The Away Team: Lost Exodus – Redesigning The Argo

What’s In A Ship?

The Away Team is a game about a small crew’s journey through the isolated and mostly empty reaches of time and space. Most of The Away Team’s gameplay and narrative are presented through “missions” that take place on the surface of the planets you come across.

So much of the tone and context of the game is about eking out an existence with limited resources onboard what is effectively a very advanced tin can. In many ways, the Argo is more than just a vessel. It’s the “body” of the AI you play as, it’s a home to the crew, and it’s also the cage they are trapped within until your mission reaches a conclusion. That said, the game itself presents very little of the ship and what that life is like for the crew.

When I first started working on The Away Team a year ago, one of the things that sat at the top of my wishlist for new features was to give the ship (and its shuttle) a little more presence in the game. For this post, I won’t go over how exactly we’re doing that in the upcoming Lost Exodus update, but I will be looking at some of the concept refinement we did along the way. While we still don’t show or describe the specifics of the ship in great detail, a consistent design for the Argo helps us avoid contradictions and make more conscious use of the ship as a location.

The Away Team's Lost Exodus update is coming soon!

 

Existing Art

Expanding on The Away Team’s original style while also preserving it is important to me, and so in this sense, the kind of work we needed to do was backwards. Instead of using concept art to inform final game art, I needed to use Chris Nordgren‘s final game art to inform concept art for new stuff. The idea is to end up with new art that feels like it fits with what the existing art is communicating.

So far as existing visual references go, the shipped game includes a 30×23 sprite. To avoid (or create) confusion, let’s refer to this as the “shipped art.”

An animation of the Argo moving as seen in the game.

Beyond that, there were a couple of iterations of placeholder and WIP art that I had access to. While they’re interesting heritage, they don’t really contain elements that are relevant to where the shipped art ended up. On the left is the first placeholder ship image, based on a ship created by wuhu on OpenGameArt.org. Progression toward the final design of the shipped art can be seen across the two remaining WIP ships.

A collection of placeholder and WIP ship designs from The Away Team's development

Perhaps the most important reference came in the form of the in-game descriptions of the ship and its systems written by Michael Fiegel, which talk about the length of the vessel, its major components, and in some cases, their distribution across the ship. We’ve tweaked these a tiny bit for Lost Exodus to maintain consistency across the entire game, but Michael’s writing is really the heart of the game and is the mass around which everything else orbits.

A screenshot of the systems overview in the original release version of The Away Team

 

Initial Sketches

The very first piece of more detailed ship art I did was a rough placehoder of an aft (rear) view that I needed for a mock-up, where it sat behind foreground elements to give a little more definition to the ship and a little reminder that the ship is there. I wanted to let the ship’s engines/thrusters have the most prominence here to suggest travel and forward progress.

A quick sketch of the rear of the ship.

Balancing myself between multiple projects and multiple disciplines meant that I wouldn’t return to ship art for a few months – all of my Away Team time went to other bits of art, writing and programming. In early march, while taking a few days off, I started to do some sketches of the shuttle. I wanted to try and maintain the general shape hinted at by the shipped art. Even though you never see it separated from the ship in any of the shipped art, the shape of the front of the shuttle is visible to an extent.

None of these scribbles ended being used, but they were useful in getting me in the right frame of mind to come up with something that worked. You can also see some orb shaped engine ideas and a little “view looking out the rear shuttle hatch” sketch.

Some early sketches of shuttle and engine designs.

 

The Shuttle

Another month later, I had a shuttle design that felt like a good fit. I like to do rough little scenes to put my designs in to help give me a sense for how they might feel when actually used, and so I painted a little scene of the shuttle on a darkened planet with light spilling from the open rear hatch while three crescent moons shone down from above. At this time, I also started and abandoned a larger piece of concept art showing the shuttle flying through clouds, causing swirling eddies in its wake – we’ll come back to that later.

Final design for the Argo's shuttle, and a little concept piece of it landed on an alien planet.

