Spaceship time!

On the topic of good spaceship design

I've written about design more generally before on my Lego Project page, and on my Thoughts page, but I wanted to share some of my thoughts on what makes me like the design of a spaceship, visually (ignoring issues of realism).

Flow flow of lines, rhyme of details, render quality, and stuff like that is obviously important. However, I've seen plenty of nicely done spaceships with those qualities which still fail to be interesting and memorable. Perhaps they are missing:

Below I'm listing a few of my favorite spaceships, along with their qualities and faults. Please excuse my scribbles and look up some proper representations of the ships if you're curious.

Legend of Galactic Heroes, Imperial Cruiser - Offsite link
This ship has powerful (and phallic) gun shape with clearly shown gun/laser nodules and engine placement. The design effectively explains the capabilities of the ship without distracting with superfluous shapes. -
USS Enterprise - Offsite link
Out of the Star Trek ships, I like the TOS Enterprise, Enterprise A and the Akira the best. Before Star Trek, a lot of ships were Tintin rockets. The unusual combination of simple shapes of the USS Enterprise made it a very effective iconic design. It has a few simple hull components which doesn't need to be explained to the viewer. A lot of early space games feature some form of Enterprise. How does it not break? Oh, technomagic.
Borg Cube - Offsite link
A great match for the personality of the Borg collective. I'm generally not a fan of greebly designs, but in this case I think it works because the silhouette is not disturbed, and the Borg themselves are quite greebly. -
Tie Fighter
Just like the Enterprise, the Tie Fighter design was a deviation from the norm, and quickly became iconic (by its own merits). Alongside the Enterprise, it's probably one of the more common enemies in old sci-fi games. |-o-| It didn't go for the conventional "cool", instead it assembled itself out of Solar panels, spheres and rods. Personally, I prefer the looks of the Interceptor variant. There are several gun muzzles on the Interceptor (10?). On the original Tie Fighter, the shots come from underneath the cockpit, but on the Interceptor the shots come from the wing tips. The other muzzles inside the wings are sensors, and the ones under the cockpit appears to be plugged. It's a bit confusing, but not a big issue.
Star Destroyer
I like how the designer chose to focus on a main shape (a spear head) and scaled the other components down. It's clear where the bridge is and the shield generators are well advertised in the movies. As with the Tie Fighters, it's unclear where the guns are located. In this case, the ship is rather large, so the small turrets are lost in the greeble. I'm not saying guns have to be massive obvious lumps, rather... that they have to be advertised somehow if they are an important part of the design. A Star Destroyer does look imposing, but the lack of obvious firepower is a bit detrimental to that effect I think.
Lancer Frigate
I'm not sure why I like this. Perhaps because it's a bit ugly, in a charming way, and charming is always good. It looks like a banana-helicopter. I think I like it more for it's potential than what it actually is. The components of the design are disharmonious, with the angular front, boxy body and spherical rear. Perhaps the banana aspect could've been played up more. The Lancer Frigate is supposedly an anti-fighter ship, littered with guns. I think it could've benefitted from looking a bit more like a hedgehog or porcupine, with guns rhythmically covering various angles. It feels very barren as it is.
TTA Proxima Shark
A very striking design, with the various snouts and jaggies. Probably one of the best looking Terran Trade Authority ships (it was originally a book cover though, like most TTA ships). The TTA ships in general had striking color schemes, something which carried over into Homeworld. I don't know in which direction this ship travels. Either way, it feels like it's going backwards.
Sulaco (Aliens)
The design of this ship was awesome when I first saw it. It has good variation of shape, going from antenna forest to soft box to cylinder without feeling fragmented. This ship will have to represent other similar cool flying long sort of flat things which I could be mentioning. I know there are a few turrets, and a hangar bay, but I never really got a sense of what the various parts of the ship do, besides looking cool. It's pretty rare for spaceships to clearly communicate what they are about. Shape-play tend to take precedence. Also, nowadays this kind of design is everywhere. It reminds me of how I used to draw huge bulky rifles in the 90's, but now most sci-fi shooters have huge bulky weapons and I feel a little meh about them.
Derelict ship (Alien)
