Strange times at Septim High

Ingame appearance

As I have worked on several games, I have noticed various oddities. I have covered one before: unused assets. However, there are a few others. In the game TES:Arena, most SET files are reserved either for walls or for floors. The exception is this one:

WALLC

Which gives us the below separate ingame dungeons:

So far, it’s the only SET file to do that. Not sure what happened or why it’s like that. The main challenge with is that while I liked it on the floor against the dark walls, I don’t care for it as a wall texture. I’ll have to go back and tweak/balance it later.  In theory, with further modding of the INF files (they determine which art files each level uses), it can be made so that a different file is used but I’m not inclined at this time to do that.

Ummm…what

Right off the bat, I’ll admit that my “working” copy of TES:Arena has been in use since I first started this project (several years now). It is now a Frankenstein-mess of my experiments. I expanded that executable file with an ancient program, expanded all the resource files, installed “WinArena” over top, fiddled with the INFs, etc. So I don’t know if the weird things I see in the game are my fault or not (easily enough to verify but I don’t really care that much).

I even had a very odd problem of an Imperial City textures completely changing from one style to another. I just walked into a mages guild and came out to a completely different looking city. I wished I had made a video of that weirdness.

-Martin

RETRO POST : The long road to Arena

Why Arena?

*This post was originally drafted in 2012 but never submitted. I have revised and updated it.

The next brief diversion was an even older game called The Elder Scrolls:Arena. It is the first game in one of my favorite video game series and I did play this one a lot when it first came out in ’94.  I found a website that packaged it (and it’s sequel) in a neat, easy to install package. But, the low resolution graphics (320 x 200…trust me it’s very low) were so pixelly that it was hard to play and enjoy for me, particularly in the cities where anything in the distance was just a blob of small blocks.

ArenaBox

Mods?

After some quick checking, I found that there were NO graphic altering mods out there. No one on the forums seems to think it was even possible. I found that hard to believe and felt the “challenge bug” nibbling at my toes. I wanted to find out how to do it. But I only got as far as checking how the files were stored (container file ending in .bsa). I did find that someone attempted to remake the game (didn’t get finished).  It claimed to allow you to extract the art file out of the BSA file for you. BUT in actuality, it converts them to a common image format that the original game can not recognize and thus was not a viable option. Due to real life busyness (yes I mean busy-ness), this too faded to the background. Eventually, I did come back to it later (much like Darkstone) and succeeded in extracting all the files (using a old program).

You did what?

Even though the image files were not in any common standard format, I figured out how to open them in GIMP (free editing software). This involved loading the images as RAW images with a offset header of 12 (think “ignore first 12 bytes of file”) and then loading a special palette files.  I could then save it as a RAW image. The drawback to this method was that for images that had the 12 bytes that needed to be ignored (all the IMG files), the saved image wouldn’t have those bytes. That meant that I had to (BRACE YOURSELF) open the file in a hex editor (think super nerdy ), copy all the bytes, then open the original file and paste the copied bytes over starting at byte 13.  Then, I tossed that file in main file directory as the game. The only way to see how it worked was to load the game and look for the texture.  It was a overly cumbersome process that eroded my enthusiasm and by the time my “interest” (i.e. attention span) waned, I only completed 8 textures.  Although I moved on to a different project, I came back once in a while to do a texture or two. I deluded myself in thinking that over time (probably decades), I would eventually finish it.

Progammer in Shining Armor

It wasn’t until Hallfiry released his “Arena Modding Suite” that the project took off in a major way. His tool not only unpacked the entire BSA resource file (BSA = Bethesda Softworks Archive) but converted most of the textures into PNG files for easy editing. Afterwards, it could be used to “repack” the BSA easily without destroying the “working folder” and converting the files back to the original format. Besides some textures that used a funky compression, it had removed the technical barriers to changing images in the game. Now to date, I have completed 126 of 172 SET files (wall texture sets) with 12 additional ones that aren’t even used in game. The two biggest challenges for me now are: making unique interesting textures that work well in game (after having already made 126 of them) and figuring out how to do some of the more organic textures to match my style (since the pixel dimensions are very limited). 64 x 64 does limit the amount of creativity I can use.

Sometimes the baby is just ugly

Wandering the land

I spent some time this week searching in-game for textures yet to be done using a pre-edited overpowered save file so I could roam unimpeded. I looked for dungeons, cities, wilderness, etc. that hadn’t yet been retextured. The side effect to this is that I found places where the textures WERE done but I had never seen them in-game or at least not in combination with other textures. From this I learned that some textures don’t work as well in-game as I hoped.

Proud Poppa

However, there are many that I feel are just right (or close enough for me to be happy). These I feel keep a unique appearance AND work well not only for their intended purpose but also with other textures. For example:

Avert your eyes

Of course, they all can’t be winners. I expected that I would have to go back and tweak later, but some textures combos were just horrible. To be fair to myself, I had two limitations: one, I was trying to make each texture unique and two, some textures were awful to begin with (one of the mage guild textures is a complete mess). These will be easy to tweak up though as all the hard work is already done.

Dirty walls and floors

I have starting tackling some of the vague pixelly mess of some wall and floor textures that I have been avoiding. The limitations on resolution and colors will probably force me to deviate from “source” more than I care but it can’t be avoided. There are so many in the DW series alone (A through S). The reason I started looking for textures in-game was so I could see the context in which the textures were being used.

– Martin

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!

Quick Before and After

Here is the before and after for the in-game menu. I probably should have shown it more clearly in the last post (and the video). Overall, I’m very pleased with it.

– Martin

OP (original) OP (new)

One texture to rule them all….