 

The Exterior

From here, we were at a point where there was value in starting to solidify the look and feel of the ship. I needed to have certain details defined and locked in before I could move ahead with other work. I spent a few days sketching out ship concepts and pulled together my favourite three into candidates that we could discuss and review.

Each design embraced different elements of the shipped art and took different liberties. I tried to think about the ship’s structure and features while working on these – where does the shuttle end? Where would the cryopods be? The in-game text describes most of the ships systems as being external so that the crew can’t fiddle with them, so where might each of them be located?

Sketches of the three ship design candidates.

Sketches of the three ship design candidates with shuttle detached.

I also did side views for each design. Interpreting and expanding on details suggested by the shipped art is a big challenge. To me, the most important thing is maintaining as much of the “character” of the source artwork as possible.

The possibility space in low fidelity art is very broad, and narrowing that down runs the risk of denying people their existing interpretations. I’ve had a little bit of experience with doing this kind of work in other projects, so it wasn’t as daunting here for me as it could have been, but it’s still a big responsibility!

Sketches of side views of the three ship design candidates.

To help make sure I wasn’t overlooking particular angles, I did some super rough 3D mock-ups. I these used to inspect and think about aspects of the ship that weren’t readable/inferable from the top or side views.

A 3D mockup of the second ship design candidate.

My plan was that we’d be able to swap in/out our favourite bits to make one final design, but in the end, after less discussion than I was expecting, we settled on design number 3. With that bedded down, I was able to move ahead with some other features, which included finishing up that aft view and a corresponding side view. There’s something fun about the stockiness of this design that I like. It is also arguably the one that most closely represents the detailing of the shipped art.

Below, you can see the final versions of the aft view that my very first sketch was of. Pixel art isn’t really my forte, but The Away Team has provided me with many opportunities to hone my skills. Doing the detailing on these was a lot of fun! These images won’t really be seen like this in the game, but I feel like the presence they do have helps convey a sense that the ship is an ever present part of things.

A stylised blueprint view of the Argo.

I’ve now painted the Argo a bunch of times, but this one of the ship in front of a hastily drawn black hole was the first time I tried to paint our selected design as a whole.

A concept piece of the Argo in front of a black hole.

 

The Interior

For the next several months, I spent most of my time working on programming and writing. Since some of the new mission text references or takes place within the ship, we felt the need to stop and settle on some solid details for the ship’s internal structure.

There were some small inconsistencies about things like how many rooms there were in the text of a couple of existing missions, and likely a number of different visions for how the ship should look while The Away Team was initially being developed. Since none of that was really explored in any detail in-game, that didn’t matter so much. Now that we were looking to make these spaces feel more real to players, we needed a solid plan!

The Away Team’s project leader Michael Brune put together this handy reference for a “single room” vision of the ship, with the front section being the shuttle (with the orange dots showing the crew’s seats), and the rear section being the crew’s quarters (with the light blue regions housing the cryopods).
Michael's initial ship floorplan.

Based on the things I’d loosely been thinking about when doing the exterior designs, I scribbled out some ideas that took into account dimensions and volume sizes.

From there, we settled on a three room layout that puts an airlock section behind the shuttle docking region, and what we’ve been calling the “machine shop” to the aft. The machine shop is where the ship’s internal drones store and maintain themselves. It’s not primarily meant for the crew’s use, but they might be able to find some tools to use there from time to time.

An annotated sketch of the Argo's interior and exterior sections.
The final floorplan.

We may not end up showing many of these places in detail in the upcoming Lost Exodus update, but nailing down specifics helps us identify where the crew might be in particular situations, how the crew might navigate the ship during emergencies, or where a crewmember might go if they want to try to feel alone on a ship with little privacy.

 

Bonus: Cloudskimming Painting

I mentioned earlier that I’d started a painting of the shuttle in some clouds early on, but had abandoned it. Since painting art that we weren’t planning to put in the game is difficult to prioritise, more polished pieces of concept art often have to be put aside when time is limited. When it felt like this one wasn’t coming together in the way I wanted, it made more sense to just let it go and focus on actual work that the Lost Exodus update needed than to spend a day wrangling it into submission.

