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🖌️ Art Breakdown: Mecha Transformation! 変身!

Let’s take an art-dive into the inspiration and iterations on Tiny Starpilot’s transforming player jet/robot.

Slomo Transformation

Like many venerable 3D games before me, my character started as a block of tofu.

I’m particularly proud of the squish on landing.

This design actually does a lot of lifting early-on. It cuts the overhead of iterating on character root motion, and clarifies little details like how when the tofu flies it can lean-forward 90° and point it’s local-up-axis forward to avoid having to swap from a tall to a long hitbox.

There’s a vocal contingent of indies who argue that this is also good to ship. After all, if the game is already fun as a greybox, what function does the art serve, except to demonstrate that you’re a big company with money to spend?

I don’t buy this. Even on ludological terms, there is utility in the semiotics of artwork for design-intent-signalling.

But indie games are more than mechanics – they’re a parasocial experience amongst and between creators and players. I’m not just building an experience to tickle your proprioception-pleasure-centers, I’m expressing solidarity by positioning the work within a shared enthusiast genre: stylish anime mecha shiiiit.

Screencap of Luffy from Gall Force

I could watch “booting up cockpit computer” sequences all day.

The more specific proximate motivation for me to investigate character art was seeing the cool process-posts and sizzle-reels Ivy May made for Coquette Dragoon using Blender. Now I wanted to learn Blender!!

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My first concept sketch was a vague mix between the Vic Viper from Zone of the Enders: 2nd Runner, and the eponymous Ikaruga Fighter.

First Concept Sketch

I vocalized a lot of transformation and impact sounds while drawing this.

TL;DR Review of Blender: great modeling workflow, but character rigging was a pain.

One afternoon of game-engine-noodling and IK-wrangling later, and we were in business.

Skull Squadron color scheme, Naturally.

This looked sicc, and left me feeling pretty chuffed, but shortly it became clear there were some dealbreakers.

  • The asset was too detailed, and didn’t match the environment.
  • It was too labor-intensive for other props.
  • The “jet” shape lacked personality.

So I went back to the drawing board and designed a simpler character that more naturally decomposed into a “boxy”/low-poly"/"fifth-generationy" model.

Second Concept Sketch

I still wanted to retain the the boyish/feminine figure.

For the transformation, I decided not to reinvent the wheel and takes the basic mechanics of the Strike Valkyrie from my one true love, Macross.

Footage of the VF-1 Transformation

The legs swing into trusters, and the arms fold between them, centered under the chasis.

My personal innovation was to make the knee slide-up along a track on the back of the leg to form v-shaped thrusters, which exagerates the thrust-aperture-narrowing animation in game and makes the afterburner feel more responsive.

Figure of the Modifier Leg Transofrmation

I didn’t reinvent the wheel, but I did put my fingerprint on it.

This was a triumph, I’m making a note here: huge success. I’s hard to overstate my satisfaction. It looks great next to other low-poly assets, it’s easy to make quick changes, and it has a lot of personality.

Dancing Mecha

I think I did a Good Job!

Now for the really hard part: picking a name. 🤦