Note: This compendium is incomplete. Please keep in mind that it’s a work in progress.
This compendium on aesthetic design is an ongoing compilation of aesthetic theory and its application in Starcraft II melee level design. It includes small discussions and guides on core subjects relevant to anyone seeking to improve and/or reflect on their skills of digital game art. If you wish to see a subject adressed in the future, be sure to let me know.
History proves that trends of art and aesthetic work evolves over time, and that influential- and innovative artists affect these trends with personal touches and design philosophies. Thus, art may not be attractive to all individuals, but adapting to art trends that are generally agreed upon serves as a good starting point.
‘Maps’ for games generally consist of two dimensions – the level design (commonly refered to as the ‘layout’) & the aesthetic design. Despite level design being the obvious top priority in a competitive environment like Starcraft II, the two dimensions are highly interconnected, as aesthetic design is the dimension that gives an otherwise characterless map identity and personality. This compendium is largely based on the current trends of aesthetic level design, but is inevitably also influenced by my personal preferences and art philosophy.
Texture Swap Technique
* Chapter is unpublished
Starcraft II already features a wide range of tilesets that each represent a theme seen in the campaigns, but when it comes to aesthetic level design, you sometimes want to be creative and mix things up a bit: give your work personality. Creating a custom tileset is in theory easy, but there is a lot more to it if you want to create a good tileset. First things first though, let’s start up the Data Editor (F7) and open the Terrain Types tab. You will notice a list of all tilesets created by Blizzard. If you right click and Add Terrain Type, this dialog will open:
Here, fill out the blanks and copy data from an existing tileset that you would like to use as a base. Once you have created your tileset, you will see a long list of data fields for your new tileset. Until you get a hang of it, the ones that you really want to change are the Cliffs +, Fog Color and Textures – Blend + fields. As soon as everything is in place, go to Map -> Map Textures > New Texture Set and select your custom tileset from the dropdown.
You have now got a custom tileset without overwriting any of the other tilesets – the real wizardry is creating a tileset where everything fits nicely together. When working with textures, it is important to make different cliff levels easily distinguishable from each other, which is easiest accomplished with using different colors. You generally want to pick textures of similar colors in order to blend them together, but also make sure to have a couple of textures that stand out one way or another. The most common technique is applying two complementary colors to large parts of your artwork, which naturally will blend well together – but other color combinations may work as well (as long as you make sure to apply some sort of contrast in colors) – sticking to a color scheme using two or three colors is advised though. If you’re not very artistic by nature, using a Color Scheme Designer (Paletton)[/url] may be helpful – but not strictly neccessary. Something to remember when picking textures is that many terrain textures share a common base pattern (yea, Blizzard is lazy), which means two similar textures of different colors sometimes can be mixed with each other to create a unique look:
On December 18 2010 17:17 Barrin wrote:
Many of the default texture sets are mostly good, but I don’t really think that any of them have 8/8 textures that I actually like when used together. While scouring through all of the textures when making my own custom texture sets, I noticed something interesting.
Out of the ~192 current textures, only ~76 of them are truly unique. Now maybe that’s a little unfair because the other 116 of them are actually unique (except maybe 2), but only because they have unique color hues. However, the other 116 share very similar or identical “bump maps” with at least 1 other texture. What this means is that while they are different colors, they actually share the same pattern.
Your color scheme is however not the only thing to look out for when creating a tileset. You need to account for your balance between spacious and transitional textures (for more information, read the Natural Texturing chapter), which can be rather difficult by itself. If you have trouble getting started, looking for inspiration in other community maps is a good start – you may want to visit The Map Art Thread (Johanaz).
I would also like to list a couple of good examples of how to utilize complimentary colors:
- Ice Realm (Scorp)
- TPW Silver Sands (Meltage)
- Neo Sol Dios (NewSunshine)
- KTV Echo (Uvantak)
- First Contact (Iezael)
- Red Rock Ridge (lefix)
You will notice that the most commonly used color scheme is Yellow/Blue and Orange/Cyan.
To sum up, creating a custom tileset is largely a thought process with no strict rules, which means experimenting is the practice. Aside from contrast in texture colors, doodads, skyboxes and fog can be used to develop a color scheme as well – so go ahead and do whatever you feel like!
