ZBrush®, the tool that changed the GAME

As both an enthusiastic gamer and a digital artist I follow closely both the hardware and tool innovations that happen in the computer and digital art worlds.

The digital entertainment business is a huge and varied one, yet, there’s many tools that are used all across the board, whether it’s creating gaming content, working on the next blockbuster movie or just making high-quality 3D content for the masses (as I do).


Among all of them, there’s one that really stands out as game-changing (pun intended): ZBrush®.

ZBrush® is perhaps the program that had the strongest impact on the 3D digital entertainment world since its release in the early 2000, although it did take a few years for it to become a full-fledged application.

Pixologic®’s tool allows artists (both modelers and texturers alike) to go beyond the limits set by hardware and gaming engines, adding details that wouldn’t otherwise be achievable.

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I started using ZBrush® since version 2, back then, compatibility was still a bit of an issue. ZBrush® could interface easily enough with higher-end tools, such as Maya, which has always been a major one in the pipelines of game-developing studios, but people like me, that had to import their final content in Poser, for example, had to jump through some hoops, sometimes fiery ones.

It was also still easy enough to lose your work (whatever your main application and use), since ZBrush® interface and way of handling things was so alien compared to the “standard” modeling tools.

In 2005, when ZBrush® 2.5 was released, it was already a great tool and a stunningly innovative one, but still quite limited in its scope and uses.

Fast forward a few years ZBrush® has leaped to new grounds release after release. So much, in fact, that hardly any higher-end videogame doesn’t incorporate it today.

Most characters you see and play have, at some point of their creation, been worked on in ZBrush® and videogames studios such as Epic have collaborated with Pixologic® (makers of ZBrush®) to implement tools especially aimed at the videogame industry (such as the UV and the decimation master tools).

And I haven’t mentioned characters casually, in fact, ZBrush® is mainly and mostly used for character work, whether it’s aliens, monsters, stylized girls or the most realistic modern soldier.

With the hard-surface tool that were introduced a few years ago, also robots, cyborgs and sci-fi armors of any kind are now modeled in ZBrush® directly.

This doesn’t mean box modeling is no longer used, often it is used as a base, and models are brought into packages such as Maya or 3D Studio Max for quick editing (the workflow between ZBrush® and these tools is very smooth so moving items back and forth is not a problem). But to block out shapes, add details and try out what can work best, ZBrush® is the quickest and most efficient way although you’re then faced with re-topologizing.

Mostly environments are still modeled more traditionally, it can still be more efficient, still it’s not unusual to give them a ZBrush® pass, again to add detail or that beautiful dirt and tear that make them look as real as possible.


Nowadays ZBrush® is being used for every step of the work: from concept work, to sketching to, most importantly, high-resolution modeling that then is baked into normal maps.

While a few years ago the 3D modelers would just work on 2D concepts and build from those sketches, notwadays they’re definitely more empowered, they’re able to create quick sketches in 3D, build their meshes, efficiently retopologyze them and then add details to be brought into the game through Normal maps.

ZBrush® is certainly the tool that has allowed 3D artists to freely express their creativity.


The tools at our disposal are many and varied:

–          ZSpheres and ZSketch for concept work and modeling

–          Remesh and topology tools to clean up our meshes

–          Projection master and Spotlight for seamless texturing

–          Displacement, cavity AO and Normal maps creation

–          Brushes for each and any use

My personal experience through the years has also improved much, becoming hassle-free since version 3 was introduced and I didn’t have to worry about compatibility issues anymore.

In fact, as of today,  while ZBrush® includes plug-ins to work flawlessly with high-end tools such Autodesk’s Maya and 3D Studio Max, Maxon’s Cinema4D NewTek’s LightWave3D and Luxology’s Modo, it also works perfectly in-tandem with lower-end ones, such as Smith Micro’s Poser® and DAZ3D’s DAZ Studio.

Since I mostly use ZBrush® to create textures and displacement maps for mid-high resolution models, I usually work with masks and custom alphas (creating very complex ones in ZBrush® is a breeze) and spotlight for seamless texturing.

Here’s a little example of what I achieved by using masks and custom alphas (base model was created in Maya):



To really understand the impact ZBrush has had on the videogame industry, check out these threads, posted by skilled character artists that have worked on major gaming successed:

Arkane Studios’ Dishonored: http://www.zbrushcentral.com/showthread.php?175208-Dishonored-The-Character-Art

Bioware’s Mass Effect 3: http://pixologic.com/interview/mass-effect3/1/

Epic’s Gears of War 3 characters: http://www.zbrushcentral.com/showthread.php?162670-Gears-of-War-3-Character-Art-Dump

Epic’s Gears of War 3 environment: http://www.zbrushcentral.com/showthread.php?162646-Gears-of-War-3-Environment-Art

Eidos-Montreal’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution: http://pixologic.com/interview/deusex3/1/

BioWare’s Dragon Age 2: http://pixologic.com/interview/dragon-age2/1/

Guerrilla Game’s Killzone 3:http://pixologic.com/interview/killzone3/1/

Of course, the innovation and improvement has also been possible thanks to the advancements in technology and hardware and accessory tools such as Wacom’s tablets, still ZBrush today is almost synonym with the digital entertainment industry and this is a trend that is not going to fade now that we’re really entering a new era of gaming with the release of PS4.

As a new platform based on the widely used x86 architecture, PS4 will overcome the current limits that gaming studios are facing while creating multi-platform gaming content today and perhaps help reach movie-quality heights.

We’re about to enter an higher-resolution gaming era.

This means we’ll get even more great looking games: with more detailed models and higher resolution textures, which means more finely painted and sculpted details. ZBrush will still be at the core of the game.

Killzone’s Shadowfall and the Unreal Engine 4 demo have already offered us a glimpse on the future, real eye-candy for 3D lovers:

Killzone Shadowfall screenshots: http://www.gameinformer.com/b/news/archive/2013/02/21/new-killzone-shadow-fall-screens-released.aspx

Unreal Engine 4: http://www.unrealengine.com/unreal_engine_4/

We can start getting ready for the new higher-definition era.

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