Developing the Mora-class Carrier

There’s no large low-tech carrier in Starsector; today we create one!

[HEGEMONY COMINT // RHYME AMBER // CONFIDENTIAL // communications intercept dated 12-2015]

David: [discussion of new ships] – a lowtech cruiser carrier, 

Alex: How is this going to be substantially different from the Heron? Could go with either 1 deck + heavy armament (more in line with Hegemony doctrine? but also kind of the Venture, but stronger and with less useful out-of-combat stats) or 3 decks and almost no armament (which could also fit in with the Hegemony doctrine, if looked at as greater specialization…)

D: Ooh, I’ve got this: So given that Hegemony doctrine inherits the ‘traditional’ doctrine of the Domain at the time of collapse – of heavy line battleships, though at the start of a transition back to cruiser/carrier doctrine – this specialized lowtech cruiser carrier could be a holdover from the previous wave of Domain doctrine that had a larger role for fighters.

So why are these in the field? The Domain navy decommissioned them from military service, so they were de-militarized and sold to budget-minded civilian enterprises in development on the Domain’s frontier, as having some former carriers with big handling/construction bays can be a very useful thing. Once the Collapse comes around, these former construction/mine drone handlers slash ersatz mobile drydocks are re-militarized (thus less useful out-of-combat stats than one might expect). Used perhaps more by pirates, independents, and the Luddic Church more than by the Hegemony or TriTachyon, so that the big carrier fleets of these guys can be supported by something better than Condors but not so good as the Heron or Gemini. 

A: That sounds good (especially the lowtech cruiser) – but it might make sense to do these later (either for this release [ed. 0.7.2.a ] or, uh, more later) – I’d like to change up how carriers work at some point [HEGEMONY COMINT :: REDACTED // MOST SECRET]


Decommissioned then recommissioned ships reminds me of shipbreaking, of which many dramatic images can be easily found. I pulled a few together for palette & aesthetic reference.
shipbreaking_images
That is how I want this ship to look. So I pulled out some colours, just took the colour-picker to a blurred version of the reference images and built up a nice selection:
palette
We got lots of rust, from gray-beige to fiery orange to pale purple back to rich saturated browns. Then some blues, deep and dark to silver-gray, and some white-cream for the fancy bits. Now we’re ready to start! Wait, but first -

A Colourful Tangent About Technique

Now, very important here is some of my self-advice:

1. Don’t just take your colours straight from the default palette. Prove that you thought about the colours you’re using by going through the process of choosing them for a reason, not just because they were there. Back when I did IRL painting, it would annoy me when I could tell that a painter had used paint straight from a tube. It’s not that it necessarily indicates lack of rigour, but… yeah, it usually indicates a lack of rigour.

And 2. Don’t just a mid-tone then make the dark and light for it by pushing the value (aka the shade, the blackness/whiteness). Avoid the naive colour ramp! — (Unless it’s intended, in which case it is not naive by definition, right?) — I mean something like this:

palette2

I took default Photoshop palette brown, orange, light gray, blue, and pale purple and did a simple ramp to white and black. This is rather like when they teach you how to mix paint in elementary school. Take your red, add white to make it lighter. Take your red, add black to make it darker. Sure, these are important fundamentals to start from, but it’s so boring! Why can’t orange fade to a saturated green? Isn’t that more interesting?

I used to think I should work with colours in terms of how a computer might render an image: Everything has an ideal ‘true’ colour, so that would be the base. Trees are green, the sky is blue, clouds are white. Then maybe if I’m feeling fancy I could shade it a bit later. Touch of orange overtop for a sunset, whatever. Sure, and trees are scribbly puffs on top of sticks, houses are boxes with triangle roofs, an eye is an ellipse with a circle in it. But no, all of this is pushing an idea of the image formed from a sort of enculturated default. The observable world will provide countless counter-examples to these platonic forms of shape and colour- why, I’ve got a tree outside my house right now which has dark reddish-purple leaves (of all things) rather than green. But walking by, the plum tree looks like the most natural thing in the world.

The point I wish to make is that even when making wholly fantastical artwork – spaceships – there is much to learn from observing images from the world that run counter to expectation. Can’t sit in dark room and figure it out, you must observe. (Well, I suppose you can sit in a dark room and google image search to observe. So uh. That’s also good.)

