Sid wasn't really here. Sorry.

SMACX Graphics Modding Tutorials

Welcome. These articles were written ad-hoc over a number of years, and there are techniques involving multiple programs described, both to try to accommodate everyone and because what I use has changed over time. Some tutorials are written more briefly and much more heavily-illustrated for the benefit of artists who don‘t speak English as their first language; some are longer-winded and concentrate more on the artistic why of doing certain things, as opposed to the how of the simpler ones. I know it’s all a lot to digest, but I hope you’ll read everything - it’s all connected, and it all matters.

I’ve taught a lot of people to mod the AC game art on various forums over the years. Good visual modding and custom factions do so much to invigorate an old game and make it feel new again. Come join me at AC2, especially in the Modding forum, and I will be delighted to answer questions and make your acquaintance. I’ve a pretty good grasp of all the creative aspects of modding. Additionally, you'll find Modding filled with congenial gentlemen far more interested in the technical/.txt file end who can help you with that.

I’m not fishing for fan letters; (although I wouldn’t mind if that happened) I want to get to know you. I find that I actually enjoy answering questions and empowering other artists. Chatting with bright people is its own reward, and the thing that has kept my interest in the community for so long. It’s WONDERFUL to have other artists to talk shop with, so helping others pays off. I’m like you - I originally went online looking for goodies to enhance my favorite old game. I stayed for the people. Come join us, please.

Elements of a Faction Graphic

(Click on the number to see the key entry)

(click on the key number to return to the picture)

1.) The transparent background color. For SMAC (Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri), it is pink, and for SMAX (Sid Meier's Alien Crossfire[X]), purple - both work in both versions. I'd rather look at the purple, but that's up to you.

2.) The base shadow. This is a semi-transparent color that displays in the game as a darkened shadow area. SMAC shadows are tan, SMAX jet black - incidentally, you want to be careful to avoid absolute black and the particular shades the program uses for transparency effects.

3.) The stage one land base. This is where you start in the game, unless you're playing an aquatic faction.

4.) Stage two land base. As you build facilities and population, the base grows to reflect it.

5.) Stage three land base.

6.) Stage four land base; full size, and the ultimate stage.

7.) Land bases with perimeter defenses.

8.) Land bases with tachyon fields.

9.) Sea bases. Most need a platform.

10.) Sea bases with perimeter defenses.

11.) Sea bases with tachyon fields.

12.) The faction's logo as it displays in the Planetary Council screen. The lower example is the default, and the upper shows when the faction is selected.

13.) Diplomacy logo. It displays to the other factions when you talk to them one-on-one over the commlink, just as their diplomacy logo does for you.

14.) Report logo - it displays on the left in the F4 and other report screens.

15.) Small Report Logos. This is what displays in the report screens for other factions. To maintain stylistic consistency with the official factions, it is important that you match the dim blue-green color of the top, at-rest, logo.

16.) The Datalinks leader portrait. The leaderhead is important to establish the personality of the faction, the storytelling elements being what make SMACX so special, and what an art modder specializes in. As with the Small Report Logo, to maintain stylistic consistency with the official factions, it is important that you include the scanlines, or your factions won’t fit in with the Firaxis ones or the custom factions others made. The scanlines, of course, represent the low technology everyone starts with before they get the rebuilding of civilization well underway.

17.) Small Council leaderhead. This is what displays in the Planetary Council screen when you’re not planetary governor.

18.) Big Council leaderhead. This is what displays in the Planetary Council screen when you are governor.

19.) Diplomacy leaderhead. What other leaders see when they talk to you one-on-one.

20.) Diplomacy landscape. Displays in the lower right corner during diplomacy.

21.) Faction colors. Unneeded in SMAC, but please don’t leave this out just because YOU don’t have Xfire.  You ARE going to post it somewhere and share, aren't you?  Please?  These tutorials didn't write themselves, y'know...

22.) Sign your work here. It’s a very good idea to put credits in the empty space of the .pcx - fan artists repurpose each other’s work all the time, and sometimes credits in the text files get overlooked.


If creating/modifying graphics doesn’t interest you I doubt this will.

My specific examples are from Alpha Centauri, but most of the techniques, and all of the comments about the thinking behind the artistic process and decisions should be universally applicable.  The THINKING, in fact, is the main thing in this old article that is still useful.

My first purpose here is to give potential graphics guys a leg up, so I have to go into torturous detail to be really helpful, as I don’t know what they do or do not already know how to do. I don’t have a sophisticated graphics set-up at all, and do a lot the hard way in simple, common programs, but that makes it more universal, albeit perhaps often extraneous to someone with PhotoshopUltimateSuper 2020.  (Also note that if you have Windows7, most of the comments about MS Paint no longer apply, but many of the techniques will still work in other programs.)

You have been warned.

So, while working on the New Vikings (an alt. Pirates faction) today, I started a little status report with a name suggestion to send Darsnan, but things went pretty smoothly, and it turned into running notes to send with the graphic instead…

It occurred to me that a few months (years now) ago while I was a lurker looking for information about various things I wanted to learn to do, I would have loved it if someone had posted about their creation process in really boring detail, naming programs used and tools, and what-not.

And I thought that the bulk of the email [with the blow-by-blow I didn’t waste Darsnan’s time on added in brackets] would make a start.

So I’m going to try to describe the entire actual creation of an faction graphic- we’re in for a long post(s)...

I hope my process will be at least of some interest to any other artists currently active, too.


[Darsnan had suggested a name, Ulrik Magnussen, that sounded, not Finnish to me, but Norwegian. (Graphics stuff is coming- it’s all connected, anyway.)]

A Finnish name site was first hit when I looked. Because the original subject of the portrait I’d chosen was apparently named Jim, I chose a j name, Jali (yahlee), for no Jim-looking equivalent at hand, its exoticness and that it doesn’t sound as much like a chick’s name as many on that list.

Magnus was first in the M’s, so I’d say Jali Magnus was a lock, if you’ve nothing to add. Easy to remember, spell and type, too. 

[I’d already cranked up the contrast in Photoshop on the bases he’d sent me this morning .

[They were Network Node’s work, and like a lot of his bases, pretty and well-designed, but to my eye, too pastel-looking to look realistic in the game.

[(Looking at it over a year later, I should have gone to the trouble to clean up all those light pixels around the edges of the bases. They really stand out when you zoom in; small details are important if you want to do good work.

[(In fact, I now think I really muffed fixing up on this set; if I did it over, I‘d zoom in tight and do something about all the speckle-y highlight-and-dark bits all over the base {which cranking up the contrast made even worse} with careful use of the smudge tool to smooth out the flat surfaces to let the details and lines of the base stand out more - tedious work, one pixel at a time, but again, attention to detail is everything in good art.)

[Then I selected the lot and pasted them into the copy of the whole Pirates .pcx I’d previously pasted into MS Paint. I use paint for this because it’s not something Photoshop 5 is any good for- Paint lets you move your paste around before you drop it.  GIMP is good for that, though, and if you have Windows7, you can no longer do this in Paint - no “Draw Opaque“ function anymore.

[Then I opened the blank .pcx (you can get it here) with the empty AC graphics boxes that Maniac had posted sometime in the past in Photoshop (all I began using Photoshop for was opening and saving, and did all the work pasting back and forth between Paint and Lexmark Photo Editor, which complement each other nicely used this way- if either did color manipulation I’d have never gone to the trouble to learn how to use Photoshop). I zoomed on the datalink leaderhead box and selected/copied it. I switched to a second copy of Paint in which was waiting the portrait I’d prepared. (A blow-by-blow of that kind of thing is enough for its own post later.)

[I pasted in the box from blankpcx.pcx, right-clicked the sample tool in the middle to make the .pcx’s background color this copy of Paint’s background color. I then turned off “Draw Opaque” and hit [Ctrl]z to undo and make the purple-filled box go away. I then [Ctrl]w-ed to resize the image- there were several minutes of trial and error before I found 55% to be ideal for getting what I wanted of the figure to fit in the diplomacy box at what I judged was a good size for the game - ideally you want to get the figure somewhere roughly about the size in the frame of the official factions. So now I had the picture in front of me sized like I wanted with the box it had to fit in around it- I selected what was inside the box and [Ctrl]c-ed. Now it was time for the scan lines.

[(Note the change to the collar. I've erased more lapels than you'd believe to make clothes look a little more futurey. This image didn't need much work, though.)

[I think I’ve now spent more time preparing this essay than I did assembling the faction graphic- I’m going to post this much and continue later.

[Next up: manual scan-lines with an old edition of Photoshop that lacks an automatic function to do it for me. I’ll probably describe how to do it the really hard way with only Paint and any program that will adjust contrast, too.]

Scan Lines

[Continuing directly  on from the last graphics how-to post, another old article that I publish [with a few bracketed remarks written today inserted] for the illustration of the thinking behind  my process, and in the belief that some people out there will 
have old systems and need instructions for obsolete programs, or only have something they must adapt one of these techniques to be able to do scan lines.  The more advanced scan lining technique I describe first here will still work without the useless W7 MSPaint, but instead using old versions of GIMP (awkwardly) with one of the contrast-altered copies of the portrait pasted into a second window with a transparent background layer added.  Better is to download the latest version of GIMP and use the new function Filters>Distorts>Erase Every Other Row.  Two future articles will address my evolving scan lining technique, the second using the function I just mentioned and taking under a minute.  Stay tuned.]

Lacking an automatic function that will do scan lines for me, I’ve worked out two ways to do it manually. I’ll tackle them in reverse order of invention.

Once it fits the frame the way I want, I select the inside of the box [[Ctrl]c to copy] and switch back to Photoshop.

The diplomacy frame I selected still waiting, I paste in the portrait. [Ctrl]v to paste] I reselect the picture- inside the box this time- and reduce the contrast 30% [Image>Adjustments>Brightness/Contrast...] (usually- sometimes I think it needs to be brighter, and increase the contrast by the same amount, or reduce it 15% and increase the next by the same- I’ve found a 30% difference in contrast is about perfect for good scan lines.) In this case, the shot I'm working with is just a little too bright/colorful, so I'm definitely reducing the contrast. [In retrospect, I maybe should have gone -15% contrast over +15% - the original shot really looked better at its original levels.  I was still pretty new at this when I wrote it up.]

Then I paste again to drop another copy (which still has the original contrast level) on top of it.

I select a horizontal box the width of the picture, but only one pixel high, at the top of the portrait and hit delete.

I hit the down arrow key twice- which in Photoshop, moves the select box down two pixels- and hit delete again. I use a two-handed technique, hitting the delete button with a finger of my left hand, and the down arrow with a finger of my right.  As I fly down the picture doing this, pixel-wide stripes of the lower-contrast copy of the portrait underneath are revealed every other row.

When I get to the bottom, I select the whole portrait inside the frame and click Layer>Flatten Image. This makes the two copies one layer- with the scan line striping I made- that I can copy and paste into place on the copy of the whole faction graphic in the other copy of Paint.

(Then I go back to the copy of Paint holding the leaderhead, reduce it in size 80%, and repeat the process- then 73% of the datalinks size, then 60%, and I'm done with the leaderhead.)

[Now a digression about the size/crop technique I still use, though not in Paint anymore.  I don't know why I didn't write this thing in order.]

-Selecting the empty box:

and pasting it over the portrait.

(This particular portrait fit the box just right at 56% of the original I was working from. His head is centered nicely in the frame and will be about the size of the official factions in the game -just a bit on the large side. Note that I ran the bottom edge of the box off the bottom by one pixel; I'm not pasting the box back in, just the part of the picture inside it, and there's no reason to crop a pixel row's worth of his body out in favor of the nothing over his head - given that it's pretty well centered at his eyes either way.)

