Now, I'm not usually one to toot my own horn, but I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that I'm pretty good at design. There is no secret power at work here; anyone can come up with a good design fairly easily if they follow the right steps. Unfortunately, a brief look around the modding community shows that there are a lot of people that don't exactly have a firm grip of the process. This tutorial is intended to help set them straight, and give any wannabe designers a step-up.
Disclaimer : I am not an expert. I just sound like one. These are tricks I have picked up in the last four years of game and comic design; they were entirely the result of trial and error and may not be the advise given by a real professional with academic training. In addition, this tutorial will center around Red Alert 3 as it is the game for which I mod and the community which I am situated in, but most of these tips are universal in nature.
Note, this tutorial is for graphic design, not game design. Coming up with unique unit ideas and balancing them is another can of worms altogether, and one I might get to at a later date. For the purposes of this tutorial, we'll assume that you have a unit concept (ie, it's battlefield role, weapon information and name) picked out, and you just need to give it form.
Alright. Here is the first step.
1.CLOSE YOUR 3D PROGRAM.
Step one of the design process is never, ever “get started”. Ever. Some people think they can get away with winging it; you can't. Every model I ever made on impulse for Paradox was eventually replaced, without exception. Ever unit that went through the proper process has stayed. This is not coincidence.
Now, a word on what the goal of design is. Everyone has these switches in their brains, sort of like default reactions to certain shapes, colours, and themes. We call these Archetypes, universal shared experience in the human race. They are what storytellers and designers use to get broad reactions from the people; odds are, you react the same way to these basic traits as everyone else. This is all deep and psychological, but what it comes down to is pretty simple; play off what you know, and know as much as you can.
Understand that things tend to look the way they are for a reason and you can harness people's expectations to either guide them into a line of thinking or to subvert their preconceived notions. A thought experiment is required at this point; picture the Allies of Red Alert 3. They use reassuring visuals of modern western military and police forces, a “futurism” theme, and bright, cold colours, all directed to present the same concept; The Lawful Good Guys, playing on our expectations of a benevolent authoritative organization.
Now, change their blues to ruddy red and their silvers to dull tan, and we have “The Chaotic Good Guys” as the new, warmer palette will support a presentation of them as, say, the rag-tag rebels while still retaining the familiar patterns that make them good guys. If we were to change the blue for black and the silver for gunmetal, we have the Lawful Evil Guys. The dark colours and new militaristic look to everything stirs feelings of dread; as an added bonus, we tend to think to the Nazis, who used these colours exactly for this reason. Suddenly, those police forces mean something different entirely, and people will involuntarily think of abuses of power and fear of authority; with a simple palette switch, we've made the goody-two-shoes of the Red Alert universe into fascists!
Before you do anything else, make sure you know the rules of your universe and the faction you are creating this vehicle for. Factions need to be “designed” the same way units do, so that is where we will start. After the gameplay stuff is worked out (determining faction-specific weapons, general level of technology, etc etc) you start by coming up with lists of features that this side has. What kind of shapes do they favor, are they rounded, sharp-edged, somewhere in the middle? Are they fast, slow, strong, tough, fragile or weak? What sort of technology do they have? Do they have access to small computers, electric engines, atomic power? Start coming up with visual features that can be cobbled together to form a whole. Make a list going from basics to specifics; it should look something like this.
<faction name> followed by a brief description.
Morality : An overwhelmingly important question; are they good, evil, or somewhere in between? The best guide is the morality chart of 3.5 ed Dungeon's and Dragons fame, which shows both Good/Evil and Lawful/Chaotic scales. For an example, the Allies are Lawful Good (Authoritarian, but benevolent) while the Confederates are Chaotic Good (well intentioned but somewhat anarchistic) the Chinese Lawful Evil (Authoritarian and malevolent) and GLA is Chaotic Evil (Anarchistic and malevolent). There doesn't tend to be many True Neutrals in war, though the Forgotten can be a good example.
Colour Palette : Pick a few colours and try to stick to them. If we look at, say, the Allies, we see silver, black and grey repeated frequently, with touches of yellow in certain units to add visual punch. Typically speaking you should stick to muted base colours (grey tones, tans, beiges, olive green, etc) with a single primary colour to catch the eye and a supporting colour that adds some pizazz. Include your default teamcolour here, it's just as important; oftentimes, it's that primary colour. Also, figure out the balance between the primary colour or the muted colours; which will take up most of the surface area?
Technology : Don't get caught up on this. Technology is a fickle thing, and the seemingly linear progression of technology through our history doesn't mean that that is the only way technology will evolve; it is perfectly acceptable to have laser-armed walking tanks in a faction that has failed to invent the computer. Hell, Red Alert is built on schizo-tech anyway. In short, don't ever think “Technological Levels” but rather “What can they do, what can't they do?”
Shape, Weight, and Balance : Finally, the meat and potatoes of faction design. What sort of shapes are these factions built on? The Allies and Soviets in Red Alert 3 show two different extremes; the Allies are extremely angular, and their “default shape” would be a triangular prism, while the Soviets are extremely rounded; their default shape might be a cylinder or sphere. Meanwhile, in CnC3 the GDI and Nod both show off different approaches to weight; the GDI vehicles are heavy, grounded, with the weight distributed evenly through the design and flowing from the middle.
Nod, on the other hand, are comparatively lighter and more extreme, with weight being concentrated forward to give an impression of forward motion. If we look at the Scrin, we see another shift towards top-heavy, asymmetrically balanced models. As mechanical things tend towards sharp shapes and grounded balance in real life, the farther you move away from this the more unnatural (and visually interesting) things can be, but be careful not to overuse this or you'll alienate your audience. Unless you're aiming to, of course!
