Drawing [REDACTED] Battlestations, part 2

The following briefing is cleared for officers at Hegemony COMSEC level ALABASTER. If this document has come into your possession outside of protocol 20 then you must destroy this document and report immediately to your unit intelligence officer for enhanced debriefing.


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Here be spoilers to Hidden Fun Content in Starsector. Many of you have clearly not been following important Hegemony COMSEC directives, leading directly to speculative rumour-mongering among the civilian population about the art and design of certain deep space objects which are the subject of today’s blog post.

If you have not yet encountered a [REDACTED] battlestation, you may wish to avoid this post! Because I’m really actually going to talk about it this time.

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One of the design goals of Starsector v0.8 was to provide the player with combat challenges both less and more difficult than the range of opponents found in the v0.7 game. In other words, this entails creating really weak enemies for beginner players and really strong enemies for advanced players. This of course is how the varieties of in-fiction AI opponents come in: Derelict Droneships for the weak baddies, AI War Remnants for the strong baddies.

(And we’ll be building up to the Remnant Battlestation, don’t worry. It’s just that all the designs were developed around the same time, with a mind for emphasizing visual contrast between the weak and tough AI enemies.)

First, we’ll need some low-end droneships to accompany the Derelict Mothership – discussed in the last post – and to otherwise pose simple, low-challenge combat opponents for players taking on analysis/scavenging gameplay. Aside from low stats and lack of shields, Alex also made the AI for these droneships simpler than other enemies: they have a tendency to have no regard for their own health and will mostly charge at you while firing. We also intentionally made the weapon loadouts of Derelict Droneships rather one-note so that they might act as a way to train the player to identify and respond to particular tactical situations. The Defender and Bastillon, for example, are PD-only droneships that will swat down missiles used against them. From the other side of that concept, the Sentry-class droneship uses only missiles and can be countered appropriately.

I wanted to convey this economy of purpose via the visual design of the droneships, so I took inspiration from brutalist architecture, used repeating boxy geometric shapes, and texture/colours from rusty and corroded metal. Here’s a sheet of concepts to work out what sort of shapes to use as a visual foundation:


You can see how rough sketches on the left, some resembling soviet apartment blocks even, were refined down to forms that are close to the Derelict Drones that appear in Starsector, on the right. These ships have no windows, no command bridges, no habitation modules, no consideration for human occupants; they’re just unthinking blocks of metal bristling with guns. I ultimately changed their colouration from the reddish-rust (too close to the Low Tech style) to construction-stripes yellow/orange (Too close to Hegemony/XIV colours) to primarily green/olive green, secondary amber so they would stand out as different from any other ship currently in the game.

(An aside: Starsector only occasionally conveys faction association through ship hull design, and often it’s more of a paint job on an otherwise generic hull. It was neat to have the opportunity to design sets of ship hulls entirely around visually conveying the themes of a couple “factions”. Modders, you get to do all sorts of fun stuff with this! I do still think that Starsector’s “vanilla” setting requires a visual connection to there being a shared material culture within the factions of the Sector, albeit with each focusing on one or another aspect, or beginning to modify equipment toward their ends. )

Now the Remnant AIs, in contrast, have to look sophisticated, deadly, and more advanced than anything the player has yet seen. The curvy shapes of the “high tech” style hulls would be a starting place, and they should, like the Derelict droneships, also lack human-centric ship features. They do however possess a common theme of a central dome structure, an echo of the lighter-coloured bridge feature on many of the human ships, suggesting some kind of singular controller or intelligence — one that doesn’t need windows, or airlocks, or any of that but is significant enough to need its own space (vs. the blank boxes of the droneships). The colouration should echo the high tech ships, and the Tri-Tachyon faction colour, but off by a little to convey that these are things that have escaped – or been released? – from Tri-Tachyon control.

Here is the concept sheet where I experimented with colours and forms:


Which were further refined into a whole set of ship concepts that gradually increase in size (click to view full size):


A few of these are close to the forms you see in the final game. The lower row was a pass of texturing/weathering to suggest that these are remains from the First AI War, so they’ve seen some action and otherwise been hanging out in space without much in the way of touch-ups on the paint job for quite a while. (I’m rather undecided on the question of what degree of maintenance Remnant ships would perform and how that happens – maybe visits to Battlestations? – but the point is to make a visual suggestion of their history within the context of the game.)

And now, with a visual guide to Remnant AI ship design, we have come to the Remnant Battlestation!

(Let us take a moment now to appreciate that this whole two-part blog post was spawned by the fact that I took a bunch of ridiculous screenshots of in-progress Remnant Battlestations and have quite a large stack of Sadly Failed Designs in my work folders. So you know how artists convince people they’re great? They only show the 10% of their work that’s awesome. I’m foolish enough to break that rule, so here we go!)

Failed Battlestation Designs

The Remnant Battlestation took quite a few iterations to get to where it is now. Let’s review a series of failed designs! In no particular order:


The Blob

This one used the Derelict Mothership bow as a base to create the central mass, and lots of splatting of Remnant hull concepts to start creating an outer ring. Of all the failures, I don’t even mind where this one was going so much — it did, however, fail to use the concept of modular components. It’s also a bit of a pain to draw bits and bobs following the very gradual curve of the station’s rim (though I think it’s possible using non-pixel art methods and rotated modules).

I think I also got the idea that the station should be asymmetric somehow, or if it is to have radial symmetry, to at least have identifiable parts of the station that interact in meaningfully different ways so that as it spins on its axis the player has a decision to make: do I attack part A or wait for a chance to hit part B? This idea of a “front” and “back” of a station is used in the final design (which we’ll review when we get there).