Note that the background color is set to the purple that's transparent in the Alien Crossfire expansion, and the lower thingy [that's the Draw Opaque off box] at the bottom of the toolbox is selected. [Look for what the arrow is pointing at, if you're stuck doing this in an old version of Paint.  (I'm very frustrated with the W7 Paint upgrade.)]

(It means the background color is transparent for stuff you paste in, like the purple inside the blue box. I paste in the box once, right-click on the purple inside with the eye dropper -looking sample tool, which sets the background color to the right shade, [control z] to back up to before I pasted, and paste it back in.)

[Now for the older, truly stone-knives-and-bearskins techniques.]

I used to do the resizing with nothing but tedious trial and error, getting something close to the right size and shape, then seeing if it fit the box, shaving off a few pixels and trying again. It took a bit longer that way, to say the least.  In those days, once I had the portrait size/cropped for each box, I’d open two copies of Paint and paste the portrait into one of them. Then I’d paste it into Lexmark Photo Editor, reduce the contrast 30%, copy it that way, and paste into the other copy of Paint.

Now for the fun part. [That was sarcasm] I’d zoom in on one of the copies of the portrait at 800%, and begin using the line tool to draw horizontal white lines one pixel wide though every other row of the picture.

It’s simpler to describe, but took 20 times as much tedious work to do. (Your eyesight is probably better than mine, so if you have to do it this way, you may find it easier than I did.) When I had done that to the whole shot, I’d paste it on top of the other copy of the picture in the other copy of Paint with Draw Opaque switched off, (white is the default background color,) resulting in a scan lined shot.

[Remember that back then I was assembling the graphic in another copy of Paint (because Photoshop5 won't let you move your pasted elements around before you deselect and drop them in,) and only pasting the whole faction graphic back into Photoshop for saving as a .pcx at once when I was finished.  Hey, it worked for me.]

Next up: fun with logos and such.



We interrupt our irregularly-scheduled program for this bulletin

[Another old how-to, but as always, edited to contain no misinformation, given what I’ve learned since.   I’m still learning how to do this stuff better as I go, too.]

Pickly had a question about changing the background colors in the (faction)2&3.pcx files with GIMP while replacing faction logos. To be honest, I use Photoshop for that because I'm used to the select tools there- so my answer wasn't as helpful as I would have liked. I've done a little testing using the Hive2.pcx now, and here's what I learned.

After loading the .pcx into GIMP, I selected Image>Mode>RGB (a lot of functions aren't available with the .pcx set to Indexed colors, so you have to switch mode to RGB, then put it back to Indexed before you save.) First, I used the square select tool to select the entirely black-and blue part.

Then I used the fuzzy select tool to add blue from the rest of the image to that- it's the fourth tool on the top row of the toolbox, a wand with a round yellow bit on the end. Mine had the threshold setting at 31. When the fuzzy select tool is in use, you can use those red mode buttons at the top of the current tool settings to add or subtract to what you're selecting. It's better to hue-shift everything you're going to change the same way at once when you can, as then you don't have to keep track of as much.

(Note the stuff the red arrows are pointing at. It's stuff you need to find to do this. I didn't find the Add and Subtract buttons right away, myself...)

After some tedious individual pixel selection, zoomed in real close -but fortunately, it's a small image with high contrast, so not TOO tedious, compared to some I've had to do just lately- I ended up with this:

[In retrospect, I should have selected those purple bits against the red to hue-shift with the rest…]  Then, Colors>Hue-Saturation. In the control that popped up I shifted the hue of everything selected -90 (to the left)- I'd arbitrarily decided I was preparing the background for a green logo- your mileage will vary- and got the following, which needed the logo erased. I used the circular select tool

Afterwards, the smudge tool and a lot of nitpicking work zoomed in close is great for cleaning up anything that doesn't look right around the edges.

Here it is at 100%, ready for your green custom logo to be added.

Saving it can be a bit of a problem in GIMP; this particular one should save fine as-is, but doing anything to the purple background in the main faction .pcx or [faction]3.pcx renders said background non-transparent.  One way around this is to add a transparent layer, use the Select by Color Tool (with the Threshold set to 0) to select all the background shade, delete it, and then select the entire pic and paste into a blanked-out copy of the .pcx, then save that.  It should already have the right palette, and you only have to Save As to change the filename to what you want.

In cases where the background transparency color is untouched, a simpler way is create a GIMP AC palette; open palette.pcx from your SMAC(X) root directory.  Windows>Dockable Dialogues>Palettes.  Right-click on the background of the Palette box>Import Palette.  Check the Image option at the top>Import.  You should now have a palette called something like palette.pcx at or near the top of the Palette box.  This probably sounds harder, but unlike the transparent background copy/paste dodge, you only have to do it once.

Whenever you save a faction .pcx, first Image>Mode>Indexed and in the Indexed Color Conversion pop-up, click Use custom palette, uncheck Remove unused colors from color map, and click on the colorbox under Use custom palette to load your palette file.  Hit Convert, then save the .pcx as you normally would.

I’ll go into this GIMP palette issue and the workarounds in more detail in future tutorials.



Processing a photo headshot into a painted-looking leaderhead

[Another brand spankin' new entry posted ahead of a lot of material.  Order is restored here.]

Some programs have automatic functions for turning photos into paintings - GIMP has oilify, which I don't think is very good.  Nothing, at any rate, substitutes for just rolling up your sleeves and doing it yourself, with your human judgment and an artist's eye.  The SMAC(X) leaderheads all originated as paintings, and your eye catches that, even if you don't realize it consciously.  So your leaderhead needs to look like a painting.  Here's how I do it.

Rainbow Lizard had a leaderhead that didn't take to the SMAC palette well, and asked me to look into it.  He supplied the original photo:

(Pay attention to the settings showing in the pictures after this; they mostly tell you how, while my comments will tend to focus on the equally important why.) 

Nothing intrinsically wrong with it; it looks like a leaderhead.  But the color level is low, as is the contrast, and the highlights too white, matching the background.  So that background's gotta go - first thing I did was add a transparent background layer-

-Start erasing the edge next to the spot -on the shoulder- I could tell was going to be most troublesome about wanting to select along with the background-

-Only to discover that those white highlights matched the background way too well for the Fuzzy Select Tool.  I gave up and used the Color Select Tool, after some trial and error, at the default setting-

-and then prepared to begin eliminating all the white inside the figure's borders with the Fuzzy Select Tool (Note the red-block mode setting in the Toolbox.  That's Subtract from the current selection)-

After a few minutes of zooming in and out and deselecting the easy bits on the visor at various Threshold levels -sometimes it would jump to deselect some background, and I would have to [Ctrl]z to back up and try again at a lower threshold- I got all but a bit on the shoulder and neck -

-and did a little more erasing (always have Hard Edge checked when erasing for this kind of thing) and deselecting the rest of the non-background was easy at a low Threshold of 5.0. and that erased border-

-So I hit [Delete] and started processing - and it's easier to adjust with no background to either require more selection of just the skin, or turning wierd while you alter the figure's colors, brightness, etc., if you don't select and leave it out.   Sometimes you like the background and want to keep it, and doing something like this to allow you to paste the figure back over it is called for, instead of in this case, where the background was in the way.

The thing is, photographs are just higher resolution than most paintings.  They contain more detail and more colors; not as many as reality, but a lot more than the average painting.  The eye picks up on the differance, even if you don't realise.  Remembering that is the key to what we're going to do here

First, fiddling with the Brightness/Contast; the image needed serious darkening, and higher contrast brings up detail and the color levels, too.  They also balance each other out somewhat.

And then I brought the Color Saturation up more directly.  This also brightened things more in a different way, and I darkened a little more to compensate.  Everything in this process is partly balancing dark and bright, and all processing/fiddling/altering, done right, results in the right kind of careful artificiality that says painting to the eye.  It was a little too red, so a minor hue-shift, to a hair yellower, too.

Next, I wanted to do something that would mess up the colors of the hair and visor, so I needed to select everything but them:

This involves a lot of zooming in and out, selecting and deselecting at different Thresholds, which is typical for the Fuzzy Select - a very useful tool, but aggravating.

Now here's the thing; human skin contains a lot more colors finely distributed, if you look closely enough, than anyone can manage in artwork, which is why it's so difficult to come up with realistic skin tones when you're going for realism.  Real skin has blues and even greens in it - we're going to reduce those in favor of more of the reds and yellows artists use.

That brought up the color levels 60%, so to compensate-

The shot before last, note the big bit of pink lined by lemon yellow in that problem area on the shoulder.  There's more up the edge of the neck and cheek, so to fix it:

Then I expanded the select to get all that lemon yellow around it and did something simular - in this case, hue-shifting back towards red a little, darkening a little, reducing the color saturation a little more - all of which browns both somewhat. (Browns are more-or-less dingy, dim, orange in computer colors.

Usually, in processing a leaderhead, I'd have done a lot of selective blurring of very fine details with the Smudge Tool on very low power, but this leaderhead is a younger person than most faction leader images, with much more smooth skin than usual in a photo that was low on that sort of detail, too.  There's a trade-off; no time smoothing/simplifying facial lines and fine speckling typical of photo headshots, but the lack of those details is precisely why it adapted so poorly to the SMAC(X) palette - nothing to break up the color patterns, which looked bad.

So, as I said, real skin is higher-resolution than painted, and has a LOT more colors.  Next, I simply change the mode of the image (literally Image>Mode>Indexed) to a lot less colors:

I change it back to RGB, so I can change the mode BACK to Indexed -- I'm hoping that now, it will take to the SMAC(X) palette, which has twice as many colors:

-But no.  That's a little better than the problematic problematic attempt I'm demonsrtating how to fix, but still not good enough.  I [Ctrl]z to back up a step, something you do a lot making graphics, and use that Smudge Tool to smear together COLORS where they are in thick bands and the areas I've learned are going to convert badly.  It's too idiosycratic to be worth trying to show.

Next, I do a little sharpening (Filters>Enhance>Sharpen) at around 30% and blurring (Filters>Blur>Blur) and sharpening and blurring, more sharpening - I'm not sure, but this has always been part of the process, and I think it works because low-level sharpening accumulates interuptions of those strange-looking color bands/patterns, and blurring every third or forth time keeps it from getting too pixelated-looking.  What I'm sure of is that it often makes a big difference in this painting thing.  It's another part you have to use that human judgment and artist's eye, and not something easy to/worth trying to show.

Then a little more selective smearing together of color patches and unwanted detail the sharpening put in with the Smudge Tool, still set to 10%, 20% at most.

One secret to helping when your work doesn't want to convert to the SMAC(X) palette well, is that sometimes, it will do better if you do the scan lines and THEN convert; the alternating contrast lines can break up those color bands/patterns, or form intermingled, alternating patterns that cancel out.

I've described the scan-line part before a number of times, but briefly:  select the entire image ([Ctrl]a, [Ctrl]c to copy, Colors>Brightness-Contrast>contrast +15-20, [Ctrl]v to paste back the copy,  Colors>Brightness-Contrast>contrast -15-20, Filters>Distorts>Erase Every Other Row> deselect.  Scanlined.

For a background, I pasted it over a Matrix thingy, as I did with my own hacker-type faction.  This is the original size of the image, but cropped to the exact porportions of a leaderhead, only a little larger:

However, the youthful look of the leaderhead, the videogame look of the logo and bases for the faction, and the attitude displayed in the leader quote in the .txt file suggests that a background consistant with youth doing as they please, such as a bright video game sorta background, like he had a game paused on the big screen behind him while he spoke on the comm, would be a better fit for this leaderhead.  It would also fit that the figure was obviously backlit to stand in front of something very bright.

