Cartridge Life

Date: October 3, 2013

Log Entry by: Ilaliya

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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9 comments

  • MaxShields Says:
    October 4, 2013

    Neat touch! This certainly helps clarify how your visual style is coming together. I hope the cartridges don’t scatter all around the desk when the astrobase is rocked by an explosion. ;)

    Color coding the cartridges by theme / relevant skill group, as I think you have done here, will help players quickly pick out the ones they need, particularly if they’re dispersed around the screen. Maintain that. The simple, bold typeface also matches nicely with games of the vintage you are exploring.

    I’ve always been a big fan of the box art for Infocom’s Crescent Hawk’s Inception and Crescent Hawk’s revenge:

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    Crescent Hawk’s Inception

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    Crescent Hawk’s Revenge

    The cover from Activision’s original Mechwarrior made my childhood mid feel like there was actually a mech out there somewhere that they took a picture of to produce the cover. Using physical models rather than only relying on hand drawn art could add some variety, particularly since stop motion and physical models were really the only way to convey special effects up until very recently. These were key to bringing to life the movies we grew up watching that have inspired you to make this. Cost and time would be a big issue, though.
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    Mechwarrior

    For a little variety (and to prove I’m not just a big robot fanboy), Wasteland’s art offers a very potent and stark painterly work:
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    Wasteland

    I’ll take the liberty to project beyond the bounds of games as references. As Astrobase seeks to set alight the embers of imagination promised by the science fiction of our youth, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the art of the late great John Berkey. I would sit staring at his work for hours when I was a kid. Even though I knew they were paintings, they felt so real, alive with the potential that the spaceships would leap off of his pages and whisk me off into space. They are mostly from the ’70s, though.

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    Or Vincent DiFate:

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    Let us not forget Chris Foss:

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    When we cast our gaze into the utilitarian and scientific, there is this more academically-oriented illustration from NASA in ’75:

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    There are plenty more of these impressive technical art pieces here: http://planet.okfn.org/category/space-colony-art/

  • MaxShields Says:
    October 4, 2013

    Here’s a piece that slips further outside of your search parameters, but that could help stimulate some discussion:

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    I like this because of the story the image conveys, and the book’s visible wear and tear could be replicated on the cartridges.

  • Adam Says:
    October 4, 2013

    That last image is actually really close to one we saw for a game cartridge that single-handedly sold us on the "delivering on what Atari box art promised" direction for the game. Great stuff!

  • MaxShields Says:
    October 5, 2013
    Ilaliya wrote:
    (If anyone is wondering, I was kinda inspired by the Gold Box)

    Are you referring to SSI’s game series? If so, then you show some fine taste. If not, I’ll need some enlightenment.

  • MaxShields Says:
    October 6, 2013

    Another set of space games, this time from Omnitrend, that kept me entertained for countless hours comprised Rules of Engagement 2 and Breach 2. Their art looked pretty good for the time, and the fact that you could battle huge space ships and then board them or fight away teams on the ground as part of the Interlocking Game System was a great feature. Come to think of it, Omintrend’s Universe game (http://www.mobygames.com/game/universe_) sounds as if it may have served as inspiration for a lot of your ideas for Astrobase Command.

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    Omnitrend Universe 3 box art. Ah, the memories of days when games that needed 512K memory to run were pushing the envelope.

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    ROE delivered pretty much exactly what the box art promised. Single vessels pounding on each other in deep space.

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    Breach 2 bucked Omnitrend’s minimalist box art style with this awesome image.

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    Breach 2′s opening screen was pretty cool, too.

    Having displayed all of these, I am still a fan of the style of the painterly works above or the more defined images like the Breach 2 box art for your cartridge art.

  • Ilaliya Says:
    October 9, 2013
    MaxShields wrote:
    Ilaliya wrote:
    (If anyone is wondering, I was kinda inspired by the Gold Box)

    Are you referring to SSI’s game series? If so, then you show some fine taste. If not, I’ll need some enlightenment.

    Yea! I totally was. I played the hell out of the Dragonlance one in middle school (I was a huge Dragonlance nerd). :)

  • MaxShields Says:
    October 9, 2013

    Indeed! I don’t know if I’d still find it that way today, but I certainly found it totally engrossing at the time. Since it bears on the discussion here, the box art was quite nice, too:

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    There are a few other very nice box covers here: http://vglounge.com/throwback-thursday-dragonlance-dungeons-dragons-gold-box/

    Their general layout could prove to be a helpful reference for the cartridges.

    Bringing things back into the realm of space (fantasy), Spelljammer also had a very fetching cover that seemed to promise much. I was never able to find a copy in a store, though, so I have no idea how it actually played.

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    The interesting link between most of these box covers are the system requirements stickers pasted onto the box. They are quite iconic of the time period you are looking at for inspiration. Stickers (classification, system requirements, labels, etc.) could be a little detail to add to the cartridge surface to further emphasize their physicality.

  • Ilaliya Says:
    October 11, 2013
    MaxShields wrote:
    Bringing things back into the realm of space (fantasy), Spelljammer also had a very fetching cover that seemed to promise much. I was never able to find a copy in a store, though, so I have no idea how it actually played.

    When TSR discontinued the Spelljammer IP, there was a fire-sale at my local AD&D store :) I picked up everything.

  • MaxShields Says:
    October 11, 2013
    Ilaliya wrote: I picked up everything.

    Was it worth it? As far as I remember, they also had a mechanic where the space battles could transition to boarding actions with relative ease.

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