Here’s a look at how far I got with it before setting it aside. I’d done a sketchy rendition of the shuttle, and had some reference lines to indicate where the air flow that would cause cloud swirls would go. It’s a lot easier to step back from a piece of art when it’s still a scribble than it is to do so when you’ve sunk a dozen hours into it, so being able to identify early when a piece isn’t working right can be an important skill.

The initially abandoned WIP scribble of Cloudskimming

Months later, after we’d finishing implementing a lot of the key features we wanted to get into the Lost Exodus update, Michael mentioned that he still really liked that piece and was using it as a desktop background. Since I felt a little less under pressure, I decided to spend a day seeing if I could finish it off.

It took a couple of iterations (including modeling volumetric clouds in 3D and using physics simulations to blow them around), but eventually I came back to the more painterly thing I was aiming for initially. Here’s an animated GIF showing how it came together!

An animation showing the progress of the Cloudskimming piece.

Here’s the final version (or at least, final for now – maybe I’ll decide it needs a little more tweaking at some point), which has just a tiny bit of colour in it to hint at the tops of the clouds being lit by a setting sun. I’ve provided a few variants with different logo placements just in case anybody would like to use them as desktop backgrounds and has a preference for logo placement.

The final version of Cloudskimming, with the Away Team logo in the botton right

The final version of Cloudskimming, with the Away Team logo in the top right The final version of Cloudskimming, with no logo.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at some of the work I’ve been doing on The Away Team. It’s been a lot of fun, and I can’t wait to share it with you when it’s ready!

– Cheese

 

The Away Team is available now on itch.io and Steam for Linux, Mac and Windows. For more The Away Team: Lost Exodus news, subscribe to the Underflow Studios mailing list!

The Away Team: Lost Exodus – Coming Soon

Hi everybody! We are very excited to to let you all know we have been hard at work on a large update that rounds out The Away Team while keeping the core game that you (hopefully) know and love.

The big features we have been working on for the Lost Exodus update include:

  • New adventures to explore
  • New in-game character creator (with offline support for sharing as well as Steam Workshop integration)
  • New gameplay features focusing on searching and survival
  • More ways to track current status and progress
  • UX improvements
  • Many bug fixes!

We’re not quite ready to talk about dates, but we are excited to share what we’ve been working on with players, and we’re working hard to get it into people’s hands as soon as its ready!

The small update that went out today includes some small changes in preparation for the Lost Exodus update, but nothing that is visible to users except an updated background for the main menu.

Brune, Michael J

Josh “Cheeseness” Bush

On the Subject of: The Open Internet

Today, We like many other websites out there are taking a moment to explain to you the open internet and why we need it as a society.

So an open internet simply means that data can’t be slowed because it comes from a different place. So data from netflix, underflow studios, facebook, steam, etc can’t be slowed simply because your ISP determines it.

By removing the open internet you kill an unimaginable amount of current and future jobs. Including mine, my wife’s and most my friends jobs could not exist without an open internet. The open internet is the concept that any moron including me and my company can have a stupid website you can visit. This entire site wouldn’t exist with an open internet.

So obviously you know the above before you got here. In fact by visiting underflowstudios.com I can safely assume you’re some what tech savvy. At least enough to care in a game developer’s blog post to the this point. So you probably, like I, have voiced their opinion as much as possible to the FCC. So what more can we do? The only thing we can really do is simply keep explaining. Make sure we are heard in a calm collective voice explaining the issue at hand. Every political party alignment should want an open internet. The best way to do that is to have a fancy website. So make sure all your friends (specially ones who aren’t the same political party as you) at least visit https://www.battleforthenet.com/ and read a bit. It will explain everything much better than I can and will help to find someone they can relate to explain it.

So let me explain to you how the open internet has effected my life.

I first remember when my father first got AT&T business class broadband internet to the house in 1999 because I was using the phone line too much on dial up. Warcraft 2 was just too fun and I couldn’t stop playing a competitive match just because someone wanted to make a 5 minute phone call. This is my experience growing up with the open internet.