Rainbow, see if these instructions are enough for you to do something with the picture - I'd rather make sure I'd empowered you to do it for yourself than just give you a file already processed.  Teach a man to fish, and all that.




[This goes after "We interrupt our irregularly-scheduled program for this bulletin-".  I've posted a few later ones out of order, recently.  As always, these older entries in the series discuss some outdated technique, but also talk a lot about the why and the thinking process, which is eternal, and at least as important.  It's the difference between hackwork and art.]

I’ve decided to change my format from talking about my working process on a faction I finished over six weeks ago to talking about what I’m doing now. I can go into more- and more educational- detail that way.
(Yesterday in the Beta Lyrae thread, Darsnan and I were discussing the possibility of changing the bases for his alt. Usurpers/Imperial Starlost Progenitors. I give these remarks about context of the work because the best game art doesn’t just look cool- it tells a story. These things have an important effect on the art decisions you make.)
The Starlost- my label, not his- were a naval survey expedition that was lost in space long before the Manifold disaster destroyed Prog civilization, or the schism between Caretakers and Usurpers. After many thousands of years in stasis, they ended up stranded on Beta Lyrea not long before the humans, and instantly came into conflict with the Autochthon- descendants of later Progenitors who were stranded there while the Starlost were in stasis and survived the Sentinels by achieving harmony with the environment. A lot of art decisions went to trying to suggest that the Autochthon are Progs gone native, and keeping a look consistent with their story.
(The Autochton are alternate Caretakers , part of my project, mostly in collaboration with Darsnan, to make alternate/splinters of the official factions. I cannot express how amusing I found it to put the aliens in log cabins.)
The Starlost want to create the infrastructure to build a starship and leave. I’ve gone for a look that says “Alien Captain Kirk down on his luck” with the art-
(From this to this . He has more scars, some of his tusks are broken and his armor is a little torn up, but somehow with the new color scheme, he looks less evil and more tired. The trimmed/capped rill horns help too, though that's largely a practical consideration for a starship crew...) thus the approach I took to the diplomacy landscape shot, changing the DL Darsnan pointed me at- of a ship in flight- to the ship grounded and very chewed up-looking.

Usurper DL

Gebazzu DL

Starlost DL

With the bases, Darsnan liked my suggestion of running elements of Usurpers and Caretaker base designs together to suggest that these guys are from before the schism.


So last night, I did a little cut and paste work to put the top of Caretaker bases over Usurper ones. I did some minor fiddling with the Usurper struts to splay them just slightly and make them look a tiny bit more like Caretaker ones. I finished by trimming down a Caretaker subsidiary building to paste at the top of all the Usurper elements as a dome-cap.
This morning, Darsnan approved the design I posted last night, and picked one of the color schemes I'd done. We’d agreed on faction color and customizing changes to the Usurper logo colors, so I was ready to begin actual assembly of the graphic.)
I opened the Usurper .pcx, and copy/pasted the whole thing into MS Paint. I scan lined the diplomacy landscape I’d gotten approved and pasted into the Paint copy.

Now it was time to put in the bases. I opened the .pcx I’d saved before I made .jpegs to post last night- of the version of the bases Darsnan chose- I’d just done the first row of bases, and saved a copy of only that. I copy/pasted it over the Usurper bases in Paint- my design covers the originals completely, so I did it with Draw Opaque off. I did the same with the next two rows, leaving a bit of the shields showing behind- which will make it easier to get the surround when I get to replacing the rest.
When I got to the first row of water bases, I had a decision to make. Some bases look okay unaltered floating; I decided these stilted ones would not. I pasted them in, which left them on top of Usurper platforms -which are pretty generic- they’re brown, though. I copy/pasted that row of bases back into The Usurper file in Photoshop, switched the mode to RGB (Image>Mode>RGB Color) to get access to advanced functions, and sampled the dark brown of the platforms. Then Select>Color Range… I set the fuzziness (how close to the color sampled it needs to stay in selecting inside the select box around the row) to 60% -somewhat exclusive and hit okay. Sometimes it takes some trial and error to get exactly what you want selected- this looked about right, with most, but not all, of the water platforms selected- the darkest parts.
Image>Adjust>Color Balance, and I was bringing up the blue and cyan to 100%, with a touch of green, (about 20% was all that didn’t make it TOO green), resulting in a dark, slightly greenish blue that matched the blue parts of the bases proper, but left the platforms looking like separate pieces. I fiddled a little with the lighter-brown bits left over with an eye towards matching them with the pale-gold highlights of the bases, but they didn’t want to select cleanly, and I decided the platforms looked good the way they already were. I then copy/pasted the row three times into the Paint copy over the Usurper water bases. Now, all that was left was to put the shields back.
In Photoshop, I opened shields.pcx- a file I made long ago of both official sorts of bare shields (and a few I invented) for just such a purpose. I pasted the Progenitor shields into a third copy of MS Paint (the leaderhead is waiting in another, but I’ve already covered that part of the process) to erase the back halves. It’s another thing that’s easier to do in Paint.

I did so with the smallest stage-one shield and copy/pasted over the smallest shielded water base zoomed in at 800%- still with Draw Opaque off, so it only superimposed the shield over the base. I saw that the shield was far wider than the remnants around the back, so I found the pip on one edge of the select box and narrowed it. I tried to match the edges of the front with the back that was already there, narrowed again, and got a nice match. I repeated the process with the next size, taking a few seconds to draw in a gap on the left with the color sample and line tools. When I’d same the same with stage 3, and tried to scroll over to the next size shield, I discovered I’d accidentally skipped the smallest sized, making extra work for myself. Oh well. I pasted the largest size -it fit this time-, needing only a few pixels drawn in on the left, as the building covered the rest.
I zoomed out a little and selected the upper parts of the row of water bases I’d just shielded -the upper parts are identical to the land bases, so this way is less work- and copy/pasted them (w/shields) over the stage-one-shield land-base row. Correction: I wanted to do it that way, but concluded that the shields sat too low in front to leave all of the water elements out of the select. Instead, I repeated the process one base at a time. Oh well- I think it’s instructive to leave my missteps in the narrative. I was able to select enough of the water row and copy/paste first to avoid having to draw any gaps in twice. Without the drawing and resizing, it took only a minute to finish the land row.
(Then I pasted the Paint master copy back into the Photoshop Usurper .pcx and saved it in an in-progress folder while I went to run a quick errand. Artists, you want to be in the habit of saving your progress often. Stuff happens.)
When I got back to work, repeating the process for the stage-two Tachyon shields went much more smoothly without the wasted time resizing- and because I did it on the land bases first and thus could copy/paste the entire row on top of the water bases smoothly.
With the bases done, it’s now time to post this and get to work on the logos…




[Describing, for the most part, how I did it in Photoshop5 - but other high-end graphic editors shouldn't prove very different.]

…Now this part is short to describe, but time-consuming and tedious in practice. We’d agreed to go with the Usurpers logo for the Starlost- but with the red parts turned blue, to match the change in the leader portrait’s shoulder-armor and the new faction colors.

There are a lot of ways to do that- the best one I’ve found for varied shades like the logos sport involves a long time zoomed in close with the Magic Wand (fuzzy Select) tool, adding all the red bits of each of five iterations of the logo. It took a lot of time and nit-picking concentration; somewhere close to an hour, I’d guess. Once I had everything selected, hue-shifting the red (and a little orange) to a royal blue didn’t take long. I’d considered using the color balance function instead, but tried the hue-shift first, (each has some benefits over the other, but a hue-shift is usually simpler) and found the result attractive.

However, I found that the yellow parts of the logos could maybe stand to be yellower, so I spent another 10 minutes or so selecting those parts of the logos- they gave me less trouble than the red parts selecting, not least because it was for an intensifying, not an outright color change, so it was less important if I missed the odd pixel.

This time I did use the Color Balance function (Image>Adjust>Color Balance, as opposed to Image> Adjust>Hue/Saturation-[in GIMP, the same functions are found under the Colors menu instead]). I shifted the yellow/blue slider all the way over to yellow. It didn’t make a huge difference, but I thought the logos looked great now. The yellow bit in the center of the Usurper logo clearly was supposed to be a star, something I’d never noticed with the orange parts surrounding it. Against shades of blue, however, it stands out as a star, and looks perfect for the symbol of an stellar exploratory expedition.

The only thing left to do now to complete the graphic was to make my standard changes to the Small Report Logos. I used the sample color and pencil tools in Paint to draw it in by hand. With other logos, especially original ones I made, I sometimes shrink the other logos to fit, but here, adding some color by hand to the pre-existing SRLs seemed best. I sampled the predominant shade of each section of the logo and added it by pencil until I was happy with how it looked.

I selected the result and pasted it into the blank pcx I’d used for scan lining the portrait and diplomacy landscape. I selected the box the logo was in, sampled the transparent background color of the .pcx and reduced the contrast of the logo 50%. This darkened the logo, but also changed the color of the background enough to ruin the transparency, so I switched foreground and background colors to save the original color I’d need in a second, sampled the new background color, clicked Select>Color Range and set the slider to zero before hitting okay. This caused it to select only the exact shade that I’d sampled- the darkened background and nothing of the logo. Then I clicked Edit>Fill, and with it set to use Background Color at Threshold mode with opacity at 100% I hit okay, which filled the selection with the original, transparent-in-the-game, background color.

I carefully selected the logo- except the bottom row of pixels- and pasted it back in the right place in the master copy in Paint, set one pixel lower in the box than the other two. Doing this with the middle, mouse-over, logo causes it to seem to leap slightly forward in-game when your pointer passes over it. I think it’s a neat effect, and I do it in all my faction graphics.

Having already changed the faction colors and dropped in the new leader portrait, the graphic was now done. All that was left was to “sign” it and post. When done with the credits I always add to left over space in the graphic, I copy/pasted the master image back into Photoshop, Image>Mode>Indexed Color, loaded the SMACX palette to be sure all the colors were kosher with the game, and seeing no problems with the result, saved, zipped it up, and posted for Darsnan.

Next up: (maybe) Why you should sign your work, IMO.



His and Her Nerds

So I needed a new leader for my alternate/splinter Data Angels. After I collaborated to varying degrees with Darsnan on graphics for splinter factions he’d created for his Eye of the Believer scenario, I kept going to make a complete set of alternates to all the official factions. The alt. Data Angels were the 14th, and would complete the project.

(Actually I’d already done more than one alternate for some of the factions- if I include overhauls I did of someone else’s custom factions, the Cannabis League and Mindworms with Minds, I’d done the Gaians four times.  [Then if you include the alt. Gender leaders project - well, I once played a novelty sp game with four Gaian variants and three Planet Cult that I called "Attack of the Eco-clones".])

So over a month ago [years now], I solicited ideas for the alt. Angels in the “Alternate Official Factions in Progress” thread. Sexymindwworm said “Microsoft”, Psyringe said “nerd”, and I said “Japanese”.

Thursday or Friday night, I googled for pictures of Japanese nerds. I was surprised not to find a lot more than I did - it was really slim pickin's. I saved a few nerd photos- you never know when you might have use for the images you don't use now, later - and loaded my favorite into Photoshop to begin working it over. The nerd was holding up a computer chip, and since it was hard to make out, I decided to take the hand and chip alike out of the picture.

Before I began working on that, it began to dawn on me that there was a problem. The big chin had fooled me in the thumbnail - this wasn't a very young guy, it was a woman. And a subtly good-looking one when you looked close, at that. See the before and after shots later on.