There are many organic ships around now (Farscape's Moya, Lexx, B5 Shadow ships), but the derelict ship in Alien really made an impression with that imposing, clutching horseshoe shape. Like the Alien's banana-head, the shape is so absurd that it sticks. This ship was certainly shown from its best angle in the movie. I think the main body is disrupting the flow of the horseshoe shape.
BSG Cylon Raider - Offsite link
I like the simplicity of this hull shape. The cockpit has some sort of shutters which look interesting, suggesting an unusual pilot. Guns are easy to spot. Capability-wise, it's sort of plain. Pew pew. Perhaps it doesn't belong on this list, there are plenty of ships with qualities similar to this ship.
ASP Explorer - Link
I like most of the ships in Elite II Frontier (the Amiga version). There's something refreshing about the polygonal flat-shaded minimalism. They never felt like primitive 3D ships to me. Weld some polygonal armor plates around the ship's skeleton, paint them all blue, plop on the external sensors and a serial number, and presto you have a Tiger Trader. Actually they do feel a bit low poly around the engine part, and sometimes I miss seeing some extra, but subtle panel lines.
Aluminum Mallard
It looks like an 80's sports car. Again, this is a design that's very clear about the purpose of its components. I'd like to sit in that cockpit, but perhaps not when navigating an asteroid field. For a VToL craft, the engines appear to be off balance. Perhaps there's an extra landing engine under the nose? The turret housing for the guns on the side of the cockpit look tacked on.
R-Type ship
Is that the head of an Alien? Probably, knowing the developer's other designs. At any rate this unusual take on the fighter jet stands out and establishes it's own style. You can tell if a ship is an R-Type ship or not, just as you can spot a Federation ship or a Tie Fighter. The antennas on the back are a bit of a mess.
Valkyrie Ostrich
Not only does it look cool, it also transforms into three different forms. Out of the many variants, I think the Ostrich stands out because of the auxiliary boosters on the back. The jet form of the Valkyrie, cool as it is, could perhaps be confused with other cool looking jets. Of course, a design doesn't have to innovate or look alien, but I think it's good if a language/identity is established in some way (brand recognition and all that). The humanoid form is sort of bland and wonky, but that's a pretty common problem with transforming robots.
UFO Interceptor
This ship has some charming bulbous shapes, and it's very clear about what kind of fire power it's packing. It takes a fairly standard fighter look and manages to do something special with it. The wing and landing gear construction feels awkward (too rigid). I just included the ship here because I had a pencil doodle of it.
Flash Gordon rocketship
This ship feels very raw and physical. It has windows, fire coming out the butt, a door, wings, landing gear... The curves are pleasant and the greeble vs flatness tempo is overall tasteful. I like how the stubby wings were placed on the front to reduce the Tintin rocketness. Perhaps this type of design is worthy of a comeback? Budget/tech restraints from the 30's aside: Badly placed windows. The main characters often have to struggle to see anything. I think the ship takes off and lands using "runway" style, but it looks more like has antigravity engine help. Given how much it lands and takes off, I wish the design had focused a bit more on this mechanic. I don't remember if there were any gun ports, but there was a fair amount of air to air combat and I think the fun factor of the ship could go up if it had some place for a guy to sit and gun (e.g. like the Visitor capsules or Millennium Falcon).
Spaceship Yamato
It's probably true that most sci-fi ships are naval ship analogies, but the Yamato is quite obviously so in a charming way. Because of this, it's immidiately clear to the viewer what's what on the ship. Perhaps it takes it too far? I think something like an iron clad (e.g. a Charles Martel battleship) would work better, since they had more turrets on the sides of the hulls. Didn't Last Exile do that?
Russian craft
Vostok, Soyuz, Venera, Lunochod. You'd think real spacecraft would have to be designed for function, but somehow the Russians managed to keep a coherent and rather pleasing style throughout their space program. I just wish there were more robotic limbs and guns.

Hmm? Your favorite ship is missing from the list? But... these are my favorite ships! Also, I tried to come up with a wide selection of ships which I think have something extra, beyond "hull blob with stuff on that's kinda cool looking". Thus, no Rodger Young, Galactica, Daedelus (Stargate) Cardassian Galor, Peacekeeper Command Carrier, Blockade Runner, or whatever. I almost did include the Consular-class cruiser though. I also wanted to include a few of the Homeworld ships (which I do like), but I felt that I had mentioned Sulaco and TTA ships already.

