The Ancient Art of 3D Modeling: How Origami Influenced the Design of VOXPLODE 2 and Frantic Ball
Published 2 years ago
Some ideas aren't born on paper, but come from the paper itself. Whoa.
I am currently working on two games to release in the very near future - VOXPLODE 2: Day of the Voxies and Frantic Ball (which I’ve written about previously here and here).  In the process of developing the look of each game, I found myself turning to an old hobby and interest of mine - origami.
I first discovered origami when I was about five years old.  My older brother brought home a book from the school library on the subject and I was immediately fascinated.  Keep in mind, this was during the 70’s, so sitting down and playing with an actual piece of paper was something that a kid could get away with without being looked at as strange.  Or at least not much stranger than he already was.
All grown up, still strange as ever.
For those unfamiliar with it, traditional origami involves taking a single square of paper and folding it, without any cutting, into a representational form of a subject.  Many of the older models were quite simple, suggesting a silhouette or a three dimensional sketch.
Anyhow, that one book was the start of a lifelong obsession for me.  Whenever the chance came up, be it in another library or a bookstore, I found myself looking for more information on the subject.  It was my internet back in the day.  When I did stumble onto something new, I devoured it.  By the time I got to high school, I was “that guy” who would sit in class, folding away, making elephants, birds, frogs, you name it.  By the time the 90’s rolled around, something magical had happened - the art had evolved like it never had before.  The models that people were creating were becoming more sophisticated than they had ever been, producing representations with stunning levels of detail.  Today, some of the things that people are making seem downright impossible.
Now, all of this is interesting but you must be wondering how this relates to design decisions that I’ve made in the games that I mentioned above.  Well, a lot of the principles that go into those origami figures can also be applied to 3D modeling to great effect. At its core, the principle of taking a single square of paper and folding it to add the geometry needed to become a representation of some object or creature is very similar to the approach I take for 3D modeling. Instead of starting with a square of paper, I’m starting with a simple, virtual cube.
There are bases that are used in traditional origami models - the blintz base, the water bomb base, the preliminary fold - that are standard starting points for models. These bases have a certain number of points in specific proportions that are very useful depending on the number of limbs or appendages I want in the final model.  Similarly, each cube that I’ll start with will have a certain number of subdivisions along each axis to make adding in whatever geometry I’ll need in the final model easier.
A selection of origami bases.
Each new edge loop that I add is like adding a crease to a sheet of paper. Considerations need to be made as to where one of those creases is placed.  Placing a loop in the wrong spot will result in unnecessary geometry elsewhere in the model.  By selectively placing those creases, I can end up with a low poly model that, much like those simple origami figures I fell in love with so long ago, can be a very elegant representation of whatever character, building, tree or other subject I am attempting to create.
Bunny model with origami version.
Another useful aspect of this approach is that once I establish a base that I am going to use for a model, I can reuse that for similar models.  In both VOXPLODE 2 and Frantic Ball, I have a lot of human or humanoid figures.  There are over 100 in VOXPLODE 2.  Creating a standard base and building from that makes each figure that much easier but also, and more importantly, gives them all a feeling of consistency.  The bases in VOXPLODE 2 and Frantic Ball are very different, but the approach is the same and figures in each feel as though they belong to their respective worlds.
A selection of voxies from VOXPLODE 2, all based on a similar human base.
The human base model and soldier, mad scientist and princess based on it.
Finally, creating a piece of origami is obviously a very tactile experience.  I can feel each crease that I make and when I am done, I have a model I can actually hold.  There is great satisfaction in turning the model around in my hands and seeing how all of those folds brought a simple square to life.  In contrast, I can’t hold a 3d model; however, imagining how it would feel as I am extruding each surface helps me to infuse a little more life into each of my subjects.
Ancient Dragon, designed by Satoshi Kamiya, folded by me, admired by Priscilla the origami loving dog.
The dragon model from Frantic Ball.
You can check out VOXPLODE 2 here and see the end result of this approach.  It is not necessarily an approach that would work for everyone, but this ancient art form that inspired me as a little boy has definitely had a dramatic impact on how I approach the creative process in my work today.
Alan Thomas