5 Best 3D Modeling Software for Game Developers

 |  Ralph Zoontjens

What 3D Modeling Software is Best For Game Design?

Video games are becoming popular and 3D modeling is essential for developing most of these games. Suppose you’re a candidate for a position at a professional studio. In that case, they will ask you about your familiarity with the big names of the 3D software world, as well as additional skills like sculpting, texturing, and rendering.

Fortunately, skills from one platform are transferable to the other. So, to start with, what is a good modeling environment?

Windows, DOS, Cloud

Let’s start with the basics. 3D modeling is a new profession, yet it has a rich history that spans its few decades of existence. In the early days, it was used purely to drive manufacturing processes and mostly two-dimensional drafting.

In the 1980s, the first DOS command-line versions of 3D Studio Max emerged in an era when rendering, shading, and anti-aliasing were foreign languages.

In the 1990s, several GUI-based 3D modelers with powerful surface and solid modeling capabilities came to market. These programs have since improved with expanded features, better reliability, and additional functionalities such as rendering, simulation, and animation.

As part of the digital revolution and internet gaming hype, the 2000s saw the boom of a distinctive class of 3D modeling environments especially fit for computer graphics, visual effects, and game development. 

These work with mesh objects consisting of an outer skin of polygons rather than mathematically defined solid and surface geometry. It led to a new modeling practice called polygonal, box, or mesh modeling, resulting in less accuracy and dimensional control at the advantage of a faster workflow and more modeling freedom.

The 2010s witnessed the rise of networked 3D modelers enabled by cloud and in-browser technology. With a computer and a spark of creativity, anyone could make their three-dimensional dream a reality using one of the free online tools.

Some 3D modeling software like SelfCAD are simple toolkits to self-learn 3D modeling, and you don’t need to have any experience to be able to use this. Anyone can get started easily, regardless of their experience in 3D designing.

Important Factors for Game Design

3D modeling software for game design

A woman on the desk designing a game. Image source:mdx.ac.uk

To see how programs rank on our list of the best 3D modeling software for game developers, here are some software criteria to consider:

  • Feature-richness – the number of relevant modeling features for game design and their depth in terms of options and parameters.
  • Sculpting – the ability to create freeform sculptures, primarily for characters and natural environments.
  • User experience – Ease of use of the user interface, the seamlessness of the workflow, and steepness of the learning curve.
  • Versatility – additional workbenches such as texturing, rigging, animation, and rendering.
  • Price.

So, here is a list of the best 3D modeling software for game developers. Let’s kick off the list with SelfCAD!

1. SelfCAD

3D modeling software for game design

Here goes the most sophisticated and idiotproof software. SelfCAD is the foremost user-friendly and easy-to-learn 3D design tool. It houses several modeling approaches under one roof. Shapes can be precision-drawn using well-defined 3D sketches for technical models. Details such as roundovers, chamfers, and thickness can be added. Objects can also be created by modifying the built-in library or the linked MyMiniFactory database.

Because geometry is stored in polygon format and not as a solid or surface like in engineering CAD tools, individual edges and vertices of the base object can be selected for further detailing and resolution optimization.

Shapes can be morphed with modifiers like Skew, Twist, Bend, Inflate, Flatten, and Taper. They can be stitched together or scooped out from one another, or even wholly resculpted. These three modeling workflows of solid, mesh, and sculpt modeling all take place in one 3D modeling viewport, which is one of the great benefits of choosing SelfCAD.

SelfCAD is an affordable solution that can run stand-alone on all major operating systems or web-based applets.

SelfCAD exports standard mesh formats such as OBJ, STL, 3DS, and FBX and imports the majority of the commonly available file formats.

One of its most outstanding features is the unique interactive tutorials to give newbie designers a running start.

Released: 2016

Platforms: All, in-browser

Ideal for: Versatility and ease of use

Price: $599 perpetual, $139/year, or reduced free version

2. 3ds Max

3ds Max has a long history and together with its Autodesk sibling, Maya, it makes up a substantial share of the industry. Maya is suited for movie and visual effects production, while 3ds Max is slightly better for game development because it’s specifically geared toward 3D modeling.

While it has slightly more modeling features and an easier-to-learn workflow, it can also handle rigging, animation, and rendering for pre-production testing.

3ds Max is a polygonal modeler to the highest degree. Objects start as meshes that can be converted into editable polygons. Elements of polys can be individually modified in numerous ways. An innovative feature of this software is soft selection, which affects the area to be modified and creates smooth form transitions to surrounding areas.

Besides manual modeling, 3ds Max has a toolkit of premade shape modifiers. These are saved in the modifier stack to easily be changed and undone later in the process.

There are standard ones such as Twist, Squeeze, Spherify, Bend, Stretch, and Taper and exclusive ones for game development. The Skin, Cloth, TurboSmooth, and MeshSmooth modifiers generate convincing results for character designs. The level of intelligence behind these algorithms is on par with the invention of vaccination, solar power, or gaming VPNs.

As part of the Autodesk suite, 3ds Max is all-encompassing and made for professional studios. It has its own .max file format, and besides, standard mesh formats will import files from CATIA, Inventor, AutoCAD, Revit, SolidWorks, SketchUp, and Alias as well.

For expert 3D modelers with big projects and ditto budgets, 3ds Max is still the dominant software of choice.

Developer: Autodesk

Released: 1996

Platforms: Windows

Ideal for: Mesh modeling

Price: $1,700/year

3. Blender

3D modeling software for game design

A game being created in blender. Image source: Inspirational Tuts

Let’s move on to Blender. Even though it is free and open-source, Blender has grown to be a serious alternative to the 3D modeling giants of the industry.

