Creating The Lacuna Expanse Game Art – Session 1

October 4, 2010 in 3D, AutoDesk 3DSMax, Featured, Game Artwork Design, Photoshop by admin

Experiences In Creating The Lacuna Expanse Game Art
( Autodesk 3dsmax and Adobe Photoshop)

In this 5 session set I will be going over my experiences with creating the world of artwork for the online and IPhone based game "Lacuna Expanse". The article set will start with JT Smith saying a few words about the game. Then I will begin to cover the difficulties and experiences involved with creating the mass of artwork and directing / creating the in-game and promotional materials. Then I will begin explaining the process of creating the artwork.

This set of articles is meant to educate on the processes with tips and general information rather than being a complete tutorial from start to finish with creating a certain object. If you would like a dedicated tutorial for a certain object or item in this session set please contact me or Instatuts.

Please take some time to check out the game. It can be played for free at

Author: Ryan W. Knope With Game Forward By JT Smith

Ryan W. Knope is a freelance 3D / 2D Artist / Consultant with 13 years experience in the 3D and 2D industry. His main artistic love lies with interior and exterior rendering although he takes on just about every type of graphics work. Ryan is also the architectural / interior voice for 3D Artist Magazine’s Question and Answer Panel. He lives with his wife Krista, in sunny Denver, Colorado.

Article Details

  • Programs: Autodesk 3dsmax 2010 and Adobe Photoshop CS4
  • Difficulty: Medium To Difficult (Prior Knowledge Of Software Interface Is A Plus.)

What The Game Is About

The Lacuna Expanse (or Lacuna for short) is a friendly, massively multiplayer empire simulator where each player takes the helm of a fledgling empire. Unlike most games that you’ve heard of in this genre, Lacuna is not about building huge fleets of ships to go crush everyone else. Instead, it’s about Espionage, Economics, and Politics. That doesn’t mean there isn’t conflict, there is, it’s just that it is carried out in the form of an espionage driven cold war using spies rather than using massive fleets of ships.

As a player you can take many roads to success. You can simply toil along playing the game like it is in the vein of Sim City or Railroad Tycoon, building the best single colony you can build, and not be involved in working with other players at all. It also has a healthy dose of strategy elements similar to games like Civilization and Masters of Orion. You can become a master trader, ship builder, or mercenary. You can even become an explorer scouring the Expanse looking for ancient artifacts. You can be involved in alliances, help to form a government, and pass laws. Or you can be an antagonistic marauder. These choices and more are yours. – JT Smith

Game Genre

Lacuna is very much a genre crossing game. In the early stages it feels very much like a simulation, like Sim City. As you reach out into space it starts feeling more like an empire builder Masters of Orion or Civilization. It has elements of all of those games, and a lot more. While those games are mainly designed as single player games (or a couple of players), the Lacuna Expanse has thousands of players. 

Genre is a sticky subject because it gives you an impression of a game without even playing it. Some games fit neatly into a genre, but with The Lacuna Expanse the player’s style greatly impacts what genre it fits. -JT Smith

The Games Supported Platforms

At launch Lacuna will have a web-based client that will work with the latest version of Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox, and Safari. It will also have an iPhone client soon after launch (waiting on the Apple App Store to approve it). One of our play testers is already working on a native client for Windows, Mac, and Linux. And we anticipate doing an Android client at some point in the future. 

A unique feature of our game is that we are exposing the API publicly to developers. Lacuna is built off of a Service Oriented Architecture, which is just a fancy way of saying that it’s capable of working with everything. The server doesn’t care what client is interfacing with it. This means that fans that are more technically inclined can write their own user interfaces for the game and simple utilities to make aspects of the game easier. Most massively multiplayer games frown on that, but we encourage it and have developed the entire game around this premise. – JT Smith

A Bit About The Game Staff

We are a small group of developers who usually build high-end business applications. One of us, JT Smith, wrote one of the first web based role playing games back in the late 1990s. The idea for Lacuna came from an idea he had back then, but the technology didn’t yet exist to make this sort of a web-based game until the past few years.