Continuing with the runner ups: For me, the Dralthi felt like the most memorable ship from Wing Commander 1 (the later versions were not so good as they just complicated the shape). The Rebel Frigate, Nebulon-B, really takes it's hull shape to the absurd, in that good way. Perhaps the Klingon Bird of Prey belongs on the list because of its rather iconic design. The frail, yet menacing look of the Shadow Cruiser (Babylon 5) is also noteworthy. The B5 Destroyer is imposing with it's rotating mid section, but it sort of needs to be seen from a certain angle to look great. Despite having some interesting realism to its design, the Starfury never made much of an impression on me.

Event Horizon ultimately didn't make the list, because I realized that I like the premise of the movie more than the ship, and I'm not sure if the design has more merit than Discovery from 2001 (or perhaps the Eagle from Space 1999). BSG's Basestars, old and new, are have interesting shapes, but beyond that, no obvious quality which stands out, and I've already mentioned the Borg cube as an example of a large flying shape-thing anyways. The PX-03-RS RUNSAVER INTERCEPTOR is really obsure, but it has a nice chunkiness to it, and actually, it's a submarine and not a ship.

Leftmost are a few ships which I have some qualities that I like, but they are mostly greeble sausages. It doesn't matter if you mutate the greeble and protrusions because it's random stuff anyways, and that feels sloppy to me. The hull surface keeps changing its mind. I'm gonna do this now. Then this, and that. The silhouettes are a mess of protrusions which makes them hard to recognize. If I saw these in a movie or game, they'd have no brand recognition.

So, to address these kind of problems, I pick a feature that I like and make it the primary, dominating feature by scaling it up. I try to make the ship looks slightly like a thing, like a face, animal or tool. I think about whether the ship is conveying a role or not.

I turned the first ship into a beetle and bug head, maybe a transport because of how it suggests volume. The second could be a flak frigate, lots of repeating shapes. The third... some sort of giant cartoon bird. The fourth, a sniper-squid.

Doodle time!

Here I was exploring specific design ideas (anatomies) rather than trying to draw a wide range of ships. Keeping my favorite ships above in mind, it's perhaps easy to spot some of the influences. A lot of these ships are guilty of doing the things I think ships shouldn't do (they're very noisy with meaningless decorative shapes (macro-greeble?)), but a few of the designs might be useable if thought through.

Greeble... whether it's good or not, is semantics I suppose. Sometimes I take it to mean "useless filler details", and sometimes "interesting and relevant texture". In some cases the viewer is not informed about the meaning of the greeble (i.e. it doesn't matter what the artist's intentions were). A strange alien might consider the human face to be greeble, because they don't understand the face-language. It can also be the other way around, with the greeble being given (or forced) a meaning (and perhaps turned into a commonly understood language) some time later. Still, I think the first impression of a design has to be seriously considered.

Below are a few BSG doodles that I did watching the 78 version. "Useless detail" abundance. I flipped the viper upside down for kicks, but overdid the landing gear/sensor bit I think. My BSG variant has a 4-clover theme, visible guns, but fails to convey the role as hangar ship (missing hangars and flak guns). Not too happy about the Cylon Raiders, as they're full of superfluous details. It would be interesting to do what Star Wars did to the transforming Droid fighters (super vulture). Why didn't I think of that? They kind of look like Cylons too. It's gonna be hard to rip that off without ripping it off.

Unfortunately, stuff always gets so noisy and broken when doing transformers. Me putting antennas on everything doesn't help. Oh well, it was fun to try. Perhaps transformations can be a bit gimmicky, if forced onto something.

Black Scarab

Some time ago I started working on a spaceship/shuttle for a comic of some sort (steampunk minus the steam and the punk). During the development, I started to realize things that I already knew. A ship that's just shape-play is not that interesting. It needs... a thing... some quirk, some features. I think Time Bokan has a really nice vehicle (Time Mechabuton). It's an exotic rhino-bug, in an unusual color (blue), it transforms, and can launch sub-vehicles like the little ladybug scout. The Grandis/Gratan (グラタン) tank from Nadia is fantastic too. It would fit perfectly as some kind of All Terrain Vehicle in Starflight with it's various travel modes and top mounted turret.

