Designing the Galaxy
Form Follows Function. When they design a new car, they think about how the product will be used. If it’s a minivan, it’s big and boxy for families and their stuff. If it’s a sports car, it’s small, light, powerful, and fast.
This idea also applies to video games. When designing a menu or a new system, you have to consider what its purpose is, how it’ll be used, how people will interact with it, and make everything about it clear and concise.
As an artist, I’m focused on aesthetics and making everything in the game look great. But with UI design, you need to balance looks and functionality, making compromises here and there, so that everything works congruously.
One of my jobs while working on Darkfire Galaxies was to design the outer space window. Getting to a final design takes tons of concepts, trying to balance function, design, and art. My first designs were abstract, with circles on a grid in a symmetrical pattern. I drew ideas inspired from movies like Oblivion, the Star Trek remakes, and Iron Man, as well as looked to old seafarer’s compasses. Many of my drawings were just experiments in Illustrator. That compass design (below) is one that we used in-game for a little bit.
A few months later, armed with new inspiration, I redesigned it again. It still took a couple tries to get it where I wanted it. They both feature greater depth, scale, and dynamic colors to make it more visually exciting.
The first design is a top-down view, utilizing this dynamic zoom feature, where the closer you were to the sun, the more the foreground assets would blur. It is meant to give the impression that you are moving through 3D space. While I thought it was a cool idea, this one was ultimately dropped from the game because 1) they didn’t think they could do that, and 2) the colors were a little too dull.
My second idea, the one that made it into the game, is more isometric, like the in-game assets, which utilize the parallax effect. Basically, when you drag your mouse across the screen, the foreground and background layers pan at different speeds, giving the illusion of 3D space. This design was more colorful as well, which looked more spectacular than the other one.
My friend took my concept into After Effects to show off the parallax idea so that we could clearly communicate that idea to our other, less visually-compelled colleagues. A tweak that was made later on was to make the sun smaller and less vibrant so that the players could focus on the more important planets and incoming attacks.
The sun was just an aesthetic element and held no gameplay function (save for a hilarious easter egg). Then this idea was applied to the battle scene, with sometimes featured your own planet, which you’d need to defend.
When it came to Shadowrift, I was again tasked with creating the space scene. It took a few tries, but we went with a simplified version of the Darkfire design to match the simplified gameplay style. Shadowrift had a new feature, a campaign, which needed more visual interest.
Called “The Rift” it was supposed to be this unique area of uncharted space that challenged players to build up their fleet in order to succeed. I went through a few different ideas, from flat top-down maps to some wildly complex multi-level designs. The final design used complex space-shapes overlaid with simple graphics. Everything, from the background, icons, and colors were thoroughly designed and stressed over.
I really enjoyed working on these space backgrounds. They were challenging, not to just perfectly mix design and function with art, but also to collaborate with the developers to get it in the game as close to the original concept as possible. At BFG, they encouraged us to come up with great ideas, and that’s what we did.
This was a guest post by Adam Roush, a Youngstown Game Developer member, and was written for the May 2017 YGD Newsletter.