One of the aesthetic means that often times are neglected is working with cliffs. Depending on your style, you may want to do them differently. For organic terrain, you usually want the cliff lines to feel natural – that means avoiding straight lines and repetitive- or artificial looks. When applying textures to your map, it is important to make the textures follow the cliff lines, but not too strictly either, as that makes your cliffs look unnatural anyway. You can apply ’spikey’ and/or ‘checkered’ cliff lines to develop an aesthetic theme, but keep in mind that it should be clear to players where the pathability stops (something that the example map lacks in some areas). Cliffs that are two cells wide are partially pathable, although not buildable, so they should be covered with pathing block (doodads for example). If this is not done, each 2×2 cell cliff effectively becomes an isolated drop pod, which can be abused in drops (Siege Tanks in particular). Instead of placing doodads all over, you can use the Pathing Tool in the Terrain Editor to disable pathing in these areas, but keep in mind that it has to be clear that it is an unpathable area.
For man-made terrain, you can approach the cliff work in two different ways – you can either follow the same technique as with natural cliffs, or you can go for an artificial look. In either case, it is common to avoid the use of long, straight lines – and particularily if they are not diagonal. There have been maps in the past that made use of straight cliff lines, like Metropolis (LS), but this technique is rather difficult to make look good on its own and is thus not recommended unless you have got a good grasp of things. A popular cliffing technique is the use of squares, like seen on Exosphere (NegativeZero):
It utilizes a square, artificial cliffing technique composed by diagonal lines at perpendicular (90°) angles to develop a man-made environment. The texturing technique on the surrouding man-made terrain compliments the artificial look by emphasizing terrain texture tiling lines (for more information on this, see the Artificial Texturing chapter. Doodads are positioned with even length to each surrounding cliff line, and their facing angle is almost always equal to the normal of a nearby cliff line. It all helps further developing a man-made look by stressing the level of symmetry and simple geometry characterized by our world’s (non-postmodern) architecture.
A map that uses natural cliff lines for both organic and man-made terrain is Paralda (Scorp). Whether you should use one method or another is up to you, but don’t mix it on a single cliff level.
As a quick note, cliffs also contribute to the color scheme of the map, so picking a cliff that fits the aesthetic theme can make or break the look as a whole. You can swap out cliffs with ones from different tilesets just like you can with terrain textures – if you do not know how, read the Custom Tileset chapter.
Working with textures may be troublesome to many, as the amount of detail is high and the possibilities are endless. Texture-work can however get broken into something simpler and systematical. Let me quote Koagel:
On February 06 2012 07:45 Koagel wrote:
I believe that most textures can be classified as belonging to one of two sub-groups rather easily.
There are spacious textures, which can be used to cover large areas without looking too bad,
and there are transition textures, most of which have a distinctive pattern that gets very repetitive when used spaciously, but looks very fine when used together with spacious textures.
Quite often, spacious textures are hard to put next to other spacious textures of a different kind. You can mix different grass types to create to a more interesting, natural looking meadow, but it is hard to put grasslands next to dirt textures, for example. The problem is that most spacious textures are pretty boring by themselves, and this is why they are so easy to use on big plains. They just don’t have many recognizable details. Although I defined them by the fact that they can be used on large plains, don’t think you won’t need to create some variation when using them- it is always good to use several textures of a kind on a plain to create a more natural, vivid feel, at least when trying to recreate natural settings. The transitions between them shouldn’t be visible, and none but the most experienced mappers should be able to tell where which texture was used.
I prefer to work in a very generic way of applying textures. It gives an overall smooth look, which does not detract focus from the actual game elements – that’s part of where the interconnection between level design and aesthetic design lies. As we’re doing an organic terrain here, I apply the textures in an organic and realistic way – just like when working with natural cliffs. I apply textures with an Airbrush (Falloff: 100, Size: 4-8). I usually use the bigger sizes for applying spacious textures, while transition textures generally are better when applied with a smaller sized brush. When working with textures, it is important to make different cliff levels easily distinguishable from each other, which is easiest accomplished with using different colors. If you’re not very artistic by nature, using a Color Scheme Designer (Paletton) may be helpful – but not strictly neccessary. This is what I chose to go with as an example:
This chapter presupposes that you have read and understood the Cliff Work and Natural Texturing chapters. If you haven’t, go read them before proceeding.
