Dammit Jim! I’m a Coder not an Artist!

When you’ve worked as a game developer in a really big company, it helps you to appreciate the unique challenges of indie game development. When you have to take on all the responsibilities of running a studio and making a game at once, that can take you really far out of your comfort zone. While that can be scary at times, it’s also incredibly exhilarating. It allows you to discover new things about yourself and forces you to evolve in directions you wouldn’t expect.

Working for the big guys

The bigger the company, the more management is required to keep everything running. The more management you have, the more people tend to get treated like resources (calling them numbers would be overly dramatic). And good resources are specialized, easily quantifiable, well-defined things that don’t overlap with each other in any way. Designers design, coders code and artists… art.

This can be a very comfortable proposition for some people because they get to fill their time with a very specific thing they love. The problem is that most things in the game require some contribution from all departments and things can get lost in translation.

Training Montage

As the primary coder for Astrobase Command, one of the first things I needed to do was get base-building into the game. In order to build a base we needed 3D assets for “base parts” that the code could make into modules for testing purposes. I opened up 3DS Max once like 2 years ago, so it was on me because that’s how you roll in the indie scene. Like Brad Pitt in Inglourious Basterds, I spoke the “best Italian.” Banjerrrno!

I’ve had no prior experience doing actual 3D modelling, so I’ve taught myself over the past few months in the copious free time where I wasn’t programming game features.

Check it out:

Five months ago

Three months ago

One month ago

Today


Things that broke my brain:

  • How do you express a 70’s futuristic art style?
  • How do you convey the notion that things are repetitive and re-used because they’re manufactured?
  • How do you convey that things are built to be practical instead of extravagant?
  • How do you accomplish the last two things without being bland and same-y?
  • How do you replicate the desire for safe shapes like the Puppeteers use on their ships in Ringworld (Look it up)?
  • How in the hell do you pick a color palette?
  • How do you make it feel safe inside while incredibly dangerous outside?

These are a few of a much larger list of questions that I wasn’t equipped to answer when I started. I had many false starts, but when you put your mind to something and have a passion for the subject matter, you find ways to use the tools you have to make things unique and interesting.

  • “These Crew Quarters need The Price is Right privacy curtains to really bring out the 70’s.”
  • “These Medbay beds double as a sealed tube so you can just push a button and seal someone inside for quarantine or to dispose of the body.”
  • “This kitchen is friggin’ Avocado green and has a watercooler for people to hang around.”

Programmer Art

By being the artist making the assets and the coder using them in the game, it allowed me to do some interesting things.

For example, a module’s walls can turn partially invisible when it is obstructing the player’s view of the inside. Since I’m the one writing the code that manages how that happens, I can be smart about how I subdivide the walls into parts to make the best looking effect.

Another example (work-in-progress) is the projector in the classroom. The goal is to give something approximating an 8mm effect. Now, I could spend a lot of time calibrating the lighting or making the projector screen have distortions that would modify the image, but I know as the coder that I can manipulate the light being projected so it occasionally dips in brightness or jumps to one side, which I find to be a more interesting approach.

This whole process challenged me to learn something entirely new, an opportunity I probably wouldn’t have had elsewhere. And I’ve developed a whole new appreciation for the work of artists as a result.

Got a bunch more work to do on this for the Kickstarter video. Make sure to check us out on November 12th!

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