As with form, as with colour. You must let go of your feelings and trust your eyes; Trust the targeting computer that takes in what is really before you. Colour is messy and contextually subjective, it is far more important how one patch of colour looks compared to the colours around it than it does in the default palette, or in the colour-picker. What matters is the impression it creates in the context of its presentation. In our case, that is in Starsector, while playing the game: that is what is seen and that’s where it has to hold together.

So, we green? Don’t use boring colours? (Super green.) Let’s get back to spaceships.

Painting The Sketch

I’m constantly changing how I draw ships in Starsector. (Sorry. But not.) My first ships were much more about pixel-formalism with hard opacity and hand-aliased diagonals and, god help me, occasional dithering. I’ve gotten a lot more painterly over the years. So here I started by sketching a design with full-on painting:

lt_cvl1

Got my sampled colours on the left, got my sketch on the right. This is the first image I saved out but you can see I’ve already started chopping it up and moving pieces around. I really liked the look of those hollow boxy compartments with those angled corner/edges in the reference images, so you’re getting those. The working surfaces where fighters will be landing on this thing get more of the worn rusty-purples and pinks while I’m treating the orange as exterior paint and the white/cream as crew and engine modules, presumably less wear and tear and maybe a bit better maintained.

So I’ve got (literally) the broad strokes going in fairly happily here, but I hate the silhouette. I’m determined not to draw another brick (like last time), so this bears some thought.

silhouette1

Dropped a gray overlay on the sprite itself then pushed and pulled the pieces around until this started to have a comprehensible shape. Classic wedge, reflective of stuff like the Eagle/Onslaught, but much shallower, with a sturdy width more like the Dominator, and some trailing pieces like a manta ray perhaps. This is a carrier, after all, it should perhaps be gliding across the battlefield rather than hammering through it. (Later our design imperative seems to completely contradict this thought, but hey, a little paradox creates some nice tension from time to time, right/maybe?)

lt_cvl2

Started refining the image. Painted a detailed engine pod thing because I love engine pod things. Started thinking about where landing bays go, and where turrets will be placed. The yellow block on the right turned into the maintenance/construction bay while the conning tower/crew compartments are on the left. This is asymmetric of course but it’s important nonetheless to balance the feeling of weight between the sides.

lt_cvl3

1. Pulled the engine pods more into the body of the ship for a more coherent hull. Flipped them around so the mini armour plate wings coming off the engines were on the outside rather than inside. Had the thought that they’d protect fighters from engine burn, but it looked a bit funny (and we’ve got the trailing struts for that now anyway).

2.Made trailing elements more prominent, added definition to central hull mass.

lt_cvl4

3. Shortened rear landing bays to give the center more mass. Removed one of the front landing bays to pull ship together better & increase ratio of construction hold to landing bays.

4. Experimenting with flipping the angle on the front landing bays, adding more mass to crew/conning sections.

lt_cvl5

5. Decided no, flip that landing bay back around and make it one big bay so it reads clearly at a distance. The previous iterations of this ship had features that all operated on around the same slightly-too-small scale; proper ships need forms that resonate on all scales; zoomed-in, center of action, as well as at great distance. Added an angled hull piece to echo the Eagle/Falcon/Onslaught core Domain line of warships, plus the classic rounded con which nicely contrasts with the angled blockiness elsewhere. More turrets.

6. Various render polishings + added an echo of the (shortened) trailing structures to the sides

I think this looks pretty good. The shape is unique and suggestive of its place in the Starsector universe: it reflects its roots in the Domain navy, but has a worn, modular, rambling, and ramshackle appearance to suggest its history as a utility ship on the frontiers. (Can’t wait to see what an original spec version of this looks like!)

