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

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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.

It all began in 1999…well kind of

A while back I happened across a website that detailed instructions on how to install an old PC game called Darkstone on Windows 7 64bit. Apparently, although the game ran fine on that operating system, the games “installer” didn’t and thus you couldn’t get to the “game running fine” part.  Now I’ll admit I get a tad nostalgic towards Darkstone. I’m not even sure why, since I didn’t really play it that much. Regardless, I was driven to reinstall it and give it a whirl just for giggles.  When I did, I found that despite the very old graphics (I think it ran at 640X480 which is very low resolution by todays standards.)

I did enjoy the 1/2 hr that I played with it. But I didn’t enjoy the color scheme. It was generic and ….well.. too yellow. This got me imaging what the game would be like with a darker and more unique style to give it some character. So on a lark, I did a quick internet search to see if anyone had ever “modded” the graphics (in-game artwork). They hadn’t which was unsurprising for that era of games not named Quake or Half-life.

Here it gets a little technical so bear with me. Most games stored their art “assets” in an archive or container file. Usually just a big file containing all the individual game art files inside. I figured out that in Darkstone’s case, this file was DATA.MTF.  Many developers would use a unique file type for their “container” files, often something made up in-house. (Sometimes they even use simple encryption to make “extracting” the files with in difficult).  Another characteristic they tend to share is having a directory within the “container file” that pointed to the exact spot in said file that individual files are starts.

So if one was looking to alter the artwork of a game, they would need to “extract” the artwork either using an existing program (if there is one) or by making a program that would do that.  Many popular games have their own utilities made by the enthusiastic community but as you can imagine many older games do not (as was the case of Darkstone).

Now for whatever reason, I saw this as a challenge. I was determined to find a way to “extract” the artwork out of the MTF file that they were stored in. The problem was that I don’t know how to write a computer program. Fortunately, after more research, I found that there are some “universal” extractors that support many popular file formats targeting game archives for the purpose of modding a game.  I ended up going with Game Extractor by Watto Studios, it has not been  updated since 2009 but the game I needed it to work on was from 1999. (I have fiddled with two others that would probably do the trick too…. Dragon Unpacker and Xentax’s MultiEx Commander..more on Xentax in a bit).

The problem was that Game Extractor didn’t support Darkstone’s special MTF file format. But I saw that it supported custom script files (BMS) for unknown “archives”. A little search took me to www.xentax.com , a website with a healthy forum dedicated to the very exact problem that I was trying to solve (albeit for other games). They are also home to MultiEx Commander which apparently once include the guy who later created Game Extractor. After searching the forum, I found a message thread on how to analyze an archive and make a custom BMS script. Using a “hex editor” (if you don’t know…you don’t want to know) you can decipher pieces of the container file and figure out how it is layed out. Based on that info , you can then make a script. So I followed the detailed (and deceptively simple instructions) and was able to create my first (and only…so far) BMS script to extract files from the MTF file. AND IT WORKED! I felt very accomplished that day…and quite nerdrific. Challenge completed!Now what?

Well, I got them all out but hadn’t planned past that. I hadn’t yet quite caught the “digital art” bug yet, but it did occur to me that it’s not such a big deal if you can’t edit the files and see it in-game. I got lucky (kindof)  on this one. As a way to make “patching” a game easy, developers will usually make files “outside” the container file (usually in a specific subdirectory) override the original artwork in the container file. So you could change an “extracted” file see it in-game. But if you didn’t want it, you could just delete it and the game would default back to the “container” file.

A key factor for artwork is determining the format that the game will accept. There are many formats of image files and with each format many options to choose from (size, number of colors, color depth, compression, etc). File type is usually easy. Most games stick to common filetypes. This is determined by the image files “extenstion”. The “extension” is the three letters at the end of a filename right after the period. In the case of Word documents the “extension” is “.doc”. Occasionally (particularly with really old games), the developers will use a custom image format only the game can understand. Fortunately Darkstone use the very common TARGA (.TGA) image type….. (to be continued)