Review: Google SketchUp for Game Design

Disclaimer: I was asked by Packt publishing if I was interested in reviewing this book. I immediately accepted, as such a book would fit within some of the themes we handle in our classroom and many students and architects are interested in discovering the world of realtime interactive architecture. The coupling of SketchUp and Unity3D is quite accessible and can be completely free, if you use the basic licenses. Packt provided a free review copy of the book and if you buy it through the provided link, there is a small commission. But the review is my personal opinion only.

Book info on the Packt-Publishing website

Google SketchUp for Game Design is a quite recent book, focusing on delivering a reasonable low-entry into the world of Game Design. When you think about presenting architecture to others, an interactive game-like environment is very compelling. Tied to the ubiquity of SketchUp for quick modeling and the Unity3D Game Engine, you can publish interactive models as standalone applications for Windows and OSX, but also on webpages. With an additional license, you can also publish your model to an iOS device (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch) or an Android device.

The book is, like most books I read from Packt, reasonably priced and paper and print quality is good. While some of the earlier books I have, tended to have quiet dark screenshots, this seems to be avoided with this one, which is a sign that they are improving their publishing quality. While I'm not too fond of the quite heavy black title backgrounds and the very beginner-oriented style, this is a nice book to read through. It is well structured, with clear goals and promises of what will be delivered in each chapter. But be warned that this is primarily a Beginner's Guide (which is marked on the cover), so I sometimes felt that it focused quite a bit on a step-by-step approach. For me, personally, this is a bit distracting, especially as I seldom read books behind the screen of my computer. Just too much chance of distraction…

Review

The first few chapters present a general outlook on developing (modeling and texturing) "props" or "assets" for a Game. Translated for architects, this usually means modeling objects, buildings and the site that become the environment with all its detail. This is not a book about creating walking animated characters or to develop the scripts for a First Person Shooter or a Massive Multi-player Online Environment. There are other books that explore these topics.
First warning: this book tends to be a bit naive, but I assume it is deliberate, as to appeal to a beginner audience, that wants to get started but doesn't know how to.

It does sound a bit too harsh on other books, that are said to be skipping too much steps or tend to promise unrealistic expectations. There is also the claim that game and movies are getting closer together, but I feel that the current game quality is more up the the level of movies of a decade ago. Nice, spectacular, realistic for sure, but the armies of professional Special Effects houses is not standing still either. That said, you can reach a very acceptable graphic quality with reasonable efforts today, even when working alone.
Second warning: I think the writer has chosen the right content for the book, but maybe not the right title…

Only at page 55, you will open SketchUp for the first time, to model a wooden pallet. The first three chapters are looking at "other tools" and "other resources" mostly: stock model and texture websites, some utility software and a full chapter on preparing a texture for the wooden pallet we will develop.

Contrary to the habits of architectural modelers to create complex models with simple colors, game modeling is quite the reverse: creating simple geometry, but heavily relying on textures. This is an important distinction to make when you come from an architectural background. We tend to focus mostly on the building with all its glorious detail, while visualization and game artists focus on the noisy, gritty details through the textures and map this onto the geometry. That said, this is good skill to master, even as an architect, so I advice you to apply it more often in your work. The Photo Match and texturing tools of SketchUp are very adequate and can lead you to very compelling results.
Third warning: this book tends to present what you need to do step-by-step firstly, and only talks about why you would do so afterwards, whereas I would do it the opposite way.

But at least, after you made something, there is usually a paragraph that reflects on it, which has good educational values, even when you eventually use other tools and software.
Fourth warning: while Adobe Photoshop is widely used by artists worldwide, this book explains all texturing work using the GIMP, the Open Source photo manipulation software.

The end result is quite the same, but architects typically are not used to this software. But my advice is to just follow along in whatever software you prefer. There are quite some interesting workflow tips and techniques explained in this book. One particular example makes a simple colored model that is translated into GIMP, where it serves as flat colors to easy the selection process and the creation of masks. Back in SketchUp, the Sandbox tools are discussed, which I never used before. And then the process of getting your SketchUp model inside the free version of Unity3D is described. They specifically mention how to get models from the free version of SketchUp into Unity, which is more involved by the lack of an FBX-export in the Pro-version. While Unity can read Collada files (*.dae), it gives problems with the free version of SketchUp. Here, it is advised to use the FBX Conversion software from Autodesk, who controls the FBX format. Then it is shown how easy it is to load the model, position it, add colliders, so you don't fall through and than how to add a First Person Controller, which is included with Unity3D, that you can use to walk around freely. If you do this for the very first time, this is very rewarding moment and might be all you need to do when you are mainly interested in game modeling to present your design to others.
Fifth warning: Architects like to make clean (and even sterile) models, whereas game artists tend to mimic the more realistic, everyday world around is, with all its grime and grit and all the rubbish that is lying around. So they tend to go for a worn-out look. Be warned.
Almost at the end, and this is very interesting for other use cases too, there is a chapter on how to model a full car, starting from a few blueprints and some pictures. The model is not perfect, but very usable and not too heavy. I do recall how my students often add trees and cars as stock models into their scenes, only to discover that they slow everything down considerably and to discover that they contain more polygons that the actual architectural model they tend to enliven.

After the car, one chapter will elaborate one building into more detail, but this is simply too simplistic for architects, who would use a completely different approach. But a valuable lesson to learn is that you need to think in volumes rather than in planes.
Last warning: avoid single planes! In SketchUp, you see front and back faces, but only the front faces become visible in other software (typically rendering applications or, in this case, Unity3D). Avoiding this demands more attention during modeling, but will lead to cleaner and better behaving models, so it is best to stick to this advice. Only for single glass planes and fences, it might be good to export 2-sided faces.
Appendix A talks about MakeHuman to generate a life-like mesh of a human body and also explains how it can be optimized in Meshlab to limit the amount of polygons, but as it is not used in the rest of the book, I don't see its point here. The character will not be animated (as this would take a whole new book).

Conclusion

Overall, this is an interesting book, primarily for a beginner audience, but only half of it is actually working inside SketchUp. But the results you obtain are relevant and are reachable for everybody, which is not always the case in more advanced modeling or visualization books.

Book info on the Packt-Publishing website