It is possible to texture in a similar fashion as done for organic terrain, but it is much more common to apply artificial texturing to man-made areas. While it is more straight-forward than working with natural textures, it can be very time consuming depending on your chosen style. This kind of texturing is much more vague than organic texturing, but still can be categorized into two branches of texturing techniques. Most maps utilize the clean look of man-made textures, such as tiles and metal parts, by fully applying a texture in areas bordered by recognizable texture lines. In recent times, Decal doodads or the likes have been used to bolden the texture transitions, much like transitional textures work in organic environments. Texture transitions usually follow cliff lines much more strictly than in natural texturing, which compliments the artificial look and at the same time facilitates spotting cliff lines. Example maps are Crux Abyssal City LE (EastWind), Exosphere (NegativeZero), DF Atlas (Scorp) and KTV Tamerlane’s Sangar (Uvantak).
The other branch of artificial texturing is much harder to pull off, and is thus rarely seen. It stays true to the idea of applying textures according to texture lines, but disregards the use of texture transitions to emphasize cliff lines. Textures are applied for much smaller areas, but in turn uses more of them to create a less generic and flat surface. For this kind of texturing, it is important to pick a cliff type that is easily recognized on its own due to the different texturing technique. My favorite example of this technique is Daybreak (winpark), but also maps like TPW Electric Circuit utilize this look. Although textures from the Heart of the Swarm and Legacy of the Void expansions are not included, browsing the Texture Catalog (Barrin) for fitting textures can be a good starting point. When looking for artificial textures, make sure the textures that you use next to each other are somewhat similar in terms of color – otherwise, it will distort the pleasant look of simplicity that artificial texturing brings to your map.
Although the aesthetics of a map can be rather good without, utilizing doodads can help you further develop the atmosphere that you want to bring to your level. Without doodads, the map will lack depth – more specifically, it will look barren, flat and not very live.
Doodads follow the same principles as textures – some doodads can be used in groups, some can not. I like to refer to these doodads as respectively ‘small’– and ‘big’ doodads, which may not be very accurate titles after all, as it is not exclusively about how much space they take up. It’s more so about whether or not a certain doodad looks good by itself or in masses.
Examples of ‘big’ doodads are distinguishable statues and large terrain objects, but also includes animated (with the exception being vegetation), particle-heavy models (plus those that either cast dynamic shadows or are significant sources of light). This doodad group should be used with caution – some can be very FPS-expensive (results in poor performance), but ultimately has to be judged on a case-by-case basis. Blizzard’s Community Manager Psione pointed out a couple of common issues, as well as how performance is measured:
On January 27 2015 09:20 Psione wrote:
One of the biggest issues we run into with community maps is getting performance to a reasonable level. I think it’s no secret that many map makers spend a lot of time making sure their maps look amazing. And while the maps usually look great, the increased focus on complex map art can cause performance issues. I’d like to offer some insight into how our performance testing works, as well as offer some tips to help keep performance at reasonable levels.
In both Blizzard and community maps, we start the performance passes once we receive a map that has received final art. This testing involves an automated process where we ensure that a map reaches a minimum FPS value (40) across various systems and graphic settings. Beyond testing on high-end machines, we make sure to test on medium and lower-end machines that are currently supported. This is a major point to remember. Offline tournaments can control the hardware being used at the event (usually very high-end), but the ladder must support a wide variety of hardware from the entire player base.
During this automated process, a FPS heat map is also created. While we look for the total average FPS to meet acceptable levels, we also ensure that no single section of the map has significant issues. For example, the map may have an acceptable average FPS but have performance issues in the middle of the map where a large cluster of doodads reside. Using the heat map, we can pinpoint a problem area like this and make adjustments to alleviate the issue.
However, despite our ability to pinpoint problem areas, getting performance to appropriate levels can be difficult at times. Part of this is due to our desire to alter community maps as little as possible. So usually it’s a balance of trying to make big performance gains while also trying to keep the look of the map intact. While it would be easy to improve performance by gutting the art on the map, we respect the time put into the look of the map and try to stay true to the original vision.
Each time changes are made, the map tests are run again. This is where you find how much was gained from the changes. Making map adjustments and re-testing can take a good deal of time if the issues aren’t improving through small tweaks. If performance issues persist, at some point we’re forced to make more drastic changes to ensure it meets minimum requirements.
