The Grim Visage Of Space Pirate Ivaylo

Ivaylo has been kind enough to grant permission to be used as a subject to show how I draw Starsector portraits – so now I shall show you how I draw Starsector portraits. Before we put pen to tablet, it is worth revisiting the stylistic standards and artistic goals in play.

Let’s pull up an image of some portraits to demonstrate principles.


Design Principles

First, the basics: These are painted in Photoshop on a black background at 512×512, resized down to 128×128 for the in-game art. This was not the case in early releases of Starsector – then, I drew portraits at-res. Going higher res allowed me to use a more painterly technique and otherwise focus more on just making the image rather than worrying about where individual pixels end up. I’ve historically been enthusiastic about small-scale painting, but if it holds back technique, it’s gotta go.

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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.

The Ion Pulser & Development Process

Or, if you like, “A Charged Subject”.

Or “David gets Alex to basically write half the blog post by quoting his emails”.

Right, so let’s take a peek into the process of back and forth commentary and iteration Alex and I  go through when adding a new weapon to Starsector. I think this may give some insight into how this game gets made and how working on one small piece of it rolls odds and ends off into other areas of development.

Our story begins with a simple request for a new weapon asset.


Just spray & pray!

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The Trouble With Greebles

I started working on Starsector in the middle of 2010, over five years ago. An artist grows and changes in that kind of time. It’s only natural that I’d refine my technique and artistic opinions regarding the art of Starsector. No, I’m not proposing the redraw everything! – just, perhaps, this and that which was inelegantly handled in light of my current experience. This applies to many aspects of Starsector, but in particular let’s talk about greebles.

The artistic (re)thinking the led to this post is entirely inspired by Niklas Jansson‘s writing On the topic of good spaceship design which I re-read every six months or so. I highly recommend reading it along with basically everything on his webpage, particularly his thoughts on making art generally and pixel art if you’re the artistic type. Let me pull a relevant quote from the spaceship design article from Jansson:

Sometimes when I do a design, I find myself filling the remaining last few areas/surfaces with irrelevant nonsense and greeble, and I may think that I can get away with it because I’m happy with the rest of the design. Unfortunately it brings down the overall quality of the design. What could have been contributing is not.

Guilty as charged.

Now I do like what the larger forms in this design suggest, and the impression of a flying oil refinery, but it is totally greeble city.

Now I do like the impression of a flying oil refinery, but it is totally greeble city.

Greebles are little doodads encrusted on spaceships without discernible purpose. At the best they are visual texture which contributes to a sense of scale, or – to borrow from Star Wars – to a sense of a “used universe”, to industrial-grunge aesthetics. I love all of those things. But at worst they are visual noise which muddles artistic intent, or even a crutch upon which to support a design which has a weak overall sense of form and composition. They can be a cheap path to adding visual interest with busy patterns and high contrast. Greebling can be a useful tool, but I’m much more wary now about it than I was five years ago.

I’ve always tended toward greebliness in my sci-fi art. Let me present an example from 2008: I was making a portfolio website totally covered in greebles to show off how cool and greebly I could be. Compare what’s going on here to Starsector ships you can doubtless see a continuity of style:

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Let Me Draw You A Starsector Ship, Part 2

Now where were we? Oh, yes, Drawing A Starsector Ship Part 2 (read part 1 here).

I believe I was fretting about the back of the ship, those engine pods and such. Let’s do another sketch:


Hmm. While drawing this, I kept thinking “I’d rather be doing this experimentation on the sprite itself”. That, and I rather like the idea of echelons of squarish angle-corned thrusters for the primary drive with “barnacled” pods for the maneuvering jets. Well, let’s go back to the sprite and give these engines an overhaul, shall we?

(Also considering a comment from the forum thread noting that I’ve concerned myself a lot with asymmetry at the front of the sprite but little with asymmetry at the back. Interesting. Though I don’t especially want to have asymmetric engine pods for obvious reasons unless the mass of the ship was wildly skewed to one side. Which might be neat, but … this is not the time for something as off-the-wall as a B-Wing.)

– To the pixels! Jumped in with doing some pixel-brush painting, blocking out a base area with a 100% brush then doing detail and texture with 1-2 pixel radius brush set to very low opacity, sampling bits of colour from around the sprite as needed.

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