Three insider secrets to a lighting portfolio that lands your dream job.


Three Insider Secrets to a stand-out portfolio


3D Modeling for Games: Techniques, Software & More

by | Apr 29, 2024

Do you want to learn how to use 3D modeling for games? Then you’ve come to the right place.

In this article, we’re going to break down the techniques used in 3D modeling for games and give you a list of the best software to use. Let’s dive in! 

You’ll learn…


How is 3D modeling used in games

Over 250,000 people work in game development in the US. At the same time, the industry generates $176 billion yearly. At the same time, the VFX and animation job market grows by 8% every year, which is faster than average. 

In other words, there’s a lot of opportunity in this field – with 3D modeling playing a key role in the game development process. It’s used to create different kinds of visuals, such as:

  • Characters. 3D modeling for games is what gives video game characters their appearance. 3D modeling artists form every detail meticulously to give the character a unique look. 
  • Objects. Artists craft a wide range of objects like vehicles and weapons for use in video games.  
  • Environments. To create a truly immersive experience for players, intricate environments are made as a backdrop to the story. 

As a 3D game modeler, you are in charge of creating a character and backdrop that are interesting, fun, and visually striking. It’s a crucial step in the game development process.

The most important 3D modeling techniques

Now that we’ve talked about how 3D modeling is used in games, let’s explore the techniques you use as a 3D modeling artist to make models.

  • Polygonal modeling is used to create 3D objects using polygons, which act as building blocks that form the structure of the 3D model.
  • Digital sculpting is a process of shaping virtual objects to create the desired look for a character, creature, or other element.
  • NURBS are used to define curves and surfaces mathematically using weights, knots, and control points to build 3D objects.
  • Procedural modeling uses algorithms and parameters to form 3D models instead of the typical process of changing individual elements.

Okay, now that you know how 3D modeling is used in game development, let’s take a look at how to create 3D models for games   

How do you make 3D models for games in 6 steps?

3D modeling is a field that’s both artistic and technical. Let’s take a look at exactly how to use both skills to create 3D models for games. 

1. Collect references and draw 2D sketches

The first step is to identify the type of model you want to create. Is it an object, a character, or an environment? 

Next, gather references to help you visualize the model. Concept art websites like are great places to look. 

Once you have reference images, it’s time to draw your own 2D sketch. You can use pencil and paper, or a digital drawing tool, whatever works best for you. Don’t be afraid to sketch several versions to refine your idea. 

2. Create high-poly models

Once you have a 2D sketch that you’re happy with, it’s time to create high-poly models. Here’s a breakdown of how to do it:

  • Choose a modeling software suitable for creating high-poly models. There are many options, including Maya, ZBrush, Blender, and Modo. If you’re on a tight budget you can use Blender, which is free. 
  • Choose a technique. Depending on the complexity of your model, you can use sculpting, polygonal modeling, or a combination of the two.
  • Create the base mesh. You’ll want to start with a simple shape and add refinements using the tools in your chosen software.
  • Use sculpting tools to add details to your model.

3. Retopologize for real-time rendering

Retopology (AKA retopo) involves replacing the polygonal structure of a 3D model with a more efficient topology. 

High-poly models make for inefficient rendering, so retopo is used to reduce the polygon count and improve the rendering efficiency. Here are the steps to do it:

  • Prepare the high-poly mesh by fixing any errors. 
  • Create a low-poly base mesh using the high-poly model as a guide.  
  • Use retopology tools to add the details of the high-poly model to the new, low-poly mesh. Most major 3d modeling programs (for example, Maya, Blender, and ZBrush), come with retopology tools.

Even though retopology is a time-consuming process, it’s an important step in preparing the 3D model for rendering. If you’d like to learn about efficient rendering, check out this article.

