Most of the character profiles on writeups.org are from comic books. So showing what the character looks like is trivial.
But there are other cases where we need to generate original visuals :
- Profiles for characters from novels, short stories, choose-your-own-adventure books, etc..
- Profiles for original tabletop RPG characters.
- Profiles for characters from older/low-res video games.
The simplest approach would be to commission an artist with a RPG and general gaming background. But writeups.org is a zero-profit project, so that’s not affordable. Therefore, low-cost DIY tools found in Windows video games.
Here are my notes about these tools. Note that I’m more concerned about generating portraits than generating entire bodies (and clothing).
These are ongoing personal notes, not a journalistic review of everything that exists. The goal is to talk about my experience, not be authoritative.
Table of contents
- APB Reloaded — 4/10
- Black Desert Online — x/10
- Champions Online — x/10
- Dark Souls II: SotFS — x/10
- DC Universe Online — x/10
- Dragon Age: Origins — x/10
- Dragon’s Dogma – Dark Arisen — 6.5/10
- Elder Scrolls Online — 7/10
- Elite: Dangerous — 8.5/10
- EVE Online — 8/10
- Fallout 3 — 3/10
- Guild Wars 2 — 6/10
- Mass Effect –x/10
- Saints Row 3 & 4 –7/10
- Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim –5+/10
- Dragon Age: Inquisition –4/10
- Monster Hunter: World –6/10
- Unreal MetaHumans Creator –9.5/10
This failed modern urban MMO has a robustly-featured character creation system. And apparently there’s a lot of clothing you can get in-game. The customisation is fairly wide, so generally it does the work.
But the textures are really low-res. Even on a 64 bits (and thus large address aware) PC. I guess it makes sense – it is presented as a third-person shooter, so I’d imagine you’re unlikely to gaze in detail, up-close at the other Player CharacterRPG characters played by a player, rather than the gamemaster or the computer. mugs. And well, the game engine isn’t exactly recent.
But it’s… 512 bits textures ? Something like that.
So the Saints’ Row tools will likely be better than the APB ones.
Black Desert Online
Cost: Super-low if you wait for a sale.
I have monkeyed with it but haven’t genuinely used it yet. This is because BDO does a specific type of shiny, colourful Korean heroic fantasy aesthetics. Where everybody looks like an expertly Photoshopped, glossy super-model.
So it’s clearly not an all-terrain vehicle, but something more specialised.
On the other hand, it seems to be doing that quite well. But I can’t test it until we write up a character who uses these aesthetics.
This used to be quite handy, if low-fi given its age.
Then the character creation was “streamlined”, locking most options out. So we stopped using it, except for Bil who has a lifetime subscription.
Dark Souls II: SotFS
This one is very niche. The character creator is old and low-poly, so we have much better options.
But what DS2 has in spades is ancient body armour with a mostly realistic looks (e.g., no boobs plate), and a solid selection of weapons and shields. So it’s a good resource to create pictures of low-tech armoured fighters.
For our shots we used a hack with full game saves found on the Nexus, so as to have every piece of gear in the game by the first bonfire. Plus Reshade for photography.
DC Universe Online
Used for: Salwa of Bana Mighdall (brown leather outfit).
I have to mention it since we used once, but I’m totally out of date on this one.
I grinded a fair bit to unlock costume elements so I could use it as a character generator. Then the game was sold, then re-sold, and my account had vanished so screw it.
Dragon Age: Origins
Cost: Very low if you wait for a sale.
Used for: Alamen Tabris.
I’ve only ever worked on one character design in DA:O. So I don’t have an opinion of it as a general character generation tool.
Furthermore, the tools in Dragon Age: Inquisition seem more robust and modern, and DA:I is quite affordable when on deep discount.
Creating a character for DA:O works fine, but due to the game’s ages there are shortcomings. The main one is the plasticky aspect of the skin textures. Thankfully, mods allow for upgrading the tool with more colours, more hair styles, skin textures, etc..
Check our Dragon Age: Origins settings and modding guide for a primer.
Dragon’s Dogma – Dark Arisen
Cost: About $10 on a 66% sale. Current offer on Humble (affiliate link).
As with ESO below I’ve only run one quick test. In part due to having to install an ultra-widescreen fan patch. Then realising that the game really really wants to be played using a controller. Then deciding it blatantly could use an ENB and shaders injection.
I find the textures a bit crude (particularly for the hair), but shaders injection make that better.
