Hello. I am Gennady, a member of the Art Team at Snowforged Entertainment. We develop the space MMORTS called “Starfall Tactics”. We are located
very far away from the known Universe in Russia, in Irkutsk, the cold Siberian city.
As we are an independent company, our team is pretty small and so is our art department. There are three of us here busy doing all the great stuff you can see on our Sketchfab page: D.Van – our Art Director, Expar – 3D modeller and SFX artist, and me, Dr.Banana – 2D and 3D artist.
Starfall Tactics is a space MMORTS where you can build the space fleet of your dreams, battle against other players in quick and ranked matches, and discover the huge Galaxy that you can also conquer. In Starfall Tactics Galaxy, there are a number of different non-playable factions which players can interact with: P.Y.R.A.M.Y.D., Nebulords, Screechers, Mineworkers, and others. With time, we’ve decided to add another planned faction called “Free Traders”, and as each faction has its own space base – a huge Mothership – we had to create at least one great space building for this faction.
At this stage we are exploring the silhouette outline so our sketches may look like black-and-white spots. We are looking for the optimal form corresponding to object purposes: e.g. a trading station will have several huge docking bays.
I wanted to make it cross-shaped with a round body section in the middle and an oblong shape. The specificity of Starfall Tactics suggests that most of the time our player observes the in-game constructions in bird’s-eye view, so all objects must also have different silhouettes if someone looks from this angle. Nevertheless, it is more convenient for me to sketch it in the side view.
For modeling we use Blender3D and 3ds Max. It depends a lot on which modeller of our studio is currently performing the task. I personally use Blender because I started learning to model with it and all my future models were created with the help of Blender.
I find it very comfortable because of the lightweight interface (e.g. Softimage), split screen system, and a large number of shortcuts for almost any action, which allows me to quickly model and not move the cursor too much across the screen.
The modelling process itself consists of 4 steps: blockout, detailing, creation of a low-poly model, and preparation for baking.
In blockout we create a 3D sketch with general shape and volume from some very simple geometric shapes. The goal is to reproduce the 2D concept in 3D space with large shapes.
Then we add details to all existing elements, cut them into smaller parts, and add middle-sized forms which we didn’t have on the 3D sketch. However, small forms are not modelled by geometry: They will be drawn on the texture later.
During the detailing process, we also add a bevel to each face that should not be smoothed in the subdividing process, so the model topology is made suitable for the subdivision modifier.
As a result, we get a high-poly model.
With the help of the high-poly model we bake the weighted normal map to transfer information about the rounded faces of the high-poly to low-poly model. It’s done to guarantee more natural highlights on the faces.
As the model is symmetric, we work on it in the symmetry mode.
A low-poly model is created by dissolving support edges – it’s just a bit faster and easier in comparison to retopology for a more complex high-poly model (e.g. weapons in FPS games).
After that, we add smooth shading to the low-poly model and create smoothing groups. To be precise, we mark edges at the borders of these groups.
It is recommended to create smoothing groups whose borders correspond to hard edges on the high-poly model in order to avoid stretches (gradients) on the baked normal map because they have some really undesirable features. For example, they can’t scale wellenough, while in Starfall Tactics the scale of the object can vary quite greatly.
Before baking and preparation for baking you need to create a UV layout. That’s the easiest step as edges of smoothing groups are also edges for UV islands. This is a necessary condition for baking a weighted normal map since a border passing along the UV island between two or more smoothing groups can lead to an incorrect result when baking a normal map.
Then we unwrap the model and pack islands. Here I prefer to use the Shotpacker addon.
At the stage of preparation for baking, both high and low poly models are copied and divided into separate parts. Each of such parts along with its high-poly version is moved away for some distance from other parts in order to exclude the possibility of baking the intersections of individual parts of the object. You can use name filtering but it’s easier for me to move parts away from each other than rename each one by adding the suffixes _high and _low.
Substance Painter is used for baking since you can do it there without a cage model by simply ticking the “average normals” checkbox.
Texture is created in 3D Coat since it’s easier to draw straight lines there: The brush cursor sticks to the surface of the model and retains its position there even when the camera is rotated and moved, so there is no need to constantly hold down the shift key, as opposed to inSubstance Painter. Also in 3D Coat there is a filling tool which allows you to fill large areas with color, taking into account borders of the underlying layers.
This way the model is covered with seams reflecting its structure and creating small shapes. This stage is the longest and the most complex as it is always necessary to find balance between high detailing and large non-detailed spaces. Usually, high detailing is created in the indentations and inner corners of the object.
Depending on the size of the textured object, this stage takes from several hours (250 meter frigate) to several days (1000 meter dreadnought). Drawing seams of this station took about 8 hours despite its dimensions (about 1500 meters in diameter) since the player will probably only see it on the global Galaxy map and therefore its details are not as great as those of the objects encountered in combat for instance.
At the very beginning, when I textured my first spaceship, it was very difficult for me to find the best way to create seams. Later, I discovered that the whole seams picture contains typical patterns combined in different variations. Here are some of them:
Once seams are ready, I use the filling tool to color surfaces. This layer is not final and later will be used as a mask for painting model with faction colors. All others are filled with white and grey colors with different heights in order to create an effect of panels that make up the object’s surface.
When lamps and windows must be marked – that’s a light emission layer.
At the final stage, AO is put on the model while several concrete and black & white tile texture maps are put into the base color channel to create the non-uniform color effect.
Then, the model, the texture with the base color, and several masks go to Substance Painter to give metallic feeling and correct faction colors to the object and add various effects, from abrasions on the edges to scratches on the skin. In other words, we create material which is ready to be exported into Unreal Engine and Sketchfab.
Setting up the scene in Sketchfab is a relatively straightforward process. Uploading static models doesn’t take more than a couple of clicks thanks to the Substance Painter plugin. However, the animated ships are a bit trickier since they also require reimporting our *.FBX file with animation data.
Models for Vanguard, Eclipse, and Deprived faction ships use similar lighting/post-process settings to better accentuate their color schemes and increase readability on the profile page. Stations and ships of non-playable alliances are more freeform. Most ships don’t need more than a neutral front light and a saturated back light to look good, so two directional light sources do the trick just fine. Post-process is nothing fancy either. A little tonemapping here, a little bloom there. SSAO was a godsend for our complicated machinery. The trickiest part is usually just finding a good angle for the preview thumbnail. Some of our more vertical units (motherships in particular) do not like the landscape format at all and you really need to find the middle ground on the FOV slider.
Just a few minutes and our lovely ships look just as good as they are in Unreal Engine 4, if not better!
(Find more models created for Starfall Tactics here.)