Baking Textures For Video Games
If you're following the progress of our Esquire House media room, you know that our flight simulator game is a key element to the project. It allows a user to virtually soar over island cities that we modeled in 3D. Because the game renders the 3D models in realtime, smooth framerates are crucial to the experience. So we came upon the question, how can we make the 3D objects look as realistic as possible without bogging the computer down with excessive pixel pushing. Our solution was baking the lighting, shadows, and reflections into the textures of the 3D models. Following this process gave our cities a beautiful look and had the game running smoothly.

What is "baking" you may ask? Baking is a process where you merge lighting, shadows, reflections and other 3D ray tracing image effects together in order to cut down on the number of textures and/or lights in a scene. In the case of our flight simulator, the game environment had some limited dynamic lighting that would calculate in realtime where to cast light and shadow, depending on the point of view and location of the sun. It is enough to give the sense of a reactive environment and an interactive experience; however, it was not enough to give the cities a fully natural look. Baking allowed us to give our models verisimilitude that gave the textures the necessary illumination before bringing them into the game.

Below is a comparison between two versions of the same Paris island. The older model on right is prior to baking in lighting, shadows, and reflections. The Paris model on the left is after baking.

Paris before and after

Here is a 360 view of Paris before baking.

And this is Paris after illumination is baked in texture.


Another benefit to baking is it simplifies the texture maps, which also in turn reduces the processing when the game is running. Simplifying the maps also makes it easier to transfer to the game. To wrap the many different custom shapes with texture, we used a variety of mapping options within the 3D program, in our case, Cinema 4D. Once baked, textures that were mapped in various ways merge and are remapped with UVW coordinates. For example, we used this texture (left) with cylindrical mapping to wrap the rocky conical bottom of the island (as you can see in the videos above).

We baked that texture with light and shadow, plus other textures images and maps. Here is the result single texture image (left). These textures are now simplified and easier to transfer into the game's programming.

Now our flight simulator game does not need to process the complicated mapping systems from C4D but only a few UVW maps.

Below is a sample of one texture image that works with one UVW map. It was baked with many maps and hundreds of textures.

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