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Team Junkfish Blog

Behind the Art of Bootleg Steamer

We announced our newest project Bootleg Steamer back in September 2023, and we showcased the demo for our trading roguelike at EGX a few weeks later. One common piece of feedback we received a lot during the event, and consistently ever since, is that people really love the look, vibe, and art of our strategic bootlegging adventure.

Today, we’re sitting down with one of our 3D artists, Tom Martyn, to get a peak behind the curtain of how Bootleg Steamer’s highly-praised art was designed and created.

Image: Bootleg Steamer factory city where players can buy goods to smuggle.

Tell us about you, your role at Junkfish, and your role on the Bootleg Steamer team.

Tom Martyn | 3D Environment Artist at Team Junkfish

“My name is Tom and I’ve been a 3D Environment Artist at Junkfish for about a year and a half. I started my games career journey studying Computer Animation Arts at Bournemouth University, and after graduating I worked as a freelance Generalist Artist for a few years, working on a range of indie game and 3D Art projects.

On Bootleg Steamer I’ve been responsible for all the 3D art in the game including the environments, ships, cities, foliage and lighting. Bootleg Steamer is the first game I’ve worked on from start to finish at Junkfish and it’s been a lovely experience developing the game with the team and one I’ve learnt a lot from.”

How did the team decide on this art style? What were your biggest inspirations?

“The art team came together to discuss the art style we wanted to achieve and produce an in-depth Art Direction Document. As we knew that Bootleg Steamer was going to be a historical, light-hearted rogue-lite, this helped inform our art style. We collected and played many games of a similar theme or genre including Dredge, Dorfromantik and Civilisation. We wanted Bootleg Steamer to have a kind of semi abstract ‘snow globe’ appearance, where key elements of each biome (such as the cities) are represented in abstraction. This is reminiscent of similar games like Civilisation.”

Image: Bootleg Steamer prohibition city where players can sell their smuggled goods.

“With us wanting the style to feel ‘light-hearted’, we decided to go for a toony and charming art style. Taking inspiration for similar charming toony games like Dorfromantik, we thought going for assets with chunky forms, large bevels, scaled up features and minimal textures was our best approach, with atmospheric lighting in the various biomes to complement this. As we knew the camera view will be set from a distance from the playable ship and environment, this meant that the assets had to be readable from afar, so focusing on the key, defining elements of any asset was important for this.

From a UI and 2D perspective the various character illustrations and UI features had to have a historical feel to them. Going for muted sepia colour tones helped achieve this alongside incorporating elements like rips and tears to give assets an old paper-like feel to them.”

Bootleg Steamer is set during the 1920’s prohibition. Are there any historical influences that helped shape the art of the game?

“The biggest historical influences we looked at were the various large scale ships that were created around the 1920s. We collected lots of references of various boats and ships of that time period which heavily informed the vast array of boats we created. Looking at things such as paddlewheels, propellers, diving bells etc to inform the kind of ship assets we were creating meant that we had an extensive reference board. Alongside this I collected references of various skylines, cityscapes and buildings in the 20s and 30s of the 4 biomes which helped to inform the creation of the cities.”

Image: Bootleg Steamer New York Approaches biome.

Bootleg Steamer has over 50 unique maps and ships, all with their own defining aesthetics. What was the process for creating so many different assets in only 12 months?

“As there are so many different ships, the process for creating them was to create a large range of modular components for each ship type. These were assembled by myself and the Project Director and Lead Design Michael.”

We sat down with Michael back when the game was first announced to hear his experience as Bootleg Steamer’s Creative Lead, and how we brought his bootlegging vision to life from a game jam pitch.

“Proxy versions of these boats were initially assembled by Michael before I created all the final modular ship pieces and then just reimported them over the proxy meshes so that they didn’t have to be all reassembled. The process for creating the ships was fairly extensive and thorough as I had to make sure every piece assembled together perfectly. Ensuring that pivot points were exact alongside modelling the pieces to exact grid proportions was key to this working.”

Image: Modular ship components for creating Bootleg Steamer’s ships.

“For the locations, going with a process of large strokes to small strokes was most effective. So imagine that I was painting, I would roughly paint all the largest forms and features first before moving onto the finer details in the painting. This meant I started with creating the landscape material and water, and doing a rough pass on both these elements along with the lighting, before moving onto the next largest elements (cities in this case). Once all the major elements in a biome were finished, I then moved onto the next one. When every biome had a rough pass completed, I went back to do a more polished pass on each one.”

