How many polygons in a piece of string?

A typical question that has been around for as long as I can remember is “How many polygons should I be using in a character/vehicle/environment?” Another common one is “How big should my textures be?”

There is only one answer that I can think of – “It depends.”

The reason for that answer is that the question is too vague – it’s like the old question “How long is a piece of string?”.

It depends. It depends on myriad things, such as the visual style of the game, the type of game, the capabilities of the engine and the target hardware. Some consoles can push vast numbers of polygons, and others can’t.

For example, a character for a 3rd person shooter like Gears of War on the Xbox 360 where you usually have a dozen models on the screen at once, in a small compact area of map would have a totally different target for polygons and textures sizes than you would if you were creating a character for a GTA game for the PSP.

The PSP simply doesnt have the processing power of the 360 to push around large numbers of polygons and it doesn’t have the memory to store large textures. The style of game is different too – GoW has smaller enclosed environments, whilst GTA is much more open. Compare both of those games to Fight Night Round 3 (on the 360 or PS3) where effectively all you have are 2 boxers moving around a small boxing ring. With these restrictions on the focus you end up with incredibly detailed boxers with muscles, tendons and sweat.

Finally, compare everything to Mario Kart on the Nintendo DS – there aren’t that many textures and lots of use of shaded flat colours. The hardware is less powerful, and the art is stylised.

So for those reasons, it’s impossible to answer a question as vague as “How many polygons do I use?”, which isn’t exactly much use to you.

So how do you figure it out? For one, you play games and have a look. Look at what details are modelled, and which ones are textured. Have a look at screenshots to see if you can spot repeating textures (remembering that most screenshots are ‘tweaked’). Have a look at game art forums where people not only display their work but usually an overview of it – and on those forums don’t be afraid to ask questions about the art.

An important thing to remember is that the polycount and texture sizes will fluctuate continuously through the project (usually getting smaller). Sometimes the programmers will come up with new compression techniques to allow more textures in memory, and all too often you’ll have to shrink or reuse textures to get them to fit.

We can encourage questions like “How many polygons should I use for the lead character in 3rd person hack and slash gladiator game for the PSP where I have wide open arenas and normally 2 other fighters on screen at once?” – but I think the answer would still be “It depends.”

16 Responses to “How many polygons in a piece of string?”

  1. It depends… at Game by design Says:

    [...] Rick Sterling has made an observation about peoples question asking ability and the RIGHT way to ask a question of texture, or polycount limits. [...]

  2. Dino Says:

    I think Rick has hit the nail on the head (again) by identifying a cause of debate in many a games company. I’ve worked on many games where the answers to questions like that are not known at *any* point during development, mainly because it’s an impossible question to answer.

    It’s rarely *just* about polygon budgets either, it’s about texture budgets, bone numbers (for animations), material types (which governs how many draw calls there are for the model) and re-usability of that model / material within the scene (usually zero, but it can be a mitigating factor.

    A short answer is “as few as possible without sacrificing the minimum quality bar that’s expected for the game”, but even that’s pretty long.

    Ultimately, it’s *very* easy to do great looking high-polycount models, and *very* hard to do great looking low-polycount models and the success or failure of adhering to poly limits set by your lead art (or code in some cases) can seriously affect the quality of the art you produce and the performance of the game as a whole.

  3. GameProducer.Net » Archive » Carnival of Game Production - First Edition Says:

    [...] Rick Stirling gives the right answer to question: How many polygons in a piece of string?. Very practical and informative article. [...]

  4. Nathan Says:

    I may not have much experience with large scale video game production, but cannot this be reduced to almost a formula? Perhaps, as oddly as this may seem, the polygon counts and texture resolutions should come from the game testers.

    It could be possible to add debugging code which keeps track of the average time an object is visible, it’s size on screen, and other statistics while the game is actually being play-tested. These values coupled with the known graphical limitations of the target machine (polygons per second, texture memory, etc.) could be used to potentially determine the optimum polygon count and texture resolution per model. An object which is only shown momentarily from a distance does not need as much detail as one shown frequently at close range.

    The problem with this, of course, is that you could not really know exactly what the mesh statistics would be until there is working game engine. This might be better than nothing though, and meshes may need to be tweaked a couple times during game’s development because of changes and additions to the game.

  5. rsart - home of Rick Stirling, games artist, designer, egotist and raconteur » Blog Archive » Game makes blog carnival Says:

    [...] Game producer.net has started a carnival for people who make games, and I submitted ‘How many polygons in a piece of string?‘, which is an attempt at explaining why some questions are very difficult to answer when it comes to game art. [...]

  6. The_Pete Says:

    “A short answer is “as few as possible without sacrificing the minimum quality bar that’s expected for the game”, but even that’s pretty long.”

    One could also argue that, while having a min./max. quality bar is great in establish framework, the design should include functionality. There is no point in having a 30,000 polygon static object that is seen once, never interacted with, and is a background element (not the focus of a given stage/area). This, of course, is harder when creating a “sandbox” type game, where you can see an object from any angle and any distance.

    Are there complete hard and fast rules for this? I doubt it, as it’s completely reliant on the design and technical limitations being placed on the artist.

  7. Game Polygon Counts - Game Artist Forums Says:

    [...] rsart – home of Rick Stirling, games artist, designer, egotist and raconteur Blog Archive How many polygons in a piece of string? Thanks, Rick __________________ > My Portfolio > Hull-Breach Lead Modeler > Supporter of good crits. [...]

