A pawn is the 3D representation of a character in House Dominae. You interact with a character by moving their pawn around the brothel (or the board) and dropping them into a room.

The original idea for pawns was extremely simple. I wanted characters in House Dominae to be more than just a JPEG portrait image, and be represented in 3D on the board. It didn’t have to look super good. In fact I wanted it to be as basic as I could get away it. My thinking was it’d be good enough to just change a few things like a primary color or a texture to allow for rough approximations for a wide range of characters.

I set a few design criteria for the pawns:

  1. A pawn only needs to be a rudimentary approximation of the character.
  2. The player needs to be able to tell two pawns apart.
  3. A pawn is merely a pawn and should not be animated.

This was an intentionally low bar because I didn’t want to exceed my capabilities as a sole developer. I had limited 3D modeling experience and didn’t want to place too large a burden on myself this early on in the project. Besides, at the end of the day, House Dominae is more or less a turn-based board game and it shouldn’t need any advanced graphics.

The earliest iteration of a ‘pawn’

Looking back, these pawns look pretty dumb but they met both criteria and I thought they successfully proved that an abstract look would work. I kept it in for quite a while and I even started thinking about how to customize them.

A new look

If I recall correctly, about a year later, I was looking at Nendoroid figures and I realized that it’d be possible to create a wide range of characters from a small number of relatively similar shapes, as long as you can capture the key, iconic features of the character, like their face, hair style and color. Although, I was still on the fence whether I would be able to create a 3D model that looked good enough. Humans are hard to model, even at a miniature scale. So I decided to make a test model and this is how it came out:

First test of using a modeled pawn

Even at the time, I didn’t think this looked all that great, but it was definitely an improvement and it was way better than what I thought I could make. This was pretty well over my own ‘good enough’ threshold and I knew that over time I’d get plenty of opportunities to refine the model. So I made the decision to go ahead with the new pawn look.

Shortly after this, I made the following test, to prove I could have a sufficiently wide range of characters and I was pretty happy with the result.

Pawn test with different hair styles and outfits

By the way, I think it’s worth mentioning that right around this time while I was messing around with these models, Blender 2.8 got released and turned what used to be a fairly painful experience into a proper good one. Being able to work in a modern interface and actually see what I was doing, thanks to the new viewport, was a really big help.

Body shape

At first, I made 4 different versions of the same model for 4 different breast sizes (none/male, small, average, large) but it quickly became apparent that this setup was not going to work. Every time I made a tiny change to the base model, I had to make the same change across all the other models. The solution was pretty obvious: I needed to use blend shapes. Not only do they keep everything to a single model but I could add as many shapes I wanted and they can be fluently blended together.

Blend shapes!

Outfits and accessories

All of this created the necessity for clothing, or everyone would look suspiciously naked. I used the same method to create 3D models of outfits, sharing the same blend shapes and it looks pretty okay. I still have a lot of work to do on this front. The game only has a handful few outfits and I still haven’t made any decent male wear.

Complementing outfits, I also added accessories, which are various bits and pieces like glasses, earrings, animal tails, jewelry, etc. 

Custom models

Now I know that regardless of how many models I make for the pawns it will never be enough for the proverbial universe of characters players would want to create. What is Samus without her Zero suit? Just reaching a good minimum amount would be quite an ordeal for me to handle alone. So I’m not even going to try. Rather, the best option would be to open up the capability to import their own accessories, hair styles or even replacing the entire pawn.

To keep things as simple as possible, I opted for the OBJ file format. It’s broadly supported by 3D software vendors and it’s trivial to load into the game. To make it even easier, I added a one-click importer to the character creator. The easier I make this to use the higher chance there is someone would actually use it.

Importing custom models inside the character creator

What’s left to do

So where are we now? What’s left to be done? Not a whole lot to be honest. The base model has undergone at least two major revisions and I think it looks really good now.

The main drawback is that I don’t have a lot of hair pieces modeled. They’ve been surprisingly hard and they have not gotten the same love the rest of the pawn has. I’m also short on outfits, specifically for male characters. My plan was to have outfits be items so you can buy and wear different outfits on different characters. Like, buy a leather bondage suit for your dominatrix kind of thing. Unfortunately I’m nowhere close to achieving that but there’s an underlying framework to support that in the future.

You don’t usually see male characters in my screenshots and that’s only because I haven’t made any clothes for them to wear and I really need to make more male hair styles.

I’ve experimented with different blend shape setups and I think I have one that I’m happy with. You can do a whole lot with what’s already there and once I improve the hair situation this should be well more than good enough. Besides, you can always replace the whole thing.

Pawn as they look today
The in-game pawn editor
Fit vs. thicc

It’s funny looking back. How did we get to here when I started this post by saying I wanted pawns to be extremely simple? Well, we got here thanks to several small improvements over a long time. Every time I added something it was obviously better than before and it’s hard to argue with results. It’s more fun to play with Chun-Li when there’s a little Chun-Li on the board. In the beginning I was worried I was going to waste time on an unnecessary detail but after already having spent that time I can say it was worth it.