I'm modeling the picture below in 3ds Max and had a couple of quick questions about workflow.
1: for the Phone alpha in the center of the number piece and the floral design on the main box part should I use an alpha to put those directly on the mesh in zbrush or put them on in Substance?
They barely stick out so I thought substance would be a better option but, if so this leads me to my second question.
2: Does a bump map utilize the existing geometry (low poly) or the normal map? If I was to put that alpha on in substance would I need to add extra maybe even unnecessary polygons to the low poly or would it be utilizing the high poly normal map?
Bonus question: is there any software besides photoshop that I can create those Alphas with that is either free or has a student version?
(This model is for portfolio mainly but, I'm modeling it as if it would be game ready)
use an alpha to make a mask in zbrush, then sculpt. This way you get lots of natural inconsistencies. Plus, now when you bake from your high poly you can get handy curvature maps, AO, etc. Which may help with texturing.
I doubt anybody in production environment goes that far with an actual game prop like this, but its same techniques you can use for anything and if you trying to impress with portfolio it doesn't matter if you take a bit longer.
If I was making a random tiny prop in a game, I'd just project the photo onto the thing and be done. Always try the fast easy thing, test it in your game to see if it flies, and only go extra mile if it's necessary. It's not an excuse to be half-ass, it's failsafe to prevent overworking.
All depends on how much detail you need and how much you can allot.
you can make alphas in zbrush, photoshop, substance painter, and then there is free things like krita or gimp. I haven't used those but plenty of people recommend them. Just google and there is plenty to read about that. Also, they're free so just try em out.
if you're working in zbrush anyway, learn to use spotlight and that's a pretty straightforward way to derive alphas and other types of mask from photoreference. You can non-destructively alter the photoreference and make mask via color, value, and so on.