XR Guide
January 5, 2023
10 Minutes Read

How to optimize world-building for digital environments: high-poly vs low-poly options

Reviewed by

Dejan Gajsek

Extended reality (XR) is the business world’s most exciting frontier. Platforms like the Metaverse offer unprecedented levels of interactivity and customer immersion. VR headsets and Augmented Reality apps are bringing products to life, allowing buyers to explore and enjoy them from the comfort of their homes.

However, one problem confronts every company on this new frontier: how to build believable XR worlds that capture attention, make customers feel relaxed, and showcase products or services in the best possible light.

World-building is one of the core challenges facing metaverse entrants and app creators. Sellers that succeed will create worlds that audiences love. But is this possible with affordable 3D technology right now, and can smaller businesses compete with established players?

Generally speaking, 3D modeling technology makes immersive world-building possible for any digital company. We’ll look at how it works, and the differences between high-poly and low-poly models. But before we do, it’s important to know what it means to “build a world”, and why it matters so much. 

What are polygons?

When it comes to building immersive environments (AR/VR applications or building video games) you will encounter polygons. Polygons are computer graphic elements that compose images that are three-dimensional (3D) in appearance. Usually (but not always) triangular polygons arise when an object's surface is modeled, vertices are selected, and the object is rendered in a wire frame model. 
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Source: pinterest.com | Examine the prototyping example of this head made in Blender.

Check the topology of meshes on the character’s head from low poly (sketch) to high poly advanced model.

High-poly graphics means that the graphical elements are sharp, high-detail looking (but takes away the processing power), while low-poly are more “rough” looking but they load up very fast. From an optimization standpoint, finding the balance between the number of polygons that can be processed by target users, is the most important thing before the game or application is released.

Creating a digital worlds for Video Games and Metaverse environments

We tend to take the world for granted. The streets of our cities, the architecture we inhabit, the vehicles on the roads, and the textures of the clouds all seem completely natural to us. But imagine creating this world from scratch. What would you need to create to fashion an environment that feels real and natural?

This is what we mean by world-building: translating the real world environment into digital situations.

When people enter the Metaverse, they expect to encounter a world with structures, pathways to follow, characters to engage with. Metaverse users are turned off by monotony and emptiness. Instead, they want variety and visually rich settings that resemble the physical world around us.

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Source: indiedb.com | High poly model character on the left, low poly game character model on the right

Visitors to a Metaverse store want to feel anchored in the digital world from the moment they arrive. They don’t want any confusion about where to go, or how to reach online services. The digital world should feel familiar and easy to navigate, not alienating and strange.

This may sound simple, but it’s not. Anyone who has visited a store and struggled to find the right department knows that design matters, and designers make mistakes.

Physical stores can “feel” unwelcoming, and the same applies to online spaces. Digital stores must immediately create a connection with visitors. Otherwise, customers will quickly go elsewhere.

Find the right approach for every challenge

Crafting Metaverse spaces to stage virtual fashion shows is completely different to building an interactive 3D jewelry ad. So it’s vital to create a world that’s relevant to every task.

One way of dividing XR projects is the degree to which they immerse customers. Will users be completely immersed in online worlds with VR headsets or other wearables? Or will they just be dipping into the XR world via their phone or web browser?

In a fully-immersive VR world, designers must guide users around locations with rational designs and signposting. They need to craft spaces that feel appropriate for the products or services involved, while making life easy for visitors to explore.

For instance, a VR training app must create seminar rooms that space users properly and allow them to interact face to face. Virtual stores need to separate product ranges and provide space to roam. Social spaces have to be uncluttered but full of character.

Building worlds in semi-immersive apps or non-immersive XR ads is slightly different. In those cases, user experience and layout is less important. The main challenge is to impress users with high quality visuals and interactive features.

In other words, the virtual world is a complicated place. But one thing is common to all of these examples. Designers must source 3D assets that enrich virtual settings. Objects, artworks, buildings, and other accessories create vibrant, appealing digital hubs from lifeless, empty spaces.

Building worlds for XR technology

3D modeling is the foundation of world-building projects, and there are two main methods for digital architects to use:

Low-poly modeling: Speed and flexibility

The first modeling option is low-poly modeling. As the name suggests, low-poly modeling involves creating objects with fewer polygon counts. Polygons are shapes that connect together to form a mesh, which is used as the surface of a 3D model.

Models with low polygon counts won’t have beautiful fabric textures or richly grained wooden surfaces. But they will recreate the shape of physical objects and represent a great fit for AR technology on mobile devices.

Low poly modeling has some important advantages when building Metaverse worlds. Low poly counts reduce the need for complex processing. Designers can animate models and manipulate them in ways that aren’t possible with high-poly alternatives.

For example, low poly models are ideal for building online stores and digital avatars. Users can interact with large numbers of models without fear of slowdown. This is really important for VR headset users, who experience slowdown as blurring and – in some cases – confusion.

