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POLISHING THE PATH TO A KINGDOM for blue byte's "settlers 7"

by by Tobias Mannewitz, KARAKTER’s creative director. He was brought in to help with the polishing phase of “The Settlers 7”, which eventually won a Red Dot Design award for visual excellence.
All images © Ubisoft Entertainment. All rights reserved.

Final in-game graphics for “The Settlers 7”
Blue Byte’s “Settlers” franchise had always been open for stylistic and gameplay experiments. For it’s latest instalment, named “The Settlers 7 – Paths To A Kingdom”, Head of Art Armin Barkawitz envisioned a dreamy fairytale look. To illustrate Barkawitz’ intentions, Karakter had already contributed inspirational artworks during preproduction in 2009.
The game was nearing completion in 2010. Karakter got called for a three day workshop. Figuratively speaking, the path to the kingdom needed polish before King Customer the 1.st was to walk it. And Barkawitz wanted us to point out the corners on the road ahead which would benefit from some extra sheen.
The look of the game before the start of the polishing phase
It was impressive to see where Blue Byte had taken the game. It looked like a potential classic. The gem to be just needed a bit of polishing. For that, we identified three main fields: Light and shadows, atmospheric effects, and the textures used for the buildings.

2: Atmospheric effects

The inspirational concepts tended towards pastel colors – pink, emerald, pool. However, those colors weren’t too present in the near- final graphics, which were, at that stage of production, still lit very neutrally. The resulting brown or greyish look did not transport the magic kingdom feeling everyone wanted to see. So we suggested to first adjust the colors of the atmosphere in the game, like the colors of mist and the sunrays.
One of the early concept artworks created by KARAKTER from the game’s preproduction phase.

3: Light and shadows

Next on the list were the shadows: They were achieved by simply darkening the unlit parts, but this produced a rather grim, even dirty, desolate feel at times. Instead, we suggested to change the calculation of shadows, so that they were tending towards a saturated cold color scheme, whereas the lit parts of the buildings would be bathed in warm colors. By infusing color into the dark spots, we could lose most of the grimness.
This overpaint sums up our suggestions for what should be tackled during the polishing phase.
Side-by-side comparison of the buildings before and after our polishing suggestions. Note the reduction of greyish or black areas, and the introduction of brighter and more colorful shadow areas instead.
Also, their relative monotony of the walls was to receive a makeover which would result in a more detailed, homely appearance.

3: Building details

The buildings were the final – and biggest – chunk during the three day workshop. Most of them could be improved by simply modifying the texture maps, so that the contrasts were more appealing and increased the readability if a building. We could also punch up the vividness of some wall colors, and add a few details here and there. The biggest suggested change though was the modification of some of the geometry.
This was not only driven by a wish for sheer beautification and visual brand-building, but by the desire to visually support gameplay. The idea was, that a settler living in a central house would go to work in adjacent workshop buildings. Thus, a range of compound types could be created. There were mundane industry compounds, woodland industries and so forth.
Using a rigid range of textures helps to pull buildings together as groups.
So, we did away with the red tiles and exclusively used thatched roofs, wood, and plaster work.
However, the visual connection between the main house and the workshops was sometimes quite weak, the functionality could be made more clear. Our suggestion was to align the main houses’ roof type with the roofs of the work yards as well, and to make sure that visual narrative of those roofs illustrated the functionality of the buildings they were covering.
This hadn’t been the case until then. To bring the point across, all buildings were individually overpainted, while one big city scene was overpainted to show how an alteration of the contrasts would quickly improve the readability and overall appeal.

3: To Victory!

The polished game was released in March 2010. Blue Byte’s visual and stylistic masterpiece won the prestigious “red dot: communication design” award 2010 with a “best of the best” entry.
So appealing the look & feel was, that the online version of “Die Siedler” was eventually based on the style of “Settlers 7”. It continues to thrive in 2013.
Armin Barkawitz, Head of Art Blue Byte