Previously, on ArtInPinkerton Blog (dun dun!)

Pixels so sharp they will cut you

For anyone who reads this blog (all 3 of you), its no secret that I tend to favor a more cartoonish and abstract style when editing game artwork. With the Arena Depixelization Project (ADP), this was mostly a necessity since I was looking at simplifying images due to the extremely low resolution and terrible graininess (grain E ness?).

Textures so muddy, they have to take their shoes before coming inside

However, with Morrowind, it was more of a desire to undrab (not even a real word I’m pretty sure) it some. The individuals textures were unimpressive but all together they worked (for back in 120 A.D. when it was created). With my early experiments, I used the cartoon method to add interest to the individual textures but it was crude.

 

 

“You know my name is Simon and the things I draw come true”

From here, I had a detour with a little experiment. For all the games I work on, I have a soft spot. Darkstone was one such game. It’s low resolution blurry textures begged for me to edit them. It was a challenge just figuring out how to access them and understand the file structure: there are odd duplicates, art sheets (many separate art assets on one texture), and strange encryption. I wanted to create a chalk-like art style. It was a side diversion and never meant to be a full project though. I really liked the results though.

STOP CHANGING THE DAMN FORMAT ALREADY!

I had very little experience back then and it was before Borderlands captured what I desired so well (ICE CREAM…wait no…CELL SHADING!). So I switched to working on Minecraft for my sons. I finished not only the main game but several of the most popular modification at the time. However, Mohjang (the makers of Minecraft) changed the texture format and naming several times over the duration I was working on it; breaking my texture pack (Grrrrr!) more than once. I never released it as by the time they finalized it, they had added so much more that I hadn’t done.  However, it gave me time to work on learning the graphics software (GIMP at the time…not the one from Pulp Fiction).

 

But the name almost begged it!

I’m not sure how I started working on it, but the next project I worked was Torchlight. I think I had just wanted to see if I could do it. During this phase, I dedicated quite some time experimenting with different styles and the software. Eventually, it turned into a full blown project which I called “Toonlight”…I am so clever…so damn clever. Looking back, I think I lamented how little the backgrounds “popped” and though I could smooth and outline them to make them defined. My biggest failing on it (beside the wee-bit of amateurish work…cough cough) was that I was so focused on the individual textures, that I didn’t account for the whole picture and scene. So much detailed “polluted” the screen. This is relevant for when I get to my newest endeavor. Toonlight was never finished (I had illusions it might be). I didn’t like the results on a game level and didn’t want to start over. The creatures looked nice though.

 

Nailed it….

Then came Borderlands. It perfectly encapsulated what I was going for. I loved the art style and now I had a inspiration to study and evolve my style. It was here I learned about rim lighting (making dark lines pop with a lighter line near it) and ways to make larger blank areas look less dull (hint: random lines and squiggles).  I didn’t try it for some time as I was working on finalizing ADP (which is….sigh…not done yet). When I finally took a break, I experimented with Morrowind again…this time on the faces; trying to capture that Borderlands style. Ultimately, I realized that my style was Borderlands-inspired but had my flavor added.

Brown…so much grainy awful pixel-y brown

I finally had enough experience to move forward. I had a few other side projects not “cartoon” style related (such as the FATE mod..so I can have all that crunchy 4K resolution…mmmmm tasty). Moving on, I had just the project in mind to hone those skills even further and put them to the test. Eventually, I’ll return to Morrowind and complete a full artwork overhaul once I’m done.

By then, I should have most of my style and workflow on lock (see I’m cool…I said “on lock”…like a boss). More coming next post……. (oohhhhhh a teaser…what can it be…).

Martin

 

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Experiments in Art Style

Art Concepts

Since I have limited time to focus on leisurely activities, a lot of what I do with game art falls more into the “Proof of Concept” category. I have an idea about what would be a interesting visual change for me and I merely want to see it in game. For example, for the Darkstone project, I was going for the look of dry erase crayons on a dark dry erase board.

Exit to Forest

Exit to Forest

For Morrowind, I simulated a cell shader (cartoon) effect with build in black outlines. Note: when I first made those textures, Borderlands hadn’t been released. However, I had already realized that it looked better to have the solid colors have some kind of texture behind them for visual interest.