Brands can also use low poly models in gamification campaigns and experiential marketing. For example, footwear brand Timberland created a 3D game called TimbsTrails. Exploring aspects of the boot designer’s past, TimbsTrails used low-poly models to tell the brand’s story and entertain fans.

This AR experience approach is a clever halfway house between a full Metaverse presence and traditional ads. It can prepare customers for immersive experiences at VR-powered stores. In the present, they drive engagement and build on existing campaigns, keeping customers eager for the next branding innovation.

High-poly modeling: Image quality and visual wow factor

The other option for world-builders is high poly modeling. This is basically the mirror image of low-poly design. High-poly models comprise vast numbers of shapes in their polygon mesh. These polygons fuse together in perfectly smooth lines and enable almost life-like modeling.

High-poly models can generate photo-realistic fabric textures or apply intricate lighting effects to vehicles and interior spaces. This is great for creating immersive 3D ads or eCommerce apps. But extra detail comes at the cost of higher processing loads. This tends to exclude high-poly models from Metaverse domains.

High-poly modeling can create realistic photos to showcase boutique furnishings or sports cars. These photos look like real images, but can be edited as needed. In some cases, users can manipulate the images to zoom in or rotate objects, adding interactivity to an AR app.

In the future it will be possible to create high-polygon Metaverse worlds. Nvidia has introduced new graphics processing tools that cut the rendering time required for fully ray-traced 8K 3D visuals. Designers will be able to use existing tools like Unity, Autodesk or the Unreal Engine to build high-poly 3D environments without crippling processing times.

This rendering technology presents exciting possibilities for digital brands. Running shoe manufacturers could create gorgeous outdoor settings to show off their newest designs. Labels could host virtual fashion shows that look just like the real thing but allow Metaverse users to take part via VR technology.

Sports networks could create Virtual Reality bars showing NFL or NHL matches, with celebrity appearances and the chance to socialize with other fans. And auto makers could create test-drive tracks or virtual paint shops to customize vehicles. There really is no limit to the worlds that are about to emerge.

Find the optimal strategy for world building

Choosing high vs low poly ultimately comes down to you. Some game and art directors purposely choose low poly options just because of the stylistic choice. Most indie and retro 2D platformers are ideal for low poly meshes and characters. That’s great since the game developer can focus on (fast-paced) real-time gameplay rather than finding the balance between high-quality and high-performance presentation.

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Source: celestegame.com | Celeste, a 2019 Game of the Year, Game Developers Choice Award

On the other hand, big triple-AAA game companies that bank on realism and immersions, have to produce games that are highly polished and in high resolution.

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Source: https: insider.com | The Last of Us Part II, 2020 Game of the Year award

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Source: arstechnica.net | Half-Life: Alyx, Winner of best VR/AR award

And sometimes game producers and developers re-create a game and turn it from a low poly low resolution experience to a highly polished and jaw-dropping high poly experience.

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Source: eurogamer.com | Stills from Final Fantasy 7, 1997 and Final Fantasy 7 Remake 2020. Notice the change in texture maps on the characters.

There will always be hardware limitations and as a developer and designer you will be constricted by them. Your job is to follow the design theme and create an experience your audience can run without issues.

If you look at Hollywood action movies, especially superhero fantasy ones, all of them use computer-generated imagery (CGI) which is made from high poly meshes and look as convincing as possible. Superhero movies aim for immersion and suspension of belief, so low poly pixelated scenes would break that immersion very quickly.

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Source: mashable.com | Portals battle scene from the movie Avengers: Endgame.

Now is the time to start building the world of tomorrow. Fortunately, brands have a few ready-made strategies that make the world-building task much easier.

There is no need to create thousands of models in-house. Virtual environment designers can source everything they need from third-party experts or purchase models off-the-shelf to populate online environments. For instance, you’ll find a huge range of 3D objects at the CGTrader Marketplace. Search for what you need, and add objects in seconds to Metaverse settings.

Sourcing third-party models is the quickest way to make empty spaces feel alive and appealing. Designers can add architectural features like doorways and floors. They can add ornaments and plants – whatever makes the space feel inviting and authentic.

Low-poly 3D models can populate a freshly acquired Metaverse property, while a high poly 3D model could form the backdrop to introduce new products. In a few minutes, designers can create a space that works for them. And the costs are extremely low - far lower than in-house model creation.

The major challenge is deciding how that space should look and feel. Do you want muted colors or bold, attention-grabbing tones? Is the space directed at Generation Z users or middle-aged shoppers? Are you looking to promote Metaverse browsing or do you need to show off specific high-end products for customers who know exactly what they want?

There are no easy answers. World-building is intricate and complex. But as we’ve seen, it’s within the reach of almost any online brand.

With low and high-poly 3D modeling more accessible than ever, brands just need the creativity and courage to create worlds that customers cannot resist.

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