Recently I found quite difficult to model hay bales so they look realistic. Most games fail at making them look any more than a just a smooth cube.
They actually mostly look like this, a fluffy mess, more or less:
So, first I tried adding a flared surface around the bales to make it look less cubey and like some of the grass is actually going out. An intense normal map on the main texture also helps pronounce detail. Also, making each hay cube “relax” a bit according to the position makes them look more natural and like they actually have some weight.
Looks good but it’s all now about managing normals to make them have less contrast as the real ones actually have some amount of subsurface scattering. Brightening the ambient color would generally do the job, but in this case it would just whiten the bales when the sun is low. Neither smooth normals, nor only UP normals would do, so manipulating normals individually was necessary.
The end result, the one with medium up normals, looks.. satisfying. Still far from realistic as the flaring grass is pretty tricky to do. From certain angles it looks perfect, but from certain other angles, it looks terrible. But is absolutely better than smoothed cubes in other games, so it does the job.