The bank of presets is remarkably large. Body types, facial features, tones… It’s all pick-and-choose rather than sliders, which might mean a fair bit of back and forth. Because mouth #34 no longer looks right now that you’ve picked nose #52, y’see ?
I need to experiment more (in good part because this game is firmly rooted in a console gaming culture I don’t quite have) but this seems promising. Not quite for writeups.org since I prefer photorealistic close-up portraits – but for more distant shots it should work.
EDIT – The in-game rendering has nicer lighting than the character creation one, especially with Reshade. So it probably should be a 7/10.
But I think there’s this thing where skin and hair tones are suddenly darker “in the world”. Presumably, the stark white lighting in the character creation suite makes hair and skin look paler than they should.
Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited
Cost: About $10 on a 50% sale. Current offer on Humble (affiliate link).
I’ve only run one test so far, but it’s seems pretty robust. The hair selection is a tad disappointing and the textures are MMORPG-grade (albeit a *modern* MMO). But there are solid possibilities around age, body types, mouth curvature, etc. that aren’t frequent in these suites.
I need to dig more (which means having to create visuals for a suitable character), but roving through the menus left a good first impression.
Cost: Yes. Current offer on Humble (affiliate link).
E:D objects to you playing it. To get the “Holo-me” (the full character creator) you need the game and the Horizons season pass, though as of late 2018 these have become available together at a deep discount during sales.
Then you redeem three serials, and you create an account, and you encounter UI choices that are so odd I *still* can’t say whether they’re a bug on my end.
Once you’ve realised you need to hit number keys to bring menus up in the cockpit, you can finally access the creator. It is a robust, high-definition one with numerous options. I haven’t had time to full explore it, but you *do* get Type 3 and 4 hair textures, which is a marked improvement over the excellent EVE Online creator (below).
The range of presets and sliders seems excellent. The next character I work on will be an opportunity to see how far it goes.
Cost: Free as in “free space beer”.
Very good tool for photorealistic portraits, and you can’t beat the price. Highly recommended. The shortcomings are :
- Eye colour can be off as compared to the sampler.
- The selection of clothes and accessories is limited. It’s just not the point of the tool.
- Very narrow range of body types.
- Limited control over the cranial structure, so the characters from a given bloodline are going to look a bit samey.
- No afro-textured hair 😾 (though there are some dreadlocks styles). Or even curly hair. The hair textures are quite simple, in general.
Be sure to explore the graphic options for high-res character textures and green screen.
Cost: Super-low if you wait for a sale. Current offer on Humble (affiliate link).
Used for: Dr. Athena Griffin (Fallout 3 Lone Wanderer).
Note: Using a heavily-modded version, as discussed in the profile above.
The character creation *sequence* with the fast-forward biography thing is fantastic.
Unfortunately, the visual character creation is crippled by only viewing the face through a minuscule aperture. Which makes it much harder to see what the frak you’re doing, and will likely lead to surprises once the character is rendered normally and in in-game lighting.
So ruled out as a stand-alone creator. Cooking up a proper FO3 character to play FO3, OTOH, works okay (especially with mods to add hair styles and the like).
Guild Wars 2
Cost: I think that the base game is free now.
I haven’t used the GW2 character creator in far too long. Really I should have started taking these notes years ago. And the problem here is that I’m maxed out on character slots (6 in my case) so I can’t fire up the ol’ character generator to refresh my memory unless I buy a seventh slot.
But I remember the generator being robust, though it has a set aesthetic range. Frex women tend to look like airbrushed, pouty young goddesses with eerily perfect skin and hair. The aforelinked Elegant Fox Spirit is a good example of the character generator’s usual aesthetics.
Starting clothing is so-so (or firmly in the “are you shitting me ?” zone for women magicians – or at least it was back in my days). But acquiring a more varied wardrobe, dyes, etc. can be done throughout the (pretty good) game.
If you’re looking at the sample character art on writeups.org, note that I always run Sweet FX or Reshade with GW2.
Cost: Super-low if you wait for a sale.
I’ve worked on too few characters in the Mass Effect trilogy to have a genuinely informed opinion of it as a character generator. But those I worked on, I worked on *a lot*.
So if you set out to create your own dream Shepard, I suggest :
- Checking our advice about hi-res textures, lighting, etc. for Mass Effect (the first one).
- Googling up advice about two tools – the Gibbed editor and the Coalesced editor.
