Updating a classic space marine design

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July 30th, 2009

Recently I have been really inspired by my friend, and sometimes co-worker, Jack Monahan's awesome game design blog, Design Reboot. I wanted a challenge and so I thought I would try something I figured would be impossible-- redesign (or "reboot") the Warhammer 40,000 (WH40K) Space Marine. This is a design that has been continually updated for over 20 years, and I think it is just about perfect for what it is.

So how do you improve perfection? You may notice I had that qualifier "for what it is". The WH40K Space Marine was designed first and foremost for a tabletop game, so it has a lot of large chunky shapes (visible in this picture) that look great at a small scale. My Space Marine redesign would be for a video game. Another thing that I have going for me is that changes to the Space marine design have been relatively minor over the last 10 years. People get tired of things after that long and want something fresh. You have to be careful also since people don't like too much change!

I tried to stay true to the look and feel of the original characters while still evolving the design. I pinpointed a few things about the design that I thought I could elaborate on. The Space Marine is, in some sense, an astronaut, so I gave a lot of the junctions more of a gasket-like appearance. One of the biggest changes is how I incorporated some of the more organic forms found in WW2 tanks into the armor. Another strong influence in the original design was medieval armor, which I took some cues from for the junctions above the feet and the junctions between the body and shoulders. I tried to shave some of the bulk from the shoulder pads. This was especially tricky because they are one of the most important parts of the design.

One of the things I learned by doing this is that trying to redesign a great concept really has all the same problems of designing from scratch. There are great designs for almost any kind of character out there, and you can save a lot of time by using those as a starting point. Then you pick what you like about the design and elaborate on those things. These archetypes are what you use to communicate with people. The idea of making a truly original design makes about as much sense as coming up with a totally original word. The problem is that it doesn't have any meaning.

Sometimes it is useful to look at the origins of common video game character designs, to try to find inspirations for new ones -- space marines are just a convenient example of this idea since they are used so often. For example, the Warhammer 40k space marine design is the foundation for the marines in Starcraft, and Gears of War. There is another more realistic kind of space marine design pioneered by the movie Alien, which heavily influences games like Halo and Doom 3. Are there any other kinds of space marines? Which do you prefer?