A few points to help keep performance reasonable. Try to avoid the following:
Hidden effects or doodads
- Stuff like doodads or water under the terrain can cause issues.
Excessive splat usage
- Splats used to create a snow covered effect on doodads can be difficult to optimize
- A series of small splats used to create a “signature” can also be very difficult to optimize
Excessive doodad usage
- We’ve seen extreme doodad stacking in the past where several doodads are used to create something “new”. This is fine in most cases, but it can also lead to excessive use of doodads on the map, which definitely impacts performance.
Excessive weather effects
- Adding a lot of wind or snow can lower the performance quite a bit.
Excessive use of water
- Used sparingly or on a map with few doodads is usually fine. When used excessively it can cause performance issues.
Excessive use of “expensive” or large doodads with terrain materials
- More commonly used “expensive” doodads would be the Ice Cliff series. Additionally, cluster of doodads that cast transparent shadows, similar to the minerals or the crystal on the top of the Nexus.
- More commonly used large doodads with terrain materials would be Xel’Naga Torn Plates
There isn’t a magical formula that makes performance great. We know it can be difficult at times, especially if you’re trying to push the look of your map to the limit. But if you keep these things in mind, hopefully it will help you make choices that can keep the look right while also keeping reasonable performance.
The ‘small’ doodads are easier to define, as those are the typical, static and not very distinctive doodads that have multiple model variations. This includes a wide range of trees, foliage, rocks, props, structures etc. and is the most commonly used doodad type. They are commonly placed towards cliffs and on the sides of ramps, but can also be more aesthetically pleasing replacements to small deadzones created by cliffs. If you’re looking for easy, performance-friendly aesthetics (perhaps slightly minimalistic) these are the ones you want to use. Take a look at what I achieved using only a handful of different ‘small’ doodads:
Oh, and if you, despite having worked a lot on fine-tuning the texture- and doodad work, suddenly change your mind about the theme – then do not fear! The upside of using a generic texturing style is that you’ll have a fresh, new aesthetic design after a few clicks swapping the Texture Set and doodads. Changing the complete Texture Set is done by choosing your desired set in the dropdown found at Map > Map Textures > New Texture Set. Saving and reloading the map file will render rocks and other doodads with Texture Set specific textures corresponding to the new Texture Set. ‘Small’ doodads like trees and foliage can also be replaced all at once, but requires a different approach, as the doodad itself has to be swapped. Using the Ctrl + H (Windows) command while the Terrain (F5) module is active opens up a Find window. Utilize this function to select and replace all unique doodads. Just take a look at what you can do in seconds:
If you are looking for a specific doodad, but cannot recall the name, browsing All Doodads in Picture (scbroodsc2) may be handy.
When creating a map, it is important to keep in mind how the aesthetics of a map compliments the readability of the level design. As I worded it in the Foreword:
Despite level design being the obvious top priority in a competitive environment like Starcraft II, […] aesthetic design is the dimension that gives an otherwise characterless map identity and personality.
As a general rule, you can say that if the aesthetics of a map detracts the readability of a map, it needs to be revised. This brings up the question: how can the aesthetic design of a map detract from its readability? There is no unambigious answer to this question, as you have to judge the overall impression rather than individual issues. It is however possible to list a couple of things to look out for. Please note that a map may still be readable despite having one of the following issues, but should probably be revised if it falls into multiple categories:
- Over-use of transitional textures can be problematic if their noisy texture appearance renders the terrain difficult to look at and identify. As a rule of thumb, highly visible noise on a map’s overview also means noise in-game.
- Texturing independant to cliff lines is an aesthetic application of terrain textures where the texturing does not match the cliff lines (may appear in both natural and man-made environments). A good example of how this detracts from the readability is KTV Mujō Gardens (Uvantak).
- Bad lighting refers to the use of a lighting that does not compliment the terrain. It is often times an issue associated with custom lights (see the Custom Lights chapter), but is also relevant to Blizzard’s lightings. Bright lightings need to be applied to dark environments in order to maintain readability, and extensive use of the Bloom light property (as seen on Aiur) may also detract from the readability.