Let’s Start Spriting

Because so much of the rendering has been done in the “sketch”/painting phase I can just take the sketch and scale it down. Ah, but to what? Let’s pull up the giant image with every ship in the game and drop our image overtop to scale it according to its ship class.
progress15
Somewhere between the Eagle and Dominator looks about right. Now run a sharpen pass to harden up those details and let’s pull up some ships that seem to be in the range of what this carrier should feel like. Let’s say: Dominator, Venture, Wayfarer, Mule.
progress16
(Wow, the Venture is looking a bit mangy compared to the new stuff isn’t it. I’ll put a note on my TODO … )
They’re all a bit more yellow, aren’t they? Well, I’ll worry about a final colour adjustment pass at the very end when I do shading curves and the like.
sprite01

Here I’ve overlaid a first pass on weapon slots. I want plenty of turrets, and plenty of weird little hardpoints. It’s supposed to be a fairly adaptable ship, so why not enjoy the possibility of it being a missile boat? Or PD-fortress. Or maybe if the OP is invested into systems, something a little quicker. And honestly, it’s easy to add or remove turrets later and I fully expect it’ll be necessary. Don’t let the perfect get in the way of ever finishing anything, right? Had an exchange with Alex about this:

Alex: “As you say, the balance can be easily adjusted whenever. Main thing is figuring out how to differentiate it gameplay-wise from the Heron or Condor etc. I suppose “really tough carrier” is an open role, especially if we give this ship “combat” status, but based entirely on its ability to be a damage sponge, with a system that reflects this (damper field, perhaps? or the trusty burn drive, to get it “stuck in” more quickly).”

David: “I like that angle. I suspect if we give it a burn drive, it’ll be used to kite. (Though what good is a kiting carrier that leaves its fighters behind?) The damage sponge idea is really neat too. Wonder if overloading on slots for the OP it’s given could be interesting so you could either go for bristling with guns for close support OR missiles for long range support OR systems to go faster / soak damage OR capacitors/vents to soak damage. Probably a bit hopeful to imagine players won’t find one most effective semi-broken build but … it’s a thought.”

I fully expect that you, dear reader, will come up with a suitably broken build for our cruiser-carrier here.

Meanwhile, Back At The Sprite

sprite02
It’s important to change your perspective. While drawing I’ve been flipping this 90 degrees every 15 minutes or so. Let’s me see if I’ve thrown the balance out of whack, and just gives a fresh look overall. (For the sake of this blog post I’ll stop rotating the poor thing, however.) Touched up the crew-side armoured half-wedge. Note all the colour variation in it, like corroded metal, or a heavily worn paint job.
sprite03

Started cleaning up bits of hull, the landing bays. The bridge received definition (and a nice fresh coat of white paint). I think I’m trying for a cleaner bridge window style than the noisy mess you see on ie. the Dominator.

Let’s jump into some drawing techniques.

fixing_edges

Here I’m cleaning up the geometry on the trailing struts. I’ve gone in with the polygonal lasso tool to define my edges. I’ll delete the selected area, then invert selection, and do some painting with an airbrush to do gradients, rough up the texture with a rough brush, then touch up lines and details with a pixel brush. The pixel brush is only for the edges and details though, most of the lifting at this stage is done with larger more painterly brushes in combination with masks/selections. This lets me accomplish both sharp detail and sweeping painterly strokes & texture in the same image.

What’s that, you want to hear more about painterly technique? Of course you!

Lines, Shapes, and Form

So here’s the most basic thing:

lines_shapes_form
  1. The beginner pixel artist starts by drawing outlines and filling them in, method 1. (Also generally true of artists in general – most start by drawing lines to form images; or, really, learned icons that reference physical objects, see: earlier ramblings about trees and houses.) This is a good and useful technique, but there is more to the world of drawing!
  2. Here are two shapes of different value – and hue, even, to mix it up – which be distinguished by their contrast. You don’t need to outline anything at all to distinguish shapes! I’m pretty sure this is the fundamental difference between “drawing” and “painting” if you really get down to it.
  3. This is a slightly more refined version of 2, we’ve pushed the contrast further on the edges; darker on the left, lighter on a right, so that the shapes are even more differentiated.
  4. Curveball: I just used a lighter rather than darker coloured line to distinguish shapes. In a way, this makes the edge and associated shape push out like a ridge rather than in like a cut.
  5. How about using linework of both darks and lights?
  6. Example 6 does not exist. But, homework for the reader: try combining all of the techniques described.

There’s lots of cool possibilities here for rendering forms. Point is, there’s a lot more to your toolbox than dark outlines. Combine all these techniques in a manner that best serves your aesthetic goals. Draw AND paint!