I pasted the picture into MS Paint, because the first step of turning her into a man would be some copy/paste work to alter the proportions of her face- and as I’ve said before, I find Paint easier to use for copy/paste work than Photoshop5 or Photoshop CS, though these days I use GIMP. I started by zooming in very close and selecting a box that took in most of her chin, and copied it. Then I pasted it back in moved down by one pixel. Then I did it again. Pasting twice moved one pixel each time instead of once moved two pixels keeps the edges of the box-of-face you’re pasting in from showing much as the shading of the face changes along its contours. Then I selected a bigger box that took a bit more of the chin in both directions- you don’t want to paste in the same edges too many times, or it makes a funny pattern- and did it again. The photo was nearly twice the dimensions of the portrait I was working towards, so this wasn’t a big change, but enough to make a prominent chin moreso.

I did the same sort of thing with her jaw line, moving it outward to make the face bigger. Likewise for lengthening her nose. Raised the peaks of the cheeks up and out- Japanese as well as male, remember. It looked like a dude with plucked eyebrows and light makeup now- but- I saw what it still needed then. I proceeded to widen his neck.

So after- I dunno, maybe an hour or two of this; it’s hard to keep track of time when you’re deep in right-brain concentration- I copy/pasted the whole shot back into Photoshop and began using the smudge tool to erase the hand and chip.

There’s a million things I did in the next couple of hours that I could show you if you were in the room with me, but can’t describe in any reasonable length - the process is too intuitive. I smoothed out suspicious irregularities/regularities I'd created around the edges of all the copy/pasting.  I squared those tapered eyebrows and changed the shape of the eyes, removing all the mascara and eyeliner that didn’t stand out a lot, but definitely looked female- all with the smudge tool. I wasted a lot of time trying to select the upper lip and lower face with the magic wand- some things select easy, and others refuse to select just what you want no matter the sensitivity settings, and this was one of the latter. I eventually got something in the right neighborhood selected after far too long trying, and reduced the color saturation and brightness just a tad to make a (bad) five o’clock shadow. (Which, alas, later vanished anyway between the effects of processing the color to make it look painted and the limitations of the SMAC(X) palette, which is not kind to subtle shading.)

His lips were a bit too full and too pink to look male- I selected the lips and reduced the color level a bit, then narrowed them with the smudge tool. I did a lot of things to make him look male and Japanese, far too many to describe in full- if you have talent, you should be able to figure it out like I did. I can’t really draw, and have to depend on nit-picking patience and perfectionism to compensate.

I gave him a haircut- the hair was too full in back where it peaked around the neck, and shortening it there looked more masculine; same for making the hair on top less poofy. I left the long, full, bangs, though, because they looked nerdy.

An easy thing I did towards the end was to make his shirt look a little future-y. I did something I do a lot- removed the lapels from his collars. They stuck up straight now, and no one but me may notice, but the devil is in the details in these things.

It was time to make it look like a SMAC-style painting now. I pasted the shot into GIMP to use Filters>Artisitic>Oilify on very low settings - high settings, even medium, turn your image way too impressionistic. Then I pasted back into Photoshop and spent a long time fiddling with hue/saturation and color balance. It’s another intuitive thing impossible to describe in detail, but the idea is to end up with a narrower range of colors than a photograph. With the color balance function, I generally brought up the red, magenta and yellow at the expense of the blues, greens and cyans- real human skin has a trace of those tints, and paintings tend not to. I kept bringing up those rosy orangey colors, then reducing the color saturation to compensate. There was a good deal of fiddling with the brightness and contrast, too. Also blurring and sharpening to blend my mistakes rearranging in, and carefully reduce the realism further.

Finally, I loaded the SMAC palette- this is one of the only times you’ll like the limitations of the 256-color palette -when the image takes to it well, anyway- because it reduces the range of shades of the skin, making it look even more like a painting. The result was a face that was a little blotchy-skinned- which is ordinarily a lot of work to smooth out, but perfect for a nerd. All the processing had turned the highlights of his hair faintly red, so I selected his hair and turned it back to blue.

The faint background was long wiped out by now, so I selected it, deleted it to the white background color and went looking for a new background to paste the figure onto. The hacker theme made me think of the green on black Matrix thing, which I had no trouble googling. I pasted the figure onto that- and hey! The numbers of the shot I found were Japanese. Perfect. (That background ended up giving me the color scheme I used for the rest of the elements of the faction later- green and black.)

[I believe I blurred and sharpened the whole once or twice, too, to blend them together a bit.  The alternative is a lot of time zoomed in very close with the Smudge tool scaled small at low power, working around the edge of the pasted-figure.  (Anyone who's ever spent much time shooping any photos will have noticed that the edges of people in photographs blend in with their background, or it would be a heckuva a lot easier to make convincing slanderous fakes of Sarah Palin.)  I probably spent a few minutes going around his edge with the Smudge tool, but I don't remember adding the excellently faint greenish tones near his edges, and that looks to be a happy accident of blur/sharpening.]

So I added scan lines and dropped the portrait in, then saved and went to bed.

… the next morning when I looked at it, I decided that his jaw was too robust to look really Japanese, so I ended up spending a while with a pre-scan lined copy I’d saved (always save a .bmp or .png before you do the scan lines- you end up needing to revisit the portrait for further alterations or something often enough that you’ll be glad you did) and spent some time slimming his jaw and making his chin more pointed. Now he looked  reasonably Japanese. I re-scan lined and dropped him in again…

Voilą!  The leader of Node Masters - he was project manager on the Network Nodes for MorganSoft before he struck out on his own; he left a backdoor in each one...


Not long after, as part of a collaboration with Maniac on fixing up the suckier SMAniaC (I tried to talk him into changing it to SManiAC for symmetry and the AC ending, but no dice) factions, I used the original shot again for a SMAniaC faction (The Genesis, replacing a pasty-white creepy mutate), leaving her caucasian and a her this time. Perhaps the difference in process will be educational.

[More than I regret my fuzzy memories of my process on a job I did three years ago, is now that I'm tarting up an old tutorial with pictures, I find that I saved so few pictures of the stages he went through.  Fortunately, I have a little more of the female version.]


As you can see, she went through very simular, opposite, steps.  I thinned her jaw line and made her chin less prominent - and took out the cleft.  I made her hair fuller on top and longer in back, though I kept the unruly bangs untouched again - they're still nerdy.  In fact, I deliberately added unruly escaped hairs around the edge of her hair, since the fluffing up had smoothed things out; it's perfect for a non-vain busy lab wonk.  (ProTip: When it comes to straight up redrawing elements of a portrait, hair is easy, at least with the handy-dandy Smudge Tool.)

I tapered the shape of her glasses frames; it's a subtle cue, but squareness of the originals was one of the things that  looked superficially male and fooled me until I took a good look.  I gave her a nose job.  I turned her shirt into a lab coat.

I am proud to say that I reckon I made her noticeably better-looking without making her too good-looking.  She still belongs in a genetics lab, but has just enough of that sexy librarian thing going that grows on you until you'd totally like to make out with her if she'd let you.

Maniac's reaction was "I love Dr. Nerdinia!" (my nickname for her.)  He just meant that she's a good character image - I think.


[Amusingly, only as I edit this together do I realize that the original was wearing a cloth headband, strangely-placed toboggan, or a snood, of which more is left, when you look for it, on him than her.  If my eyes worked, I'd be a very dangerous artist, but the much sharper monitor I have now helps.  I don't think I ever spotted the nose ring before, either, but it's completely gone, anyway, for both of them.]

Neither leader stands out in my memory as being especially a lot of work, as leaderheads go, and people could play the two together with little more reaction than thinking they must be related - which ought to be a good characterization/background/story point.   (Not the only portrait I've used on more than one faction - I could easily play another novelty game called plain "Attack of the Clones" with no hippies or completely identical leaders.)

Below's the line-up, original alongside both final versions.  They're a good example of the universe of possibilities you have for taking source material in many directions if you're good and think.





AC Palette

If you're going to mod SMAC(X) graphics, eventually you'll run into the "blue (or pink) box around my bases" problem...

Do this. Load palette.pcx. That's the color guide the game uses. Save it as a palette your graphics program can use. In Photoshop5, that's done through Image>Mode>Color Table. Choose the Save option on the right of the pop-up. In the pull-down beside Save As, choose Microsoft Palette (*.PAL) and save.

To create a GIMP AC palette; open palette .pcx from your SMAC(X) root directory (any untouched faction.pcx should do, but with this one you can feel sure).  Windows>Dockable Dialogues>Palettes.  Right-click on the background of the Palette box>Import Palette.  Check the Image option at the top>Import.  You should now have a palette called something like palette.pcx at or near the top of the Palette box. 

Whenever you save a faction .pcx, first Image>Mode>Indexed and in the Indexed Color Conversion pop-up, click Use custom palette, uncheck Remove unused colors from color map, and click on the colorbox under Use custom palette to load your palette file.  Hit Convert, then save the .pcx as you normally would.

Load that palette always before you save your work- some color manipulation alters the default palette, and stuff doesn't always display the same in-game. Doing this can head off a lot of problems.

By the way
The sun in Alpha Centauri is always to the right at a late-afternoon angle.

Remember this when you're lighting your bases- they WILL look subtly wrong if you get them turned the wrong way. I have seen others do this with otherwise excellent bases. Do not flip my nice Deadlock bases horizontally, and then credit me like it was MY fault.

(Do not forget to credit me when you steal adapt my stuff, either. I don't mind being ripped off- I’ve done it to others in the past, but I did credit them.)

Signing your work

It was very hard work you did; take pride, man, and take credit.

What I'm talking about is putting some text into the empty spaces of the .pcx files claiming responsibility. Network Node often did this. I always do it.


Because I'm proud of my work. I can't speak for you, but I often don't bother to have a look at any text files included with other people's art, and you ought to make it easy for me and others.

So why should you do it?

Because I might rip you off for one of my projects. Not wholesale; but for instance, Darsnan has designed several faction graphics by telling me to take the bases from Network Node faction Y and the logo from faction X, and- you get the idea. We all poach from each other all the time, (that's just the way fan creative endeavors are) and it's a good idea to stick your handle in every file you've worked on that you can.  (DO be aware that not everyone shares my relaxed attitude about stealing repurposing, and respect the wishes of those who don't want to be robbed, should you become aware of them.)

Try to give credit when you rip me someone off. It's cool; I'll credit you when I poach from your work. Take it as the complement that it is when your stuff is worth stealing- but be sure to have signed it...

[All these passages were written a long time ago, when I'd recently done a few factions that involved punching up someone else's work, and I'd been collaborating with Darsan, doing it the way described above once or twice.  I stand behind my remarks, but haven't adapted another SMACer's art in years.  It's an even prouder thing to do all-original work, especially as you get a body of work under your belt, gaining skill and confidence.  It's not a bad way at all to get started, though.]

A thought on cropping leaderheads

When you have any choice- the shot you're working with is a different shape than you need, for instance, or when the diplomacy sizing comes out a pixel wider & taller- about the positioning of the leader's face, I'd suggest going for whatever tend to center the leader's eyes in the box. Sometimes there's a reason not to do so, but basically it's a video conference, and we're assuming they've got something better than a webcam over their monitor.

The leaderhead, ideally, is looking straight at the player in most cases. Get those eyes as close to the center of the box as possible.

Network Node Factions

I've mentioned poaching from Network Node's work. Network Node was a SMACer and an associated website that is now defunct. There was an amazing quantity of custom factions there, many if not the majority, I gather, by NN himself. It's a wonderful source of material to poach from. For me, not least because I don't feel as comfortable with generating bases from scratch as most of the other elements.

