Line them up and knock them down

Start strong

As I have stated in the past, one of the most taxing aspects of editing the TES:Arena textures is coming up with a unique take on the image within the constraints of the limited pixel and color count. While I was thinking about my methods and ways to be more efficient, it occurred to me that I don’t appropriately leverage my motivation. For the last 1 1/2 I have been working one texture at a time. This would exhaust my creativity for the day too quickly. I would waste a bulk of my time “finishing” said texture after I decided how I wanted it to look. All of the “fresh mojo” that I had when I started for the day was worn away by the time I got through a few (sometimes one) SET files. This is especially true with the most of the remaining SET files that have no defined look or image (i.e. barely recognizable as any thing but random colored pixels).  Not only was that detrimental to the quantity of work completed in any one sitting, but it also deterred me altogether. There were days that I just didn’t have the energy or initiative to try and figure out a new take on what looked like white noise so I just wouldn’t decide to spend my efforts elsewhere.

Shotgun effect

To better capitalize on that “creative fronted”, I tried an experiment. I loaded up 18 SET files in GIMP. Then one by one, I worked on just getting the look I wanted for a small portion, enough to establish the look. I didn’t waste time completing the whole texture as that is really the easy and mostly mundane part. It worked quite well. Using this method, I was able to solidify my design for 16 SET files in just one day (really just a couple of hours). As I said the design is the hardest part with this project, and I wiped out almost half of the remaining SET textures left. Now, if I don’t feel particularly creative but still want to make progress, I can just finish up some of the ones I have already started (template on itself) and if I do…I may just be able to finish the other 16 or so.

– Martin

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Kicking down the door

Interior doors

 

Last week when I was lacking of motivation to work on the walls sets, I decided to fiddle with the interior doors and more specifically the wooden doors. Those are the ones that connect rooms and hallways and not ones leading out of buildings or dungeons. These particular doors are one single texture that is a door (the entry exit ones have borders that match the interior walls). That door occupies one square of dungeon space (all dungeons are square chunks of one texture). While in-game it appears that there are only two or three different wood door textures, there are actually over a dozen. It’s just that there are only 3 different  textures among them. Here’s a sample of one image among multiple IMG files:

5 Doors don’t have to equal 1

What I don’t understand is why Bethesda used multiple files with the same IMG when space and memory was a concern back then. They could have easily used one file through the INF files (the ones that decide what textures to use on each level). However, this does give me an opportunity to add some variation to the ingame art. As such, as with walls and etc., I will make each door appearance different.

 

Where is Bob Ross when you need him?

 

Color balancing

After wandering around in the game, I started feeling a need to go back and tweak some textures. I was just not happy with some of the combinations. Sometimes it’s just best to strike while the inspiration is strong. So I have spent quite a bit of time adjusting colors, cleaning up some of my more “questionable” decisions, and generally making them all play a little better together. I especially tried to tone down the floors and ceiling so they don’t clash or draw away from the walls. Some of the texture combos are much easier on the eyes now. For some of them, I removed the splotches or other weird marks that I had left to stay close to the original…the resolution/texture sizes are just to low to be that craz…er creative.

Breaking away

I have stopped trying to adhere strictly to the source material in interest of keeping the textures unique and fun. Additionally, I plan to add some “detail” to the wall sets that are just a group of plain walls  (e.g. a small object on the wall). I want each wall image in a set to be unique but I’ll be sure to keep unadorned walls too to balance the aesthetics.

 

Floors darkened to not match the tables and added minor definition to the ceiling

Floors darkened to not match the tables and added minor definition to the ceiling

 

Removed splotches and added shelves

Removed splotches and added shelves

 

Floor tamed, darkened walls and trim at top to better see the gold (now just need to do the ceiling)

Floor tamed, darkened walls and trim at top to better see the gold (now just need to do the ceiling)

 

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

The evil bookshelf of blurring +1

Arena Depixelation Project (ADP)

I made a lot of progress on the SET files and a few of the image files. However, I have decided to not count the files as often so as not to distract from getting work done. The Surface Pro has really allowed me to capitalize on downtime away from the main computer. So when I just want to sit with the family while they watch a show, I can work on more art files for the game. I’m trying to complete most of the simpler defined (and geometric) sets first since they require less “artistic license” to complete but every now and then I tackle a more  difficult one (e.g. sand, gravel, swirly designs, etc.)

Bookshelf

So far the most involved SET file has been the bookshelf ( actually 4 bookshelves in one SET). The original was awfully blurred and visually unappealing all around up close. It’s one of the more obvious examples of artwork that was created at a higher resolution and then downsized (sampled?) to fit the game engines format and palette. I have been working on it on and off between other images for 2 weeks now and have finally finished. As with all my textures, I hope to retain some of the character while “cleaning” up the image or adding a more artistic appeal (you’ll need to click on the photos for a better view of the difference).