Starship Design with Thomas Marrone – Part One

This is part one of a five-part series about Starship design in Star Trek Online with Thomas Marrone (@thomasthecat, @Cryptic_TtC)

Thomas joined Cryptic in 2010 as a web designer working for Cryptic and Atari. He moved over to STO in early 2011 as a UI artist and in November of last year moved over to ships full-time.  Check out his portfolio, Tumblr, and many DeviantArt examples.

So lets find out!

Q1: Where does the starship design process start internally, and when do you get involved? In The G&T interview you briefly talked about the process where System designers develop the stats and capabilities, the concept artists do an initial design, and then it’s handed to the 3d artists.

1.) Long term content and business planning. Essentially the Leads have rolling meetings months ahead of a particular release detailing the content (missions/queues/etc) and then develop a plan to create any relevant products that compliment that content (lockboxes, C-store ships, promo ships, etc.)

2.) Production builds out the “master schedule.” Once the final decisions have been made about which ships are going to be made and when they are going to be released, the job of STO’s producers is to work with various artists and designers to determine how long a particular task takes to complete. For example, Ship A might take X days to model but Ship B is a variant of an existing ship so that might take half as many days. Production does this for all of the tasks in STO: ships, content, systems, etc. Every task is allocated a certain amount of time and that time is slotted into a span of days on an Excel spreadsheet we appropriately call the “Master Schedule.” Everyone then refers to this spreadsheet to figure out what they should be working on at a given time.

3.) Ship kickoff meeting. Before any work is done on a ship’s art, we hold a meeting involving the system designers, concept artist and ship artists, as well as the design lead (Captain Geko), systems lead (GornGonzola) and art lead (Swall). In this meeting we discuss the general plan for the ship: what is its class (Cruiser vs Escort vs Destroyer, etc); how big is it; is it a variant of an existing design; in general terms what are its capabilities. Most of the powers and stats of the ship have been outlined on paper by the systems team at this point, so we usually have a solid understanding of what the ship’s capabilities are supposed to be. With that information, the discussion turns to the concept artist and the ship artists, and we establish a direction for the concept artist so that he can begin his work of designing how the ship looks. Often times the art lead will come to the meeting with inspirational images from military aircraft or animals or other science fiction ships to provide visual context for the discussion and a reference point for the concept artist.

4.) The concept artist designs the look of the ship. After the kickoff meeting, the concept artist then goes back to his desk and starts drawing. Depending on how much time he has, he may start with a few sketches or make dozens. The ship art team, along with the art lead and systems designers, will then review these thumbnail sketches and pick a few that feel the most appropriate to the design goals established in the kickoff meeting. After a couple rounds of this, everyone has settled on a direction and the concept artist then does a few large, high quality 2D illustrations to be later used as a guide for the ship artist when they make the final 3D model. Having these drawings is useful because it is much easier to iterate on a design at this stage, when it is still being sketched in 2D, versus making changes to the 3D model as it is being built. Having good concept that everyone is happy with saves a lot of time and indecision down the road.

Alita Concept Art
Alita Concept Art

5.) System designers build the stats and powers of the ship. The next three steps can all happen concurrently and independently of one another. Systems designers are responsible for creating the hard numbers that determine the performance and properties of a ship. They also create any special powers the ships have and determine the bridge officer layout. Typically the stats and powers for a ship might be scheduled before the model of the ship is made, or they could all be happening at the same time.

6.) FX artist creates the visual effects for the ship’s special powers. These days almost every new ship we release, regardless of method, comes with a special console item that is tied to a unique power. That power uses visual effects (glowing, sparkles, large laser grids, etc) which are created by an FX artist. FX artists combine a variety of disciplines including 2D art, 3D art, and scripting to create these visual effects that help communicate the nature and purpose of a ship’s new power to the player.

7.) Ship artist creates the model of the ship. This step is pretty straightforward, and where I come in (unless I’ve also had the privilege to design the ship myself.) It involves the ship artist creating the final in-game model of the ship in 3D Studio Max. After the model is made, the ship artist uses a material template to “unwrap” the model, which means apply certain areas of a flat texture to specific faces on the 3D object. After THAT is done, the ship artist then executes the extensive data setup required to actually import the model into the game engine. This process includes assigning the hardpoints for where various weapons will fire, configuring the data that allows it to swap parts and materials with other ship models, and a dozen other things that need to be configured to get the ship working in the game.

Finished Alita Design Wallpaper
Finished Alita Design – Also a cool Wallpaper

8.) UI artist creates UI elements the ship uses. This part has to come at the very end because it requires every other piece of the ship process to be completed. New ships all require at least a few pieces of UI art and some UI configuration before they are ready to be released. This art includes the ship selector icon, the HUD “health bar” icon, and perhaps the “box” icon or C-Store preview art that some ships need depending on how they are distributed. The UI artist is also responsible for running a script that generates the HUD layout that automatically positions various HUD elements based on how many weapons and bridge officers a ship has.