I ran a half-life game server from my business class internet line for an entire summer I would host this server on my computer and play on it with random strangers at the same time. I’d jump from half-life mod to half-life mod. Rocket crowbar was always my favorite. I remember one night around 1 am I finished downloading another free mod. Ricochet. I don’t know why but to this day it’s the funniest thing in the world to watch someones head get cut off in that game as their body keeps going and then just lands and dies. It was the best balance of stupid funny multiplayer and action. Of course this was also the first time I heard my dad wake up in the morning, immediately jump into bed to pretend I was sleeping, listen for him to leave for work then jump right back on the computer so he didn’t know I stayed up all night. (He knew.)

Without the open internet my childhood that summer probably wouldn’t have sparked my interest in games as it did. But late into my teens I didn’t really care about making games. Never really wanted to do it back then. Instead I was in college while I ran a free shell server. Basically I would let people run complex processes a few of my computers. I’d give them an account and they would upload and run their programs in order to do something like compute folds or such. It was mainly used by my friends who wanted an environment to write and test linux specific code and I would then learn about and teach others on system administration, linux usage and even taught a guy English. Although I still don’t know Italian.

I now have been apart of several “cloud” studios. Which means I work from home along with others to make a video game. So the open internet has literally given my a childhood and a paying job. I didn’t get into the crime where I grew up (next to highway 99 in Washington.) because I was able to learn and explore through the internet. While I will agree there are health issues with sitting, typing and looking a screen without blinking for long periods of time. All of that is a different discussion, one not solved by removing net neutrality.

Because of the open internet I was able to host my own servers from home and play with people without anyone needing anything extra on their bill.  I am able to have a great job that lets me stay at home and remotely work on games because of the open internet. It has been a strong part of my life and hopefully will continue being a strong part of my life.

Brune, Michael J

On the subject of: New Projects

Passion is a great thing to have. A strong passion could mean a complex and changing passion. It can also mean a deep and steady passion. In the end a strong passion will usually spawn at least one project that one hasn’t any idea how to start. The best way I have found to start something is to just go do it. Attempt to find the best starting point, ensure you know of multiple and take the one that you think you would enjoy and be the happiest with taking. If you start in on a path don’t be afraid to turn around. You should never lock in to a path so much that you refuse to see the error of it’s ways. You should also be loyal enough to a single path to see at least one to completion.

This is what allowed Underflow Studios to release The Away Team. A strong and healthy passion from everyone involved. While The Away Team was basically myself (Michael Brune) working on it alone with ideas of creating a story like Star Trek or Stargate that would live with me and hopefully others forever. When people ask me, was this project successful? I could point at the numbers and say “Yes, we made a profit.” but that’s not what I do. I point at the fact that story will now be around for my children, for your children and for anyone reading this. That to me is success.

So with this I would like to introduce a new project of mine personally. I am calling it “On the subject of”. A hopefully informative… blog, I guess? It won’t be only text. I plan to do vlogs and possibly other mediums like games and podcasts. Sometimes these things will feature just me or they might include others, which will be properly introduced as we go. Lastly I can’t guarantee every entry will be free. I can guarantee that every entry will be as cheap as I can make it.

Brune, Michael J

News: The Away Team Releases On Linux

http://steamcommunity.com/games/426290/announcements/detail/468778664298632931

As long as I could remember I always wanted to use linux. Even before I knew what it was I knew I wanted to explore it. To me linux has always been about that vast field of software thrown about. When I first saw it, it was different. It wasn’t Windows.

As everyone struggles when they learn something new so did I stumble and fall and waste countless hours on installing, reinstalling and recompiling my userland. I even use to run a free shell service caled “Pulpie” in order to teach others how to use Linux. That created the Fushi shell which was my first programming project.

Linux has given me so much and with that I am happy to announce that I can give something back to it. Although small and niche The Away Team grows the Linux game count by one. Something I could not be more proud to do.


Brune Michael J