Here are some of the important features which I tried to keep in mind while doodling.

On top of this, the design needs to have camera space inside, and perhaps windows so the interior and exterior can be connected clearly and not become two different sets.

Notes on the design so far

I also included a robot. The top observation knob doubles as detachable observation drone, R2D2 style. Perhaps its skull theme isn't matching "black scarab" though.

Another robot? This is a humanoid robot which is transformable into a hover bike. Hands turn into handles, feet into pedals. Maybe it can use the ship's main gun, which could be detachable (and usable as a regular rifle even).

There needs to be some kind of micro mechanics too, similar to the Doozers from Fraggle Rock. Yatterman had little robotic ant mechanics iirc. So much fun.

So, some time passes, and I chose to iterate the design, and write some more stuff. Sorry if I'm repeating myself here.

Features that I'm going for.

I'm also working on a larger carrier ship, robots, and some... uniform designs.

The problem with the design now is the tail, which is unwieldy. There's no internal camera space. Make the front a glass dome only half-solves the problem. The sides of the ship has these ablative plates, which I like, but they take up a lot of space. Since I'm cramming so many features into the design, it's... not simple, and kind of greebly. A nightmare to draw in a comic.

So, I started to address the tail issue by turning it into a scorpion thing, but that made the design even noisier, and the gun not always being aimed forward is a problem. It also blocks the function of the knob on the roof. I couldn't solve the construction of the gun-robot-jetbike, using wheels. If I allow hover technology, it will have to be something which uses a lot of fuel, or other modes of travel would become obsolete which might be a bit dull.

I tried to explore the idea of assembling a mecha out of the intact parts of a broken ship, but didn't get very far with that. Since the ship has all these elaborate mechanical parts, it would be a shame to have it all go to waste if the ship is shot down. It could make for interesting stories if the character (assisted by the micro mechanics) manages to whip together some monstrosity.

While I wanted a dome at the front to function as a dragon fly head and pilot display place, I think I might be onto something with the Wright (flying machine) style armour plates, because that's the feel I wanted the wings to evoke. The gun-robots could then occupy the space on the sides.

Regarding asymmetry

Most ships are already asymmetrical along 2 axises, of course, but 3 axis asymmetry is pretty rare isn't it? The Millennium Falcon is noticeably asymmetrical because a cockpit is, well, noticeable, but the rest of the ship is rather symmetrical overall, greeble aside. Star Control's Druuge Mauler is and VUX Intruder has some asymmetry, but like with the Millennium Falcon it's just a single antenna, gun or cockpit. Some of the Homeworld ships are taking asymmetry much farther. Starflight's Spemin ships are taking asymmetry to the point where I'd rather describe them as 'random' looking. Then there's cases like the B-wing, where you can't tell if it's l/r or top/bottom asymmetrical.

It can be a risky endeavor to go for l/r asymmetry, and I think it's because the human mind is used to the top/bottom, back/front looking different on humans. Our minds are instinctively opposed to l/r asymmetry so a designer needs some kind of special justification for it, or time to let it grow on the viewer. If you go for it, you have to think carefully about which elements that you offset from the center. Even a hint of imbalance might seem objectionable... but the pay might be worth it if you create an interesting look, because it is so rare.

Oddly enough, we've grown used to humanoid mechs being l/r asymmetrical, e.g. the Arm Rocky, Core Morty, and the Construction bots. It's probably because customizing the weapons loadout is a strong gameplay element in many mech games, and the asymmetry mostly concerns mounted weapons. On spaceships the weapons are less dominant. We don't expect a spaceship to have l/r arms holding different things.

Star Wars also has the Tie Bomber, but its asymmetry is more on a detail level, with the major shapes remaining balanced, so that's one subtle approach to take. I'm not sure if I've done that many ships with more strongly pronounced asymmetry, so:

General thoughts on what's clever and not

This was written earlier on a tangential forum topic, so it might seem like I'm repeating some of my sentiments above.

As a concept artist, I'm impressed when someone have managed to put several key elements into a design with as few superfluous "glue" pieces as possible. It's like killing the desired birds in a flock with a single stone by carefully calculating ricochets. To me, someone can be great at painting, but still not a genius because they use too many stones and only hit some random and common birds anyways.

