Making Your Band: Printing 3D Rock Band Figurines

Mon, 10/19/2009 - 12:16pm
David Mantey, Editor, PD&D

Gamers have the ability to create an avatar in the game, and as he/she becomes better at the game he/she earns money to buy accessories to outfit their rock star, such as clothes, shoes, haircuts and every other manor of decoration. A player can even draw logos for T-shirts or tattoos.
Z Corp’s two major challenges came in the translation of the video game’s semi-3D data into full 3D data, and taking 3D-printed parts in relative volume and printing them cleanly and efficiently in order to keep costs minimal.

Bringing a 2D Rock Band into the third dimension.

So much for putting your picture on a magazine, print it in 3D.

The consumer industry isn’t quite there yet, but the latest partnership between Harmonix, the videogame development company that has turned the world into arm-chair rock stars with the Rock Band franchise, and Z Corporation (Z Corp), the Burlington, MA-based developer and manufacturer of 3D printers, has come one step closer to fully customized 3D-printed figurines.

Gamers who play Rock Band on a network enabled Playstation 3 (PS3) and XBOX 360 are not just virtually strumming, banging or singing along with the music. Gamers have the ability to create an avatar in the game, and as he/she becomes better at the game he/she earns money to buy accessories to outfit their rock star, such as clothes, shoes, haircuts and every other manor of decoration. A player can even draw logos for T-shirts or tattoos.

The gamer can then load their character information up to the internet and visit the Merch Booth on where he/she can pull their customized avatar up, pick a pose and order a 3D printed figurine that is about 6” tall and weighs 10 to 12 ounces (the collectables are dense, it’s like picking up a ceramic piece in similar dimensions).

Z Corp’s two major challenges came in the translation of the video game’s semi-3D data into full 3D data, and the operation of taking 3D-printed parts in relative volume and printing them cleanly and efficiently in order to keep costs minimal.

In the video games, the characters are represented in 3D. Similar to CAD data, the characters are in a 2D environment on the screen, but 3D in reality.

Rock Band Drummer, let's call her something original, like Bandit.The Harmonix team translates the video game data into 3D printable data and the orders are sent to Z Corp’s facility electronically, where they print it out and ship it off to the customer.

In order to make the video game characters printable, Harmonix has taken the semi-3D data from the game and created a parallel database full of 3D data.

“That was a technical challenge that took work,” reflects Scott Harmon, vice president of business development with Z Corp. “It was a collaborative effort and it was a lot about communication with the Harmonix guys. They shared the first bit of character data with us and we pointed out the shortcomings or the things that would cause problems in the 3D printing world based on that data.”

Harmonix figured out how to adjust the game assets so they can be printed and stitched together. “At the end of the day, you need watertight solids to be 3D printable and you have to take all of the hollow geometry that they use in video game data and seal it off,” says Harmon. “The video game data is not watertight 3D data like you would get out of real CAD. Every asset – every pair of pants, shoes or shirt – has a game asset which is optimized for screen rendering. When the 3D printable file is created, it essentially pulls all of the 3D printable assets and stitches them together before the file comes of to us.”


Rise Of The Machines

When the two companies first shook hands, Z Corp was doing the primary printing on its ZPrinter 450, the most modern machine that the company had when the service was launched. The 450 has a 300 x 450 dpi resolution that prints high performance composite material in layers from 0.089 to 0.102 mm thick.

The company is currently transitioning the service to the ZPrinter 650 in order to provide the consumers with a superior collectable.

“We’ve been moving production over to the 650, because the color and resolution on the 650 are just unbelievable on that machine,” says Harmon. “It really does make a difference on how the figures look to the customer. The colors pop, they’re very accurate and the detail is unbelievable.”

Both the 450 and 650 print using layers of a plaster composite powder. The system lays down a layer of plaster composite powder using print heads to selectively bind the solid portions. Print heads also apply color on the outside of the layer simultaneously.Z Corp 650 Zprinter

“All of the color data, including the avatar’s tattoos and insignia that are created within in the game, are applied to the character during the printing process,” says Harmon.

The figurines can be handled, but they shouldn’t be played with, the market is still far from printing anything dubbed an action figure.

