39 Days to Mars is a two player co-operative puzzle-adventure game. Step into the shoes of Sir Albert Wickes and The Right Honourable Clarence Baxter, two 19th century explorers who have chosen to pilot the HMS Fearful on its maiden voyage to Mars. When the steam engine runs out of coal, the ship's cat shreds the navigation chart, and the tea gets cold, it becomes clear that interstellar transportation isn't a walk in the park. It will take the talents of two players working together on the problems that arise to get to Mars in one piece.

Post news Report RSS Developing a Visual Style for 39 Days to Mars

39 Days to Mars is based on a small web game I made in an afternoon. The gameplay was pretty neat, but the graphics were scribbled in an hour and left a bit to be desired. This development update looks at how I settled on the unique graphic style for 39 Days to Mars.

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This development blog entry looks at how I settled on the unique art style for 39 Days to Mars. It also stands in for game updates while I move 14,904km across the globe and settle into a new home.

Starting with a Prototype

39 Days to Mars is based on a small web game I made in an afternoon. The gameplay was pretty neat, but the graphics were scribbled out in half an hour and left a bit to be desired. I've done a bit of drawing, but wouldn't call myself a proficient artist. This meant that whatever visual style I chose for the full production of 39 Days to Mars, it would have to be one within my capabilities.

It took me a while to find a style I was happy with.

Scaling Inwards, not Up

When brainstorming ideas for a fully-fledged game, I wanted to keep the same type of enclosed level that you see in the prototype. This meant by default that the level would have to have a higher information density - more stuff in the same space.

To allow for this, I needed to come up with an art style that would allow me to place lots of interactive objects in a small area without it becoming confusing. This lent itself to a few ideas:

  • The kludged-together, mad-inventor-esque ship that was already there became a perfect foil for leaving obscure objects lying around.
  • A victorian aesthetic is ideal for adding detail. Ornate sculptings and filligree everywhere could help to tie together a chaotic level.
  • Steampunk is very physical, which meant that in a cogs-and-levers style spaceship I could draw objects in the world rather than have everything hidden behind a computer read-out.

Progressing the Art Style

The initial prototype was a minimalist 2D cross-section, that showed exposed cross-beams and was black and white. It looked like this:

I knew I wanted something more detailed for the Kickstarter, and for the game itself. My first idea was to go for a cut-out photo style look, pulling together various source photos into a whole. The idea was that the photos would keep the fine detail and textures that wouldn't come through as well in hand-drawn artwork.

No matter how I tried, it never came anywhere near my expectations. So I went back to the drawing board and came at things from the opposite direction. The next attempt was a vector image using shaded panels:

This was a slight improvement over the photo method, but slow to assemble and it didn't quite have the right "kick" to it. I decided to try the same thing, but sketch the shapes in freehand.

This was much faster and the outlines really helped to define the image. You can see the first traces of the final style coming through now, in the muted tones and thin lines. This is also the first sketch that had a textured background, which made it all the way through to the final version.

The next iteration made a huge step forward towards the final style.

There's still a slight 3D look to some of the objects, but in general it's drifted back towards the original 2D cross-section style, but rich with details. Because of the low resolution, and the choice of photoshop brush, the lines were quite jagged. I experimented with various painterly and rendering effects to soften the image:

I still wasn't happy with the results, so I started adding lighting effects and shading.

I even looked at making the game in 3D:

The breakthrough ultimately came in the form of pencil and paper. I was doodling various cogs and mechanisms, and came up with this recognisable mechanism. It's served as the benchmark for the graphic style throughout the game, as well as the inspiration for the paper model.

The return to 2D makes animation much easier, fits well with my drawing capabilities, and makes for a very distinctive style. It took a while to find my way, but ultimately I'm happy with how the graphics are turning out for the game.

So what does the kitchen space look like now?
You'll just have to wait and see!*

Watch this Space

The development of 39 Days to Mars will be a bit slow for the next few weeks while I'm on the move. But don't fret! We're about halfway to Mars, and once I get the engine re-started things will be full steam ahead again.

If you'd like to keep up with the development, remember to follow @philipbuchanan on Twitter. You can also subscribe to the development blog via RSS, or check out the updates on Facebook. As always, if you've got questions or comments just leave them below.

*I'm not trying to be coy about it, I simply haven't drawn it yet!

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