Back To The Sprite Again

At some point in here we agreed upon the name “Mora”, from the Spartan military unit. The thought is that this ship will be the versatile fighting heart of a fighter swarm; a formation fighter, bristling with spears or possibly small pointy guns. Not so unlike a phalanx or legion (which were also names considered).

There was also some discussion of weapon loadouts and special systems — the thinking is that a burn drive would be somewhat abuseable and make for annoying kiting, so why not use the Centurion’s damper field? It plays a bit against type, turns this carrier into something of a tank, but that should be interesting because the goal of the Mora is the have a tough, versatile ship that can be outfitted to play several different roles, from close support to missile boat to tank to (fine!) kiting.

sprite05

Moved to a blue background so I can better see the transparent bits and appreciate the shading. Otherwise finessing details, integrating generic turret mounts into the sprite.

sprite06

Details, details. And here I’ve shaded the launch bays and given them a bit of glow. About that!

Tangent: A couple weeks ago I stumbled upon a game project called “Gibhard” by Bram Eulaers. It’s basically a classic DOOMish FPS with procedurally generated maps and pixel-graphics. I was struck by the use of pixelation and coloured lighting, like here:

gibhard

It’s fantastic stuff. Check out http://www.gibhard.com/ or his twitter feed; very inspirational. Even if it is a much more formalistic approach to pixel art than I generally use, there are just points in there that make me go “I want to do that too!”.

Right, so I think that knocked the thought loose from my skull to take what I think now is a more interesting approach to rendering the glow in those launch bays as compared to earlier carrier sprites.

sprite08

Now we’re back to a black background so I can get a better feel for the overall shading.

More little point lights, plus added lots of ports to the habitation part of the ship. I figure black windows rather than glowing works better on the white plus it provides a contrast with the launch bay lights.

sprite10

And here, with some hue/saturation and curves adjustments to bring it more in line with existing ship art,  I declare it “done”. Done is not of course done done, but it’s time to put this in-game and fly around causing trouble.

Proving

Let’s take this for a proving run!

mora_in_refit

Loaded up some stats (this is after a pass by Alex to nerf my very first take on it, wherein I essentially put everything to halfway between Heron and Dominator and it was absurd) and some fun guns. Those two medium slots are composite-type, so they can go ballistic or missile. (Later, Alex mentions that we’re kinda overusing these lately because they’re the new fun thing, so these’ll be pulled back out.)

mora_proving1

“Whee! Let’s take an Eagle head-on!”

mora_proving2

A few things jump out immediately: the arc on the right-side medium slot kinda runs into the conning tower, the left-side sabot rack there is almost floating out in space.

Alex gave it a look and did some adjustments as well, then some feedback. In short: turret adjustments, maybe make it look a bit more heavily armoured so we can ‘sell’ its armour stat, and:

“I’ll just say that my god, this ship is annoying when it’s kitted with full Salamanders. It’s like an unkillable annoyance machine. Need to nerf those things a bit.”

(Brace yourselves, salamander fans.)

Sprite Revision

Here we go. Let’s give all the turrets a bit more room to breathe, especially that medium by the con. Up-armour the front, do a bit of shading, and here we have a revised slot layout:

lowtech_cvl_adjustment

 

Just need to clean it up – there.

sprite11

And back in the variant editor with the adjustments done:

editor_final2

Left medium turret is now missile only, right is ballistics. The indented front hardpoint is now a synergy slot (missile or energy) for extra weirdness. (Later removed due to irresponsible use of silly slot types.)

Throw it back into the game for a quick test run:

mora_combat2

And that’s a wrap!

Kinda.

Of course everything is very much open to adjustment. Weapon hardpoints may be moved, colours adjusted, armour plating re-bolted a few meters to the left. In fact Alex just did another alteration pass and gave some feedback so there’ll be yet another iteration to focus small turret coverage toward a wide frontal arc, etc. And there are sure to be small iterations again with each major version of Starsector in response to new mechanics (as well as player feedback/abuse) – overpowered ships get adjusted downward, useless ships get adjusted upward (or at least toward some interesting niche. And then there’s the changes to carrier mechanics we’re discussing, well, you can imagine that with  [HEGEMONY COMINT :: REDACTED // MOST SECRET]

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