  8. rsart - home of Rick Stirling, games artist, designer, egotist and raconteur » Blog Archive » Yes, but how many polygons? Says:

    [...] Previously, I’ve explained that it is very difficult to answer the question “How many polygons should I be using in a character/vehicle/environment?” This doesn’t stop the question being asked however, so I thought I’d approach it in a different way – how many polygons have other games used? [...]

  9. Reference Thread - Game Artist Forums Says:

    [...] Reference Thread I’ve seen this type of thread in many other forums and thought it was a good idea to start here. Use it as an organized collection of reference links on any subject matter. Feel free to add posts with any links you find. I’ll start things off with some links from around the forum and will update with more stuff later. Environment Reference http://www.opacity.us/ – Abandoned Photography and Urban Ruins Thanks to snake85027 for the link. Ornamental Building Trim Rubble – Demolished Buildings Thanks to vkirchner for the links. Inspirational Buildings Thanks to swartsz for the link. Sci Fi Reference http://cyberpunk.liber-mundi.org/index.php?lng=us – Cyberpunk 2021 Thanks to snake85027 for the link. Weapon Reference Personal photo album gallery of DeicideNBF Thanks to Deicide for the link. http://www.modelguns-worldwide.com/ – Model Guns Worldwide Thanks to conman441 for the link. http://www.deactivated-guns.co.uk/deactivatedguns.htm – Deactivated WW1 and WW2 guns Thanks to conman441 for the link. http://world.guns.ru/sniper/sn26-e.htm – Modern Firearms Thanks to conman441 for the link. http://www.calguns.net/calgunforum/showthread.php? t=42409 – Colt 1911 Reference BAR 1918A2 .30 Ref Pics Thanks to Headshot for the links. 1865 Navy Colt Reference Thanks to uber2002 for the link and reference. Heckler & Koch References Veretta CX4 Storm .45ACP Mossberg Model835 12Ga Camo Shotgun Henry Golden Boy .44 Magnum Winchester Model1300 12 Gauge Shotgun Sig Saur P239 .357Sig M1 Garand Sheridan BlueStreak Pellet Gun Mac 10 .45 Caliber Colt Trooper .357 Magnum Fiocchi Target Pistol K38 Masterpiece Taurus 9MM Kutrz Thanks to vkirchner for the links. G36C References Thanks to bardur for the link. Armour Hundred and One Antiques Thanks to firestart for the link. An article on the History of Medieval Armour Thanks to armorjohn for the link and article. Articles How many Polygons in a piece of string – How many polygons should I be using in a character/vehicle/environment? Thanks to Talon for the link and Rick Stirling for the Article. Fabric Reference http://www.henrikc.dk/camouflage/all.asp – Camourflage uniforms of the world Thanks to Alchemist101 for the link. Face Reference Turnarounds Expressions Details Character Reference Thanks to Alchemist101 for the links. Muscle Reference A collection of images and links Human Reference All the Human Photo References and Textures 3D Artist Wants Female Reference Thanks to Alchemist101 for the link. Vehicle References Belgian F16 fighter jet – High Resolution images Thanks to doylle for the link and images. I’ll edit in a large selection of vehicle links later today. __________________ .: Looking for entry level position :. [...]

  10. Questionnaire for people working in the games industry Says:

    [...] I think you should read my other article, How many polygons in a piece of string [...]

  11. universal poly count??? - Game Artist Forums Says:

    [...] props can do with insane low poly counts… Rick Stirling wrote two articles on polycount too rsart – Rick Stirling, games artist Blog Archive How many polygons in a piece of string? rsart – Rick Stirling, games artist Blog Archive Yes, but how many polygons? cheers [...]

  12. Game environemnts. - Game Artist Forums Says:

    [...] is pretty much a rsart – Rick Stirling, games artist Blog Archive How many polygons in a piece of string? question, but this (for characters): rsart – Rick Stirling, games artist Blog Archive Yes, but [...]

  13. Character Polygon Budget for Modern MMORPGs? - Game Artist Forums Says:

    [...] that know if is just " it depends". Read this short article for an idea of what I mean: rsart – Rick Stirling, games artist Blog Archive How many polygons in a piece of string? I am working of a fantasy MMO right now, and 1000-1500 is fairly standard (since you want to reach [...]

  14. Plycount for New gen Games - Game Artist Forums Says:

    [...] How many polygons in a piece of string? (thanks, Rick). There is no real answer to this often asked question without you being incredibly specific and at that point you’ll have answered the question yourself. (And, really, some quick searching/google would probably have pulled up the tons of threads asking the same question and told you exactly that, you might want to try looking for answers before asking questions in future). You could always just try simply looking at the models that come with games and the documentation that comes with their editors. Nearly all of the major titles come with editors and SDKs that allow you to open and view all of the existing game content. __________________ > My Portfolio > Hull-Breach Lead Modeler > Supporter of good crits. [...]

  15. A Few Words on Polys and Portfolios Says:

    [...] artist Rick Stirling has some great articles on his blog about this topic. I recommend you read his answer to the “How many polys in my game” question and also his list of poly counts for characters in major games from the last 10 years. Cancel [...]

  16. Student Project - Game Artist Forums Says:

    [...] [...]

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