Arthur de Padua talked about designing and releasing weapon skins for CS:GO, the way it works in the Steam Workshop, and the weapon design in general.
Hello! my name is Arthur de Padua, I’m from Brazil and I work as User Interface designer in the games industry since 2008. Currently, I’m working for New World Interactive (Insurgency, Day of Infamy, Insurgency:Sandstorm).
My game dev story starts in the late 90s when I was making maps for Action Quake 2 and browsing mapping forums.
In that time, the Brazilian mapping scene was inspired by legendary Mataleone’s cs_rio map, for CS 1.6. It was a blast. I was active in a forum called Made in Brazil, (leveldesign.com.br, now closed, to avoid a massive influx of bots), where I made good friends who I keep in touch with until this day.
In 2003, I moved to another city to attend the University, and my major was Product Design. Next year, I got an internship inside the campus, in an R&D IT laboratory. During that time, I focused my studies on UI Design, animation, and motion graphics because there it was needed in the lab.
In 2007-2008, for my final graduation project, I wanted to mix up all those different things I was involved in: animation, game dev, and industrial design. Indie games were getting visible at that time, and I saw an opportunity to make something like that.
I designed a line-up of plush and fabric characters, took photos and used After Effects to animate them: walking cycles, attack sequences, etc. Since I can’t program, I asked a friend to help me with that. The result was a playable prototype of a platform game with a few photo-based 2D characters running in a tile-constructed environment. It was cool, but really far from a final game. Overall, it was a good learning experience.
Just after the graduation, Ubisoft announced they were about to open a new studio in São Paulo, the biggest city in Brazil. A couple of friends were sending their resumés for the job openings and I decided to send my UI design work I made during the internship, random graphic designs, and some footage from the final graduation project. And it worked!
A few months later, in October 2008, I moved to São Paulo and started a new life as a UI Designer at Ubisoft. It was thrilling! A good friend of mine, Thiago Klafke, was also hired (he was also featured on 80.lv). During the studio’s short life (2 years), we shipped 3 titles, I met some of my best friends and learned much about making and shipping games. We had such a skilled team!
After the studio shut down in November 2010, I made UI Design for other projects as a freelancer. Short after, I started working for another game dev studio called Webcore Games where I made interface and general graphic designs websites, web and mobile games, product branding, digital marketing campaigns, Steam game, etc.
In late 2013, my good friends Ana Mendes and Arthur Onilolz who make incredible stuff for Dota 2 told me that CS:GO was opening its own workshop for weapon skins. I immediately started messing with CS:GO Workbench. Next month, I already had Pulse and Kami designs done and submitted, and they were later approved for the Winter Offensive case, the very first case released by Valve. After that, I also made some stickers for community capsules.
In 2016, NWI (New World Interactive) was looking for a new UI designer to work on their new (and awesome) WWII shooter called Day of Infamy. And here we’re now…
CS:GO Skin Workshop
The CS:GO Workshop for skins is kind of simple. You download the UV templates from different weapons, do your design over them, and submit the work using a tool inside CS:GO client accessible through the console. Other Steam users can up or down vote for the designs in the workshop. If something catches Valve’s attention, it will get into the game. The regularity of the case releases is unknown.
I feel that the voting process is a way to highlight the good designs for Valve, but it doesn’t guarantee that a popular skin will be approved. Is a tool to select interesting skins among which Valve will choose what they like.
Skin Production for CS:GO
Ideally, I look for a cool concept to be the cornerstone of the skin or skin collection. I always look at random references like some tapestry, photography, architecture, traditional and fine arts, sneakers, UI Design (of course), industrial design… all sorts of things.
For instance, I was always fascinated by the “texture” of Japanese manga pages: framing, composition, Japanese characters, dialogue balloons, etc. I felt that the actual manga page was a good motif for a skin. I drew a fake manga page with the emphasis on typography and iterated on it until I felt it looked good. The Kami collection was done that way.
On the technical side, all my skins were made in Photoshop and Illustrator. Pulse and Kami skins were made entirely in Illustrator and later imported as Smart Objects into the Photoshop file. Other skins are authored in Photoshop but have some embedded vector elements imported from Illustrator.
There are several “Finish Styles” Valve implemented in CS:GO based on the real-world painting techniques: Spray-Paint, Hydrographic, Anodized, Anodized Multicolored, Anodizes Airbrushed, Patina, etc. Each Finish Style has its own particular quirks and will demand a specific design and preparation of your texture file. The Spray-Paint finish, for instance, wears differently than the Hydrographic finish. Also, the UV mapping works in a different fashion on the Spray-Paint finish. All these elements emulate the way those painting styles work in real life.
Except for the Custom Paint Style, all the finishes have the option to change the skin colors in the Workbench tool. I enjoy making Hydrographic finish skins but in fact, all the styles are fun to play with. Keep in mind, that you need to prepare the texture with the correct colors in the correct channels. The best source for it is Valve’s guide.
