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Your problems are not always what they seam: combining different meshes into seamless procedural characters

My current personal project, Bestiarium, depends heavily on procedural character generation. In this post, I discuss how changing my perspective on a problem led me to create a solution for combining several meshes into one smooth, seamless character.

After my last post about procedural character generation, I kept trying to figure out a solution for properly merging different meshes into one character, removing the hard edges between parts, but keeping the other ones that were actually supposed to be there. After having some ideas, I decided to study how Impossible Creatures approached its “modular” creatures, and could see that I was on the right track. Exploring that direction gave me pretty good results, but also paved way to a way bigger problem, that I still haven’t solved. Anyway, let’s start from the beginning.

Asking yourself the right question (and giving yourself the right answer)

When I first started the Invocation Prototype, I wanted to have different character parts being randomized for a lot of variation. That is super simple and standard for characters that actually have good geometry to hide the seams (e.g.: clothes), but my creatures needed to be bare naked. I started by trying to merge vertices together automatically, but that had poor results, and I always ended up breaking something (either the hard edges that I actually wanted, or the UVs). 

Now, here’s what happened to me, and I guess this is a very common thing amongst technical folks exploring solutions. Going back to square one usually involves answering the question “what exactly do I want to achieve?” - and sometimes you’re so deep into one idea that your answer gets biased by that.

Over and over again, I answered that question with “I want to weld together vertices that are close enough to each other”. 

Let’s go back to the very basics, then. All meshes are comprised of triangles, and those triangles are defined by vertices. Triangles are one sided, so you need a normal to define which direction a triangle is facing.

However, in a game engine, the normals aren’t stored per triangle, but per vertex. This allows you to interpolate between the triangle’s vertex normals to create the effect of smooth shading. If you have a mesh that is to be rendered smoothly, but you want hard edges, you need to add extra vertices to that edge, so that you can define neighboring triangles that visually share an edge, but seemingly face different directions because the way the gradients end up being calculated. This is obviously terrible to understand in text, so just watch the video below:

So taking a step back: what exactly did I want to achieve?

“I want to combine meshes with no visual seams.” 

That doesn’t really mean that I want to combine vertices, or reduce their amount, which was my original attempt. That only means that I have to make sure that the triangles line up (i.e. the “edge” vertices are in the exact same position), and also that the normals make the shading smooth between these neighboring triangles. But how to do that automatically?

Here’s the thing: computers are really good making very specific, repetitive tasks, which we suck at. However, we’re really good at detecting abstract patterns, which is something that is really hard for them to do because we really suck in describing in a logical and explicit manner how exactly we detect those patterns - basically because we just don’t know exactly how that works (and my bet is that we’ll probably find out the definitive answer for that while trying to teach computers to do the same).

After studying the workflow used for Impossible Creatures, I realized that maybe it was better cost/benefit to focus my attempt into creating a good workflow for helping the computer in the part that it sucks at. This is especially true because whatever algorithm I’d end up using would require to do things runtime, so I’d have to optimize even to prove the concept. So taking the question one step forward: 

“I want to make an open edge from a ‘guest’ object ‘lock’ onto an open edge from a ‘host’ object in a way that there are no visible seams. Also, this has to happen in run time.”

So here was the idea: I’d tag the vertices in both edges, and the vertices from one object would be transported to the equivalent position in the other one, then the normals would be copied from the host object to the one that was latching into it.

I started out by experimenting with adding handles to every vertex in the object so I could identify and manipulate them, but it was quickly clear that approach wouldn’t scale well.

Then it actually ocurred to me that I don’t really need to tag vertices, I need to tag what I think vertices are. So I created the Vertex Tag. A Vertex Tag is a sphere that fetches all vertices that might exist within its radius. With that, I can, in editor time, cache all the vertex indices that I visually classify as “a vertex in the edge”, even if those are actually multiple vertices. That means I'm easily translating between what I’m talking about when I think of a vertex and the way that Unity represents the vertices internally.

This is the core of the VertexTag:

public void GetVertices() {
    VertexIndexes = new List<int>();
    Vector3[] vertices = GetTargetMesh().vertices;
    Transform trans = GetTargetTransform();
    for (int i = 0; i < vertices.Length; i++) {
        Vector3 worldPos = trans.TransformPoint(vertices[i]);
        if (Vector3.Distance(worldPos, transform.position) < Radius) {

GetTargetMesh() and GetTargetTransform() are just handler methods because this might work with either MeshFilters or SkinnedMeshRenderers. As you can see, this is not optimized at all, but that’s not an issue because we’re not supposed to do that in runtime.

Now we need something to control a group of tags: I called that a Socket. A Socket is comprised of several vertex tags, and it defines where things should “connect” in space. That way, we use the sockets to position the objects themselves (in a way that they properly align), and then can control all the tags to be “joined” to the proper vertices, ie., for each tag in the guest object, reposition all its vertices to the position of the equivalent tag in the host object, then make the normals in all of those compatible (currently, I'm simply averaging them).

Right now the Socket system is working on top of the tagged vertices only (so the further apart the objects are, the more deformation it causes), but it would even be possible to think about something like using verlet integration to smoothly “drag” the neighboring vertices along - which for now really seems like overkill.

One big advantage of this Socket system is that it can be improved to try and adjust itself to different amount of vertex tags in the base mesh and the attached mesh: if there are more vertex tags on the host object, you might force the host object itself to change, or you can make all the extra vertex tags of the guest object to go to the same tag in the host object. Obviously, the best thing is trying to keep the amount either equal in both sides, or very close to that. Also because, I mean, poor guy.

To make things decoupled, there’s this helper class that actually has the “joining” logic: re-positioning the parts, triggering the socket to connect itself to a “host” socket. One thing to keep in mind is that if you mirror an object by setting its scale to -1 in one of the directions, you’ll have to adjust your normals too, something like:

public void MirrorNormals()
    Mesh mesh = Mesh.Instantiate(GetTargetMesh()); = GetTargetMesh().name;
    Vector3[] normals = mesh.normals;
    for (int i = 0; i < normals.Length; i++)
        normals[i].x *= -1;
    mesh.normals = normals;

There is some debug code in which I can see the direction normals are pointing, and the position of vertices, but my biggest friend has been a shader that paints the model based on the vertex normals (I’m using one from the Unity wiki).

So there, now I can tag vertices, save that information to a prefab and simply get them to connect at runtime, with little overhead because everything is pre-tagged. Although the workflow still isn’t perfect, some small things can improve it a lot, like snapping tags to vertex positions, improving the way that sockets merge vertex tags etc. 

I’m so glad the biggest problem was solved, now I can simply start animating the characters.

That maybe have different bone structures for each limb.

So the rigs have to be mashed up together, along with their animations, in runtime.


I guess it’s time to start asking myself the “what exactly do I want to achieve?” question again - although with a problem like animation, it’s more like “what am I even doing?”.

If you have any ideas regarding modular rigs, feel free to give me a heads up in the comments section, my personal blog or at twitter!

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