We’ve been working on Lacuna since January and plan to launch our public beta in October.  -JT Smith


Groundwork To Be Laid (Overview Of Land Mass)

In the beginning of the contract I tried to get a feeling of the style in which the artwork had to be designed. I also had to figure out all of the technical aspects of how the art was to be used in game. Once the technical aspects were defined, I decided to create the in-game artwork at over twice the size of what was specified. I did this for 2 reasons.

• Detailing in Adobe Photoshop is easier when painting onto a larger image, then scaling down when needed.

• If the in-game artwork was to be zoomable later, then I would already have the size, thus not having to re-create all of the in-game artwork.

Deciding to create the art over 2 times larger proved very beneficial! Soon after finishing the initial planetary tiles JT noticed that he could add the zoom feature in the game and showcase the game artwork at a heightened level. This was not something we were counting on, but it was possible because of pre planning.

To be quite honest, the last thing I wanted to have to do is go back and re-create everything larger when there are hundreds of planetary tiles, each detailed and a piece of art in itself. I was also hoping to have a poster printed of all the tiles connected. So, I was looking out for my client and I wanted to have a nice framed piece of artwork displayed in the office showing the vast amount of work and the details therein.

Moral of the story here, is to create larger than the client needs, especially if there are hundreds of images you have to create. It could save you months of time and quite possibly make the client smile ear to ear!


Defining A Planetary Tile Style

When first beginning the project I was provided a basic description of the buildings purpose and it’s name, no concept sketches. JT left it up to me to come up with an in-game planetary style and did not want to spend a lot of time working on coaching the style type of each piece.

With this in mind I designed a few tiles and got his thoughts on the style and general look. From there I kept the style similar for the rest. In the long run, I believe the lack of direction actually proved very beneficial to all parties involved.

At first it was scary not having any conceptual design, but then it began to flow very fast and I was able to utilize certain tools inside Autodesk 3dsmax 2010 along with plugins to replicate the process quite simply and more importantly… very fast.

We decided upon a general glass and chrome / stainless steel look for most of the modern building based tiles, futuristic in design. Generally this meant I could use about 5 3dsmax materials over and over. Cutting down most material creation time after the first tile.

Planetary Tile Technical’s

Original Size Specification: 200, 200 Pixels
Actual Creation Size: 450, 450 Pixels
Size Used In-Game: 450, 450 Pixels (Zoomable)

The planetary tiles began as including the ground mass, then was switched out to having 2 sets of tiles. The two sets being the buildings as .png without a ground floor (Or just shaded ground detailing), leaving the main land mass out.

The land masses / ground floors were done in a different tile set, so that each planet could have a different land mass color / style.

Building / Detail Tiles: These were saved with a transparent background, thus negating the importantance of tiling.

Ground Base Tiles: Created to tile using different ground type images and tiled using "Image Synth". These tiles were created at a larger size so the tiling effect, if any, did not match the building size / bounds.

The Four Basic Planetary Detailing Subsets

For starters. I began with defining a general look and feel for each type of planetary tile. This set of parameters would transfer through to almost all of the tiles within the game.

Modern Technical Tiles: Variations of metals and glass.
Modern Farming Tiles: Mostly created in Photoshop. Created to mimic current farming.
Natural Formed Elements: A mix of 3D and Photoshop. Many tree’s are rendered and reused.
Great Race / Ancient Structures: Created mainly in 3D with some Photoshop. Aged stone and wood used.

These 4 land detailing subsets make up most of the planetary based artwork. With that basic direction, I could reuse many of the elements and materials.

Step 1 – Modern / Technical Tiles: Adding The Sun and Sky

I began with opening up 3dsmax and setting Mental Ray as my render engine. Then I created a "Daylight System". You can find this under Create/ Systems either in the top menu or the tabs to the right of the interface.

Drag it out and set it to the time you desire by changing it under the "Modify" tab (the time is under the button labeled "Setup".). Also change the sunlight and skylight type to "MR Sun and MR Sky".

For the date and time I chose "Manual" and I placed the sun where it gave me the shadows that I desired.

This sun / lighting rig was used throughout all of the tiles, as all of the lighting has to match.

At this point, setting up the "Exposure Control" is a good idea. You can find the exposure control setting under the "Environment" window. I changed the exposure control to MR Photographic, Physically based Outdoor Daylight, Clear Sky.