If you’re willing to do somewhat arcane stuff such as mixing colours, altering vectors, importing prepared hair meshes, etc. you can significantly expand the tool.
Two notes :
- Both our sample Shepardses on writeups.org heavily used editors.
- I don’t have experiences with the Legendary Edition (and its mods) yet.
Saints Row 3 and 4
Cost: Free for the “Saints Row the Third – Initiation Station” and “Saints Row IV Inauguration Station”. Very cheap if you get SR3 on sale. Current offer on Humble (affiliate link).
This was my fav before EVE Online enabled free access accounts. Powerful tools that give you fine control over most everything (including body type) and good flexibility.
The downsides :
- Everything looks exaggerated and cartoony. You can go for something more subtle, but often you have to fight the tool to achieve that.
- Clothes limited to modern urban things, but with a few exceptions that might be what you need.
- No green or white screen, no meaningful capacity to save if using the free software (so take a lot of shots of your finished model).
- It’s now pretty old, though the series is as of this writing headed for a reboot.
Cost: Super-low if you wait for a sale. Current offer on Humble (affiliate link).
Note: The score assumes solid proficiency with Skyrim modding.
A lot of Skyrim’s usefulness will be down to modding. So you’re going to spend a long while poring over the Nexus (or in some cases the NSFW Lovers’ Lab ) for resources. Which in turns means a lot of toys to play with.
For instance I tend to prefer photorealistic skin, eyes, hair, beard, etc. textures. But if what you need is glamour cover aesthetics and fabulous makeup styles, just pick different mods.
Skyrim can probably do the job for heroic-fantasy characters, including some non-humans one. How useful exactly it’s going to be depend on :
- How willing you are to learn the basics of Skyrim mod selection, installation and management.
- How well you know the game. Particularly to locate the clothing and armour you want for the character, and to select photography spots.
- How you’ll react to the odd character creation menus. I suspect it’s down to how used you are to console UIs. I haven’t had a console since the 1980s, so I kinda struggle with it.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
Cost: $40-ish with all the DLC, but it’s frequently on sale. And heh, it’s a great game and part of a landmark series.
Reader, I’ve struggled with it a fair bit.
- You do have to have a sense of design and proportions. It’s trivial to end up with a face that’s off compared to what you wanted… and you can’t quite tell why.
- The dark green background in the character creator throws off the sense of colour and lighting. As often, the tones are gonna look different once in the world, particularly the greens and blues.
- The HQ hair and eyes textures mods from the Nexus are a must.
- I don’t think that you can save until you’ve done the entire prologue.
I wanted to like it since I’m a Bioware fan. But the more I fight with it, the older and clunkier it feels, like a console game that fell behind.
One can invest hours to learn enough to create characters to *play* DA:I, but as a general-purpose portrait creator there are much better options.
Monster Hunter: World
Cost: $30 or less. Current offer on Humble (affilliate link).
The MH:W character creator has been much praised. But I had to wait until it was on PC, and $20-ish, before taking it for a whirl. Maybe this delay has been why my experience with it has been so-so.
Low flexibility on facial features, console-like constraints, mediocre textures for facial hair, oddly narrow range of coiffures.
You *can* create something genuinely nice. But you first have to review the possibilities and come up with something within the constraints of the tool. Rather than have the tool do what you want.
There are additional hairstyles and other cosmetic, sold as DLC – and some are free. But you have to bring up the Steam interface within the game, crawl through the gigantic DLC list and add them one by one in an unintuitive manner.
Likewise, the original cutscenes appear to be unskippable.
Unreal MetaHumans Creator
Cost: Closed beta.
This tool is part of the Unreal 5 video game engine. It’s there to allow game artists to efficiently create lifelike humans with extremely detailed textures.
Somehow, I got into the closed beta. I *never* get to be part of closed betas. So that was cool. How the Unreal Engine 5 will be accessed is not known yet, but Epic tend to be real generous when it comes to non-commercial use of their tech.
The tool is amazing. It allows you to create portraits every kind of people. The range of hairdos isn’t huge (it’s a free beta test) but the textures are really nice. And there’s but a tiny selection of clothing, since that’s not the point of the test.
I’m so glad I have access to this. It allowed me to create spiffy, distinctive portraits for plenty of characters from novels, from past TTRPG campaigns, from RPG modules, etc. – where there simply wasn’t any art.