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What is a low poly style in video games design?

Updated: Jun 4, 2021

Low poly modelling is something that has become a style of its own over recent years. At first, models had to have lower polygon counts due to the limitations in hardware. However, hardware has now advanced well beyond those years, and video games can utilise a large number of polygons creating amazing graphical content with higher resolution textures and advanced shading such as raytracing. Despite all the advancements in tech, there has been a growing art movement that aims to keep things simple.

Low poly has become a term used to describe an art style/movement within video games design. But what is low poly and how do we define it? The words "low poly" could be applied to almost any style that seeks to decrease the number of polygons in a given mesh. You might be thinking if there is a mesh count classification list to help determine whether or not something is low poly, well there's not.

So how do we, as designers, describe a low poly style? It could be said that "low poly" is a deliberate choice to use a decreased number of polygons within a model(s) for a video game, despite having capable hardware that can handle higher resolution mesh types. However, it is not just the poly count that defines the low poly style; for instance, hand-painted models genuinely use a smaller number of polygons but do not fit the term low poly. Therefore the low poly style is about the aesthetical quality of the model. And how well it can exhibit a minimalistic poly count. While still retaining the overall visual representation of an intended design. For a low poly style to be effective; the designer has to utilise topology, lighting, post-process and material creation to produce an outcome effectively. Next question, does a model rely need to be low poly, to fall under the umbrella of the low poly art/design? Well technically no, it does not. To be clear, it is as much about the aesthetics as it is about the overall polycount. Some artist might opt to use more chamfers and smooths within their work. However, as long as the final results look as if the model is indeed low poly then who is to say that it does not fit the style?

There are a variety of different modelling methods that can be used when creating models for low poly style products. Within the first example images, you can see how the tank has been created using hard surface modelling techniques combined with post-processing effects. This gives a very clean and polished look overall while still keeping the actual modelling detailed minimalistic. However, It is important to note that post-process effects are not a requirement needed to fit the style and more of an in house decision.

Another common practice you might see when looking into low poly style is triangulated mesh types. As you can see in the example image above, this modelling method enables the designer to create added triangulated detail, which when combined with materials and rendering capabilities gives a nice triangulated low poly look. However, this style could be difficult to animate if done on a character unless using a custom shader that produced such effects.

There are many video games that are now using the low poly art style to great effect. It is interesting to note that while these products fall under the umbrella of low poly there products can be very different, as shown in the examples below.

The first example is planetary annihilation which combines some great model designs, colour palettes, rendering, and post-processing effects to create an immersive fun looking game.

Another video game that has used the low poly style to great effect is Tome Raider Go. This game makes use of some great camera views combine with neat models and simplistic colour palettes, whilst using simple lighting. You could even argue that there is an element or influences of cel-shading in there.

Low poly tends to be influenced by old retro type games, combined with modern-day rendering capabilities and hardware. Having stated that there are clear influences from isometric art styles and others within many low poly works. In conclusion, the "low poly style", combines the advancements in real-time rendering and expert knowledge of 3D modelling to produce a very creative and fun looking style that is flexible for designers to adapt and change depending on the desired outcome.

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