4. Flatten 3D models into 2D images (UV Mapping)

Once the retopology is done, the next step is to get a UV map of the 3D model. Take these steps: 

  • Add seams along hidden areas of the 3D model. This article gives more info on seams and how to use them.
  • Choose an unwrapping method that fits the shape of your model. There are many different methods including Peel, Unfold, and Cylindrical. This article talks more about UV mapping and unwrapping.
  • Use the tools included in your software to spread out the unwrapped pieces on the UV map. Make sure to avoid overlapping pieces as this can cause problems during rendering.
  • Once you’re happy with the layout, export the UV map.

Maya has many great features for UV unwrapping. If you want to learn how to use Maya, read this article on how to choose a Maya animation course.

5. Add texture to your models

Once your UV unwrapping is done, it’s time to add texture to your model. The steps to take are:

  • Get textures to use. You can find textures online on sites like, or you can make your own. Things to consider when choosing a texture are color, resolution, and detail.
  • Once you’ve chosen a texture it’s time to apply it to your model. 3D modeling programs like Maya and Blender include a material editor that you can use to apply the texture to your model.
  • And when you’ve added the texture you want, you’ll render your model. Learn more about rendering with this class. After the rendering is complete you can evaluate the outcome and decide whether you’d like to make any more changes. 

6. Rig your characters

We’ve now come to the last step. Excited? Let’s go!

Rigging your characters is a crucial step. Essentially, rigging brings your characters to life by giving them the structure needed for animation. Here’s how to do it:

  • Most 3d modeling software comes with rigging tools. Use these tools to create a bone structure that aligns with the movements you want your character to be capable of. If your character is human, you’d make bones for the head, back, limbs, and even the fingers and toes.
  • Connect the bones to the mesh (which acts like skin). This brings your character together into one cohesive body and allows the mesh to move with the bones after your character is animated.
  • Animate simple movements of your character to see how well your rig performs. You can use animation techniques like motion capture, forward kinematics, or procedural animation.
  • Fine-tune your character until it moves the way you want it to.

The process of rigging a character is all about refinement. It probably won’t look the way you want it to the first time, but with practice, you’ll be able to successfully bring 3D models to life.

Read this article to learn more about rigging and rigging terms.

Next, let’s take a look at what software you’ll use as a 3D modeling artist. 

Which is the best 3D modeling software for games?

In this section, we’ll go over several different powerful modeling programs with different levels of complexity and a range of prices. 

Sound good? Let’s go!


Blender allows you to create 3D objects, add details to your models with digital brushes, and smooth out curves. It’s used by many different artists, from seasoned professionals working on cutting-edge projects to beginner hobbyists.


  • Free!
  • Lots of online tutorials
  • Tools for sculpting, compositing, and animation
  • Good for beginners 


  • Requires a powerful computer to run smoothly
  • Rendering capabilities are insufficient for large projects
  • Some advanced features may be difficult for beginners to learn

Price: Blender is free


Maya is recognized as one of the best 3D modeling programs for games on the market. It’s used to create stunning visuals in video games like Call of Duty: Black Ops III and Ratchet & Clank.

But all its features and capabilities mean that learning Maya takes time and focus. That’s where an online course like this Intro To Maya Workshop can help. 

Here are the pros and cons of Maya:


  • Simulations and tools for sculpting and modeling
  • Industry-standard render engines
  • Widely used across many industries
  • Check out this guide for more reasons why you should learn Maya


  • Steep learning curve
  • Expensive

Price: Autodesk Maya costs $235/month or $1,875/year.


Houdini is used to create 3D models, animations, and effects in a ton of cutting-edge games like Rebellion’s Sniper Elite 5 and Polyphony Digital’s Gran Turismo 7

Take a look at the 2023 Houdini Games Reel to see some awesome examples of how people are using Houdini in games: 


  • Free plans are available for students with the version called Apprentice
  • Efficient, fast workflow
  • Works seamlessly with 3D software like Maya, Unreal Engine, and Unity


  • Steep learning curve
  • Limited resources for beginners
  • Not as widely used as programs like Maya
  • Expensive

Price: Houdini Indie costs $269/year. Other plans cost up to $4,495.

