How to Use Free 3D Models for Faster Game Development

a 3D render of an rough, angry man yelling and another man in the background

Every aspiring game dev knows the thrill of seeing their imagination take shape into a playable, fun video game. If you are designing a game, either as a hobbyist or an aspiring indie developer, taking advantage of free 3D models can be a crucial key to your ultimate success and ability to ship your title on time.

Navigating the pool of available free 3D models for game development can be time consuming. Developers of free or cheap 3D content come in all skill levels. Also, just because a model is 3D doesn’t mean it is optimized for game development, and it could end up hurting your game in the long run through suffered performance losses or wasted time trying to fix the model to better suit your needs.

Here are a few questions beginning developers commonly ask about using free 3D models for game development.

Why Should I Use Free 3D Models in My Game?

Whether you are working solo on a project or with a small team, even after dividing up tasks or organizing yourself with to-do lists, you are going to find yourself overwhelmed with things to do. From programming to art and level design, making a game is a massive undertaking.

When it comes to making a 3D game, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is coming up with graphics that look good and appeal to gamers. With AAA studios creating games with more lifelike than ever graphics, it can be highly intimidating for an indie developer to forage into their first 3D project. It is important to remember that people love games of all kinds of art styles, whether you want realistic graphics or would rather take advantage of shaders and textures to create a more stylistic approach. There are countless examples of successful games that all take very different approaches to the art style.

Taking advantage of free 3D models for game development can save you time and money, allowing you to focus your efforts on other more pressing matters in the development process. Evaluate your project and identify aspects of your game that could benefit from the presence of 3D models, then see if you can find useful models to use. For example, adding detail to the background scenery might greatly improve the realism and immersion of your game. Or, perhaps your project requires a slew of NPC characters. If you manage to curate the right base models for your game, using these could greatly speed up the development process with little to no changes to the models required.

Where Can I Find Free 3D Models for Game Development?

Knowing where to find good free 3D models can be challenging. Where you look will also depend primarily on which game engine you are using to create your game. Two highly acclaimed engines are Unity and Unreal Engine. Both of these engines have massive marketplaces full of free and paid material that will help speed up and aid you in development.

Unity: Unity offers plenty of resources to help you learn, and it is a game engine with a lot of capabilities. They offer free models regularly on their marketplace. Unity is free in some instances, though if your project has received funding, you may need to pay a monthly subscription. (If you choose to make a game in Unity, check out our tips.)

Unreal Engine: Epic Game’s Unreal Engine 4 operates under a unique license structure. Anyone can have access to Unreal Engine at no monthly cost, but as soon as you start selling your game, you may end up owing royalties to Epic Games after a certain amount.

Quixel Megascans: If you haven’t heard of them, they are a 3D Modeling company based out of Sweden that travels the world photo scanning real-world objects and converting them into highly optimized, gorgeous 3D models, and they bring them together in a library called Megascans. Due to new ownership by Epic Games, Quixel has now made the Megascans library completely free for use within the Unreal Engine. If you plan on using Unreal, there is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t be using Quixel Megascans for free environment-related models to enhance your development.

World Machine: World Machine is an excellent program for developing landscape terrain models. Simply set the parameters and watch it create something amazing, including mountains, valleys, hills, riverbeds, and more. You can even use data from programs like Google Earth to recreate models of real-world terrain. You can easily import these landscapes into your game engine, where you can paint them to life with textures and materials. For many projects, the limitations on the free version will suffice.

Daz Studio: Our very own free-to-use program, Daz Studio, makes 3D modeling fast and easy. Our marketplace contains thousands of models, including people, clothing, accessories, weapons, environments, and more. We release new free items daily, so be sure to check the marketplace regularly for new models. Our modular approach allows you to quickly customize your models with just a few clicks. Using our various bridges, you can easily import your custom models into the game engine of your choosing.

What makes a Free 3D Model Optimized for Game Development?

Whether your game is developed for the PC, iOS and Android, or the latest generation of console, each system is going to have its limits. As a developer, you need to learn what these limits are and be mindful of them while playtesting your game. The bottom line is processing power. In any system, there is a point where too much is too much, and your game may become slow, unresponsive, or buggy.

Despite improvements in technology, it is still possible to overdo it. In short, the more models appearing on the screen at once, the more important optimization will be. In terms of optimization, think of it this way: do you need something seen far off in the distance to be as highly detailed as something directly in front of the player’s view? Of course not. Observe the mesh of a free 3D model closely and decide if it is detailed enough or too detailed for what you need. As a rule of thumb, the farther away something is, the less detailed its mesh needs to be, i.e., fewer polygons.

a side by side view of a 3D model's polygons vs. quality

Sometimes in games, you will encounter objects that you can view from a distance, but as the player freely navigates the environment, they can also view it from up close. Many developers keep their games optimized by incorporating simple logic that displays different levels of complexity based on proximity. If the player is far away, use the simplest mesh; if they are up close, display the more complex one instead. When selecting free 3D models for game development, whether or not it has different levels of complexity available can be an invaluable component and a sign of an excellent product for game design.

Lastly, one of the easiest ways to optimize a game is to reuse assets in other aspects of the game. When you select free 3D models for your game, examine them carefully and evaluate whether or not you can put them to use again and again in creative ways without being overtly obvious. This will greatly enhance the performance of your game, while also saving you development time.

How Do I use 3D Models in Environment and Level Design?

Many developers opt to use free 3D models primarily in environment design while sticking to custom-curated models for crucial details like characters. This is a reasonable approach, especially if you plan on selling your game. The playable characters are, in many ways, one of the biggest aspects of your game’s brand. By their nature, free models are widely available, so the likelihood of a player recognizing your character greatly rises. Some gamers will frown upon this. So, while using free models can serve to your benefit, it could hurt you as well. When it comes to environments, however, it is far less noticeable or frowned upon by gamers to use free 3D models.

In this simple scene I designed as an example, I only used a total of five free 3D models. To create a beautiful scene using as few free models as possible, vary the size, scale, and rotation of each model so that they appear unique and natural. Many engines and programs will allow you to generate instances of variation randomly after setting a few simple parameters. By reusing the same models but repositioning them at different rotations and scales, you create the illusion of vast uniqueness yet cohesion amongst an environment. This saves time and can greatly improve the performance of your game.

several free 3D models put together to create a lush, green environment

Make 3D Models for Your Game Fast with Daz 3D 

If you want to further your game development but can’t quite find the right 3D model for free or at an affordable cost, Daz Studio is the perfect way to create unique models quickly and easily. Our library, which continues to grow every day, contains over 30,000 unique 3D models. Our modular approach to 3D design enables you to customize a character by choosing anything from hairstyle to body shape and eye color. Find an outfit or mix and match multiple to create something unique. The beauty of Daz Studio is you don’t have to be an expert modeler. All you need to create something truly amazing is an eye for detail and design and a little perseverance to learn.

Whether you are designing your 3D game in Blender, Unity, Unreal Engine, or more, quickly import your designs into the game engine of your choice as you populate your world with playable characters, NPCs, creatures, and more. With so many combinations and iterations available, your characters can be as unique as the idea that fuels your video game.

Learn more about how Daz Studio could help take your game development to the next level and get it for free today!

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