“We definitely are not advertising these as being toys, they are figurines, collectables,” adds Harmon. “They are durable enough that they can be shipped around.” According to Harmon, the rockers can be handled, but if you whack them hard enough on the counter top you could critically damage a Mohawk or custom guitar. Here’s to hoping the characters are placed in proper homes so any fatal blow to a pair of studded bell bottoms can be avoided.

The market for consumer printables is seemingly endless – with nearly every new video game environment operating in a virtual third dimension. With the current state of the economy, people have been hesitant to spend the $80 to $100 that it takes to make a figurine.

“We ship thousands of these things across the whole business, but it is clearly a consumer electable purchase,” says Harmon. “It’s not a must have, it’s a want. The market is potentially millions of pieces, but there are definitely sensitivities around how much people are willing to spend for them."

Z Corp took a number of steps both in terms of operational software and standard labor analysis to make sure that they had a process that, from beginning to end, would be quick in terms of how much time it took an operator to get a batch of parts through the system.

The standard manufacturing time takes two to three days, but sometimes there is a feature that can’t be printed. Z Corp prescreens the characters, but occasionally they run into a guitar, a certain hairstyle or a pose that won’t work – causing the aforementioned Mohawk melee.

Rock Band in 2D

The company also has to be on the lookout for copyright infringement – you can’t print a pre-Yoko Lennon character from the latest Beatles edition – but Harmon notes that the issue has surfaced as much as Z Corp anticipated.

“We have run into some copyright issues,” says Harmon. “You can create your own tattoo or logo for a t-shirt and we have had people who have created Rolling Stones logos and things like that, so we do keep and eye out, both at Harmonix and Z Corp, for copyright violations. Now, I don’t know how many copyrights or trademarks there are in the universe, and there is just no way that you can know what all of them are, but if there is anything remotely obvious such as sports teams or the big, real rock bands you see occasionally, but that has been really minimal.”

Less than ten figurines have been sent back as the result of copyright red flags. “It’s something that we were really worried about initially,” he adds, “but we really haven’t had a problem with it.”

It’s Not Cutting ClayRock Band Bass Player, not sure why, but I think he looks like a Pops.

Z Corp continues to talk to other video game vendors and is also looking at different sizes and price points.

“We do think that price point is an interesting piece of the mix and if you can bring the price down and let people still get there customized character, the detail is so good even on a smaller figure it looks really good,” says Harmon.

Pretty much any game that is now created could have a 3D printable.

“There is a cost benefit tradeoff, but 3D printables works for games where the community is an important piece of it. Rock Band has a big community, so it works well in an environment where people are sharing avatars and YouTube videos. If the sense of community isn’t as big, it reduces the likelihood that people are actually going to buy the avatar.”

Harmon and his associates at Z Corp still struggle pretty mightily with having potential clients come to grips with the technology. Some people hear figurine and can’t get past a clay mode. 

“The idea that you can get something that is fully customized to the individual is a pretty novel concept so awareness is still quite low,” says Harmon. “There are customizations that you can make to hair, body type and apparel, but to get a real representation of yourself — you then start talking about scan data or 2D photo to 3D mesh conversion technology and in the not-too-distant future. You’ll soon see services where you can take photo data and get a 3D character out of it.”

The way the 450 and 650 are used everyday is to enhance the innovative capability of engineers and designers and allow them to try different designs and new ideas, and enable them to communicate the ideas effectively.

“The fact that we have a service that you can sell these things to consumers is an indication of how fast the machines operate and how good the detail is,” says Harmon.

Rock Band Guitar Player. I think I'll name him Spike Thrasher.Action Figure Capability

We are still pretty far from printing an action figure.

Z Corp’s primary research and development has two paths that they pursue. The first is improving the appearance of the model.

“We always want these things to look more and more realistic,” says Harmon. “Frankly, we’d like the models to look like a full-color injection molded part and we’re getting pretty close with the 650 to achieving that objective.

The second thing Z Corp wants is to make them more durable.

“The threshold is really high,” adds Harmon. “Even if you create an injection-molded part out of the Rock Band figures, I don’t think it would be a toy that you could sell to kids, because you still have enough of the fine features that will break off and be choking hazards, even in plastic.”

Harmon suspects that in the three-to-five year range, it could be possible to print something similar to an action figure, emphasizing “possible.”

“It still wouldn’t necessarily be a toy and it’s not something that we would sell to kids,” he says, “because that’s a whole different kind of liability.”


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