15 October 2008

Crafting StarCraft: The Board Game

By Kevin Childress

Being a graphic designer at FFG demands a large amount of effort to make things look cool.  Today, I will divulge a small amount of information as to how much work goes into something fairly small and usually under-appreciated in one of our board-games.

This Protoss Building Token from StarCraft: The Board Game seems innocent enough. However, locked away in the source file buried on our server, is a mysterious and strange amalgamation of interconnected layers and styles all precisely placed together to make the end result. Let me assure you it's easy to get lost in one of these files!
First up: The final image at actual size.
Awfully small — looks fairly simple right? Let's blow it up to not quite half it's actual size (for space reasons...the full resolution image would take up this entire page!)
The casual player may not realize what goes into making such a small token that, when shrunk down and actually used, will lose most of it's striking artistic glory. Most of the graphics here and in other companies' games will probably start at least 300% larger than its actual printed size. However, the smaller something gets, the better looking resolution-wise it will get (that is why most art prints and such are actually significantly reduced in size when it heads to the printers).
Let's take a peek at what this button actually contains.
Oh gods, it's chaos! Let's see if we can sort this circus of a mess out. I'll head back to the beginning and work my way down the sea of layers.
The Building Token as it currently stands in StarCraft: The Board Game.
Here is the token with the changeable bits taken out. Changeable bits include a system of folders and layers adequately labeled so that the various combinations of units, glowy bubbles and StarCraft building images can all be easily turned off and on to differentiate the many different tokens in the game. The player colors for the Protoss (orange and yellow) are also changeable in this way.
First, I remove the "bleed", and you'll see the actual image runs way out of its intended space. Bleed is required so that the printer can have some wiggle room in case the cut doesn't land precisely on its intended target on the punchboard (and I've come to learn it usually isn't as exact as I would like). This was a painful lesson for me to learn when I first started here at FFG. I tend to not make my work-files "extra roomy" with lots and lots of bleed, and I had to go back and re-do a good portion of my cardboard token work for Starcraft by cloning portions of the image. Lesson learned!
Second, I remove the initial texture layer on top and you will notice the brown tints and the gritty texture missing.
Next, I remove a few more curves and contrast layers that helped bring out the 3D effects when used in conjunction with the above texture layer.
Now things get a little more drastic as the color and saturation layers are turned off. This was actually close to one of the first send-offs to Blizzard for the Protoss buildings color wise. They requested more of a copper tone and we sent it back the way it currently exists which subsequently got approved for use. Most of the highlights were painted in photoshop with various brushes set to certain opacities, stacked on top of each-other to get soft blends going on. In addition to that, each highlight layer was also set on layer blending options such as overlay, lighten, burns and gradients. It had to look metallic and fit the famous Protoss look.
Here we have the image without the painted highlights applied. Looks pretty flat and dull, but this was the foundation on which to start painting up the cool effects above.
Now I'll get into the inner window used to hold the building images. I wanted it to look like a holo-vid that a Protoss would use to check out his buildings in play. This frame by itself took close to 15 layers to accomplish.
Here is a few of the main groups split apart to give you an idea. Each smaller bit is also layered out. Behind the frame is a screenshot of an original StarCraft videogame terrain texture.
The unsung heros come up next. The scratches mostly get lost in the shrunken image, but it helped add a nice worn and gritty look to the tokens to help make them feel organic and used. Metal, even Protoss metal, is susceptible to wear and tear. Next to the scratches you'll see the tiny tiny little neon blue lights that are prevalent on many Protoss objects. I bet you didn't even know they existed! If you go back to the original image you can see where they are poking out. That's some detail for you!
Lastly we have the small unit icons that represent what you can build from these buildings. These started out as painted images, but we re-drew them out as line-art and applied many styles to try and re-create the small icons used in the StarCraft PC game.
I'll also let you see one of the first "editions" of the Protoss building token—good thing I went back to the drawing board on this one.
It took no less than 60 individual layers to create the above tokens.  It's not as simple as applying styles to various layers, that's only a small fraction of the equation. Making it all look professional when everything is set up is the trick... to use styles but to make it look like you didn't use styles. Painting your highlights and shadows by hand also adds a good dose of realism to projects.
Now you know what the insides of a small graphic look like, and how much effort we put into even the smallest things.
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