Low poly is a polygon mesh in 3D computer graphics that has a relatively small number of polygons. Low poly meshes occur in real-time applications (e.g. games) as contrast with high-poly meshes in animated movies and special effects of the same era. The term low poly is used in both a technical and a descriptive sense; the number of polygons in a mesh is an important factor to optimize for performance but can give an undesirable appearance to the resulting graphics.
Polygon meshes are one of the major methods of modelling a 3D object for display by a computer. Polygons can, in theory, have any number of sides but are commonly broken down into triangles for display. In general the more triangles in a mesh the more detailed the object is, but the more computationally intensive it is to display. In order to decrease render times (i.e. increase frame rate) the number of triangles in the scene must be reduced, by using low poly meshes.
Computer graphics techniques such as normal and bump mapping have been designed to compensate for the decrease of polygons by making a low poly object appear to contain more detail than it does. This is done by altering the shading of polygons to contain internal detail which is not in the mesh.
A combination of the game engine or rendering method and the computer being used defines the polygon budget; the number of polygons which can appear in a scene and still be rendered at an acceptable frame rate. Therefore, the use of low poly meshes are mostly confined to computer games and other software a user must manipulate 3D objects in real time because processing power is limited to that of a typical personal computer or games console and the frame rate must be high. Computer generated imagery, for example, for films or still images have a higher polygon budget because rendering does not need to be done in real-time, which requires higher frame rates. In addition, computer processing power in these situations is typically less limited, often using a large network of computers or what is known as a render farm. Each frame can take hours to create, despite the enormous computer power involved. A common example of the difference this makes is full motion video sequences in computer games which, because they can be pre-rendered, look much smoother than the games themselves.
Models that are said to be low poly often appear blocky and simple while still maintaining the basic shape of what they are meant to represent. With computer graphics getting more powerful, it has become increasingly computationally cheap to render low poly graphics. Some artists use the resulting low-detail from a low polygon count as an aesthetic rather than as an optimization technique. They are often used by indie developers due to being faster and cheaper to create. In addition, there is an element of nostalgia to low poly styles, hearkening to older video game consoles such as the Nintendo 64 or the PlayStation (console). Since they often achieve a certain retro style, serving as a 3-Dimensional analog to the 2-Dimensional pixel art.
There is no defined threshold for a mesh to be low poly; low poly is always a relative term and depends on (amongst other factors):
As computing power inevitably increases, the number of polygons that can be used increases too. For example, Super Mario 64 would be considered low poly today, but was considered a stunning achievement when it was released in 1996. Similarly, in 2018, using hundreds of polygons on a leaf in the background of a scene would be considered high poly, but using that many polygons on the main character would be considered low poly. In this way, there is a relativism between the importance of objects and their graphical quality. More important objects such as Non-player characters usually contain a higher amount of detail than less important objects, which are often small or in the background, like a blade of grass. This relativism is subverted when low-poly is used as an intentional aesthetic style: every object shares the simplicity that a low number of polygons brings, making the distinction between important features and unimportant features less clear.
Low poly graphics emerged around late 2013 as a specific style when content creators began to redefine the difference between high-poly and low-poly. Instead of using a low number of polygons as a necessity, creators like Timothy J. Reynolds recognized how the usage of fewer polygons sharpens the focus on essential artistic elements like form, lighting, and texture. The emergence of the style is somewhat similar to earlier artistic movements where artists like Paul Cézanne tried to decompose objects into geometric shapes. The low poly style seeks to highlight the idea that the world can be represented by a composition of shapes, which makes it a self aware style that is intentionally vague.
Although it has gained some traction in the art world, low-poly is a much more established style in video games, since it serves the dual purpose of reducing development time and giving the game a unique aesthetic style. The oldest game on the popular game distribution site Steam with the tag "low-poly" is Mirror Moon EP, a space-themed exploration game with an emphasis on the low-poly style, which was released in September 2013. In 2014, Richard Whitelock published Into this Wylde Abyss, a short, story driven survival game with a similarly low-poly style. From that point on, the genre expanded quickly. From 2014 to 2018, there were 244 titles published on Steam with a low poly tag. Some of the most notable titles include Superhot, Necropolis, and Grow Up.
Physics engines have presented a new role for low poly meshes. Since the display of computer graphics has become very efficient, allowing the display of tens to hundreds of thousands of polygons at 25 frames per second on a desktop computer, low-poly has been almost universally phased out of games by limitation, giving rise to the emergence of low poly as an artistic choice instead of a practical one.