Cartridge Life

Last week we talked about the in-game desktop. This week we’re going to dive into one of my favorite features: the datapad. As I mentioned last week, the datapad’s display has its own style which is a separate style from the game GUI, and the rest of the game. This creates immersion — in the real world my iPhone sits next to my Windows laptop, and each display is stylistically distinct from the other. And both are distinct from my living room (which is stylistically IKEA).

In fact, if I woke up one morning and every device and every piece of furniture I owned all looked like they were created by the same industrial designer (who also designed all the Windows and iPhone GUIs), I would think I was in a very lazy matrix.

The in-game datapad is a context sensitive display, and you can change the context directly by clicking on Program Cartridges. Program Cartridges are stored in the GUI container labelled “Datapad Programs.” The cartridges can be pulled out, and individually dragged around the screen just like the other GUI elements.


You can think of the cartridges as icons (although, they are skeuomorphic icons). When a cartridge is clicked, the screen of the datapad changes to the specified function.

We wanted the Datapad’s own display to look something like the games from the late 80s and early 90s. So when you are building a module, it should feel a bit like a retro-game. You (as the player) using the in-game datapad mirrors how characters interact with their own environment (datapads are the portable computers of Astrobase Command).

One of the issues we discovered is that it’s really, really hard to make pixel art with limited colors and a large pixel size and have enough functional space on the datapad. So hats off to the real pixel artists out there 🙂

Things we tried:

  • 2:1 pixel ratio, 16 Colors — note this is the Datapad “Splash Screen”
  • 1:1 pixel ratio, 16 Colors
  • 2:1 pixel ratio, 64 Colors (EGA Palette)
  • 1:1 pixel ratio, 64 Colors (EGA Palette)
  • 2:1 pixel ratio, 256 Colors
  • 1:1 pixel ratio, 256 Colors

When working on the Modules program, I did a quick-and-dirty pixel art test. I wanted to crank out a bunch of pixel-art icons to use for Power Modules, at least to use as placeholders. So since we don’t have a dedicated pixel artist (and I am not a professional artist), we decided to do something programmatic since technology is one of the strengths of the team. Using programmatic pixel art generation will help us make temporary icons for the hundreds of module quadrants that you can combine, until we have resources to hire an actual pixel artist.

Power Module Programmatic Icon Test

(If anyone is wondering, I was kinda inspired by the Gold Box)

So, there ya go. Using the datapad is like playing a game-within-a-game… and we have visually game-ified various functions — planning a mission, constructing a module, and so forth.

What early late 80s early 90s video games should we use as visual references for the various cartridges? There’s also no rule that each cartridge has to be the same — one cartridge could be reminiscent of Oregon Trail while a different one could one reminiscent of the much more visually advanced King’s Quest IV!.”

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