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The highs and lows of making Moonbreaker a truly digital miniatures game

When Unknown Worlds set out to make Moonbreaker a tabletop-inspired miniatures game, it had no idea what unique challenges that would bring.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

April 12, 2023

5 Min Read
A screenshot of a customizable model in Moonbreaker.

When Unknown Worlds' Moonbreaker was first unveiled in 2022, it sold itself first as a charming sci-fi strategy game with worldbuilding from fantasy author Brandon Sanderson. But it quickly revealed its next major hook: that it would be a fully digital tabletop strategy game, complete with true-to-life miniature painting.

It's a pretty fresh angle for the world of strategy games, especially when you remember this is the developer whose biggest game to date is ocean exploration game Subnautica. Though Moonbreaker has some digital enhancements in its user interface, animation, and voice acting, the game is meant to hew as closely to the real-life miniature experience as possible. And to have a real-life miniature experience, you have to have a real-life method for painting miniatures.

Enter Moonbreaker's painting tool. It's a game mechanic designed to capture the analogue painting experience in a digital format. That means it's been finely tuned to support real painting techniques like drybrushing, stippling, and wash application, and not support automatic solutions like what you might find in Photoshop.

There's really nothing else quite like it in the world of strategy games at the moment. We caught up with Unknown Worlds co-founder Charlie Cleveland and technical artist Brian Cummings to learn more about what it took to bring this tool to life—and how the decision to make Moonbreaker a true miniatures-inspired game has impacted development.

Moonbreaker's painting tool was one of the game's first features

Cleveland explained to Game Developer that from the moment Moonbreaker began production, the team at Unknown Worlds was gung-ho about capturing the whole hobby experience in video game form. Painting miniatures that you then bring out to the game store is "half the appeal" of the genre, he explained, and building such a tool became a day-one priority for the team.

The good news is, implementing a realistic paint tool with different types of brushes wasn't that difficult. The tool works by letting players paint on top of the texture of a 3D asset. Unknown Worlds would make some accommodations to the digital format, by letting players do "auto-masking" instead of manually applying tape to cover up different parts of the mini.

A screenshot of Moonbreaker's paint tool being used on a sci-fi buglike creature.

"We ended up just having the model be pieced out based on the type of material [being painted]," Cummings said. So if a player wanted to specifically paint a unit's jacket, they'd be able to try out different paint schemes without worrying about it interfering with the pants or skin. "It speeds things up...in a way that would otherwise be frustrating," he noted.

In real-life, Cummings said he "hates" the process of cleaning up lines on painting minis. If you polish off one part like a miniature's shoulderpad, but a bit of paint splashed onto the arm, it takes time to undo that mistake.

Veteran mini painters in the game development world might want to know if the team accounted for the fact that holding a paint brush and moving a mouse cursor are two very different experiences. Well, they did—Moonbreaker's paint tool supports Wacom tablets and other digital drawing accessories. Cummings said he enjoys painting with the mouse, and that other advantages of the digital format make it as pleasant as the real thing.

"I love rotating [models] in 3D and being able to get underneath them," he said, noting that players are able to zoom in and out on the models in a way you can't do with a physical paintbrush. That makes it much easier to create smaller details that can add that touch of flair to a model.

Cleveland called the end result this "perfect intersection" of digital and analogue painting. If the team had leaned too far into the digital end of designing the tool, it would have come out more like a low-rent version of Adobe Photoshop.

The trials and tribulations of making Moonbreaker a mini-themed game

Moonbreaker's paint tool worked so well that, according to Cleveland, the prototype that the team first cooked up at the start of pre-production stuck around for two years while the team tried to figure out how the rest of the game would play.

Once players take their painted minis to the table, that's where things get tricky. The good news is that players have gotten very creative with their Moonbreaker creations. The bad news is that some players have gotten way too creative, or have tried to get away with making bigoted caricatures.

"You can't control what [player-painted] units look like, so it's hard to make them pop out from the environment, which is incredibly important for a strategy game," Cleveland said. "Most people don't try to grief and make their units blend in, but early on, some people would try to make all their units look the same."

The fix was easy enough. Unknown Worlds just gave players a checkbox in the settings that would reset their opponent's minis to look like the default paint job.

Solving the problem of bigoted paint jobs wasn't as straightforward. Since you can't restrict players from doing what they want with their miniatures as they're painting them, it's possible that some might put obscene imagery or stereotypical caricatures like blackface on their units.

In a game store, you can just throw out any players who try to do something so awful. In an online strategy environment, Unknown Worlds had to fall back on the classic moderation tools of a report button.

And the emphasis on analogue-feeling miniatures has created another challenge for Unknown Worlds: it's still trying to figure out how to market the game. Most video games can show off beautiful video of their game in action—but gameplay for Moonbreaker involves long periods of player units standing still and not moving at all.

"We're basically learning how to market [this game,] and taking more of a cue from tabletop games," Cleveland said, pointing to how tabletop games like Rivenstone sell the minis as individual collector's pieces alongside their gameplay.

"It's very old-school...it's not digital marketing, almost like analogue marketing," he mused.

Moonbreaker is still winding its way through Early Access, making major changes and even shaking up its business model as it goes. Unknown Worlds' work on the game is an inspiration for any other developers looking to make games inspired by the tabletop world.

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About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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