How can I draw outlines around 3D models? I'm referring to something like the effects in a recent Pokemon game, which appear to have a single-pixel outline around them:
This effect is particularly common in games that make use of cel shading effects, but is actually something that can be applied independently of the cel shading style.
What you are describing is called "feature edge rendering," and is in general process of highlighting the various contours and outlines of a model. There are many techniques available and many papers on the subject.
A simple technique is to render only the silhouette edge, the outmost outline. This can be done as simply as rendering the original model with a stencil write, and then rendering it again in thick wireframe mode, only where there was no stencil value. See here for an example implementation.
That will not highlight the interior contour and crease edges, though (as shown in your pictures). Generally, to do that effectively, you need to extract information about the mesh's edges (based on discontinuities in the face normals on either side of the edge, and build up a data structure representing each edge.
You can then write shaders to extrude or otherwise render those edges as regular geometry overtop your base model (or in conjunction with it). The position of an edge, and normals of the adjacent faces relative to the view vector, are used to determine if a specific edge can be drawn.
You can find further discussion, details and papers with various examples on the internet. For example:
The simplest way to do this, common on older hardware before pixel/fragment shaders, and still used on mobile, is to duplicate the model, reverse the vertex winding order so that the model displays inside out (or if you want to, you can do this in your 3D asset creation tool, say Blender, by flipping surface normals -- same thing), then expand the entire duplicate slightly around it's centre, and finally colour/texture this duplicate completely black. This results in outlines around your original model, if it's a simple model such as a cube. For more complex models with concave forms (such as that in the image below), it is necessary to manually tweak the duplicate model to be somewhat "fatter" than its original counterpart, like a Minkowski Sum in 3D. You could start by pushing each vertex out a bit along its normal to form the outline mesh, as Blender's Shrink/Fatten transform does.
Screen space / pixel shader approaches tend to be slower and harder to implement well, but OTOH don't double the number of vertices in your world. So if you're doing high poly work, best opt for that approach. Given modern console and desktop capacity for processing geometry, I'd not worry about a factor of 2 at all. Cartoon-style = low poly for sure, thus duplicating geometry is easiest.
You can test the effect for yourself in e.g. Blender without touching any code. Outlines should look like the image below, note how some are internal, e.g. under arm. More detail here.
For smooth models (very important), this effect is fairly simple. In your fragment/pixel shader you will need the normal of the fragment being shaded. If it is very close to perpendicular (
This approach "consumes" a little bit of the model to do the outline. This may or may not be what you want. It's very difficult to tell from the Pokemon picture if this is what is being done. It depends on if you expect the outline to be included in any silhouette of the character or if you'd rather have the outline enclose the silhouette (which requires a different technique).
The highlight will be on any part of the surface where it transitions from front-facing to back-facing, including "inner edges" (like the legs on the green Pokemon, or its head - some other techniques would not add any outline to those).
Objects that have hard, non-smooth edges (like a cube) will not receive a highlight in the desired locations with this approach. That means this approach is not an option at all in some cases; I have no idea if Pokemon models are all smooth or not.