Step 2 – Modern / Technical Tiles: Getting A View Approved

Next, I placed a few boxes into the scene with an average set of building heights. I then placed a plane as the ground. Once the test objects were in, I went to the top view and rotated the view down slightly, creating an orthographic view.

At this point, I threw a gray material on the boxes and the plane and rendered it out. I then adjusted the lighting and viewing angle to match what I desired. The render was then sent to JT to verify the view type. Once approved, I began creating the real artwork.

Step 3 – Save A File With The View / Light Setup

Ok, so this is a quick step, which I could have mentioned in the previous paragraph… although, I made it it’s own step because of how important this is. Save the file from the previous step and use it as a template. If you lose the camera angle and lights, you will have to try your best to match… which may not produce the best results.


Step 4 – Boxing Out The Building

I began with a box situated on the ground plane. Then I added an "Edit Poly" modifier. In face mode, I used the extrude tool to create a more dynamic shape. You can go as far as you want with this method. Box modeling is a very common technique that has been around for quite a long time.

Step 5 – More Edit Poly: Insets

I want to add some windows. So, I am going to use the "Inset" tool under edit poly, face mode. Simply select the face that you want to inset and drag in. This will automate the cutting and create a even border.

Step 6 – More Edit Poly: Extruding The Insets

Now we want to use the Extrude tool to push the insets in, creating the window masses. You can find the "Extrude" tool under face mode in edit poly. Just click on the face and drag it in.

Step 7 – More Edit Poly: Bevel

Bevel is a great tool. It can be used to bevel in or out, just as extrude can. I beveled my window surrounds and building tops. I also double beveled some items. This is a fun and quick way to give the model some shape.

Step 8 – More Edit Poly: Detaching The Insets

While in edit poly face mode, select all of the window faces. Scroll down to the "Detach" button. After you click it, you will see a dialogue box pop up. Name the new object and choose if you want it to be a clone, object or element. I chose to have it detached as its own object by leaving the 2 check boxes blank.

Now that we have detached windows… we can now apply some materials.

Step 9 – Creating The Materials

The material creation for the modern buildings is quite easy. I used 2 presets for most of them. Press "M" to bring up the material editor. Select one of the material editor slots and change the material type to "Arch & Design". Now, where it says "Select a template", select "Glass (Thin Geometry)". Apply this material to the glass objects in the scene.

For the main building object, repeat the same steps in a different material slot and pick the "Brushed Metal" preset. To help round the edges of the building, I turned on "Round Corners" under the special effects tab in the material editor. You need to either be working in scale to know the distance of this value, or play around with it.

For the ground, you can add any dirt or grass oriented image to the "Diffuse" slot of a new material. I used Arch & Design for this as well. The ground plane was less important, because it was not used in most of the final renders.

Step 10 – Applying Materials And Rendering

The materials have now been applied, changing the samples per pixel was the only difference from the standard render settings. I used 16/16. This value helped smooth out the brushed metal material, making it less grainy.

You should now have a render similar to the one below.

Step 11 – Adding More Detail With Greeble

Greeble is a plugin for 3ds Max that creates boxy structure quickly and easily. It proves very useful for adding mechanical wall type details. This plugin has saved me days of time while working on Lacuna Expanse.

You can download and read about Greeble HERE.

Install the plugin and then reopen 3ds Max.

The previous detailing could work for the building, although with each modern building type I tested using the "Greeble Plugin" to add detail very quickly and easily. Select the main building object and scroll down the modifier list and pick greeble. Instantly you should see the geometry change.

Play with these options to get the right density, heights and tapers for the look you desire.

Quickly and in only a few steps, we have a futuristic building suitable for a far shot.


So far I have went over some of the conceptual ideas on how the art works together. Understanding the needs of the project is the first task. Once you understand the technical needs, then you can progress to actually creation. Creation of the land tiles can be streamlined by following a similar process for each one.

We also began creating a planetary building within 3dsmax.

In the next session I will go over taking the raw 3D render into Adobe Photoshop and finishing the building tile. I will also cover the artistic differences between the 4 land detailing subsets, and how the creation progress differs a bit for each.

I hope you enjoyed this session.

-Ryan W. Knope