Creating 3D Terrain in 3DS Max – Part I – Modeling

This simplistic part of the tutorial covers the procedural creation of 3D terrains. While its possibly the easiest terrain generation technique, you’ll have less control over the final result. Use this when you need to quickly create pseudo-random terrain for distant backgrounds or fly-throughs.

If you’re really into terrain creation, you should also check out Terragen or create your own Heightmaps in Photoshop or any other digital editing application.

The Result

3D terrain in 3DS Max Final I

3D terrain in 3DS Max Final II


Creating 3D terrain meshes usually requires quite a bit of polygons. Low poly, normal-mapped terrains can get away with 2000-5000 polygons but high-poly ones can cross the 500k mark. The techniques are more-or-less the same so we’ll focus on high-poly terrains.

1/3 The Document

To make it easier to tweak the scene, set your unit sistem to metric. Go to the “Customize/ Units Setup” and set the Display Unit Scale to Metric/ Centimeters.
3D terrain in 3DS Max - Units
Go to the Render Setup window, scroll to the Assign Renderer tab and assign mental ray as the default renderer
3D terrain in 3DS Max - Mental ray
Create a Large (2000cm by 2000) plane in the middle of your scene. Set the Width and legth segments to 400 each. This will serve as the basis of our terrain.
3D terrain in 3DS Max - Base Plane
Click the Systems icon and place a daylight system in your Scene. This is a quick way to add some decent lighting to your scene.
3D terrain in 3DS Max - Daylight
Click the Daylight icon and set the to mr Sun and mr Physical Sky. Scroll down to the mr Sky settings and set the height to -1.
3D terrain in 3DS Max - Daylight settings

2/3 Procedural Terrain – Displace modifier

Select the plane and click the Modify tab.Apply a Displace modifier to the plane.
3D terrain in 3DS Max - Displace modifier
The Displace modifier will .. well.. displaces the mesh it is applied to according to a given 2D map.  The colors in the map define the displacement.

» Absolute White = maximum height
» Absolute black = minimum height (nothing is displaced)

Set the displacement strength to 1400. Click the Map button from the Displace modifier and assign a Mix map. This will allow us to separate the base map from the detail one.
3D terrain in 3DS Max - Displacement Mix Map

The Displacement map

Open the Material Editor {“M”} and drag the Mix map to an empty slot. Select instance. Set the Mix amount to 60 and assign a noise map in the white slot. This will be our terrain base.
3D terrain in 3DS Max - Displacement Noise Map
Set the:

» noise type to Fractal
» Size to 250
» Levels to 4 or so.

The size determines the size of the hills and the levels value determines the number (sort-of)
3D terrain in 3DS Max - Noise Map Settings
Press the Go to Parent button once. To create small detailed areas, add a Gradient Ramp map in the black map slot.
3D terrain in 3DS Max - Gradient Ramp
» Set the interpolation to Ease In
» Double click the left-most arrow and set it to absolute white and the right-most one to a neutral grey.
» Set the Noise type to Fractal, the Ammount to 0.11, the size to 1.1 and the levels to 6 or so
3D terrain in 3DS Max - Gradient Ramp Settings

» The white-grey ramp determines where to apply the details. In this case we want them on the mountainous far side of our terrain. If you want them in the middle, switch the Gradient Type to radial.
» The actual details are created using the Noise settings. The settings are similar to the first noise map we’ve created. If you want your details to be all over the place, replace the Gradient map with a noise map.
» You can always add more details by creating a composite map with noise, smoke, and gradient ramp maps instead of the one gradient ramp.

3/3 Basic Optimization

You can now apply an Optimize modifier to the terrain to lower the poly count without affecting the terrain’s shape
3D terrain in 3DS Max - Optimize
Drop in a, temporary, small Dent Bump map until our texturing tutorial comes around, and render your final model.
3D terrain in 3DS Max Final I
And with some instant water:
3D terrain in 3DS Max Final II

You can follow our Realistic Water tutorial to get this effect.

A bit about manual Heightmaps

The easiest way of getting realistic terrains would be to google-up some real grayscale heightmaps. But that wouldn’t be much fun now would it ?

With manually painted heightmaps, it’s very important to know what you want to create before-hand. Also, if you’re not looking to paint-in 1px details for the next 2 weeks, treat the heightmaps you create as height-bases and use a procedural map for detail work.

The end

Now, we know the model doesn’t look like much without any textures but, our favorite motto is ” baby steps dear, baby steps”.
3D terrain in 3DS Max Final III
We hope you’ve picked up a useful tip or two from this simplistic tutorial. Remember to subscribe to our rss feed to be notified of Part 2. The second part of this tutorial will walk you through creating a realistic set of textures for the terrain you’ve created.

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2D/ 3D artist. Works as a print designer and does 3D art in his spare time.

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