Dev Blog #3 – Art: It’s a Process

When I began working on Space Station Continuum in March of 2017, I didn’t know everything about what the game would eventually become (I still don’t). One thing I did know, is how I wanted it to look. I grew up in the early 90’s, playing games on my Sega Genesis on an old CRT in the living room. The age of sprite-based graphics and upbeat chip-tunes fills me with a fondness and feeling of nostalgia like no other. In today’s world of preorder bonuses and microtransactions, what better way to escape to the good old days than to take the aesthetic of the game back to its roots?

I also wanted it to be mine. No matter what happened, I knew I wanted this game to be made by me, for me, with no compromises. In the very early stages of development, I thought that meant doing absolutely everything myself. The design, the programming, the art, the music. Everything. Since then I’ve learned that my time and energy is better spent working on the aspects of development that I can actually do – like the design and programming – and leaving the more artistic elements to, you know, actual artists.

So this week I’d like to talk about the process of getting the art of Space Station Continuum to where it is today. From spartan prototype, to basic developer art, to the realisation that I cannot draw to save my life.

Step 1: Prototyping

Every game begins life as a bare-bones prototype. Something simple to demonstrate the core mechanics, and verify that the concept can be fun. Space Station Continuum’s prototype looked like this:

prototype_screenshot

The purpose of this prototype was to test the heat-flow mechanic between station modules of arbitrary sizes. It worked, it was fun to mess around with, and it looked awful. But that’s ok, it’s just a prototype. This early version of the game was just for me to work on everything that’s going on in the background. It didn’t have to look good or make sense to anybody else just yet.

Next I needed to work on the basics of the construction system. Creating new modules, dragging and dropping them into place, that sort of thing. I added some buttons, a new type of station module, and a background image. Now it looked like this:

construction_screenshot

Impressive, right? Again, this version of the game was purely functional, and only needed the most basic of visuals to show me what was going on. Eventually I was going to have to start showing this game to other people, and that meant I’d need something more than a few white blocks covered in text. I, a software developer, needed to make some – gasp – art. How hard could that be though, right? This is my game, surely I can make the art, no problem. Oh boy was I wrong.

Step 2: Developer Art

“Developer art” is a term used to describe art which is terrible. And the art I made fits that description perfectly. So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice. I began with the basics. The first thing I needed was a station module. What does a station module look like? Well, it’s kind of cylindrical, and it maybe has some windows. Easy:

double_res_module

Oh. Well that’s, uhhh… something. But it’ll do for now. Then I made a smaller one for the corner modules, threw together a star field and the Earth’s surface, and here we have the first screenshot I showed to another human:

first_art
Space Station Continuum: Microsoft Paint Edition

Clearly this isn’t close to being an actual game yet, but you can start to see what’s going on, and perhaps get an idea for what it could become in the future. That’s exactly what developer art is for. It gives you a starting point for discussing the game with others, and helps visualise new features as you begin to flesh them out.

At this point I was still confident that I’d be able to do the final art by myself. Everything so far was just a first pass, and hadn’t taken me very long. I was sure that once I spent any significant time on the art it would come out how I envisioned it. So I did, and it didn’t. I remade, remade, and remade everything you see above over and over again, but I never managed to get the game looking how I wanted it to. The furthest I got with my own work was this:

One of the last screenshots containing only my own work, including some early UI elements.
One of the last screenshots containing only my own work, including some early UI elements.

The art I was drawing was coming out okay, but it wasn’t great. It was also taking up an enormous proportion of my time, to the point where I was eventually spending twice as long wrestling with pixels in GIMP as I was writing the mechanics of the game. It was time to throw in the towel, embrace my limitations, and find somebody who knew what they were doing.

Step 3: Bringing In The Professionals

Enter, Jay Knox and Simon Butler. Since getting involved with the project back in July, Jay and Simon have been doing some truly excellent work taking Space Station Continuum from prototype to polished.

The best way to demonstrate the benefits of bringing real artists on board is to show their work side by side with mine. First, a station module interior:

 

Look at that! It’s so good! This was the first piece of art I commissioned when I was trying to decide whether to continue doing it myself, and it made that decision for me instantly. Seeing this instantly brought me back to iconic pixel-art classics like Flashback. Just wait until you see this in-game, with equipment stacked up and astronauts floating around. It’s amazing.

Next, possibly the most important component of your space station; the Astronauts.

Astronauts: My original developer art vs Simon's fully animated version.
Astronauts: My original developer art vs Simon’s fully animated version.

Not only do the astronauts now look like humans rather than anaemic chimpanzees, but they’re also fully animated. With multiple idle animations, run cycles, and more to come. We’ll look at those in more detail in a future dev blog.

On top of these, Space Station Continuum now has updated module exteriors, solar arrays, beds, treadmills, backgrounds, and more. With more coming all the time. I’m very excited to continue sharing the evolution of Space Station Continuum’s art with everybody as development goes on.

For now, I’ll leave you with a comparison between how the game looked five months ago, and how it looks today. Can’t wait to see what it looks like five months from now!

Space Station Continuum: May 2017
Space Station Continuum: May 2017
Space Station Continuum: October 2017
Space Station Continuum: October 2017

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