MGE Screenshot 2

Fast forward to Today

I was messing around with my new art tablet last month and decided to see if I could replicate the style of Borderlands in Morrowind, at least as a proof of concept. I did some research for tips on the best way to replicate the effect and found a youtube video that explained a method that a got very close to the games style.

I chose to experiment on the vanilla Morrowind face textures. In general, they are awful and look very ugly in game. My logic being that adding the “borderlands” style texturing might add enough interest to make them worthy of keeping versus using model replacer mod (may mods replace the heads). The original textures used for faces were very low resolution, inaccurate (sloppily made) and just generals ugly as all get out.

Ugly Vanilla

Some one beat him with the Vanilla Game ugly stick

Morrowlands?

I started by doing the heads in the order of the characters you run into when you start a new game. I redid 5 faces. It was surprisingly easier than I thought.

Jiub Vanilla Base to Borderland

I’ll detail it out next time but for a teaser here’s what “vanilla” jiub looked like when I was done. I’ll explain the irregularities next time.

– Martin

 

Ooh…Shiny keys

WARNING: Potentially boring technical stuff below. Oh and it’s probably unnecessarily long

Whenever I’m feeling a lack of drive to work on a particular project, I tend to stray to something else till that motivation returns. Although I strive to stick to one project, I do need brief diversion to replenish my enthusiasm now and then. Sometimes, that means working on one of my other projects for awhile. Like this week, I took a brief detour back to my Minecraft project. But other times, I just let my more analytical side run wild…..

Distractions

Besides art, I really enjoy the technical aspects of computer programs. I’m perfectly at home trying to decipher file formats and learn out the hows and whys “behind the curtain”. Sometimes it can give insight into the decision-making that led up to some design choice or the other (e.g. how SET files are mostly walls and floors but the outside ground textures are individual IMG files even though they are used in a “SET”-like fashion). Other times, it just gee-whiz knowledge such as  Darkstone can handle high resolution texture or that TES:Arena’s root directory is also the file override directory (overrides the files for the game). I freely admit that I just enough to know I don’t know enough. I can analyze files (e.g. using a hex editor to examine the file byte by byte) but not enough to find the answers I want.

A.EXE

That is how I discover odd things here or there about games that I’m working on. Quite awhile back, I discovered that the Arena executable file (a.exe) was compressed. This immediately led to me wanting to uncompress it. It didn’t take me too long to find a dos unzip tool then I just loaded Dosbox then ran the tool from within the dos environment. It was fun for me just to have gotten that far. The executable still worked but it wasn’t as if that opened a treasure box of discovery. The main thing I found was text inside the executable that is used in game however I don’t know if editing it would cause something to break (might be worth trying sometime). Sometimes compression isn’t about size but speed. The computer can load more into memory then uncompress it on the fly. However, that isn’t really relevant to TES:Arena anymore 😉

DOS DEBUG

Occasionally  when I’m bored, I load the Dos debugger version of Dosbox. It’s basically the same program that emulates Dos but with a debugging window so you can see “what’s going on in the background”. While I don’t have nearly enough skillz to understand how to copy memory from registers and other such jazz, it has shown me what files were loaded when  particular dungeon or city was entered and that has proven helpful a few times already as I tested my mod. I know it’s possible (in theory) to use the debugger to find the routine for the IMG files that use that difficult compression. Also, one might be able to wait till one of those IMG files are loaded in memory (and thus already uncompressed) and then pull it out of the memory register….no idea how to do it though. (I told you I know enough to know I don’t know enough). I would really like to see if the IMG files would still work “uncompressed” but don’t know how to make that happen.

MIFs

All TES:ARENA levels are detailed out in the MIF files while the textures, sounds, etc. that they load are listed in the INF files. Think of a MIF as locations outlined out on graph paper. They determine the layout of all locations: cities, dungeons, stores, etc. INFs are more like the map key dictating what the dungeon will look like aesthetically.  With preliminary exploring with a hex editor , I found each MIF has a specific INF listed in it’s “code”. So when a MIF is loaded, it searches for the INF and loads all textures and sounds from that particular file. If we ever manage to decode the MIF format, we could theoretically create new levels and hand design them too. Occasionally, I’ll load one up but honestly, but I don’t get far (it doesn’t mean I can’t have fun trying).

