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!)

In terms of backstory, this is as you can see an older model and it would not have seen great use in the Domain era (as in, pre-Gate system collapse) except in those scattered areas with active uprisings against Domain authority or in the especially wild hinterlands and frontiers of the Galaxy. Times have changed however and an armed & armoured tramp freighter is simply a Good Idea. Plus, computer models of the average survivability per-hostile encounter means insurance rates offered for the Cerberus can’t be beat!



There’s been a gap between the high-end Astral carrier and the low-end small carriers or non-dedicated carriers like the Venture and Condor for quite a while and it’s time that we filled it. Why, the world needs a military-grade medium carrier, so that’s what the world is going to get!

Let’s see this one in action, shall we?

This looks expensive. But you only live once, right?
Looks pricey. But you only live once, right? Let’s buy that sucker and take it for a ride!
This is not what a fleet admiral who knows when the take the initiative, hit quickly, and withdraw would do. This is what happens when the captain is busy snapping photos out the side window when a pirate armada unleashes wave after wave of missiles.
This is not what a fleet admiral who knows when to take the initiative, hit quickly, and withdraw would do. This is what happens when the captain is busy snapping photos out the side window as a pirate armada unleashes wave after wave of missiles.


heron_testsYou can see my first couple designs for the Heron to the right, and I wasn’t happy with them: #1 simply doesn’t scream “Hegemony” to me and #2 looks like a kitchen sink. And as soon as I realized that I could never unsee it and so the prototype was dumped in the orbital scrapyard of Arcadia II with the rest of the dross.

Similar to the Cerberus, the process of drawing the Heron took the classic Eagle/Hawk shape as a base but changed the rendering to be somewhat less greebly and squarish, more rounded and smoother lines, focusing on the overall composition more than the details. I used the colour scheme and some of the rendering of the Valkyrie as more of an inspiration, as a sort of alternative mid-tech military style that’s a little greener with orange touches vs. the greyish beige of the original Hegemony/Domain Armada ships.



The thought was this: We have the Brawler, a slow little frigate that punches above its weight class. What if we had a defensive version whose tactical goal was to park itself between the enemy and a target that needs protecting? And is this totally crazy? I ran the idea by Alex and he was game to give it a shot. It remains to be seen how well this will actually work in real gameplay. I suspect you, dear players, will be the judge of that and I wrote the description of the ship to reflect this possibly dubious role:

monitor“Though its experimental nature is perhaps a sign of the innovation that eras of turmoil seem to inspire, whether the Monitor’s radical defensive focus is a boon or pitfall remains an issue of some contention. Several dramatic failures in convoy protection patrols were explained by Ko Combine public relations representatives to be the fault of improper tactics: they maintain that when positioned correctly in a combat situation and supported by strike-craft – as the anvil and hammer, respectively – simulations demonstrate that the Monitor significantly enhances convoy survivability against the average pirate attack. Prominent critics remain. “

(And here we get to slip in a little moment for the Ko Combine megacorporation. In the far future, there will still be a need for PR teams to shift blame! See, my goal here is to slip in little hints and insinuations about the bigger picture of the Starsector universe rather than info-dumping at the start of the game of via cutscenes or something odious like that. The story is there for you to discover if you want to dig around and piece it together. If you just want to shoot lasers at stuff, that’s also a valid approach to the game.)

Alex found initial performance of the Monitor to be underwhelming so he requested I upgrade two of the turret slots to medium size, and so as you can see it is done! This hull also gets a unique hull mod to support its tactical role that I’ll let you discover on your own when the next version is released.



If every ship was totally awesome then no ship would be totally awesome. Starsector needs standard “boring” workhorse ships, and thus we have the Hermes (#1), formerly the “Shuttle”). The Hermes has received an additional turret slot so it isn’t utterly useless and it’s been given an increase in size. The same treatment as been given to the Mercury (#2) which fulfills a similar gameplay & narrative role, though with energy weapons and a way more rockin’ holovid system.

hermes_mercuryThe Hermes is a small, dependable cargo hauler often converted for transport duty among poor frontier worlds. Its crew and passenger facilities are charitably described as “robust” but it manages to get the job done with remarkable consistency despite the primitive maintenance facilities it frequents.

If you can’t be great, a humble “good enough” may suffice.


That’s all for now, thanks for reading! Check out the comment thread here.

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This entry was posted on Monday, December 30th, 2013 at 9:41 pm and is filed under Art, Lore. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.