What I Use for Background Textures

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Screenshot of Genetica ViewerWhen I get a design past the initial “Is this even going to work?” stages, and my first set of sharpie-and-index-card prototypes have become illegible from all of my edits, I like to make a nicer-looking prototype. So, I open up Photoshop and let the right side of my brain play around for a bit.

For me, having a nicer-looking prototype on a design that is progressing does a few things:

  1. It helps me get a better grip on exactly what information needs to be presented and how it can be laid out in a way to best inform the player.
  2. It may help players plug-in to the theme in a stronger way.  (Example: if I’m exploring an island for pirates’ treasure, it helps me enjoy the experience more if I see actual sand and grass and jungle instead of a hand-drawn outline on white paper with letter codes or icons to represent the different terrain.)
  3. It does something good for my creative process to see a nicer, cleaner, new prototype at each major step along the way.

The first nicer prototypes get the inkjet-printout treatment at home. But once I have it to where I plan on doing formal playtesting locally or at a Protospiel or other gaming con, then I usually order a nicely produced set from TGC. In any of these cases, while I still am developing the design, I have no qualms breaking the sharpie back out and marking things up as needed.

My first step is usually picking out background textures for any cards and/or boards needed in the game. These backgrounds give you a place to project an overriding feel for the theme, and a way to let the information a player needs standout. I find myself using 3 main sources for my background textures, listed here (saving my favorite for last) …

1. Photoshop Filters & Effects … I’ll start with the caveat that I’m not a skilled artist or graphic designer, but I still like to do this work on my prototypes myself. I also usually want to get things done quickly. So, I am one of those horrible people that rely on the trickery and standardized look of whatever my graphics software can provide.

A lot of times, I will quickly put together some generic-looking dirt, grass, parchment, stone, water textures using the filters and layer effects available in Photoshop. This usually follows these steps: Render Black & White Clouds (sometimes followed by “Difference Clouds”), Adjust Contrast/Brightness, Apply Texture with the Texturizer, Adjust Hue/Intensity/Brightness to add color, sometimes add-in layer effects such as bevel/outer glow/drop shadow/stroke. I’ve gotten to where I can whip up a workable background pretty quickly.

Updated Dicey Curves Track Cards, January 2014However, this is only for early graphics that I’ll come back later and touch up, or eventually replace with one of the methods below. In one case — Dicey Curves — I liked the dirt & grass background layers well enough that they became what I used on the cards of the TGC-published “Deluxe” version of the game.

2. Photos from Wikimedia Commons Sometimes I want to use something that looks more realistic — like an actual photograph of a texture or item or landscape. In those cases, I search for public domain and creative commons images. And the best place I’ve found so far for this type of search is Wikimedia Commons. Nearly all of these images are free to use, although a good number do require attribution to the photographer or creator. (Be sure to check the licensing info on each image’s details page.)

Wallpaper Background Used in AbbottsvilleRecently, when working up my prototype for Abbottsville, I wanted to have a background of a wallpaper with an “old west” feel. A little searching on the site found the image to the left. (In honor of the attribution requirement I mentioned before, this wallpaper image is “Textured Wallpaper, Australia,” By Joe Bennett from Melbourne, Australia.)

NASA Satellite Picture of the Anatolia CompositeI find this approach really useful when thinking about how to do maps or landscapes. I might not always use the actual picture, but I find the images to be a really good guide as to how natural-looking landforms work. There are a lot of fully public domain NASA photos under the Satellite Pictures category. Imagine what sort of map you could make out of the image to the right.

3. Textures Generated by Genetica Viewer (free download) … Spiral Graphics is a company that makes software for generating high end seamless texture graphics for use in video games and other 3D apps. Their “Genetica Viewer” allows you to view and generate textures using their custom file format.

Castle Danger, 5th Edition, Quad-Fold Board GraphicThere are two things that make this app so useful for board games as well. (1) It comes with a surprisingly large library of free textures to use, and (2) the generated textures can be exported in JPG format, making them easy to use in other graphics programs. These exported textures are seamless, meaning they can be tiled or filled-in as a pattern. They can also be generated at a large enough size to use as the full background on a card or part of a board. I used these textures generously in the board found in the 10th Anniversary Edition of Castle Danger (seen to the left), and also on the cards and box found in the 3rd Edition of Jump Gate.

I have to admit that I really love just playing around in this app … generating random textures to see how they look and think about how I might use them. Whenever I start a new deck of cards or a board, I’ll open up the viewer and start plunking around until I get a few things that might work. Then I bring them into Photoshop and start applying them to my images. Here are some examples of different textures I’ve used over the past couple of years:

Texture Examples from Genetica Viewer

At the end of the day, I just look for finding a way to make the background give a player the right sort of feel that I want them to have. Sometimes, this means something that is not even noticed — a calm, generic, boring background that fades away and lets the information placed on top of it shine. Other times, I want something that pops and gives the player the feeling of a richer, deeper experience.

What other good options have you found for do-it-yourselfers to create nice backgrounds in their games?

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