Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Art of War: Paint.Net as a Game



I've always said that for me gaming isn't about the games, it is about the community that springs up around the games.  That is, as someone who has experienced the pre-internet gaming era, what most excites me about modern gaming is how I am no longer an island in isolation.  With just a few clicks of a mouse, I can be part of a massive international gaming community.   And I don't just mean multiplayer either, but about the whole panoply of the gaming experience: videos, fan fic, screenshots and memes.  It's all so much fun, and serves to fuel my appetite for gaming all the more!

One thing that has always impressed me in the world of gaming are those talented individuals who can take a rather ordinary screenshot and turn it into a work of art.  Well, I recently - accidentally - plunged into this interesting realm.

I say "accidentally" because I found myself messing around with some settings in my copy of Paint.net while trying to pass the time as I await the release of Wargame: AirLand Battle, Sins of a Solar Empire: Forbidden Worlds, Crusader Kings 2: The Old Gods, and...unfortunately, I think that is it.  Which is my point: I was soooo bored that I tried to make a paint program into a game!  LOL!

Turns out Paint.net actually does make for quite the fun game!  Primarily, I limited myself to using three of its functions:  blur, glow, and softening.

  • Blur is a great way to soften the oft unnaturally hard-edged nature of in-game graphics.  I have discovered, however, that it is a tricky tool to use: too much, and everything is gauzy; too little, and it doesn't do much at all.   
  • Glow seems to affect how light is refracted in a screenshot.  That is, most screenshots seem to be taken in a hard vacuum:  unlike a real world photo, the division between light and dark is an unnaturally sharp one, leading to light sources being far too pinpoint bright, like in outer space.  Glow seems to  soften them nicely, as well as making colors less cartoonishly bright.  In other words, it seems to bend light rays so they mimic how we see things in an atmosphere.
  • Softening seems a mix between blur and glow.  This trick often provides a nice, final sheen to a screenshot.

Depending on how these three worked out, I occasionally would have to tweak them further by increasing the sharpness to compensate for too much blur or softening, or by manually adjusting the color saturation to again correct for some over-ambitious glow.  I would sometimes even put them through another bit of image software to see if I could fine tune them some more.

Even though I have absolutely no graphic design skills whatsoever, the results were often spectacular.  Here, for example, is a screenshot from Wargame: Airland Battle [click for a larger image]:


Wargame:ALB has impressive graphics for a RTS to begin with, but Paint.Net really brought some photo-realism to this shot!

I tried to massage another shot, but this time I went with a more moody and creative black and white approach:

Didn't quite get the realism I was looking for, rather I created what looks like a photo of a miniatures wargame.  Fine with me!

Seeing the results I got with Wargame: ALB, I decided to try my hand at a bigger challenge: the sprite-based American Civil War goodness of Norbsoft's Scourge of War: Chancellorsville.   Truth is, this was the game that first got me started in "massaging" screenshots because the graphics, while comprised of nicely detailed sprites, nevertheless remain quite dated in the world of high definition gaming.  So I decided to revisit this game, but instead of relying on a prepackaged "ink sketch" filter, I used the same techniques that I used on Wargame:ALB.  The results: stunning.


This is a shot of the 2nd Massachusetts getting ready to receive some more Confederates. Behind them you can see the survivors of Phillip's Georgia Legion, now captured by the 2nd Massachusetts who charged and broke the reb unit earlier in the battle. If I may say so, the detail here is amazing.  Somehow, Paint.net made 2D sprites looks just like fully 3D models!

Another:


This shot of the 107th New York holding fast against the 18th Mississippi is almost worthy to be hung on a wall.  Again, the detail brought out by my FX tricks are amazing.

But this is my pride and joy:


I was floored when I saw the final results of this screenshot of the 2nd Massachusetts returning fire after running to take cover behind a rough fence.  Not only does the fence show some remarkable detail, but the troops have been enhanced with a real sense of motion.  Incredible, if I may say so myself.  If only I made this screenshot larger so I could use it for wallpaper....

Lastly for SoW:


This is one that I took a bit of artistic liberty with by adding some zoom blur to bring the danger of the incoming artillery shells to life.  Here, the 2nd Massachusetts' CO stands bravely while his troops hit the dirt to avoid incoming artillery.

It was at this point that I realized Paint.net could be quite a fun game in its own right!  So I moved on to another title: Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion:


Also impressive.  Here, my battle damage capital ship Sirius limps back to a repair station. Again, Paint.net did an excellent job of bringing the scene to life in a way that an unadorned screenshot could never do because of all the barely perceptible flaws that would serve to spoil the realism illusion.

Lastly, the image I used for the teaser graphic up top:

 
Some corvettes unleashing a volley of missiles.  Also nice.

Unfortunately, I had to stop there because these screenies were taken from the 1.50 beta, one that has some AI bugs that are preventing me from enjoying it further.  Oh well.  Guess I'll have to wait until the June 5 release of the Forbidden Worlds DLC.


This was quite an experience for me.  For a free graphics program, Paint.net is a remarkably poweful tool for enhancing screenshots.  So powerful, in fact, that I now suddenly find myself wanting to play a particular game NOT because of the game, but because of a desire to see what I can do with a screenshot from that game!

Like I said, modern gaming isn't always about the games....





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