- Indistinctive cliff levels means that you use textures of a too similar color, or that there is inconsistency in where textures are applied. Each cliff level needs a distinctive color on the minimap, so that the map can be read and properly navigated. The brightness- and background color of the minimap can be adjusted in the Minimap Brighten Factor and Minimap Background Color fields of the used Terrain Type. For more information on reaching these fields, see the Custom Tileset chapter.
In-game screenshot of Hangar 18 (NewSunshine)
Can you tell where the attack paths are? I can’t.
Creating your own textures requires great skills in digital art, but altering existing textures does not. In this chapter, I will go through the process of recoloring the textures for the Default Lava model that l changed to create an acidic look, like I did for Deck 16 (Ferisii):
First, open up the Cutscene Editor (Shift + F7) and browse for the Model that you want to change. Double click the model link and open its Model Data (Shift + D). If you look at the Materials, you will notice a list of textures. In the case of Default Lava, it has three textures that we need to modify: lavabase.dds, lavatoprock.dds and lavatoprockemissive.dds. Open the Data Editor (F7) and select a random texture from the Texture tab. Browse the File field for the needed textures, and Right Click -> Export File. You will now need to recolor each texture in an Image Editor (Gimp[/url] is free, but requires you to install a .DDS format plug-in). Make sure to use the BC3 / DX5 compression and Use Existing Mip-maps:
Import the textures to the map using the Import Manager (F9). Each file needs to retain their original name, as well as the file path Assets\Textures\ – they will not be used otherwise! Once it’s done and you have saved the map, restart the Galaxy Editor and your new textures should be loaded. Each texture import contributes to the map file size, so you should avoid importing too many textures into each map.
This method of overwriting textures works for all textures, but be careful: some models share material, so you may sometimes force undesired changes to other models. For most doodads, this is not the case, but units and structures (Protoss in particular) share some.
If you want to change the texture of a model that shares material with other models, refer to the Texture Swap Technique chapter – be advised though: it requires significantly better familarity with the Galaxy Editor.
Often times, custom lights are neglected and considered an aesthetic dimension that should not deviate from the standards – but for what reason? Lights have a huge impact on the rendered terrain setting, which in many cases results in poor readability and/or effects that irritates the eyes when played continuously. For this reason, most of the lightings included in the campaign are not suitable for competitive play, but that does not exclude custom lights in its entirety, as long as you pay attention to the modified parameters.
First of all: lighting is accessed in the Data Editor under the Lights tab. In order to apply a light to your map, link the selected Terrain Type’s Lighting field to your custom light. When creating a custom light, it is recommended to use a standard light as a base, as it’s only a handful of fields that can be truly customised without hurting the overall playability. Below is listed some of the fields that can be changed with no big concerns, as well as their impact and limitations:
- Ambient Color changes the color of the light source, and is perhaps the most influencial parameter. Any color can work well in combination with a set of terrain textures, but it is recommended to keep the luminosity at 100±40 to keep the brightness at an acceptable level. A bright ambient color works well with dark textures, and vice versa.
- Exposure is another brightness parameter. Its impact on the brightness level is dependant on the selected Method. Change with caution.
- Bloom Threshold adjusts the amount of light reflected from the terrain, potentially giving it a glowing look. An example of a Terrain Set utilizing this parameter is Aiur, which is commonly considered hard on the eyes due to this effect. A treshold below 0.450 is not recommended, but may work in dark environments.
- Method determines the way that the light is applied. Depending on the other parameters, different methods might give visually better results, but sticking to Exponential or Reinhard is often times the better choice.
- Colorize controls the coloring of the light. Adjust with caution – it is not advised to increase the value (towards greyscale), as a decrease in coloring makes it harder to distinguish between terrain, units and player colors.
- Back – Diffuse Color changes, like Ambient Color, the color of the light source, but its impact is angular towards the shadowed side of terrain, units and doodads. This color usually compliments the overall color impression of the terrain – for example, Char uses red, Shakuras uses purple, and Port Zion uses green. The luminosity of the Back – Diffuse Color can generally be higher than for Ambient Colors due to its different application, and may also be greyscale if no particular effect is desired.
If you wish to study custom lights further, looking at Blizzard’s lighting settings on standard lights may be helpful. It is also recommend to check out iGrok’s Lighting Packs (iGrok) for ready-made custom lights or for inspiration alone.