Sometimes when I do a design, I find myself filling the remaining last few areas/surfaces with irrelevant nonsense and greeble, and I may think that I can get away with it because I'm happy with the rest of the design. Unfortunately it brings down the overall quality of the design. What could have been contributing is not.

And I can do worse than that. Perhaps the filler parts doesn't rhyme well with the rest of the design. This is especially easy to spot when dealing with color schemes. A color blob at the wrong place, outside of the established color scheme, could hurt a design a lot. One bad apple spoils the barrel, they say. (That's the true meaning of the saying apparently. A "bad apple" is not an exception. It actually infects neighboring apples in the barrel and spoils the bunch.)

Apparently it was Aristotele who once said that "The whole is greater/more than the sum of the parts". Sometimes I take it to mean that rhyme and balance (synergy) is more important (greater) than... say, every part of the design being great but in in disharmonious ways.

However, to bring this onto the topic of geniality, I think a genius design can actually go beyond "every part being great and in synergy". I can design a humanoid bug armor and make every part of it look bug-like, but still have a kind of boring design because there's nothing more too it than nice bug-ish forms.

One way to go beyond might be to let a part of the design do the work of several parts at once in some unexpected way. For example, Pikachu's tail is both a tail and a lightning strike. I know it might not seem that clever looking at it now, but at the time it wasn't obvious at all, I bet. Imagine Pikachu with a normal tail and an extra lightning strike symbol tacked onto his belly to show that his element is electric... meh. Most of the Digimon designs are pretty terrible like that, I think.

Some other examples: Bayonetta's high heels are also guns, which I think works for the character because she's very active with the legs and guns. Davy Jones beard is a squid because he's an underwater/sea character, etc. If you keep doing merges like that throughout a design where appropriate (and not cheesy), you're on the right track, imo. The examples I gave are of really obvious things, but it can be really small things too, like figuring out where to put the panel lines, vents or seams on a design to give it more of that zebra or skeleton look. Misplace the details, and you have wasted the lines or even worked against your goal.

Transformers and interlocking parts are another example where geniality is required, imo. Each part here must do the work of several, and you have to figure out how the thing folds together too. Perhaps parts of the design can pop off and become separate vehicles or swap places for more playability/fun. It could also be stuff like how the cockpit folds out and creates a little ladder for the pilot, and this way you won't have to tack on an extra ladder or come up with complicated boarding scenes.

The amount of ways one can fail with a design is perhaps a way to determine its cleverness. Certain types of designs are very safe in that you can't really fail with them. Imagine trying to draw a human face, but you misplace the mouth slightly, and there's this random bulge somewhere which makes the face look incorrect/creepy. In contrast, an alien face can have two eyes, a nose, mouth, and basically be any kind of blob. You can put plates on, ridges, little vents, mandibles. It's very hard to fail other than in a loose compositional sense. This is why I wouldn't call most of the random zbrush/sculptris/whatever faces genius, or most random greebly sausage spaceships.

So, if I'm looking at a spaceship, or alien face, and notice that changing just a few things will cause the design to deteriorate, then perhaps it is a brilliant design, because the parts are in harmony and synergy. The artist found something which was difficult to find.

Innovation is another thing to consider. Perhaps it takes something extra to be able to boldly go? Consider the Enterprise or the Tie Fighter. Before, a lot of spaceships looked like rockets or saucers, and both the Enterprise and the Tie Fighter designs stood out by doing something different and thus became iconic. You can however change them around a bit (as long as you keep the general architecture) without causing them to fail. They were rare solutions in that they were the first to exist in their region of design space, but you don't need to be brilliant to make up your own versions of these kind of ships nowadays, because their language is so well established.

Character design aside, I think scene composition requires a lot of geniality, especially in comics. You have this complex scene, perhaps in confined quarters, which you must draw in perspective, with interacting characters, and then you have to set things up in such a way that you get a pleasing composition. On top of this, the objects carry over to the next scene and you have page layout, eye flow and page flip cliffhangers to consider. It's dimensionally very complex I think.


Byline: Niklas Jansson, 2012.