Its combination of mesh modeling and sculpting makes it ideal for character design. There is a solid set of geometry modifiers as well as impressive physics-based simulation capability for cloth, collisions, fluids, paint, particle systems, ocean waves, and explosions.

It has excellent UV texturing capabilities and 3D-print file preparation, animation, rigging, rendering, motion tracking, plus several add-ons.

Blender is a polygonal modeler, yet it allows for generative design in the new Geometry Nodes workspace. This works much like the Grasshopper plugin for Rhinoceros. Geometry is not modeled but scripted, allowing for the automation of repeated elements for additional complexity and realism, such as in textures, vegetation, buildings, and intricate surface patterns.

Blender can do it all. The downside is that newbie users are staring in the face of a thousand-eyed monster. Not everyone can get used to the complexity of its interface, even if it allows all imaginable tweaks.

Being open-source, there is an active community with frequent updates. This also means that some features sometimes seem to be more or less in a beta-launch state, leaving users prepared to face the occasional bug. For this reason, it is best for smaller projects.

All in all, Blender only works for those willing to hike the steep learning curve, but once they’re past the bump, the sky's the limit.

Developer: NeoGeo

Released: 1994

Platforms: Linux, Mac, Windows, Android, BSD

Ideal for: Visual FX, Character Design, Animation, 3D Printing, Virtual Reality

Price: Free

4. Modo

Modo focuses almost purely on mesh modeling. Its fast and intuitive workflow feels somewhere in between low-precision box modeling and freeform sculpting.

The designer starts with a primitive shape and then drags the vertices toward the envisioned shape. Sharp and soft areas are defined, resulting in smooth versus creased areas. Using offsets, bevels, bridges, and edge slices, details are added. The resulting shape is further optimized using subdivision tools, for which Modo offers a powerful workflow.

Like other direct modelers, Modo has an inventory of deformers such as Bend, Lattice, Vortex, Taper, Thicken, Wrap, and Smooth. An important concept here is edge weighting. Instead of deforming the entire geometry, it is possible to select an area and attach weights to it to determine how much effect the modifier has on it.

With the Falloff tool, the modifier affects elements based on a gradient that lies along a line, curve, or volume. Similar to 3ds Max’s soft selection, this results in smooth surface transitions that blend the effect into surrounding geometry.

With Modo, designers can 3D-paint and generate image-based textures. File imports and exports are limited to a few common mesh formats, plus Lightwave and Rhino. Plug-ins are available for SolidWorks, Thingiverse, and Sketchfab.

The user interface is similar to Blender’s, yet it’s simpler, more visual, highly customizable, and easier to grasp. Most commands have a hotkey for the expert user. If a speedy, game-centric modeling workflow is the question, Modo is a great answer.

Developer: Foundry

Released: 2004

Platforms: Windows, macOS, Linux

Best for Concept design, freeform geometry

Price: $1,799

5. ZBrush

3D modeling software for game design

3D sculpting in ZBrush. Image source: Nuclino

So, we’ve come to the last but not least software in the list. ZBrush is a winning interface for digital sculpting. In AAA studios, it is often used as a sidekick to more all-inclusive software solutions like Modo or 3ds Max for mesh modeling and Maya for cinematography.

But its capabilities are not to be underestimated because ZBrush has its own polygon modeling tools in addition to freeform sculpting. With ZModeler, designers can tweak edge operations like pinches, roundovers, bevels, and creases to perfection. Geometric primitives can be set up accurately using the ruler and numerical input fields.

There are libraries to compose human characters with premade elements and specific tools that streamline modeling base bodies. There is a dedicated brush to extract limbs out of the virtual clay. Using Zspheres, you can start with a wireframe skeleton, manipulate its bones until the overall proportion and behavior feels right, and then add clay to it to begin sculpting.

Also relevant for game design is that resolution can be set to the right level of detail for each specific area.

ZBrush does what no other tool can do when it comes to 3D textures. There are onboard ornamental brushes or custom-created brushes to apply the texture only where necessary while following the surface flow. Tunable texture randomization can be achieved with Nanomesh. GoZ enables seamless coupling with other software such as Keyshot for rendering and Maya, 3ds Max, Poser, DAZ Studio, Modo, etc.

The user interface in ZBrush is a bit alien compared to other software, and unfamiliarity comes with a learning curve. However, once mastered, it levels up the quality of game models by leaps and bounds. In the end, its advanced features and hybrid workflow give ZBrush the edge over simpler sculpting tools.

Developer: Pixologic

Released: 1999

Platforms: Windows, OS X

Best for: Sculpting, 3D textures

Price: $895

Using a Patchwork Solution

Like the population of the average metropolis, the game design CAD software landscape has seemingly endless variety. There are a few great industry leaders, but other solutions definitely have their say. So there is no clear winner for 3D design.

In terms of feature count, 3ds Max is undefeated. But for most projects, a successful combination of multiple solutions, some low and some high-budget, works best.

Affordable solutions like SelfCAD, Blender and ZBrush will definitely help indie game developers. And for fast rollout deadlines, as is common in any hyped-up industry, productivity is achieved with intuitive controls, as seen in Modo and SelfCAD.

Besides their leading software, designers use numerous other tools to help them throughout the design pipeline, making seamless integration imperative. SelfCAD can be downloaded and can run online too, and because of its connectivity, versatility, and intuitiveness, it is a force to be reckoned with.

Hope you enjoyed this article about the game-changing 3D modeling software for game developers, and find it informative as well. Shout out to us if you have any queries or concerns. We’ll get back to you in a flash.


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