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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Let Me Draw You A Starsector Ship, Part 1

Due to popular demand I’m going to give a go at documenting the process of drawing a ship sprite for Starsector. Haven’t made many new ships lately as there are very interesting larger-scale developments going on, but I find that drawing spaceships is always nice to revisit. And about time I do this again since my methods have certainly changed since the early days.

So what kind of ship shall we draw today? Nothing too big as I ought to finish this post in a timely manner, so let’s go with a frigate. And lately I’ve been more excited about ships that blur the line between civilian and military which evoke a sort of post-apocalyptic can-do spirit so this one won’t be a sleek high-end Tritachyon thing. In fact, I’ve got a good weird idea in mind to fill an unfilled niche: a tiny frigate-sized carrier! This would fit nicely as well with some of the setting development we’ve been up to ( “very interesting larger-scale developments” ): one of the new systems going in — Magec — is composed largely of a giant ring of asteroids, dust, ice, and general chaos swirling around a young blue star. There’s a significant planet, but civilization has collapsed and no major faction has stepped in to take responsibility for what’s left. As one might imagine the place is lousy with pirates, profiteers, mercenaries, and adventurers. A combat-converted miner drone-tender would fit in perfectly!

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Ships & Stories

When I was first drawing up spaceships for Starsector we determined what to make based mostly on what felt right according to the conceit of idealized WW2-era naval combat in space. Obviously we needed a big battleship (the Onslaught), cheap swarming fighters (the Talon), a nimble frigate (the Wolf), and a giant carrier (the Astral), etc. The roles and variations of ships pretty much suggest themselves, and the form follows their function. If it’s a battleship, it should look like its tough and packs a heck of a punch. I’ve certainly drawn a few ships without a hard plan upfront but even then I’m always thinking about what kind of role the ship in question is going to play in the game.

It’s just the way I work: Form necessarily reflects function, to my mind. The visual logic of a game should have internal consistency whether it has much relation to real-life realism or not, but it can at least point to real-life aesthetic references for the feeling or idea, if not actual function. So if you sit back and consider what a battleship would really look like in space, it’d probably look like nothing because the display scale would make it a dot that says “Space Battleship” next to it, or as soon as combat began it’d be immediately destroyed by lasers or relativistic kill vehicles or something because it’s a big dumb target — but all hope is not lost! Our game sprite can make visual reference to a 20th century naval warship because my goal is to convey the feeling of battleship to people who have been trained to believe that a battleship looks a certain way, not to create a hyper-realistic near-future space combat simulation. (More on this in the “Ship Design & The Onslaught” post from back in 2010.)

Right, so this is how development of Starsector’s ships has progressed and the big gaps in fleet lineup have been largely filled in. Again, this process largely took place without need for any kind of overarching plan, though occasionally Alex would say “hey, we need a frigate that does this“, or we might talk it over and try something experimental in terms of gameplay. Some experiments worked, some were modified a bit from what was first imagined– phase ships for example — and others never really took off at all, eg. munition ships. But that said, the large part of fleet combat roles is fleshed out; Now is a matter more of filling in small gaps that exist, diversifying existing roles to support the game’s setting and ‘landscape of player progression’. Still, the experiments are lots of fun! (More on this with the Monitor.)

Now I’m taking on more of a role in writing setting & backstory for Starsector. When drawing a ship I’ll think not only of the gameplay function but of the narrative role it fulfills; The possibilities are absolutely fascinating! A simple sprite can, given appropriate text, suggest an awful lot about the universe it exists within and it can draw connections to other ships, factions, places, history, and all of that to emotional responses from the player as they decide how they feel about the ships, factions, and places in the universe of Starsector. Each piece becomes something far greater than the sum of its parts when this all operates together (and I love this part of game development).

Okay, that’s enough rambling: I’ll show off some new ships, discuss their envisioned role in gameplay (which we recognize, dear players, is not necessarily how you’re going to use them), then a bit about how their backstory fits together with the rest of Starsector.



superhoundThis one is easy: Everyone loves the Hound so why not build a bigger Hound? And that about explains everything you need to know. (The working title for sprite was, naturally, “superhound.psd”. )

As for drawing, I’ve been tending toward more curved plating and slightly subtler shading. I’m trying to get away from having too much “greeble noise” covering ships so that the overall form doesn’t devolve into so much pixel noise, and so it gets more of a chance to make itself seen. This should result in a ship that’s more visibly identifiable at a glance and it ought to look better when scaled down or zoomed out rather than drawn at pixel-perfect resolution, as is often the case for ships in Starsector. You can still see the Hound parts used as a base for the image, however ( … and man is it ever just a brick of a ship!)

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