Maniac, who isn't completely helpless with a graphics program but is no artist, patched together several of the original faction graphics for SMAniaC from NN factions and used others wholesale (later, I came along and made him the replacements and improvements used in the latest release, but his patchwork creations were quite servicable.)

I’ve posted a giant .zip of all the NN factions -originally provided by Maniac- in our Downloads:;sa=view;down=102

No faction artist should be without it.

Ready-made projects for the faction artist...

Are you an artist in need of a project? Go to Apolyton and search the AC archives - there were about 10 million custom factions posted in the old days, most of them without graphics. In fact, if you're like me, you've downloaded a few custom factions from various sites' Download section only to find them artless, or with an existing faction's art, or graphics half-customized, but with Hive bases.

Well, make some of those poor things some proper full faction graphics. (That's how I came to do the Texas faction art to be found on my factions page.)  It'll keep you as busy as you want to be for quite a long while...

Managing all your files

If you're like me, you're going to end up with a god-awful pile of files related to graphics projects- other peoples' factions you've downloaded, pictures you've used or thought you might use, your finished faction graphics, .zips of your finished graphics, saves of crucial stages in something you worked on- stuff like that.

In one of my SMAC(X) directory copies,  I have it mainly divided into three sub folders I created: Factions, Web page, and Graphics. I dump factions by people I don't know in the Factions folder, which has many sub folders. Because I maintain a web page for my custom factions, I try to put any .zip files in one place there, (and also any thumbnails and screen shots for the page,) and the Graphics folder started for general stuff in progress, and has evolved into my main workspace/storage in the SMAC(X) folder. It has numerous sub folders, too; A lot of my work these days involves multiple factions as a set, and increasingly I need to dump all related files somewhere together to help me keep track.  I have an AC2 subfolder for forum icons and forum-business  art in general.  I have a (bulging) avatars sub; I have folders named after various people I’ve collaborated with, where I keep stuff related to those projects.  Many of the subs have subs.

My system has evolved as I went, and I cannot urge anyone just getting into this hobby enough to not dump stuff into the root folder like I sometimes did at first. That's where blank.pcx.pcx and my blank shields file, shields.pcx reside to this day [writing a long time ago] - two files I use in making almost every new faction graphic- and while I was thinking about it, I just moved those two to Graphics where they'll be slightly easier to find when I want them.  [It’s saved a lot of time, since]

And BTW, I have another graphics-related folder: Official Factions. See, for graphics play testing, it's quicker to replace, say, the Gaian graphic in the root folder and have a look at an old game save. This increasingly resulted in it being a pain when I needed an original faction for something -I’ve done a LOT of modding, and had to do a LOT of play testing; before I did something about it, it got where I had virtually every faction spanning three copies of SMAC(X) replaced or altered- so I finally broke down and made a backup folder for all the official factions; the text files, too, and I get a lot of use out of the folder and save a good deal of time having them where I know they'll be waiting unaltered.

Your mileage may vary, and you'll want to develop a filing system that you're happy with, but I daresay that any modder of any flavor will back me up on this: you need to keep your modding-related files organized, or you will be sorry. Dedicated folders are your friend.


I think the merits are probably highly variable according to your nature, but I recommend getting into collaborations when you can. I’ve found that, having put so much work into a graphic, it bothers me very much when I post one and get little or nothing in the way of comments.

A month or so into my first SMAC forum, someone eventually told me he loved my stuff, but generally didn’t have anything to say about it. That’s a big reason that I go to so much trouble to engage new artists when they pop up; I know how sad and infuriating the sound of crickets chirping in response to good work is.  Believe me, I know from extensive bitter experience.   Knowing that it probably has more to do with (especially) the text modders -and SMACers in general- just not having the visual vocabulary to express their reactions does little to mollify your inner child.

I fell into my first collaboration when I glanced over someone’s scenario- it featured splinter factions, but was all text. I offered to do some graphics and put a face on it- and we were off to the races. There are a lot of things I like about working with a partner on a project- kicking around ideas is fun- but the thing I liked best was having someone not only take, but express, interest in my work.

The ideas discussion of the work can inspire you to is wonderful, too. Have a look at any of the many threads in which I worked on collaborations, scattered over four AC forums, including here at AC2 - I think it shows what a good time we're having almost every time.   The play of ideas and different perspectives is wonderful.  Over very many collaborations over years, I've only had one fail to complete because of creative differences (Don't tell your artist how to crop portraits when you're not an artist and he insists the difference is important.)  It's grand fun when it's working out right.

Also, I became friends with modding giants like Darsnan and Maniac through collaborating with them.

Now, collaboration may or may not be for you. Larry Niven likes to say that in a collaboration, both sides have to do 80% of the work. A certain amount of time has to be devoted to reconciling your respective visions. Outright arguments can break out.

The worst part is the waiting. When you’re all fired up and wanting everything now, no matter how great your collaborator is to work with, he’s not going to post instantly to answer your questions or whatever. You have to live with waiting a day or more sometimes.

There are compensations, though. -I’m just sayin’.


I see that I've only addressed logos in one specific case that isn't helpful in cases of making something completely original.

Logos are usually the easiest part of a faction graphic, barring faction colors. All you need is a simple symbol that looks like something at the size you need. If you know what sort of thing you want, Google will almost never fail you; when it does, logos aren't that hard to draw from scratch. (And I can't draw worth mentioning.)

A couple of notes, though. I feel it's important to follow the example of the originals in having the lower report and council logos dimmer. It's just a nice effect when they light up while mouse-overed, and you want them to match the official factions when played together.

This is very easy to do. Reduce the contrast for the box it's in around 50%, then put the background color back. Simple. (Watch out for isolated bits of background enclosed within the logo, though.)

Now, making the at-rest small report logo conform to the official style is a bit more complex. I reduce the contrast about 75% (depending on how much color that leaves), then in Photoshop it's Image>Adjust>Color Balance, and bring up the Cyan, Green and Blue levels 50%, then Image>Adjust> Hue/Saturation and bring the color saturation back down 50% to compensate. If the result is a dim greenish-blue, you're probably done. If it still has some color left, more fiddling is in order. I like the at-rest logos to pretty much match the look of the official ones; otherwise, they're sort've a sore thumb to my eye.

A deviation from the official style I always use (because I think it's an improvement) is to make the bottom small report logo full color, and the middle, (mouse-over) one reduced in contrast 50%, plus lowered a single pixel in its box. That causes it to seem to light up and leap forward slightly when your mouse passes over it, then move back into place and light up more when clicked on. I think it's a neat effect, myself.

Good art modding requires pedantic attention to trivial details- and I'm still learning as I go.

Sources for Portraits and Diplomacy Landscapes

Unless you’re a rare bird like Kilkakon, who draws well enough to generate his own leaderheads from scratch, when you don’t have something too specific in mind, Google Images is your friend.  Google “portrait” and spend some time poking around.  Google “painting” and “portrait painting” to find a lot of stuff that needs a lot -and I really mean a lot- less work to get SMAC(X) compatible than a photo.  I even made a good leaderhead from a black and white drawing once, which saved me no work, but was a fun artistic exercise.

Here’s a leaderhead gold mine that I haven’t begun to exhaust:

That’s a specific page (in the 40’s) of a Time magazine cover gallery - they started with the full-color paintings in the 20s or 30s, and only switched to photos in the 50s or 60s, I seem to recall.  Some are more suitable in style than others, and all the important people portrayed dressed like they were in the year they were in, but it’s still a wonderful source of leaderheads.

Also look for painters’ websites.  Some of them watermark everything and ruin it, but they’re not as prone to that as photographers are, and are another good source for images of people that need far less work to produce leaderheads in an AC-compatible style of painting at the right level of realism.

Here is an example of  the sort of things to be found on an artist’s site:
I’ve pretty much mined this particular site out, so go find your own painter to rob.

Likewise, architect’s sites are sometimes a good source of  futuristic base and diplomacy landscape fodder, sometimes from the same shot, sometimes you can luck out and get something good from very different angles.

Just the diplomacy landscape shots is ease itself if you only want a generic futuristic cityscape.  Try googling “futuristic cityscape”, for instance.

Deviant Art will require wading through mountains of crappy scrawls and stuff so cute it would turn even Kilkakon off, but also has tons and tons of wonderful stuff to repurpose, too.

Also, don’t forget the Network Node factions and/or my Custom Factions page, and that I’m not very proprietary as long as I’m properly credited and you’ve never done me a bad turn.  Both are important, IMO, and that's not entirely a joke.

(Now, I've talked about how important giving credit within the community is.  I honestly see no ethical problem with adapting something from a total stranger who will never be affected at all in any way by a limited-release non-profit fan project, and see no point in detailing what outsider I lifted my starting-point material from - and I take my ethics seriously.  It's textual poaching, according to a dissertation I once read, and fandoms do it.  Don't play about due credit within the SMAC(X) community, though.)

There's a lot of stuff out there, so just google it, man.

Good hunting.



Cutting Bases from Screenshots

So since I'm deep into it anyway, I thought I'd take a few screenies and talk about how how I do it and why I do it that way.  Someone might benefit.  Check out the red arrows, and you'll have exact instructions for doing it in GIMP.

Screenshots from other games are one of the best sources of bases, especially if you lack the art skills to create convincing ones from scratch.  Be sure they are lit from your right, unless you can rework the lighting, and want to go to the trouble.  This is tedious work, but anyone can make excellent bases this way.

So I loaded up the screenshot and selected a box around Aztec university with Rectangle Select Tool.  Image>Crop to Selection.  Easy. 

I also cut the town center out of this screeny - after selecting File>Create>From Clipboard.  Save the result for working on later.  Simpler than reloading the screenshot again later.  I've cut as many as five buildings from the same screenshot when I lucked out and they were all unobstructed and workable.

Now Layer>Transparency>Add Alpha Channel.  (Incidentally, you'll want to get rid of the ruler guides, which default on every time in my copy of GIMP and take up space; I never, ever use them.  That's View>uncheck Show Rulers.)

Then with the Eraser Tool scaled all the way down to one pixel and Hard edge checked, I begin working my way around the edge of the structure.  You only need a one pixel "moat" between the edge and the rest you're getting rid of, and it saves time to not fool with fitting anything bigger around the tight spots.  Bear with me.

You'll want to zoom in and out frequently, to get a sense of what you're working with in the bit you're on at the moment - sometimes it's easy to tell what's building and what's not, but sometimes it's pretty tough.  Note all those dingy green pixels I pointed out.  I actually had to [Ctrl]z and back up a couple of steps when I realized I'd been chopping out part of the building.

When you've gone all the way around, click Fuzzy Select Tool with Threshold cranked up to about 200 anywhere outside the structure and transparent border.  If you've done it right, it'll look like this, and you can hit Delete...

...But if the structure selects, too, you've probably left some pixel corners touching, as pictured above.


These Age of Empires II screenies all come out tall/distorted, probably because of my widescreen monitor and AoE2 saving screenies to its own folder as .BMPs.  It throws the perspective off pretty bad sometimes.

So, Image>Scale Image>unclick the proportionate dealy pictured, and figure out how much to reduce the hight - I mostly use trial-and error, backing up and redoing it until it looks right to me me.  The result is pictured below.

Good hunting.



Scanlines in GIMP made simple, fast & easy

Our researchers have made a breakthrough.

Last night, I discovered a feature in GIMP that takes over half the steps out of scanlining and turns a 10-15 minute chore into something I was able to do in 55 seconds - I timed myself.

