What Tools Do You Need to Create Video Game VFX?Jun 10, 2022
Here are some of the most popular tools FX artists use, including some free software to help you get started and the industry standard programs.
Have you ever wondered how your favorite games and animated series create those wonderful visual effects? There is a whole industry of talented artists creating each of those assets.
There are several parts of creating visual effects, from the initial illustrations and textures to particle systems. In addition to the video game engines themselves, dozens of other tools are used to create and complement the VFX pipeline.
For a quick overview of video game VFX, and how they differ from film and television effects, check out this video from Riot Games featuring VFX Apprentice's own Jason Keyser.
So now you know that there are so many different ways to make visual effects, and it's all going to come down to artistic style and animation principles. That said, let's take a look at all the different tools you can try using to create and learn Visual FX in games.
Real-time Video Game Platforms
There are two primary engines you will hear about throughout the industry. A few major labels and studios may have their own proprietary platforms, but the two most popular among all studios and independent creators are Unreal and Unity.
Unity is a cross-platform game engine that was originally built to support Mac OS X in 2005. Since then it has grown to be used in a variety of industries including gaming, entertainment, architecture, and automotive.
Visual FX artists spend most of their time in Shuriken creating particle systems. Unity has a free tier for students and personal use for projects under $100,000 USD in revenue or funding.
Unreal Engine, or often just called Unreal, is a game engine that dates back to the late 90s which where it powered the absolutely rad and popular game Unreal. It is owned by Epic Games and today Unreal Engine powers everything from video games, movies, television shows, AR/VR experiences, and much more.
The latest version, Unreal Engine 5, was first released in 2022. For video game developers, the engine is free to use up until your first $1 Million USD in sales. The fee can be waived if you publish your game to the Epic Games Store.
FX artists have historically used Cascade for VFX, but Unreal Engine 5 heavily puts the focus on the newer Niagara VFX system. This is the next-generation system which gives VFX artists more functionality without the need of a programmer.
If you want to try Unreal Engine, check out our FREE intro to Unreal Engine series where you will learn how to navigate Unreal and learn everything a Visual FX artist needs to know about the engine.
3D tools are used for everything from particle animations and simulations to character and environment development. These are the most popular 3D programs used in video games and animation.
Maya is practically THE standard 3D tool across most industries. It's used on the biggest games and blockbuster films. Not just for VFX, Maya is primarily known for its animation tools and capabilities.
3ds Max is another 3D tool from Autodesk, and is often used more for it's modelling and texturing tools. For Visual FX artists working with real-time effects, many prefer the toolset in 3ds Max since they don't need the high resolution and slow renders speeds of cinematic VFX in Maya.
Cinema 4D is most popular among the motion graphics and design communities, especially for it's intuitive layout and workflow.
Houdini is rapidly increasing in popularity. Some often consider it to be the most powerful new tool though also difficult to learn. It's becoming more standard among animation studios and is well regarded for its simulations.
Blender has taken on a new life as of late. It's a free 3D tool that is becoming more feature heavy with each release. The program now easily competes with the top of the line 3D programs. It has all sorts of tools for animation, sculpting, and rigging.
Another well known feature inside of Blender is the Grease Pencil, which all users to draw in a 3D space. It's one of the reasons Blender also makes the list as one of the best animation tools for 2D FX.
ZBrush is a modeling and sculpting tool, mostly used for 3D character creation.
Animation, Drawing, and Compositing
This collection of VFX tools covers everything from drawing and illustrating to compositing and 2D animation.
Adobe After Effects is an absolute monster of a program. You can create animations and motion graphics, composite elements and effects, keying, tracking, and so much more. Each iteration adds more features so the learning curve is getting steeper. That said, it's still one of the most used and versatile tools used in nearly every creative industry.
The standard graphics and photo editor beloved and hated by all. You can do just about anything to images inside of photoshop. Photoshop is great for creating concept art and layering elements to find the right look for your project.
Want to see how FX artists use Photoshop? Check out our free Photoshop FX training series.
Krita is a free open-source illustration tool. It's designed for digital painting and animation.
Harmony is an animation tool from Toon Boom. It's an all-in-one tool that you can use from initial drawing to final rendered animation. Harmony is one of the biggest industry standard tools for 2D animation and FX in animated series, films, and stylized effects in games.
If you want to give Harmony a try, be sure to get a free trial and watch our free intro to Toon Boom Harmony training series. You can also download some free assets and templates for your learning journey.
Adobe Animate has been around a few years now, but it was originally part of Adobe Flash for vector animations. Now Animate has been updated for the new standards of 2D animation.
If you want to give Adobe Animate a try, be sure to watch our free intro series that will guide you to making 2D FX and flipbooks in Animate. You can also download some free assets and templates.
Nuke is a node-based compositing and VFX app that is mostly used in film production and big-budget gaming. Recently Nuke has added features to enhance real-time composites with the UnrealReader node.
Learn Visual FX from the Pros.
Want to work with the same tools the pros use? We've developed a whole series of lessons using popular VFX tools in our courses. Learn how to combine the power of these tools to make your own visual effects and work your way to becoming an FX artist. Check out the VFX Apprentice courses page for all our training and bundles.
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