Image: Modular building components for creating Bootleg Steamer’s cities and locations.

“As the environment harnessed Unreal’s PCG system and a tile tech system that was created by Code and Design, it meant that I didn’t have to work on all 56 maps individually. The assets in the PCG graph would load for all maps of that set biome, which would leave me to place just the major environment features such as the cities and mountains. As for elements like water and lighting each biome has 3 variations of lighting for different times of the day so I used sub-levels in Unreal to simply change it once so they would apply across all the levels. 

The cities, like the ships, were created of a large array of modular pieces which were assembled before importing to unreal. By initially creating lots of modular building pieces in Maya, it meant I could go back to them again and again for new city and building types, and just tweak some features where necessary, such as placement, colour and scale to make the different cities and buildings look more unique and distinct.”

Image: Bootleg Steamer ‘Smugglers Hideout’ location where players can hire crewmates.

What was the most challenging task to complete for Bootleg Steamer?

“When starting the production phase of Bootleg I first worked on a stylised water material. This proved to be very technically challenging, as I created the water using distance fields to create the foam, so that any object on or near the water mesh would have foam around it. This did work well initially and I got some pretty decent test results, but when applying it to a larger level there were certain artefacts and issues that appeared with the foam textures in certain areas where it looked quite glitchy depending on where the asset was in the water.”

Image: Tom’s stylised water material tested in Unreal Engine 5.

“Due to Boots being quite a short project pipeline, we decided it was best to scrap this water material eventually and go with the great Oceanology Unreal asset, which proved to be very powerful and helped speed this area up a lot.

The process for creating the water, despite not being used, was a great learning experience, and one I would like to carry into future projects.”

There are four unique biomes to explore in Bootleg Steamer: The Great Lakes, Mississippi, New York Approaches and the Caribbean. Which one is your favourite?

“My favourite biome has to be the Mississippi biome as I find the general more rusty brown and red colour palette of that biome particularly unique and appealing. I personally find the narrower rivers in the Mississippi more enjoyable than the more open waters of the others as I love the more chaotic elements to the gameplay there, having to swerve around freighters and obstacles to avoid the coastguard; I also like that the smaller narrower waters means the biome feels a bit more encapsulated by the surrounding nature and foliage. Alongside this I am most proud of the foliage in that particular biome and love the wider range of foliage including oak trees, pine trees and corn stalk that the Mississippi biome offers. I think the sunset lighting in that biome is the most striking of all the different lighting scenarios in the different biomes.”

Image: Bootleg Steamer Mississippi biome.

Out of everything you’ve created for Bootleg Steamer, what assets are you most proud of?

“I am most proud of the landscape material as I spent a while creating a fairly complex height based layered material that I learnt so much from and really enjoyed developing. It was an asset I built up slowly, making it a bit more complex as I went along. It started initially as just one texture layered over another based on height, then it became 5 textures. I then incorporated elements like slope-based masking for the mountains in the Great Lakes so grass appears on the flat parts of the mountain. Eventually, I had an asset I was proud of due to the time and effort I put into it. It was one of the most enjoyable assets for me to create too, and helped determine how proud of it I was.”

Image: Landscape materials Tom created for the various biomes in Bootleg Steamer.

“I am also very proud of all the trees and foliage assets I created for Boots. These were much simpler to create than the landscape material, but having worked on lots of tree assets from previous projects, I made use of certain techniques and features I’d harnessed on the way. I created a soft shading ‘fuzzy’ aesthetic for all the trees by transferring the vertex normals of a sphere onto the leaves of the trees to help create the stylised cartoon look, alongside using world position gradients and subsurface scattering of the leaves.”

Image: Bootleg Steamer Great Lakes biome.

Bootleg Steamer is a tactical trading roguelike game where you are the captain of your own bootlegging operation. You must smuggle goods, hire crew and upgrade your ship in search of fame and fortune during the 1920’s prohibition, all while carefully navigating challenging maps and a relentless coast guard pursuit. Do you have what it takes to become the next Beer Baron? Or will your life of crime catch up to you?

There’s not long left to wait until you can jumpstart your own bootlegging empire! Bootleg Steamer is releasing on Steam on April 25th. Make sure to wishlist it so you don’t miss any upcoming updates.

We’ll also be showcasing the game at WASD in London from April 25th-27th, so make sure to visit our booth, try the game, and get some exclusive Bootleg Steamer goodies!

If you have any further questions or want to learn more, please come join us in the official Junkfish Discord.


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