When working on maps, creating a map flow adds an aesthetic dimension that can be hard to accomplish. If a map has a good flow, it will have a visible overall geometry based on paths, bases and cliff lines. It is not dependent on colors, but they can help further emphasize the flow. It is difficult to explain exactly what map flow is, but another mapmaker had a try at it anyway, which I think is think is the closest you can get:
On April 11 2014 06:49 NewSunshine wrote:
Before I really get started, this is a demonstration of mere aesthetics. Mastering what I’m about to present does nothing to make your map layouts better, it is simply an art form. Perfecting it won’t make your maps play differently, but it will make them much better looking, more presentable, and more impressive in general.
This is a high level technique, one that requires you to craft the terrain of your map in such a way that envisions how the whole map will look once you’re done. Every single nuance of the terrain is crucial, because what you’re really doing is establishing flow, a basic visual concept. Just like the features of a map can transition naturally into each other to make a map that plays elegantly, the terrain of the map can be crafted in a way that makes the very sight of it something to behold – something that flows from one area to another, and before you know it you’re looking at an organism, a whole that defies the individual pieces.
Given the complicated nature of the technique, it’s hard to describe what it is you’re doing, but if I had to give it a name in a word, I’d have to call it Geomancy – bending the terrain to your will and making it come to life. Once you do it, the aesthetics take on a whole new life from a distance, making the presentation of a map so much stronger. It won’t make much difference to a close-up view of the map, but crafting the terrain with one eye on how it looks from a distance will of course change how it looks up close, possibly opening new creative doors for you without you realizing it. I won’t say to force this into your maps, because most people can’t even do it, and it won’t always happen anyway, but it’s something to understand and appreciate, and hopefully it’s a skill people will begin to foster more seriously.
This is not a concept that you should take too strictly, but it’s a way of levitating your art skills to a new level, and is definitely worth practicing. Without further to say, I would like to present an example of a map utilizing the concept of map flow: ESV Cloud Kingdom (Superouman), as well as a map that (although it is still good layout-wise) does not utilize map flow: KTV Mujō Gardens (Uvantak). The map also suffers from readability issues, but that is unrelated to the concept of map flow (for more information, see the Readability chapter).
Chapter is currently unpublished.
Texture Swap Technique
Some models share material, which results in undesired changes to other models when overwriting textures. It may also be undesired to import unchanged textures only to overwrite a different model’s material, as textures take up a lot of file size. In either case, the Texture Swap Technique is what you need.
I will be modifying the Gateway in order to give it a frozen look, like what I did on Ice Realm (Scorp):
In order to do this, we will need to look up the Material of the Gateway model in the Cutscene Editor (Shift + F7). On instructions how to do this, refer to the Custom Textures chapter. You will notice that the main material uses a Gateway_ prefix – we need to memorize that. Open up the Data Editor (F7) and create a New Texture in the Textures tab. In the Prefix field, insert the material prefix. We want to modify the diffuse map texture of the Gateway, so type main.diffuse in the Slot field. In the File field, select the desired texture – I have found that Assets\Textures\frozenbuildingspike01_diff.dds gives the model a frozen look.
Now select your model in the Models tab and open the Texture Declarations field. Create a new Texture Declaration and Adaption, and fill in the information from before:
The model is now set up to use the new texture, but the Actor that controls the model is not. Find the corresponding actor in the Actors tab, and open the Events + dialog. You will need to set the Actor Events up like seen in the image below (where FrozenGateway is the Texture reference name):
All you need to do now is restart the Galaxy Editor, and your model should now have a new look. If it does not, chances are you may have made a mistake (everything is case-sensitive, and Prefixes do not always match the Unit/Doodad name). If the Messages dialog of the Galaxy Editor writes errors starting with “Cannot load […]”, but your texture swap works fine, don’t worry about it.
If you have any questions regarding the explanation of this chapter, feel free to ask.
Additions will be made to this compendium as they are finished. For more information on various topics, have a look at the Mappers Index (SigmaFiE, iamcaustic). You can also check out SC2Mapster.com’s Comprehensive Listing of Tutorials for guides on more advanced editing. If this does not cover your needs, feel free to ask in the Simple Questions/Answers thread or here. Thanks for reading.