Here’s an example of a front/back design with elements of radial symmetry:


The Tri-Fidget

A few of the pieces in there may look familiar; some Prometheus, some Derelict Mothership, some ISS Placeholder. Note the texture slab in the lower left I was using to fill in volumes. That module at the top though? Not happy at all with it; quite homely, and doesn’t even have enough firepower to discourage a decent player.

I struggled a bit with placing modules as it was a rather new concept (though in hindsight, not that new because it’s almost exactly like modular weapons):

Here I replaced gunnery module sprites with a position/angle guide to help plan station layout.

Here I replaced gunnery module sprites with a position/angle guide to help plan station layout.

Back to sketching. When in doubt, just do another sketch:


Here I’m thinking about asymmetric designs built on the base of a round top-down spindle station. Or something like that. Let’s start with what the right-side design turned into:


The Machine-God’s Eggbeater

So clearly the idea is to have very distinct module types at the top vs. bottom. The modules are unwieldy due to size and uniqueness, and still a bit underarmed. That hangar is far too big, and the overall composition simply doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of the hapless players (of my imagination). Plus, all the specificity of the various ends begs the question of how the parts are utilized. Like is that some kind of comm array in the upper right? These are questions I don’t want to answer (yet)!

I discovered a couple screenshots where I compressed the above design a bit, and used some in-progress modules (one of which I was happy with) to fill out its firepower:


You may recognize that pointy triangular gunnery module from the current game – that module is where the Remnant hull style really clicked for me and it’s what I used as my baseline style guide to create all of the other Remnant hulls, stations, and station modules. The armour around it, merrily overlapping other modules, was due for a lot of change. It also turned out that sticking Plasma Cannons on the ends of these modules is a terrible idea because they can barely even charge up to unleash a shot before their target moves due to the battlestation’s rotation. These were replaced by a large missile hardpoint in the final because missiles are quite happy to track their targets.

(The Remnant fighters weren’t done at this point, hence the mining drones.)


A slightly more refined version of the hangar module for the above station, unused. I dig the reddish glow, but didn’t ultimately use that as the visual signifier for Remnant-level hangars.

Now let’s try the left-side sketch:


Failed assembly of an IKEA laundry-drying rack????

Lots of texture re-use from the Derelict Mothership to form the visual base. The design plan here was to make lots of points to attach smaller modules. Smaller modules are easier to draw, can load on more firepower into a smaller space, and this thing can just bristle with death-spikes. How’d it work out? Let’s take a look:


Bit of a mess, really. Reads less like a classic star-fort – in the European history sense, not something you build in Master of Orion 2 – and more like … an unruly robotic space urchin? I don’t know; still wasn’t feeling it. (And the Hephaestus Assault Guns are also a poor fit for that hardpoint on the end of the pointy station module.)

Tangent: This was all happening around the time Alex was redoing how fighter wings worked, so there was lots of Fun Experimentation with getting those right. I also discovered what happens when you fill every module slot on a battlestation with hangar modules (click for the full size):


Okay, so something isn’t working here and I’m spending too much time partially starting a design, testing it in-game, then deciding I hate it.

Let’s start with a reasonable set of station modules (as I’ve got those finally working out nicely), cut out that first bit where I draw part of a station, and instead just do a super rough sketch of a battlestation layout and use that as a base to test a module layout. If I don’t like it, it’s really easy to change. If I do, then I can draw the station to fit the module loadout.

As for design, large pointy structures with round bits seems to look good. There needs to be a strong macro-shape to the station where it’s form is apparent from far off or zoomed out; it can’t just be a mess of little spikes and blobs jammed into a ball. And although it should maintain a degree of radial symmetry, the battlestation station should also have visually and mechanically discernible “sides” so that players have to make spatial decisions about how to break through the defenses.

So, back to the drawing board, here we go:


Roughly trilateral symmetry, but key: roughly. Big sharp spikes in the overall form read as aggressive. Cool.

The little dots are where modules could go, and I had a heck of a time keeping those organized. This would be an appropriate place for a montage of hopping between text editor and game, of slightly adjusting module positions and swapping module numbers until everything is where it belongs. (Alex did add support for better visualization of everything I needed, plus all sorts of little tweaks that make everything work more smoothly; but someone has to run into these problems before they can be ameliorated by his efforts. You’re welcome, everyone!)

And Now: A Fully Armed And Operational But Rather Underdrawn Battlestation!


Now we’re getting there! Module arrangement isn’t quite final, and a lot of the more useless slots still need lopping-off. Got those plasma cannons back on the ends for some reasons, and this is nowhere near the final armour arrangement. But for all of that, the in-game test case is finally feeling pretty good and I’m starting to like the overall composition. This, this I can work with.


I won’t go through the process of rendering the station base, but it should suffice to say that it was more work than your average capital ship. Doing pixel art details was only the very final polish pass on the sprite; most of the heavy lifting was done through a foundation of digital painting, the shape tool, and selections plus airbrush for definition. From there, lots of kitbashing, texture overlays, and detailing copypasta.

To demonstrate a few examples of copypasta:

Kitbashing: If you like your work, why use it just once?

Kitbashing: If you like your work, why use it just once?

The Remnant Battlestation in its full glory! Click for full size as usual:



Onslaught for scale.

We were quite pleased with player response to the Remnant Battlestation. And from here, all sorts of possibilities open up! For Starsector, we’ll have to wait and see what happens Soon™. As for modders – anyone out there working on a battlestation? I’d love to see what you guys come up with.

Discussion thread here.

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This entry was posted on Saturday, July 15th, 2017 at 4:57 pm and is filed under Art. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.