In-game menu

I’ve held off on doing the in-game menu because I didn’t feel the necessary inspiration to tackle it yet. For me that texture is the face of the game; the one the player sees most often and serves as a sort of “anchor” for the player. Another factor may have been that I knew I would end up spending several hours on it to get it just right. Going in, I knew I wanted to keep the ARENA word at the top in roughly the same shape but with a much cleaner design and that it needed to be similar to the HUD on the main screen. That covered most of the core design and all I was lacking was gumption.

Once I finally found the urge to tackle it, it didn’t take long for my mojo to kick in. I knew that although I only had 75% of the design mapped out in my head, the other 25% would either come to me while I was editing or result from trial and error (that’s my favorite part anyways). Although I sped this video up twice as fast as the last one, you can still see spots where I paused to consider how to continue and where I changed my mind or adjusted on the fly (very evident with the Save, Load, Quit buttons on the bottom). In the end, I even found room for the project name!

Big blocky buttons

HUD

For the HUD (that shows at the bottom of the screen when playing), I fiddled extra long on how to redesign the buttons. I wavered back and forth on keeping the original art or replacing it with words or a different picture. I considered removing or subduing some of the more garish design aspects such as the yellow squares pinning the corners. However, unlike my other projects, ADP is quasi-purist in it’s attempt to keep the “feel” of the original artwork. I ultimately decided to just clean up the buttons but keep the art as close to the original as possible (making minor modifications). The only exception was the USE button; That one was a pain in the butt. Nothing I tried seemed to work well AND convey to the user that it was meant to be the “USE” button. In the end, I settled for a “U”.  Not overly inspired but I wasted a lot of time on it and we have to pick our battles sometimes.

Starting dungeon

Example

You can see above the original HUD and below the new one.  I used one sword for attack to keep it simpler and clean and I changed the journal parchment to a book which I feel better conveys it’s purpose while differentiating it from the map directly above.

NOTE: While I did the background around the players head, in game it must use a different texture since it’s the same as the original. Also, I experimented with making the HUD partially transparent but as I suspected, the game doesn’t render below the start of the HUD and it just turned out  black.

a_013

 
Starting dungeon

Easy doesn’t always equal quick PART 2

Shapes

I try to stick to colors pulled from the original image. This eliminates any guesswork on making sure the colors match the palette file (really only important for older games that use palette files). Once I have a rough idea of what colors to use, I try and gauge what I want the new image to look like. For bricks and stone, I’ll usually try to draw inspiration from what I start with. In that I mean that I will try and mimic the rough shape and design of the original. I do try and give each set of images as unique an appearance as possible while being aesthetically pleasing.

Video

Since one of my main motivators for creating this website was to chronicle my artistic endeavors, I decided to make some time-lapse videos to highlight the process. The first one below demonstrates what I’m talking about for “easy” textures.

Points of interest

A couple of things to point out from the video:

1. I outlined the shapes ahead of time to create a frame when I colored in the shapes.

2. I colored in one image in the SET file to get a good feel of the colors and general appearance that I’m going for.

3. I do a lot of on-the-fly tweaking (and sometimes overhauling). Sometimes what I end up with is nothing like what I started with.

4. I have to check the image in the game in order to see if there are any issues AND to make the final decision on whether I like it or not. In this case, I ended up changing several of the other textures because I didn’t like how they looked. Note in the image below that the city wall and road are different (and in my opinion better) than in the video.

Revised city wall and road Tavern with old door art Tavern wall

 

 

 

Graffiti on the walls

Why “Marking”

As I have mentioned in previous posts, my experience in working with game art resources has revealed that the game creators often leave behind orphan files that aren’t actually used in the game. It is very frustrating to spend a couple hours on a texture only to not be able to see it in game (as I did many times in for Torchlight texture pack). To combat this waste of time, I have started “marking” texture files so that I can see if they get used in game or not. For example; Arena has SET files (2-6 textures all in one image) and IMG files (single image). I have discovered that many wall and ground sets are repeated in both SET and IMG formats. So a single “Wall” set would have up to 4 IMG files that mirrored that SET file. For any suspect files, I would mark the IMG file and see if it shows in game. Then I could avoid redoing a texture that isn’t even used. In theory, I can save time and shrink the overall pack size by eliminating these orphan files. Lastly, using this process I can find the file in the game to see how it looks when I texture it.

The process

The process is fairly simple. After completing some wall SET files for ADP, I tested them. I could see my new textures in-game so I knew these were correct files. But when I did the same for ground SETs, they didn’t show. So I decided to “mark” the IMG files and see if they were used or not.

STEP 1: I loaded about 30 IMG files in GIMP at one time (only the ones I was unsure of). Since they are so small (64 pixels by 64 pixels), GIMP could load them without too much trouble.

STEP 2: One by one, I would draw a symbol (nothing fancy) on the texture. I would use a color that stood out so it would be easy to spot in game. I tended to use the alphabet then numbers then symbols so I could narrow them down easily if needed.

STEP 3: Since I have a fancy  Logitech keyboard that supports macros, I created a macro that would overwrite the original file then close the file (about 12 keystrokes each).  Then all I had to do was hit the macro key a bunch and it would keep executing the macro; saving and closing each file one by one. I managed to do this all in an hour or so while watching a football game.

STEP 4: I would load the next 30 or so and repeat the process until all the textures in question were marked. In all I ended up marking 150 files (all wall and ground textures).

Marking Pics

Results

After a preliminary check, I realized that ground textures seem to favor IMG formats (to allow better mixing and matching in levels?) and walls were almost exclusively SET files except for city walls. Out of 150 textures marked, I have so far only found 3 in game. The caveat on that is that I haven’t explored a lot of the game. I will most likely go ahead and texture all the ground and outer city wall IMG files and then check again. But if even half of those are just junk files, it would well be worth the saved time.