To illustrate the process, I worked from the version of ariete's male-led faction he posted this morning. I selected the largest portrait, copied, File>Create>From Clipboard (you can skip this step if you're working from the transparent-background assembly copy, but I needed the Brightness-Contrast available in an RGB mode copy, and I couldn't do that in a indexed .pcx without making more work for myself.) I went to the new copy, Colors>Brightness-Contrast>Contrast -15>Okay. [Ctrl]v, Colors>Brightness-Contrast>Contrast +15>Okay.

-All that should be familiar by now. Here's the innovation:

That's Filters>Distort>Erase Every Other Row. (Notice in the Layers box that the second pasting I'm working on now is still a floating layer as long as I leave it selected) -

This pop-up appears:


That's Rows (NOT Columns) Even/Odd doesn't matter, Erase.

Hit Okay, and you get:

Deselect and you get:

Notice the Layers box says just one layer now - no Flatten Image step.

That there's ready for [Ctrl]a, [Ctrl]c, and paste it back into the faction graphic. Easy.

Good hunting.



Transparent Colors, the AC Palette Problem in GIMP and a Transparent Layer workaround

To my monolithic dismay, since I got back into the graphics modding saddle recently [last November],  finding myself confined to GIMP for the moment, along with changes in the Windows 7 version of Paint and my own rustiness, have left me a major learning curve I really didn’t expect. I never thought I’d have to figure out yet another way to do scanlines at my level of experience.

I certainly was shocked to find out I was getting the old ‘blue boxes around my bases’ problem at THIS late date.

In short, anything you do to the transparent background purple (or pink if you’re vanilla SMAC) will no longer be transparent in the game, and that naturally sucks real hard.  In Photoshop, sampling the background and doing a fill is all it takes to fix it - GIMP doesn’t take care of as much color stuff automatically ‘under the hood‘ for you, and replacing the exact same background color doesn’t work.  Loading the palette in GIMP doesn’t fix this. 

-Also, there a shade of blue that displays a mustard brown in-game, but I’ve only seen that be a problem with one faction that used that exact shade a lot in the leaderhead.

I don’t know if this was a Windows 7 change or what. I’d like to know, but what matters is that I found a workaround:

I assemble my factions in a blank .pcx. You can find a copy  here:;sa=view;down=65 (Look around the Downloads folder that file's in for a lot of other useful goodies and remember who yer buddy is.) Open a copy. I'd advise creating a palette from it before doing anything else - Windows>Dockable Dialogues>Palettes. Right-click on any palette in the menu>Import Palette. Check Image, the second option, below Gradient, and blankpcx.pcx(and a number) and import.

To get a transparent background copy to do the assembling in, Layer>Transparency>Add Alpha Channel. Then Select>By Color>click on the purple background>Delete.

(Or save a step using the Select by Color Tool in the Toolbax indicated by the red arrow above.) Now you should have the guide boxes and nothing else against a gray-checked background (the gray checks let you know it's a complete transparency).

You'll need to Image>Mode>RGB to turn on a lot of the functions in GIMP (same for Photoshop), especially color manipulation. When you’re finished and/or need to check how a color will look in the SMAC(X) palette, Image>Mode>Indexed>check Use custom palette>click on the colored square>pick the palette you made, and uncheck Remove unused colors from colormap. (While it's in Indexed mode, you can reload the palette with Colors>Map>Set Colormap.. - click on the Palette Default box in the pop-up and choose your palette.)

When the faction is finished, or at least ready to test, paste the whole thing into an unaltered copy of blankpcx.pcx ([Ctrl]a>[Crtl]c>bring up the unaltered copy with the purple>[Ctrl]v) and Save As with the filename you want. For playtesting, I usually replace the Gaians.pcx and have a look in an old gamesave with many Gaian bases - you'll wanna back up/save a copy of the graphic you're replacing, or course.

It's harder to explain than do, really. It surely sounds complicated until you've done it - then it will be no big deal.

Have fun.



Creating a SMAC(X) Faction Logo

As has become my recent practice, I’ll be giving details of which buttons I pushed in GIMP - for instructional purposes, it seems to be the best choice for a powerful graphics program available for free to all…

So, for the SMACivilization SpaceMayans (the Astral Jaguar Cult) faction logo, I chose this shot out of several Alexander had posted:

It was perfect for our needs and wouldn’t be difficult to convert.

I cropped it down to the full-color shot in the corner

(Rectangle Select Tool to make a box>Image>Crop To Selection). I cranked up the contrast 60% and darkened 30% (Colors>Brightness-Contrast) to bring up the black lines, mostly. We’d talked about making the blue green, so I selected that part (Fuzzy Select Tool with Threshold at 105) and hue-shifted (Colors>Hue-Saturation>top (Hue) slider moved left until it was very green (-45 in this case)). The yellowish part was looking distinctly orange now, so I did the same there (selecting it took more time at lower power because the red part wanted to select, too - I had to click on the yellowest pixels, then change the Fuzzy Select Mode to Add to the current selection at a threshold of 25) then (Colors>Hue-Saturation>Hue +30). I was going for a typically Mexican color scheme, too, thus green and yellow instead of blue and orange.

Then to get rid of the black border and give me a transparent background to work with later, (Layer>Transparency>Add Alpha Channel. Fuzzy Select Tool at threshold 41 selecting the black background>[Delete].) I cropped out all that superfluous border (Image>Autocrop Image) and deselected the empty space left. Because I wanted to bring up the contrast again to bring out the lines, and raising contrast brings up the color saturation, I lowered the color levels in advance (Colors>Hue-Saturation>bottom (Saturation) slider -50%). Then Colors>Brightness-Contrast>Contrast +70%.

Then I loaded the SMACX palette to see if I was done yet (Image>Mode>Indexed…>checked Use custom palette>clicked on my palette file>unchecked Remove unused colors from color map>Convert) and I nearly was. I Scaled the pink Eraser Tool down to 0.01 in the Toolbox and clicked Hard edge, zoomed in and spent a minute erasing some very dark pixels around the edge.

The difference from the last shot doesn't jump out at you, but matters.  If you're not able/willing to nit-pick the fine details, you'll not make a very good grapics modder.

Now, time to paste it in. I loaded blankpcx.pcx, Layer>Transparency>Add Alpha Channel, Select by Color Tool>click on the background purple>Delete.

I went back to the GIMP window with the logo I‘d just prepared, [Ctrl]a>[Ctrl]c, went back to blank, zoomed in on the upper Council Logo box, the largest, selected the inside of the box to measure how much space I had, (86wX72h - who can remember?)

And pasted the logo in ([Ctrl]v) - surprisingly, it was already the right size.  That’s never happened before.

I repeated the process at the upper Report Logo box - it was one pixel too tall to fit, so Layer>Scale Layer>reduce by one>deselect (Reduced proportionally{just as well leave this one square}. Deselect to drop it in.) Then repeated the same process in the lowest Small Report Logo box, and the Diplomacy Logo box, being careful to center it.

And then I saved as AstralJaguarCult.png (.png to preserve the transparent background until I’m ready to save the final .pcx copy). I was done with this stage (I’ll come back to this later and make the duller versions for the other boxes when I get to the scanline part) unless Alexander wanted the logo more “outer space” when he sees it, in which case I’ll suggest superimposing a (sacrificial) dagger w/ a glowing light saber-ish blade. That should also keep me from having to re-do any of this…

Like most things graphical, I just took hours explaining something I could have done in minutes - it only sounds difficult because I explain in such tedious detail for instructional purposes. Logos are the easiest part -though this one was easier than most, and sometimes I just draw something, which I couldn‘t do well enough with bases, portraits and landscapes- you can do this.



The Artistic Side of Leader Portraits  - And Size/cropping the End Result

So, for the SMACivilization SpaceMayans, The Astral Jaguar Cult, Alexander posted this:

Now, I wasn't wild about this shot - it has a lot going for it; a beautiful background and a strong sense of calculating, ruthless, personality in the figure - (the story-telling part of Alpha Centauri is very important, and the look/attitude of the leaders is the most important visual part of that) - but the face is drawn in a very stylized, unrealistic way, with heavy lines and little or no sense of depth. Also, the blue crown thing looks flat.

So, the first thing I did was set to working on the face with the Smudge Tool at small Scale and low Rate; I won’t try to describe every little thing I did, as it would take a week to write and no one would read it - also, I would still be working on it two days later, because stopping to type what I did every time I do something slows me down by a factor of ten, at least.

But I zoomed in close with the smudging at low power and started blurring the lighter areas onto the black lines, smearing them into something more diffuse, like the shaded lines in a real face, and less like drawn lines. I made the cheek lines around the mouth more curved, eliminated or lightened all those deep, sharp, straight, unrealistic lines radiating from the area where the brow, eyes and nose converge. I honestly can’t draw all that well, but I’m a pretty good sculptor who has studied facial anatomy, and using the Smudge Tool is rather like pushing clay around with my fingers.

I also used the Fuzzy Select Tool to pick out individual bits and fiddle with the darkness, too. That was how I freed up enough light skin in the ridiculously lined bit of brow under the crown to smudge around.

Basically, I did 45 minutes or so of smoothing out lines and moving shading around to give the cheeks, especially, but the entire face, too, a more realistic sense of depth. I made Montezuma a lot younger-looking in the process, which I hadn’t intended, but was okay. I regret that making the anatomy of the nose look right changed the shape/character of it so much…

I ended up with this:

Now, we’d already used shades of blue for two faction colors, so I immediately began Fuzzy Selecting the crown. That involved spending entirely too long zoomed in very close with the threshold set as low as 0.00 at times, selecting individual pixels around the edges, and dark ones that wanted to spread the select to the background and/or the face. Eventually, I ended up with the whole thing selected, as seen above.

Then it was simple to hue-shift it over to a vivid green - remember from the logo post that I was going for a Mexican red-yellow-green color scheme. Because this was for an imaginary Mayans-in-Space  faction, I actually stepped up the color saturation more, and blurred it a little to make it almost glowy.

In my opinion, the yellow of the cape was too red, and the red of the mantle around his neck was too yellow. More tedious Fuzzy Select pixel-choosing later, I had the above situation. I brought the color saturation way down to get rid of most of the yellow and used the Color Balance function to put the red back.

Then - oh. my. God. Selecting the pixels of the bracelets and the bleeping cape took forEVER. Over two hours, I think. I can’t believe I do this for free. When finally, a lifetime or two later, I had everything I wanted selected, I did the same as before - took the color saturation way down, used Color Balance to put the yellow back, and cranked up the contrast somewhat, trying to bring out the highlights and achieve a metallic golden look - that last part didn’t work so well, but I did get pretty, yellower, cape out of the deal.

As finishing touches, I selected few pixels of iris in those yellow eyes and made them golder. I wanted to give the hair a slightly unnatural blue tint, so more Fuzzy Select pixel choosing, and - it just made his hair look a lot blacker, but I liked its looks better that way, so I left it. I kept making Monty look younger accidentally, but why not? No story reason not to, and frankly, you want to cheat portraits towards looking young and attractive when there‘s no reason not to, because people would rather look at young and attractive.

I also decided to do something about the seeming flatness of the crown - the luminous swirly bits made shading for depth a problem, but it was a simple matter of selecting a pixel-wide strip at one edge of the crown where it curved around his head, darkening 40%, widening a pixel, darkening 20%, repeating three more times, then going about 10% darker for the next six or so. Then doing the other side the same way. Then doing roughly the opposite in the center. It’s a subtle effect, and the glowiness makes it imperfect, but the crown below does seem to curve around his head a little more.


Now it was time for the size/cropping. This part is less artistic and far more mechanical, so more how-to detail will be given than in the mostly why-to above.

