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Excellence in Achievements (#2) – TF2

Game: Team Fortress 2 Release:Nov 07 Platform: PC / Mac / 360/ PS3 Lead Designers: Robin Walker / John Cook
‘Excellence in Achievements’ is an ongoing series about the design of Achievement icons primarily seen in on the Xbox 360 and enabled Steam games.

Inspired by the artists of the early 20th century – namely Norman Rockwell, Dean Cornwell, and J.C. Leyendecker – Team Fortress 2 is one of the most visually striking game releases of the past decade. The art direction and studied application of iconic character and sound design are above textbook levels of proficiency. This attention to detail is not lost even on the icon design for the Steam and Xbox 360 achievement icons.

While the majority of what the gamer experiences in Team Fortress 2 is taken from the aforementioned artists, the icons follow this middle-20th century concept but from a very different direction. More resembling World War 2 propaganda posters than the cover of Saturday Evening Post, the icons are declarative and bold rather than the evocative and and chiseled look of the characters and levels.

The following examples are of posters from the late 1930s to 1960s.  The first two come from Lester Beall and Saul Bass, both important figures in the history of graphic design who pioneered the simplified geometry and heavy use of solid colors prominent in the middle 20th century.  The second pair are pro-war/anti-Nazi propaganda (by Glenn Grohe and Fred Ludekens) used by the U.S. Government during the second World War. All four examples showcase a strong use of solid color, silhouette, stylization and simple geometry:

Rural Electrification Administration posters
by Lester Beall – 1934
Film poster for Anatomy of a Murder
by Saul Bass – 1959
World War 2 Poster
by Glenn Grohe – 194
World War 2 Poster
by Fred Ludekens – 1942

Much like the works of Beall, Bass, and the World War 2-era posters the Achievement icons for Team Fortress utilize a familiar simplified geometric style and very limited color palette that is very in-keeping with the overall aesthetic Valve has had for its properties (outside of Left 4 Dead): a charcoal gray, a fleshy beige and a very vibrant orange.

Recreating the Icons

It is impossible to pick a singular favorite icon from the set (there are 364 individual achievements on Steam, 17 of which are shared between the console and PC versions) and the three icons I chose for this look were about as random as possible, given that there is almost something amazing about every single one to choose from. The three we will at least look at in this entry are:

Factory Worker Firewatch Team Doctor

Factory Worker

Kill 20 enemies while being recharged by a dispenser (Heavy Weapons Guy only)

Factory Worker stands out to me because where most of the icons in the set for Team Fortress 2 utilize orange and/or beige against the deep gray background, this is one of a few that use a gray shape on an orange background.

They’re all used to great effect, but this icon in particular has some great touches: the smoke puffs being the “plus” symbol that emanates from the dispenser in-game; the depiction of an obvious “factory” like shape alluding to the industrialized Russia from which the Heavy calls home (and the achievement’s name); the awesome use of vanishing point to make the smoke stacks seem like they’re towering above the viewer from this perspective. Its an amazing little package of great design.

In recreating this icon, I had only the default 64×64 pixel image to work with. Thankfully the design is simple and defined enough for it to be a relatively easy trace job. The only thing to note is that instead of tracing the smoke stacks, I utilized Illustrator’s blend tool to blend two ovals together in order to retain the perfect curvature along the top of the stack. If I had traced it by hand, it would undoubtedly have looked “off” in some discrete way I wouldn’t be able to fix.

Factory Worker (click for larger view)

Team Doctor

Accumulate 25000 heal points as a Medic.
This is where I admit some partial bias. Being of German background and primarily playing a Medic in Team Fortress 2, I love all of his achievement icons essentially by default. However Team Doctor (the only achievement of the 3 obtainable on both platforms) is a particular favorite of mine. The stylized ambulance is a simplistic but very effective choice to communicate a complicated message. Its slightly exaggerated proportions and the way the wheels slant forward seems to depict this particular ambulance is barreling toward the scene of an emergency; much in the same way you would as Medic in the game.

While primarily beige-on-gray, I really appreciate the two very distinct pops of orange in the cross/plus symbol and the siren atop the front cabin. Copyright issues aside, the fact that two nationally recognized symbols are shown in the wrong color (both the cross and the siren should be red) but nothing seems immediately out-of-place about this design speaks to how well the visual identity is implemented and reinforced across all these icons.

As with Factory Worker, I had only a 64×64 pixel image to work from. Also like Factory Worker, the design here is so reduced and simple (but effective) that it was a relatively easy trace. Of particular interest however is that in the original pixel image, there appears to be a slight curvature to the front of the cabin and hood that I am either imagining or am simply unable to recreate to my satisfaction.

Team Doctor (click for larger view)


Ignite 10 snipers while they are zoomed in.
Were you aware the Pyro’s mask said “optical mask” across the bridge of the nose? Me either.

This icon, like Team Doctor, tells something of a story within its tiny confines. Pyros are the kings of chaos in Team Fortress 2. Aside from being a high-damage dealer with their persistent flamethrower, they easily throw an organized team into confusion as they attempt to escape the flames. Snipers are rarely part of these situations as they are want to hang-around across the map, well in the back, away from most of the danger. This makes them easy to creep up on provided they didn’t spot your approach in the first place.

In this icon, we see the Sniper’s “Oh shit!” moment of the stylized Pyro beige mask framed briefly in his rifle’s orange crosshairs before he is roasted alive. Its a great snapshot at a comical moment that likely happens all too often in the game. I am almost tempted to made this icon into a brief animation.

Recreating this icon was something of a challenge. I am not by nature, an illustrator. There exists a special talent illustrators have for imbuing a character with “life” that I simply lack, and that tracing over will remove. Again working with a tiny 64x64px image, this presented a fairly rough challenge of properly drawing all the lines that comprise the Pyro’s mask and upper-body (getting the goggled eyes was particularly touchy). For the sake of clarity, I had to find out what the Pyro’s mask said (in the icon, its a pixelated blob), and from searching through numerous screenshots came to the above discovery. I am unsure as to what “non-optical” mask would be.

Firewatch (click for larger view)
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  1. [...] the art. Valve is a developer who regularly sets off these little reminders for me. As I’ve discussed previously, their attention and dedication to crafting mechanically-solid as well as visually interesting and [...]

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