Q1.1 Do those ships evolve in terms of capabilities as the schedule changes? Does player feedback or trends with the player impact the design or it’s abilities?

Player feedback and other data tend to inform the process mostly at the highest level, when we are determining what ships to make. Of course, player feedback for a specific power or BOFF seating arrangement is always considered and placed in the context of the matrix of raw data we have regarding player behavior. All of that works together to create a picture of what we think players will enjoy and what ship they’ll be interested in flying next (aesthetically and systematically).

Since I’m a ship artist, I am constantly considering player reactions to earlier ships in the context of the established design goals we have. We want to develop different designs that vary, while still appealing to as many of our players as possible. Therefore, sometimes it is appropriate to “lean in” and respond to player feedback and sometimes that is just another box to think outside of. 🙂

Q2: At what stage in the process does deciding the look and feel of the ship begin? You tweeted:

Q2.1: Are you given specific instructions or do you begin with a rough outline? Do you get specific directions (I like the SR71) or a sketch on the back of a napkin, or maybe the shape of an everyday object that becomes the starting point for the design?

While the process of making a ship as outlined above is pretty standardized for every player ship we make, the process of designing a ship (that is, figuring out what it will look like) can vary significantly depending on different factors. If a ship is canon, the concept artist doesn’t need to be involved at all; the ship artists just need to find all the reference they can and then execute the canon design.

If the ship is being designed by scratch from Cryptic, then we go through the whole process listed above. As for the instruction we get, it’s always different. It just depends on how much we have to work with once we determine what the ship is. If it’s a variant of the existing ship, we usually start with that as a discussion point and then talk about what shapes might make for interesting and new customization options that aren’t yet available for that family of ships.

If it’s an entirely new “family” of ships, like the Intel, Command or Pilot ships, then the process goes a lot deeper because we are starting from scratch. In that case the art lead usually has an idea of the general theme and direction he wants these ships to follow. In the ship art kickoff meeting (discussed briefly above), we will look at lots of pictures of things like animals, real-world military equipment, or other Star Trek or science fiction ships as reference points to get the conversation started.

For example, with the Pilot ships, the art lead did use modern military fighters and planes (such as the SR-71) as examples of the direction he wanted to take the new ships in. We will look at a lot of photos of whatever our reference objects are and discuss what we like and don’t like. It’s then the concept artist’s job to take all of that and synthesize it into a design that feels new and exciting will still appropriate for Star Trek and STO.

Q2.2: I’ve seen some formal working ideas nicely presented – like those for Delta Rising – Is it always presented internally that way or does it begin much simpler?

It starts out much simpler. The “Art of the Pilot Ships” blog is a great example of how the concept art stage progresses from rough thumbnails and “whitebox” 3D models to the final, fully detailed concept illustration that the ship artists use to create the in-game model:

Lootcritter: this is a pretty amazing article, worth another read. 

Q2.3 First drafts of the 2D design – is it pen & paper? Or is everything now done on the computer (I am assuming this is an artist’s preference). What tools do you prefer to use? Do you sketch?

Our concept artist uses a WACOM Cintiq, which is a large monitor that has a pressure-sensitive pen accessory so he can draw directly on the screen onto a Photoshop document.

WACOM Cintiq
WACOM Cintiq

In the few cases where I have gotten to design a ship, I usually scratch out some tiny sketches on whatever I can find the very minute I learn I’ll be the one designing the ship because my brain can’t help but thinking of how I want to approach the problem. But later when it’s actually time for me to approach the concept stage, I will use a WACOM Intuos tablet, which works similar to the Cintiq (but is not a screen) to draw my sketches digitally. Everything we do has to be digital so that we can distribute them and discuss them easily via email. It is also much easier to manipulate and experiment with digital imagery versus art on paper.

As I mentioned previously, we never work in a vacuum. Every ship design we do has to start from somewhere. Sometimes that is another Star Trek ship. Sometimes, especially when we are creating a new alien race or expanding on one barely seen, we will pull inspiration from other science fiction worlds we love or look at real-world objects or even cool animals to find the right shape that provides the “feeling” we are going for in a particular design.

This is usually assembled as a folder of reference images and can include photographs, other concept paintings, movie posters, pretty much any imagery that might help point us in the right direction for the final design.

Next Week: more behind-the-scenes on the ‘guidelines’ to ship design.

If you’ve read this far, you are also know that we’re giving away some cool ships and Zen at the end of this blog series on October 30th 2015.  Full contest rules can be found here.  We’re accepting entries after we post each blog for 24 hours only.


Question One: What software application is used to create the final ship model?

Question Two: Name your favorite Foundry author, and the name of the Mission.

How to Enter: 

  1. Subscribe to this blog, or to my twitter account. (pretty simple, 1 entry per, automatically every week)
    1. For BONUS entries: Post the answers to question one and two either on this weeks blog announcement, or in the official thread on the STO Blog.
    2. Or, Tweet you answers, including your in-game handle to @Lootcritter.