3ds Max

3ds Max is the perfect software if you want to do 3D modeling on a Windows computer. Developed by Autodesk, the same company behind Maya, 3ds Max has become an industry-standard 3D modeling software. Here are the pros and cons:


  • Lots of resources and a strong community
  • Customizable workflow
  • Widely adopted in many different industries


  • Not compatible with Mac computers
  • Steep learning curve
  • Expensive

Price: $235/month or $1,875/year.


ZBrush is a 3D modeling and sculpting software that’s mostly used for character creation and design.

It’s popular because it provides a tactile experience, making it feel like you’re sculpting in clay. This allows for extremely detailed work using brush tools. 


  • Industry-leading
  • Produces detailed, high-resolution models
  • Wide array of brush tools for precise work
  • Quite affordable


  • Challenging to learn
  • Though ZBrush excels at detailed sculpting, its other features are not very advanced
  • Requires a computer with lots of memory and processing power 

Price: ZBrush costs $39/month

How do you become a 3D modeler for games?

So far we’ve looked at techniques and software used in 3D modeling for games, but how do you actually become a 3D modeler for games? Read on to find out.

Learn 3D modeling skills with online courses  

I have great news for you: 

Having a college degree isn’t typically required to become a 3D modeler for games. Instead, employers focus on your abilities and experience.

But even though you don’t need a degree, creating 3D models requires skill. Taking courses taught by experts in the industry could speed up your learning and be key to your success. 

Here at the Academy of Animated Art, we offer many excellent courses to build your skills like this Intro to Maya Workshop. Online courses are a great way to learn from anywhere in the world – at a fraction of the price it costs to go through a college program. 

Create a portfolio 

One of the most important things you can do when starting your career in 3D modeling for games is to create a memorable portfolio. 

A portfolio, or demo reel, is often a video where you show your work. Then, when you apply for jobs, you can link your portfolio for potential employers to look at. 

Next, it’s time to add your work. Include a variety of different projects to show that you have a range of skills within your niche. For 3D modeling for games, make sure to tailor your portfolio towards gaming, with characters, props, and environments that you’ve created. 

Don’t put too many projects in your portfolio. 3 to 5 examples of your best work is enough. 

After you’ve set up your portfolio, show it to people you know in the industry. They might have some suggestions on ways to improve it.

Here’s more on how to create a demo reel.

Gain real-life experiences 

The next step after taking courses and building your portfolio is to gain real-world experience. Here are a few excellent options to consider: 

Internships give you an inside look at game studios. You’ll gain experience and get a feel for the environment.

Entry-level jobs are a great option after you’ve learned the skills you need from courses.

Freelancing offers the ability to work from anywhere and lets you choose the projects you want to work on.

Game jams are a great way to test your skills and make connections with other people in the game design industry. 

Next steps 

So there you go! Now you know all about 3D modeling for games and the best software to do it.  

Now all you need to do is explore some high-quality online courses to build your skills. 3D modeling for games is an exciting creative career with lots of options.

And with skills, experience, and an awesome portfolio, there are tons of different paths you could take.   

Learn more:

The Top Creative, High-Paying Jobs Without a Degree

How to Become a Game Lighting Artist

The Best Creative Jobs in Tech That Pay Well


Jasmine Katatikarn Headshot

About Jasmine Katatikarn

Jasmine Katatikarn is the founder of Academy of Animated Art. She has 20+ years of experience in Feature Animation and VFX. Jasmine’s lighting credits include movies like Ice Age, Ferdinand, Peanuts, and Rio. Read more here.

Jasmine Katatikarn Headshot

About Jasmine Katatikarn

Jasmine Katatikarn is the founder of Academy of Animated Art. She has 20+ years of experience in Feature Animation and VFX. Jasmine’s lighting credits include movies like Ice Age, Ferdinand, Peanuts, and Rio. Read more here.

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