When I started out I assumed that modelling was the be all and end all of 3D design but I’ve since found that is only around 25% of it. Now I understand the workflow and have spent time learning the different aspects, I figure that there’s at least 4 steps before you start even thinking about animation.
The basics, a simple shape of your object, keep this a low-poly as possible, “Phong” shading will add a gradient to harsh shapes and you can always soften shapes by adding more polygons at any time (It’s harder to reduce numbers then it is to add).
The artwork, this is obviously where a lot of work goes into making things look good. In something stylised these would just be made from scratch but when trying to achieve realism this is more like making collages. A mixture of found images, colouring and shading, can create something realistic. Normal maps are key at this stage, anything you can avoid modelling and just create simple normals for will cut processor use and design time. For example the floorboards look 3d but they’re just a simple image that was created in Photoshop. I’ve learnt a novice error is to try and use the texture image for normal maps, these work in some cases but it’s best to use a simple shape to get more accurate results.
Like a photographer in real life, you spend forever slightly moving lights and adjusting their intensity to get the scene looking just right. The featured image is of the scene pre and post lighting. This is quite satisfying because the shadows really embed the objects and scene.
It’s a bit of a nightmare but if you’re going to animate a person or animal, then you’ll probably need to add bones to the model, although this doesn’t make a big difference to the look initially, when it comes to moving an arm for example, the model’s structure can be massively distorted. I found this easier on lower-poly models because you can more accurately target specific elements.
Each aspect of the above can constitute a full-time job so I’ve only scratched the surface, it’s been a steep learning curve but it’s very satifying and I’ve done it enough times now to fully understand what to expect and what to prepare for.