How to build a pipeline for creating retro graphics. Experience Skirmish Mode Games

Scott Thunelius, a programmer and 3D artist of Subnautica, spoke about the experience of working on retro graphics for the game Warpips, which he did in his spare time together with other employees of Unknown Worlds Entertainment.

Model from Warpipes

Introduction about the team and its project:

Skirmish Mode Games is a tiny indie studio. There are four developers listed in it. During the day they work on the blockbusters Unknown Worlds Entertainment (the Subnautica and Moonbreaker series), and in the evenings they are engaged in small personal projects.

Warpips is just such a project. This is an RTS with indirect control for PC. The game can be called a horizontal variation on the theme of Clash Royale. Unless the entry threshold for this title is slightly higher.

Stylistically, the game is made in the spirit of three-dimensional strategies of the early noughties: low-poly models of equipment, sprite units and details of the environment. Actually, we talked to Scott about working on it.

What is important to consider when working with three-dimensional retro graphics?

Scott Tunelius

Less is more.

The most important thing when working on retro graphics is to leave aside modern approaches and focus on the readability of art and on the visual that you are trying to implement.

Speaking about modeling and texturing, I would call the following the most important:

  • in a three-dimensional model, there should be exactly as many polygons as necessary for the silhouette of the object to be read from it, but no more;
  • the resolution of the texture should be the smallest possible, but at the same time it should be clear from it what kind of object it is.

Try to make sure that the lighting and tone are read from the distance at which the model will be located from the camera in the game. And don’t overdo the details. There is no point in rendering each rivet on metal if the tank occupies only 120 points on the player’s screen.

Models in Warpipes

What is the difference between working on a three-dimensional retro model and working on a model for games with modern graphics?

The principles are the same: shape, tone, color and silhouette. The key difference between working on modern graphics and working on retro graphics is how the workflow is built.

We don’t use tools as popular today as ZBrush or Substance. Instead, we resort to old-fashioned polygonal modeling in 3ds Max or Blender, so that we can then color the scan in Photoshop with our hands.

Model from Warpipes

Also, when working on retro graphics, there is no need for modern processes that use the advantages of PBR materials, since there is no complex lighting on objects, the maximum is classical lighting according to the Blinn-Fong model.

For example, when working on Warpips, we achieved excellent results from basic lighting and shadows. However, we also resorted to modern post-processing (we added effects such as vignette, AO, glow, and so on).


Post-processing gives a retro image a modern vibe. Plus, personally, it seems to me that it blurs the line between very simple-looking games of the early noughties and modern projects, while preserving the spirit of antiquity.

How was your work on creating models built?

When working on the technique, we used a ton of references. As a result, they even managed without concept art. Immediately modeled the technique from photographs. At the same time, since the game has a very stylized picture, it was not necessary to recreate the technique “exactly”. We focused on the visual style of Advance War, made the technique almost cartoonish.

Everything usually happened as follows: based on a primitive (usually a gray box), a vehicle model was assembled, then they fiddled with its dimensions so that it looked good in the game. After that, they did a scan and adjusted the texture to the object.

Creating equipment for Warpips

As for the units that were frame-by-frame animated in Aesprite, the process looked like this:

  • first we drew units in the form of stickmen;
  • then we took up the animation of stickmen;
  • we have achieved a result that suits us;
  • we have drawn a full-fledged sprite unit;
  • we played around with its design and dimensions (it was important to us that it read well in the game);
  • on top of the stickman animation, we drew an animation of the version of the unit that we liked earlier.

Which game’s graphics were you inspired by when working on Warpips?

My favorite game of all time is Myth: The Fallen Lords by Bungie. In Warpips, you can find many references to it.

Myth: The Fallen Lords

For example, I like the fact that earlier in strategies, instead of three-dimensional objects, they put flat sprites.  By the way, we often resorted to this technique when working on Warpips: instead of three-dimensional geometry, we used flat panels.

What advice would you give to other developers?

As for me, the best advice I can give sounds like this: while programmers are collecting the logic of the game, artists should deal with the future visual style of the game. It is not necessary to draw a sea of concepts, it is enough to prepare a key art that will make the style of the game clear. Then he will just help to collect the rest of the graphics.

The next stage is the preparation of original references. In the case of Warpips, we made a marine with a rifle, a tank and some surroundings (trees, bushes, fences, a couple of parked trees).


We used all this content to collect a single level and check how satisfied we were with the result. We reworked all this content until we got the picture that we finally liked.

Only after that we began to make the rest of the levels and units.

Such a workflow is not suitable for every studio. However, he allowed a small indie team that created the game in their spare time to shape the look of the game at an early stage of development.

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