I opened blankpcx.pcx and did the transparent background trick, then zoomed in on the big datalinks portrait box, selecting it - the box itself, not the inside.

I copied, then switched back to the portrait, pasting it in to get an idea of the size I’d need to fit Montezuma in the box.

This was zoomed in too tight, so I hit [ctrl]z to undo the pasting, and reduced him about 60%. When I pasted in the box and moved it around, this was about right (A little + appears in the center when I drag it around with the mouse, so it was easy to center the box on the bridge of his nose, nearly between his eyes. Perfect - so I deselected.

Now I zoomed in as close as would show the whole box on my &^%$#@! wide-screen monitor, 300%, and used the box as my select guide.

If I was working alone, at this point, I’d copy/paste into the assembly copy I already dropped the logos into. Since I am collaborating, instead I Image>Crop to Selection(ed), and saved a copy to post for Alex’s approval.

Today, he asked for a tighter crop. I gave him two crops,  (My initial choice was stronger, frankly, and the first below was rubbing his nose in it,)

Full-size and 80%. He chose 80%, and now, with a little time spent making the molding behind Monty a vaguely metallic blue to future the shot up a bit more, I can proceed to drop it into the assembly graphic and move on to the bases. (The Diplomacy Landscape shot goes so much like with the portraits that it isn’t worth a separate entry.)

Next: All about bases, some why and a lot of how-to.



Faction Bases: Making & Placing

[See also this closely related how-to, Cutting Bases from Screenshots.

This one is posted out of order because a new friend was looking for help with bases.  References to transparent background and Montezuma will make more sense when I post the previous two or three tutorials -ASAP- as I've skipped to my latest technique, and several previous posts followed making this same faction.]

Bases can be pretty difficult to generate - I’ve drawn a few bases from scratch -though I feel weakest at that- cut them from helicopter shots of real buildings and even made one of Buster’s house from a photo taken from entirely the wrong (ground-level and way too low) angle; (that last was a lot of work and involved a lot of drawing and carefully selecting and distorting bits to get the angles right).  The best source tends to be structures found on the internet -whether from someone’s computer-generated art or another game.  You can also cut them out of screenshots from other games yourself, as I did with most of the 8 bases sets I’ve posted in Downloads (check those links for loads of bases ready to drop into you custom faction, as-is; three or four more base set files are in progress).

Bases must be lit from the right, and must be at roughly a pseudo-3D 45 degree angle.  You could make a base out a photo/image of a trashcan or a shoe if it met those qualifications and if you wanted a stupid-looking base.

For the Astral Jaguar Cult, Alexander posted a picture of a base made from the Tikal pyramid, alongside a photo of the original.  I haven’t the foggiest what game it was from [it was Age of Empires 2; that's the Mayan Wonder, as I've since cut out directly from the game and posted at full size recently], but that there’s definitely a pseudo-3D game base, so it MUST be from a game.  It’s unfortunate that someone chose to put it against a mottled background that isn’t all one color, but it’ll be easier to cut out than a game screenshot, anyway (all the terrain details, figures and other buildings can be a huge pain to tell from what you mean to keep while you're zoomed way in [and it really was, too]).

So, I opened the file I’d saved of it and Layer>Add Alpha Channel.  The first thing I tried was to Fuzzy select the whole background - sometimes you get lucky.  Not very lucky this time -the dark side of the structure & background didn't want to toe the line- but I deleted this bit and than moved on to trimming it zoomed in with the Eraser Tool fairly small Scaled (.10) and with Hard Edge checked (for many things you'd want the fading of pixels you get without Hard Edge checked on the Eraser -edges blend in better that way- but the indexed AC palette doesn't do semi-transparent pixels and is going choose all the way on or off for each, so you want to pick which now).

A minute or two erasing left this bit of edge ragged and uneven, so I used the Smudge Tool scaled to one pixel and at 100% Rate to fill in a straight line(while [Shift]ed, you can make a straight line, just like with the Pencil Tool) then reduced the Rate to 50% to do a little randomizing of the shade/color of the pixel.

Then I went back to cutting a transparent zone out of the background - once I had cleared a border out of the background around the edge of the base, erasing the rest would be easy.  When I got the entire dark side cut out, I reduced the Scale of the eraser to one pixel and cleaned up what the Fuzzy select missed (you'd rather Fuzzy Select too little than too much - it can easily eat into parts of the structure you're working on, and erasing more later is less work than trying to redraw missing lines and such)

Eventually, I had this to show for my efforts:

Alex wanted the light-glow from the door changed to blue to match the diplomacy landscape picture, which wasn't much trouble.  We'd also talked about silvering up some of the ornamentation on the sides of the base, which was a lot more trouble: 

But eventually, I got what I wanted selected - nothing like as much trouble as Montezuma's cape, though still a lot of work - and hue-shifted the results to a sort of pale blue with the Color Saturation turned low enough to look not-quite gray, but not too blue; I also did a little careful smudging of the headdress-looking bits, because some smoothness is essential to achieving a metallic look. 

That got me this - which looked pretty good (notice that I'd improved the outline on the dark side since two pictures ago, right after I'd finished cutting it out) and was finally ready to drop it into the graphic.  Again, as tedious as some of the work was, writing and reading about it is more tedious than doing it.

So, after copying, back in the assembly copy of the whole graphic, I measured the size of the box with the Rectangular Select Tool, pasted and resized, then positioned the first base (the big stage four one to the right) and deselected. 

You want the base placed with the bottom cheated upwards if there's any room, and centered left-right.  SMAC(X) is very forgiving about placement, luckily, so don't kill yourself getting it perfect. 

If it looks okay in the game when you playtest, you placed it well enough.

When I had all of the first row placed, I selected the entire first row and pasted in the next five rows (Note that somewhere in there, I made a subtle goldening of some bits on the largest base - the official bases sometimes have some special element to them to let the player know at a glance that a base has grown to its ultimate stage):

Notice that the edge of the select fills the row exactly - each stage of base is placed exactly the same as the row above/below - which is for a reason and about to save you some work in the next two steps.

So for sea platforms, I do a very simple thing; I use the Ellipse Select Tool to draw an oval lined up with the bottom corners of the base:

And flood the select with a blue-green-gray shade with the Bucket Fill tool (with most bases I have to erase the bottom of the base do a clean flood fill and then repaste the base back over it, but these skinny pyramids saved me a step).   Then moved to the next base and did the same, then the next and the next. 

This is a crap way to make sea platforms, yes; for my very first all-original faction graphic, I spent a lot of time drawing a raft to place Buster's house on.  Since, I've usually just skipped the platforms entirely, so at least doing this is better.  I followed up by drawing a darker edge on the bottom of the platform to at least make it look real, if not very detailed - you can see it a little in the screenys below; it'll make a difference in the game.  (I WOULD go to more trouble for an aquatic faction, of course, and you may/should choose to be less lazy about it in general.)

I only had to do that four times to complete one row, then I copied and pasted it over the other two seabase rows.

Now, time to place the shields; I opened my Bare Shields file, transparencied the background (so I could crank up the Fuzzy Select Tool Threshold real high and not have it select anything but the shield I was wanting, all in one click) and started pasting shields OVER bases.

(I'm using the alien shields on this project for two reasons - they are so much better-looking and easier to work with than the human shields, and these factions are a set, from a different background than the official factions.  You'll want to use the alien shields for everything, but for consistency, try to restrain yourself if your human custom faction is going to be played alongside the originals, and use the fences unless you can think of a story reason your faction would have the alien tech.)

This is over halfway through the shield-adding process.  Once I had dropped in the shields centered on both rows of the land bases, I selected the upper part of the bare top row and pasted the top over the shielded ones, to cover the shields where they go behind.  Notice the difference in the lower row with the stage two shields, as they have the shields dropped in, but haven't gotten the top pasted back in yet.

Note how the yellow edges of the pasting match the inside of the box edges - this is why you copy the first row over and over - as guides and because that way, every stage one (stage two, and so on) base is placed the same so you can do easy paste-overs a whole row at a time.  Much easier to do than describe for teaching it.

Notice in the above shot that the sea platforms haven't the dotted lines around them - that's because I only shielded the LAND bases, and now I've copied them and am pasting them over the platforms.

Now, everything is done on the faction, except the Diplomacy Landscape, which is like working with the portraits except for only having to do it once at one size, and the faction colors at the bottom of the file, which is like children coloring with crayons - but I'll do a short post about it soon, as there‘s still many ways you can go wrong…



Leaderheads: Two Showy Examples of the Possibilities

This is from a 40’s Time Magazine cover:

The pleasant-looking chubby mature gentleman is Tse-veng Soong, Chinese politician and banker.  He was President of the Republic of China for a few years in the late 40s, reputed to be the only man the nationalists and communists both trusted.  He was Chiang Kai-shek’s brother in-law, and the richest man in China at one time, who earlier had financed the Flying Tigers - out of his own pocket. 

All irrelevant to the purpose of this article, but, a great man at the center of great events for a good deal of his life, and at least in the US, pretty completely forgotten.  Worth looking up, if you like that kind of thing.

So, the cover portrait struck me as a fine leaderhead - I simply do not remember how I got from that to setting out to do what I did - which was to make him a lot younger.  This was for an Asian faction leader to go with an artless custom faction of Darsnan’s, so it surely resulted from discussion with him as part of that collaboration.   

-(much later) It took quite a while to track that conversation down, but Darsnan’s faction was an alt. Hive, the Protectorate, led by one Kyong Shin, described as “a person younger than Yang, and more determined/autocratic looking.”  I posted two promising-looking painted portraits of Chinese leaders and Darsnan chose Soong over Chiang Kai-shek (I didn’t know at the time they were in-laws, Soong’s sister being the famous Madame Kai-shek, whom I have also since used as a faction leader.)  I don’t see the intensity Darsnan wanted in Soong, though the subject began younger than Yang.

Naturally, after so long I can’t be a great deal more specific in detailing the process than if someone else had done it and I was speculating how.  Reviewing the exchange over it with my collaborator helps slightly.

First, I put him on a diet.

I narrowed his head -20% springs to mind- in MSPaint - this is back when I did all I could in Paint.  You can see the marks on the background near his head and where his ear tips repeat.

Then, I pasted him into Photoshop and started working on him with the Smudge Tool, my perennial favorite.  The face needed general streamlining in shape, as simple narrowing hadn’t gotten nearly all the fat in his cheeks.  Of course I went after the lines in his face, softening, and more often, removing.

I brought his hairline lower and a bit further in on the sides - always a youthful cue, even in the un-baldest of older men. I added a widow’s peak, as Soong had what might be the remnant of one and that seemed somehow in keeping with an intense personality, looking a little predatory. 

I narrowed his ears slightly to make them stick out less and because ears grow slowly all your life, and are another subtle cue of age.  I slimmed the tip of his nose a good deal for the same reason, incidentally also adding to the intensity of expression I was working toward.

I took out the smile lines, both youthening and, well, taking out smile lines.  I worked the puffy lower cheeks in until I got a gentle, non-chubby/jowly jaw line - it tended to follow the hollow of the cheeks, making a nice, slender, triangular face.

It was a very long process, time spent deep in creative right-brain mode as I ended up virtually redrawing the face completely.  Right-brain mode being what it is, I would have had trouble detailing what I did in very high resolution at all five minutes after I finished.  A thing that surprises and impresses me now is that the posts I made at the time indicate that I did the whole job in under six hours - it looks so thoroughly redrawn that I’d been assuming I’d messed with it for days.


Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Kyong Shin. 

I fancied then that Soong might have looked like that in his youth, and have since seen a photo at around that age - Shin could be his brother, anyway.