INFs

INFs on the other hand, are all plain text. You’d think that would make them easy to decipher but the format is only partially obvious.  I have fiddled with changing pieces here and there to see the effect in game but only a little and I haven’t found much. There are some odd switches that didn’t seem to have any (obvious) effect on the starter dungeon. I will probably map the INF file structure out at some point when I have more time (ha ha). The bigger problem is that I think the INFs maybe loaded with extraneous junk that doesn’t get used in game. For example, the starting dungeon only has one floor and one exit with no entrance but the file not only list an entrance file but also 6 alternate files sets as well a listing of all the monsters in the game even though only a few are used in that level. My theory is that they used a base template to start with then altered it from there. This confuses the matter if a texture is used in game or not if each level list many textures that aren’t used for that level. It could be trimmed down if I we knew what the structure of the MIF files and could see if those listed IMG files are actually used in that level. Maybe in time.

 

 

Darktone…another old (but not abandoned) texture mod

While I haven’t found my most recent version of the Torchlight mod, I did find my proof of concept file for a texture mod of the pc game Darkstone. Although all the Darkstone media assets are stored in “container” files like my other projects, Darkstone art files are a little different when extracted. Unlike Torchlight and Morrowind that have individual files for each image, Darkstone has what I call “image sheets”. I posted about it before but that was quite some time ago. Basically, it means that one “sheet” will be composed of many images fit together like a puzzle and in reality is actually a dozen or so art assets in one “sheet”.

Town building image sheet for Darkstone

Town building image sheet for Darkstone

Arena and Minecraft “sort of” do something similar. Both of them use a combination. Arena has multiple file types for art assets (some undecipherable) which include IMG files (single image) and SET files (multiple art assets stacked on top of each other in one picture). Minecraft *has/had individual files for items and such and one big image sheet for all environmental “blocks”.

*Newer versions of Minecraft are all separate image files

The difference in the Darkstone “image sheet” is that all images are not the same size. It takes a little extra experimentation to figure out where some textures start and where some end especially for textures like grass and sand that blend together naturally already as it is.  Depending on my needs, I’ll either use the solid blocks of color or shapes (number, letter, etc).

As I said, my Darkstone work was merely in the proof-of-concept stage. I had only completed 1/2 of one texture sheet. It was enough to redo some grass and road as well as the trees of only the beginning town (textures aren’t shared across levels). After finding my “sole” texture file, I fiddled with a little and worked on the rest of the grass and road for the level (which included a second image sheet) . However, it is all in the draft stage and needs major cleaning up before I would be happy with them.

I have revised the cobble stone to be less “busy”. I tried to use the same style as the other colors (outlines lighter than interior color) but the game keeps altering the colors so I think it can’t handle subtle shades of gray and black. Whenever I get back to this project, I’ll clean up the lines and make sure the grass isn’t so…squiggly.

– Martin

1 step forward 2 steps back…

Several years ago when I first started messing around with computer graphic art, I tested out visual concepts on a PC game called Morrowind (the third in the Elder Scrolls series that Arena started) . Although Morrowind was where I tested the waters, it was another game called Torchlight that became the focus of my first big project I “cleverly” decided to call Toonlight. Initially, I tried to change the art assets in bulk by using the various filters built into the GIMP software. However, while the end results were interesting, I didn’t find them very pleasing aesthetically.

So I took those results and experimented a little more by testing different tweaks and changes. Eventually, I narrowed down the look I wanted to pursue. Since I found the game art interesting but bland, I decided my goal would be to make it more vibrant and add cell-shading style lines. Surprise, Surprise 😉 I just felt that the WOW-esque muted coloring made the environment less interesting, washed out and a lot of detail.  So I started adding “black outlines” and redoing each texture by hand. Then I would test them in-game. Each art set for the various types of levels were already separated into individual folders labeled “levelsets”, so I worked my way from one levelset to another. I was even close enough to completion that I thought I could beat Torchlight 2 being released. I had reworked almost all the level artwork and many of the monsters and props. However, I was in the midst of moving and my motivation waivered and the mod drifted down the priority list.