A really neat feature Valve implemented in the skins system is random UV placement. Inside the Workbench tool, you can set different ranges for X and Y offsets and Rotation. For AK Kami, I set X and Y range from 0 to 1, and the rotation from 10 to 60 degrees. Each time a Kami skin is unboxed, the drop system will assign random values for those three parameters resulting in a unique-looking skin. It’s good to have this feature in mind when designing your skin. You can also define a range of wear for each skin, choose stronger wear areas in texture’s alpha channel, etc.
For the skins with a fixed UV position, you can download UV Templates and 3D models here.
Photoshop allows you to import an OBJ inside a Photoshop file and edit the texture. You can visualize the 3D model in one window while editing the texture in another.
When you save the texture, it takes just a few moments to update the 3D model. I used this workflow for several skins including Electro Spirit, Night Rabbit. I believe this method is used by the majority of the skin makers since Photoshop is so popular.
Substance Painter allows the same, but I haven’t tried it yet. Substance Painter seems more powerful and faster, but Photoshop can interoperate really well with Illustrator, and that’s the main reason I still use Photoshop+Illustrator combo. I like to iterate on a graphic element in Illustrator, save it and see the changes being carried over to my main file in Photoshop.
Twin Skins Collaboration
The Twin Skins was a collaboration made with a friend (and co-worker from NWI), Victor Borges. The intention was to create two different skins for the same model. We wanted to exchange feedback without any restrictions and essentially design two skins together, but keep each skin personal at the same time. Since we were designing different skins for the same model, I wanted to use contrasting colors.
Another self-imposed requirement was to make the two skins complementary, related to each other someway. I suggested using animals from the Chinese Zodiac. Tiger and Rabbit were chosen because their characters are visually captivating. The contrast concept was something that emerged later: night/day, light/dark, cute/dangerous, predator/prey. The zodiac concept brought other insights shaping the visuals of both skins.
Victor used Substance Painter to create the Tiger skin and I used Photoshop and Illustrator for the Rabbit.
During the process, we exchanged textures, files, suggestions, notes, and paint-overs. For instance, I provided the Chinese character and other masks/detail elements to Victor, and he rendered an ambient occlusion layer for my skin. We also worked together on the marketing materials for both skins (video capture, editing, screenshots, renders, etc.)
In the past, I’ve done other collabs. For instance, Electro Spirit was a collab made with FMPONE.
Hanging with friends and doing is something that I recommend. Discuss ideas and create something interesting together!
The logogram on the Tiger skin is the Chinese character for Tiger. I chose a nice font for it in Illustrator and exported a PNG for Victor to use on his skin.
Same thing for the Rabbit skin, but instead of exporting a PNG, I imported the character as a Smart Object (a non-destructive way to have other assets inside a PSD, like vector, PDF, other PSD, etc.) in my Photoshop file. Nowadays I believe everyone knows what Smart Objects in Photoshop are, right? If you use Photoshop but don’t know what Smart Object is yet, I do recommend watching some videos about it on Youtube. There are so many creative uses of Smart Objects, it’s a killer feature!
For the normal map, I created a greyscale version of the skin with interesting elements (like a hexagonal pattern) and applied Photoshop’s built-in normal map filter.
In the past, I used NDO to create normal maps, but this stock filter is good enough for simple uses like skins and stickers.
Motifs & Details
The grey motif on the upper part of the Rabbit skin was made in Illustrator, then imported into Photoshop, just like other elements. Since this skin was inspired by the Asian culture, I tried to make a pattern which reflects that. Those line movement kind of feel like a night breeze to me or a rabbit on a grass field during a full-moon night. This motif is visually interesting and easy to achieve in Illustrator.
In general, I try to make a skin visually interesting from multiple angles. Of course, the most important view is the default gameplay camera where you can see the back part of the gun. But it’s also important to take into account that the player can his weapon (when you hit G key in CS:GO).
On the back of the pistol, I have an ancient version of the same character for the rabbit. The graphic element itself was sampled from a calligraphy dictionary I have at home.
It’s important, however, to find a balance and avoid making a skin over-detailed or with different motifs that aren’t conceptually connected. The mindset I keep when I’m working is: if a skin (or an artwork) doesn’t have a strong concept behind it, adding multiple layers of detail will not fix it. It must be solid from the ground.
I guess the biggest challenge is to create something unique and visually striking. Once more, I feel that this partially depends on the concept behind it. If you have a good concept, it will be easier to transfer the visual elements from it.
Another challenge is to actually finish the skin. Many times we (or is it just me?) try to refine an artwork, achieve the most perfect result and get lost on the way losing morale and eventually making some bad decisions. A good solution for this is to define a deadline for your skin projects. Spare 1 or 2 days of work on that old idea and just see if you can transform its essence into something solid. A defined time frame can help you finish and release skins (and other projects).