“Wow! Thats pretty high quality,” Darsnan said.  This portrait customization was how I found out I had real talent for this - I was very surprised by how well it turned out.  The quality of what you see is reduced a little deliberately, because it looked so real that I worried it would look too much like a processed photo set against a painted backdrop.  The anatomy of the cheeks is off, but it looks like an original creation, not an altered picture off the web. 

All that was left to do was change his clothes.  Darsnan wanted something North Korean, so I redrew that suit into a green mao jacket.  Clothes are like hair in being easy to alter massively and get satisfactory results.  I think, looking back, that iconic as the mao style is, I should have futured the collar more - but it’s hard to see any detail in the collar, even in the larger, pre-scan lined and SMAC(X) palleted versions here, so it doesn’t really matter.

Kyong Shin has been my avatar at CFC for years - I wear one or another of my custom faction leaders for an avatar everywhere, and this early work is one of the ones of which I am still proudest.


I stumbled over this semi-colored line drawing while looking for a hippy woman to lead an alt. Gaian faction:


It looks very much like the sort of thing my sister had as posters hanging in her room when she was young.  The subject was framed in a non-traditional way for a leaderhead, (which I assume is why Darsnan had me make something different for alt. Gaians later), and too much work to turn into something I could use, but I just plain liked the shot, and decided to have a go at it.

This one, I did on my own, and therefore have a lot less old post commentary to refresh my memory about how I did it.  But my purpose in this particular tutorial is not to tell you how to do what I did, but to show you that it can be done, and figured out as you go, by an untrained artist with little experience and little expertise in Photoshop. 

However, here's what little that I do remember, just to get you started:  first I did a flood-fill, with the paint bucket tool, of a peachy  Caucasian skin-tone.  Erred on the side of a golden tan, because a nature hippy is going to get some sun.  That filled less of the white space of her face and neck than you’d expect, and I did some smearing around with the Smudge Tool on medium Threshold.

Coloring is easy; it's giving the work depth that's hard.

Now this next part is the big secret to converting a line drawing to a full-color painting well: I selected the lines that defined her nose and jaw and turned them into a much darker shade of the same peachy skin-tone, almost brown.  (Shadows have a little less color saturation, as well as being darker, because light carries color.  That’s why you see more-or-less in black-and-white on a moonlit night.)  Then I worked the lines with the smudge tool on low power, to blur them in realistically. 

I did the same sort of thing with the lines defining her lips, eyes, and eyebrows, all separately for the differences in color needed.

That was only the beginning.  I used the dodge/burn tool to darken or lighten areas to give her cheeks, and darkened her some eye sockets.  Blended all with the Smudge Tool. Made her some bosoms, and managed to not get carried away by making them too big or too obvious.  All much more complex than that, and I took a while doing it, but that’s the basic technique.  You just have to understand lighting and facial anatomy, and be persistent.  If I could figure it out, you can, too.

I was very happy with how it turned out:

Attractive, and a little more mature, with a hint of intensity the original didn’t have.  I like.  But this one was a bit of a heartbreaker - the freckles didn’t make it through the transition to the AC pallet and scanlining.  I’ve also never gotten any word that anyone but me liked it.  But I know good work when I see it, and I did very good work here.

(Incidentally, I don’t see the problem with the framing - she’s just sitting close to the monitor/camera.  We don’t have to follow the official style slavishly.   We just want leaderheads that convey personality and look like they could be video conferencing.)


Good luck with your future ambitious projects; I have poor eyesight and had a blurry monitor at the time, and had to figure these out as I went.  You can do it.



My First Faction Graphic 
or:  How I Got Started Modding

SO, I’m like a lot of people; I played SMAC for years, and eventually got curious if there were any goodies online - I think I downloaded the TNG-Picard “Federation” and the Ric Fair Wrestlers faction off The Arrival 6-8 years ago, but couldn’t get them to load/work and gave up pretty quickly. 

In, I dunno, late ‘08, I finally got Alien Crossfire.  I’d wanted it forever and played with it over a summer a few years before until the loan of the CD ended.  Finally I had my own copy.  I never thought it was much of an upgrade, but new SP movies were a lot of fun after all those years, and I loved having twice as many opponents to choose from - it lent some freshness to an old beloved game for me.

This swiftly lead to me rooting around back online looking for goodies again and to try to find out how to get the custom factions I had to work, and straight to trying out SMAniaC.

Now, Maniac’s since become a pal, and I wouldn’t dream of badmouthing, but I didn’t care for the SE changes - I guess I found the reasoning behind them too tough to follow.  But the seven custom factions he included - well, here was more variety and freshness again.  I got very interested in custom factions and resumed looking for them and information about how to install and fix.

Probably everyone who’s ever taken an interest in custom factions has experienced the same; there are a lot of custom factions out there that sound great in the description in some forum’s Downloads section, but lose a lot of appeal when they’re downloaded only find out they have no graphics, leaving you looking like Deirdre again, or have the Free Drone graphics file renamed but unaltered again, or, thanks to the antichrist of SMAC(X) modding, Facedit, the Hive or partly-customized graphics with the Hive bases and often the logo and diplomacy landscape again.

(Do not touch Facedit, folks.  It is so buggy and awful as to almost constitute malware.  There are much better ways to do every single thing it does, unless you‘re very lazy and/or stupid.)

So I had six custom factions with a full spectrum of those shortcomings downloaded - not a single full graphic in the lot.  When I finally worked out how to load them into SMAC(X) (had to fix the Wrestlers rules file first), no one but the Feminine Union had any colors to their flags or text (which was illegible that way)- and Britney's color was too hard to tell from Sister Miriam’s. It was even more annoying to have identical non-colors for the rest; something had to be done.

Poking around, I saw the difference between the Union's .pcx file and the rest- there were little color boxes in the lower left-hand corner (it’s a difference between SMAC and SMAX, which you should always do because it’s easy and vanilla SMAC just ignores it, so no harm, but essential for working right in Crossfire). After that, the fix was pretty easy.

It also bothered me that The Eighth Faction, or Mindworms With Minds, defaulted to Gaian graphics and colors.

I had an old copy of Photoshop5 that I never used, or much knew how to, because like all high-end graphics programs the interface is very user-hostile to anyone who hasn’t had a long time to become familiar with it.  It would open the uncommon .pcx format, though, and I wanted to play them Mindworms and not have them suck by looking exactly like Gaians, so I set out to “put sunglasses” on everything to at least make them distinguishable.

I think the first thing I did was paste the graphic over into MSPaint - say what you will about Paint, but it doesn’t take a PhD and six months to figure out how to do what can be done there.  I think I tackled the bases first, doing some rather inept red stippling on the bases to make them Xenofungusy.  Remember, I was new to graphics modding, not  SMAC. 

And I gave Deirdre glowing red eyes.  Something about the nature of the faction and those default graphics put the idea in my head that it was a result of a lab experiment run amok, and visually mind-controlling Deirdre was my first step into the greater area of the storytelling aspect of SMAC(X) that has been my real specialty, not just the art, since.

It was a customization that I could do in under an hour now, but took a couple of days then, what with figuring out how.  -It is the nature of telling a story well that even many relevant details have to be left out to keep the length reasonable - I was rooting around all the official art files in my AC root folder on my hard drive, and searching/figuring out answers to technical questions and doing some hardcore lurking through old threads on SMAC forums, mostly ‘poly, all at the same time.  All the stuff was informing all the other stuff I did any given day/week.

So I did the most basic of art customizations to make the Mindworms individual - a little red on the bases and a little red eye on the leader - then started fixing up the half-done, half-Gaian .pcx files that came with the Cannibis League.  Then I’d get an idea about something else to do on the Mindworms art.  I was working on both for a couple of weeks and got into fixing up the Wrestlers, who had Believer bases and needed improvements to the other elements, The Federation, which needed a real captain (named Kirk), and custom bases, the Borg, with an excellent leaderhead and logo, but Hive bases, and the Feminine Union, with its crapulent leaderhead of Britney Spears crying out to be replaced with her in her Queen of Mars get-up from the Oops, I Did It Again video - I was new enough to Alien Crossfire to not recognize the Usurper bases the Union had, and someday, I’ll have to fix that, but I did create a neat logo to replace the Firaxis spiral it had been given.

Then I commenced on my first all-original faction, the Pretty Princesses, based on/for my perfect niece, five years old at the time - this was half her life ago.  Custom everything, completely original, including the .txt files, and I daresay the nicest bases I ever drew from scratch, the house she lived in then.

It just kept snowballing, as did my enthusiasm - I ended up in a manic spell, getting as little as four hours sleep a night, waking up itching to get back to it.  This went on for a month.

I don’t recall exactly how I went about it, but I tracked down the native life in units.pcx and pasted a tiny mindworm onto Deirdre’s forehead.  I made her skin ruddy, as if her body chemistry was a little xenoformed.  The .bmp of the mindworm in the lab that’s in the SMAC(X) folder was also included with the files I'd downloaded for the fation, a clear bit of authorial intent, and so I used it in the center of a blanked-out red Gaian logo silhouette as the new logo - and superimposed the worm over the diplomacy landscape.

I ultimately decided that the hue-shifting I’d done in Photoshop on the bases wasn’t enough, and carefully placed the top of a fungal tower on the highest point of the bases.  There was no missing the Gaian origins, but no chance of mistaking the two.

The final touch I later came up with was to flip Deirdreworm’s portrait left-right.  The thing was finally done.

(Note the joke in the bottom right corner.) What I did when to which faction is a complex issue, but this is the first one I set out to make, and the first I finished.  The Eighth Faction is ridiculously overpowered, but in the game?  The art hints at a story, and it looks great.

And that’s how I got started.



Faction/Flag Colors

I’ve never really addressed the faction colors, because it’s pretty kindergarten-obvious stuff, and there’s not a lot to say.  But it’s still possible to mess up, so a few remarks:

This is an Alien Crossfire thing, but you should add it to your faction graphics even if you only have and care about vanilla SMAC.  If you publish/share your work, SMAX users will find your nice factions all crappy and broken, otherwise.

This is a blank version of what goes in the bottom left corner of the main faction.pcx, crammed right into the bottom left corner:

It’s not brain surgery - here it is with colors, the very first thing I did in my very first custom faction:

That’s a bright color alternating with almost black - (completely black is semi-transparent for base shadows, and would look strange as a faction contrast color.)  You don’t want to deviate significantly from bright/dark, bright/dark, bright/dark, slightly different shade for vehicle color - doing it that way is how it was designed to work, and doesn’t look as good in the game if you try to get clever. 

Trust me; I wasted a lot of time trying to get cute with the color format when I was starting out, and it just doesn’t work as well.  The base names look  fuzzy and harder to read without the strong contrast.  Same for the flags.  The borders don’t show up right on the map without bright contrasted with dark.

Don’t do what I did, and waste a lot of time trying to find a unique color for your faction.  1.) There are only 255 colors in the game palette, and 3/4ths of them are too dark and dingy to show up on the mini world map in the game, and 2.) 14 of what’s left are already taken, and a few of the second seven are already a bit too close the some of the first seven.   (The minimap thing is important, though, and if you don’t pay attention to it in play testing, the end users of your factions will tell you about it.)   

Just pick out a bright primary or secondary color that goes with the color scheme of the other elements in the faction and don’t worry about it.  Seriously.  SMAC2 should have a better palette, but there’s no point trying to make factions for it  quite yet.

And that’s really all there is to say on the subject.  Bright/dark, basic colors, and spend your time worrying over the other elements that you have more choices about.

They probably have SOMEone named Sid...