The Motifs : Or, the little things. These are the details that really drive home the characterization of each faction, things like the way panels are textured on, the presence of rivets or weld lines, hatch shapes, numbering systems, warning labels, track patterns, glass colours, lights, the list goes on. These little details can add a huge impact to the feel of a vehicle; while they can't determine the themes directly, properly used they can reinforce it. The Confederates are an excellent example of this; the dirt, the mudflaps, the rusty overlay, the checkerboard pattern (and it's reprise on the studded tracks) give a feeling of improvisation and low-tech solutions, while more subtle details such as working brakelights reinforce the connection to automobiles, and thus to classical American Culture.
Here's an example of this, using a Paradox faction.
Syndicate : Technologically advanced security forces working for a large multinational corporation.
Morality : Neutral Evil.
Colour Palette : Black and gunmetal base, Turquoise primary, gold and yellow supporting. Primary predominate on holograms; base colours act as “dark underbelly”
Technology : Advanced computing, artificial intelligence, good material sciences, excellent electrical technology, poor mechanical design.
Shape, Weight, and Balance : Sharp angles with high, backward centers of gravity and sloped surfaces. Designs are low with tall features.
Motifs : Lines, laser rangefinders, close-fitting bodysuits and armour, thick exposed wiring, smooth, large panels with no visible attachment methods, holographic symbols, low-set exausts, pop-up headlights, camera pods, single-man cockpits, complete lack of windows.
There we go. Using this as a guide, several designers can produce units that look relatively similar to one another, and can be brought to uniformity with only small tweaks. Speaking of which, we can now move onto the units themselves.
The (real) first thing you need to do is take out a pen and paper and write down everything you can think of regarding the unit in question. This can be as short as a brief list or as long as a three-page summary of it's operational history, I tend to the longer side, as the Paradox wiki will attest to, but what matters it the following points.
Origin : Who made it? Who for? What country does it hail from? In games with clearly defined national or faction identities this can be the most important factor of all, as with Red Alert 3. We covered this above.
Function : This is a unit for a game first and foremost. The function of each unit needs to be absolutely clear. If it's a slow, heavy hitter with a powerful gun, it's more than likely going to be big and impressive with one or more large, protruding weapons of contrasting colour to draw the eye; the Soviet Apoc tank is an excellent example. Note how the cannons are a completely different colour than the rest of the tank or even most of the Soviet forces; this makes absolutely sure that you see the guns first. You can, of course, play with people's expectations, for example making the above vehicle a small, wheeled vehicle, but you'll more than likely just end up confusing the players.
Form : Some details about the basic appearance. Is the weapon turreted? Does it have tracks, wheels, legs? How big is it? You don't need the answers to all or any of these yet, but if you know where you want to start, go ahead.
Now, take a sketchbook and a nice smooth drawing medium like a soft pencil, marker or pen, and start doing thumbnails. These are tiny drawings that allow you to establish the basics of each unit without spending too much time. Draw with your shoulder to get fast, smooth lines and don't bother with the details; each drawing should take you 2 minutes, but ideally you're aiming for about 30 seconds. Use ingame perspective for best results, and try everything, all sorts of different shapes and sizes; you'll not know you don't like it until you've put it to paper, and even if you don't want it for this unit you can reuse it.
Don't stop until you have a pile of them; fill up a few pages. On average, I draw 25 thumbnails per unit, with some of the more complex or difficult ones taking many, many more. Once you have a look you really like, do a couple like it and pick your favorite, and do it again and again. You should end up with a very good rough drawing that gives the unit it's archetypical state; when glancing onto the field, people will see that final thumbnail, as the little details will often be lost.
Now that you have your final thumbnail, draw a few studies from the front, side and top of the vehicle, if you are not modelling it yourself. If you are also the modeller, feel free to skip that, as long as you have your thumbnail and a good idea of the detail inside the lines. When doing these layout drawings or the model itself, you may run into problems; more than once have I discovered my awesome shape in the thumbnail is actually physically impossible in real life. If this is the case, back to the drawing board with you! Learn to love thumbnails, and draw them whenever you can as often as you can. They are the most basic element of the design process; skipping them will result in what I call Single Idea Syndrome.
This tragic affection of a designer occurs when the vague and unclear image that is “so cool” in the designer's head overwhelms the reality of the creation process and results in a design that is awkward, unrealistic, unfitting or just plain silly, but the designer is unwilling to make changes to compromise this perfect vision. Remember guys, we're just human, and the only way we're going to get closer to perfect is through repeated revision. Every time something comes up that may be “a problem” start revising; it's usually more than skin-deep.
Now, sometimes you get stuck. There is that one unit that is just an absolute bastard to design and nothing you try makes it better. The worst part is, you can see it in your head, can't you? That's Single Idea Syndrome in it's second and more insidious stage, as Artist's Block. The brain is capable of making images one simply can't transfer onto the page, and trying to will only cause you misery. When I was designing the Allied Isospinner, I went through over a hundred different thumbnails over the course of nearly three weeks, and everything was terrible.
But one day I sat behind the desk and, using 3ds Max, made a wonderful model for it in a single sitting. It looked nothing like any of my sketches, but it really and truly worked, and I was happy with it. If ever you find yourself getting stuck in a rut with an idea, try approaching it from a different angle. Do some casual modeling and see what you produce, or scrap everything you have and try a completely new take. If you find your thumbnails are all starting to look the same and it still isn't right, that idea just isn't going to go anywhere, and as difficult as it is, you have to figure out something else.
To Be Continued...