Recently, when I started recollecting all my data from various hard drives (including 2 that were on their deathbed, CDRs and memory sticks, I discovered my art files for Toonlight and my other “on hold” mod, Darktone, were missing and the only thing left was a very early version of my Toonlight mod. Although this is a tragedy for most, I had learned so much from working on that project (and had so much fun) that I don’t consider the time wasted. On top of that, upon further review, I found myself not overly satisfied with the few levels I did recover. The initial mine levelset now seems too sloppy for my tastes, the crypts are a little too green and non-descript in a few areas, and the sunken temples levels are a TOO busy. Only the lava level still pleases me but some of it didn’t get recovered. I’m still searching for them but worse case scenario, I have enough recovered to springboard myself back into the project. With that said, I’m focused on my Arena mod. Once I have gotten as far as possible, I will resume my other projects.

So where does that leave me…same as before. I still plan on completing it. One aspect all my art mods have  in common (except Minecraft) is that they are older games that I’m doing for my personal enjoyment. I don’t feel the need to adhere to a timetable before the games become “irrevelant”. Arena was released over 20 years ago!

Where have I been?

Over a year without a post. Whoops. I have a plan to redesign my site slightly to more suit what I want to do with it. Right now the information I want to convey doesnt’ flow naturally or intuitively. I’ll fix it.

Till then, let me layout what projects I have in the works on the mod scene. These are only listed in chronological order from when the game was released.  Each will have corresponding links to the right for their particular projects in the short future.

1. Arena

That’s Elders Scrolls 1 for those of you in the know.  1994 game that hasn’t really been modded since it wasn’t a common activity back then. I have a texture pack in works with the aim of making it easier on the eyes.  I don’t have a catchy title yet so it’s just “Arena Depixelization Project“. I have all the processes down and have completed several textures (SET files) and tested them in-game.

2. Darkstone

This is another game that I have a soft spot for. And this is another texture overhaul project. This one will be titled “Darktone”. It’s kind of Tron/neon inspired…sort of.  All the file structure sleuthing stuff is (long done) and I have already had a proof of concept test run and It turned out better than I hoped.

3. Morrowind

Unlike the others, my Morrowind projects are not texture (art) based. They are more of design projects. I’m basically taking old mods and renovating them with a complete overhaul: new terrain, added clutter, dialogue, expanded quests etc. I’ve gotten quite good at the Morrowind file structure and using the editor. PMR stands for Pinkerton’s Mods Renovated…to kind of brand name it.

  • PMR-Sea of Destiny: Phase one is released. It’s basically how it all started. I was “cleaning”, merging, and moving one mod but realized how much work it needed. Now I have plans to terraform the entire mod and add a sense of history and purpose.
  • PMR -Dragon Perch: This one is almost completely redesigned but still needs dialogue and more/better quests.
  • PMR-Tusar: The very first mod I tried to monkey with was “Island of Tusar”. I actually ended up doing alot to it but haphazardly because I was learning/experimenting. So I plan to start over and now it’ll come after PMR-Dragon Perch.

4. Torchlight

This project is also a complete texture overhaul that I’m calling “Toonlight“. I had already completed every level set in the game but this was the one I learned how to use GIMP (can’t afford Photoshop yet) and its many options. So by the time I finished the last set, I was unhappy with all the others. Now I have a good idea of what I want and one levelset completed. Since Torchlight 2 came out, it gives me breathing room to get it exactly how I want it (i.e. who knows when I’ll finish it).

5. Misc

There are some miscellaneous projects I am working on (or did work on) that aren’t major. I’ll have a category for those too.

I’m going to try to have one update a week probably on Sunday.

-Martin

From Darkstone to Arena

After getting the art files “extracted”, I expermented some with changing them using GIMP. For Darkstone, the art files (particularly for the ground and buildings) were a single picture composed of many smaller pictures.

The game engine would know that if it wanted image X it would have to look at a specific piece of art file Z. This meant when I wanted to change one art asset, I could edit 16 different ones at a time. To test it out, I would just draw a letter or number in a huge obvious way on top of the exisiting art for each distinct section. Then when I loaded the game and look for where that letter or number appeared in the game.

The problem I ran into with Darkstone was the changes didn’t take at first. I had to troubleshoot why. It turned out to be a issue with how the file was saved.  Darkstone required textures to be saved without any file compression. I simply had to resave the file “uncompressed” and it worked. With Darkstone, at that time I didn’t have any clear direction for what I wanted to do. It was more of a trial run to see how it all worked. Experiment done, my attention drifted away from Darkstone. It was more an issue of time since I didn’t have much so I would work on this a little here and there when I felt like it. Though later I would come back to Darkstone with a more focused purpose.