have a specific color.


At the same time, the artists did a great creative work to overcome all these costs and limitations. The placement of information in textures is still used at different levels of modeling. But as real-time rendering gets better and more technologically advanced, such techniques are fading away.

With the release of new consoles, PS2, Xbox and Gamecube, these problems have begun to be actively addressed. First of all, the changes concerned lighting and texture resolution of games. Then the breakout was Silent Hill 2, where real-time shadows were used for the first time. Some of the information that was previously placed in textures could be removed. Although for most of the games of the time, this technique was still used. The increased texture resolution helped in inserting more pixels with more detail, and the image became sharper.


But specular reflections were rare since the material didn't have a reliable response. This was one of the reasons why information was still being placed in textures. This was not a problem in the pre-renderer, as elements such as fabric, skin or hair looked believable, which cannot be said about real-time rendering. However, this situation has changed with the arrival of the new Xbox.

Glare maps appeared in games like Halo 2 and Doom 3. They made it possible for textures to react to light in a more realistic way. And normal maps, also introduced at that time, added more detail to low poly objects.


Normal map is a bump mapping that allows objects to react to light in greater detail. Today this technology has become ubiquitous. After its introduction, artists began to create textures in a different way. They spent more time creating assets. For example, sculpting tools like Zbrush have become the norm when creating high-poly models that are baked into a texture for use in low-poly ones. Before that, most textures were either hand-painted or stitched together in Photoshop. And since the next generation of Xbox 360 and PS3 consoles came, these methods are forever a thing of the past.


At the same time, a new way of lighting Ambient occlusion was born. The artists just added it to the textures and it created indirect shadows from the light. However, even today this system is not fully processed in real time. Today, things have gotten better because of techniques like SSAO or DFAO.


We can say that the era of PS3 and X360 contributed to the improvement in resolution compared to past generations of consoles. There are also new textures for shadows and significantly improved lighting. You could now get lighting for the entire scene or bake it for more detail.

But there were also disadvantages: low resolution of models and textures, new shaders that need more resources, and so on. Another issue was with the specular map. There was one card per object, responsible for how brilliant it was. But because of this, the materials were not perceived as real. Therefore, the developers began to divide maps depending on the materials. For example, on types: wood, metal, glass and its condition: scratches or wear. You may have seen this in Bioshock infinite.


Also, by this time, other technologies began to appear that made it possible to bypass the long texture correction. For example Physically Based Rendering (PBR), which was popularized by Pixar studio. She helped create images of believable content.

The developer ends his little excursion into the history of texturing with the following:

Even more exciting things are happening in this area and there is no doubt that the quality of the graphics will increase.

The Topic of Article: A Brief History of 3D Texturing in Games.
Author: Jake Pinkman