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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Starsector Sketchbook

It’s been a bit quiet so I figured I could show some of the in-progress illustration work I’m doing for Starsector to flesh out the world of the game and events therein.

So let’s have a look through my illustrations folder, shall we? Do note that most of these are very much in-progress, though of course I’m not going to show you any of the truly failed compositions. Still, I do hope you find it interesting to get a glimpse into my process here.

“Put it in Bay 12 and be careful – those uranium rounds are hot!”

Now these illustrations are intended to be shown in-game as an accompaniment or decoration rather than used as promo art so they’re much smaller than earlier work I’ve shown on the blog here. This has the added advantage of making the process of creating them much faster than full-sized drawings. It’s more interesting for me, too, because I can experiment more with theme, composition, and technique.

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Painting the Hound and the Hangar

With Alex’s dev computer in dry dock due to a flux overload*, he asked me to jump in and show off a bit of what I’ve been drawing for Starsector. Spoiler alert: It’s spaceships. But not as you know them.

* He actually got it sorted out pretty quick. No need to panic. I just have to express everything in terms of Starsector, eg. my first tech advice was “Transfer command!”. We have fun!

So yes: I’ve been digitally painting some large scale illustrations for use in Starsector, both as promo art and cropped down to little scenes to show for game event choices and so on.

Above: the final painting of the “Hound Hangar” faded into the first sketch.

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Designing Faction Icons

It’s been a while, but I’ll have you know that I’ve slowly but steadily been drawing random bits of art for Starfarer. Some of said bits are about the same as before (ship sprites, revised weapon graphics, UI icons) while some are top-secret prototypes and experiments which I couldn’t very well reveal because that’d ruin all the fun of the surprise when you get new presents. Sorry.

For this written interlude I shall discuss some of my thoughts around drawing Starfarer faction icons. I shall give you my lore disclaimer right now: the story & background of Starfarer is not something I make up, though I have certainly contributed thoughts to Alex and Ivaylo on occasion. Unless explicitly stated otherwise, anything I say here about the setting of Starfarer is going to be what goes on in my head while I’m drawing rather than what is any sort of canon which will appear into the game and which you should read closely for overarching literary themes.

So: the factions in Starfarer need identifying symbols, colour themes, and a sort of general ambiance – and these all must support one another. One faction may be warlike and value strength; this must be shown in how they represent themselves. Another may be peaceful and value stability; likewise, it probably wouldn’t do if their icon was a burning red skull menacing with spikes. Pirates could be into that though, because they’d like nothing more than to appear scary and ruthless. I’ll say again, each faction has a few core themes that need to be shown with both symbols and colours which support said themes as well as the setting of Starfarer in general. It’s futuristic heraldry, if you like.

Now let’s have a look at some sketches and the process of taking a faction icon to a presentable state.

(Click on any image to enlarge it.)

My faction icon sketch sheet

Here’s where I threw down some ideas and pushed them around a bit. Some more than others. We’ve got a small set of factions to start with which I think Alex gave me a list for at some point as well as some background material floating around in a shared document somewhere. And of course you’ve met a few of these factions in the game already, so those were my starting points.

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