Stolen Pixels #195:
Breen Fortress, Part 1

By Shamus Posted Tuesday May 18, 2010

Filed under: Column 54 comments

Go and check out today’s strip before you read on. I have an excerpt of the comic below:

To the side are the last few panels of today’s comic, only the panels in this version have been photoshopped to look sort of like paintings or drawings. I think the difference is pretty striking and gives a very different feel to the whole comic. By making the images look more “serious”, you can make the contrasting dialog seem even more preposterous. It’s a technique I’ve wanted to try out for a long time, but I’ve never found the right subject matter.

Obviously the “painted” effect doesn’t actually go well with Breen. Part of his joke is that he’s both a Half-Life 2 character and a talk show host, and trying to make him look like a drawing takes the strip away from both of those ideas. But I was in the mood to play around with this stuff and so I used the art I had on hand.

I got to try it out for the first time in my recent Max Payne series, where I took photographs of a couple of industry executives and used the “watercolor” filter in Adobe Photoshop to make them match the art style of the game. (I strongly suspect this is the same filter the Max Payne game designers used.) If I’d had dark, moodily-lit photos to work with, they probably would have fit in seamlessly. But even with the bright and colorful photos, I thought they worked well enough.

I notice that the Team Fortress 2 characters look really cool in this style. Their flat color and strong outlines make them much more compatible with the faux-art idea than the photorealism of the Half-Life 2 characters. If I ever have the audacity to do a regular TF2 series, I might do this. Although, TF2 comics were all the rage when the game came out, so I’d have to have a really exciting idea to make it worth going down that road.

There are a lot of “art” styled filters I could use, but most of them are rubbish. A few are quite good. (Like Adobe’s Watercolor one that I mentioned above.) The one I use in the comic excerpt is actually a blend of a couple of different effects. For contrast, here is a random Team Fortress 2 screencap with the “Max Payne” filter applied:


Although, I could never use that filter on a regular series. I don’t own Photoshop. I’m currently halfway through my one month trial, after which Adobe will hilariously ask me for one thousand American dollars. Although to be fair, my 2003 copy of Paint Shop Pro doesn’t have anything nearly that cool. And the GIMP doesn’t have anything that can hold a candle to it, either. Adobe has many, many serious flaws when it comes to software engineering, but their image processing technology is amazing.

Anyway. I was just playing around with this stuff and thought I’d share. This Team Fortress series will run for a couple of weeks or so.


From The Archives:

54 thoughts on “Stolen Pixels #195:
Breen Fortress, Part 1

  1. 1d30 says:

    Looks cool. I agree that Adobe products are pretty expensive. It kind of sucks. I think part of the strangeness of it is that in our daily lives we don’t see high-end equipment and software, so we don’t realize how expensive a really good camera or microphone can be. But Photoshop is so ubiquitous, we expect it to be cheap like other ubiquitous things.

    $60 is a lot to pay for a game (in the US). Putting that as the high end of software we’re used to seeing means $1000 seems surreal and ridiculous. Like a grizzled guy standing on the street corner with a sign made from a 24-pack folding cardboard insert, reading

    “Need 400kg Ivory and 100kg Platinum, God Bless”

    1. eri says:

      I agree. Most people don’t understand the time and effort that goes into creating software this complex (even if Photoshop isn’t exactly an elegant program under the hood, so I’m told). Photoshop is commonly pirated, we’re aware of its existence, many of us receive free trials with OEM computers, etc. Adobe has tried to counter the piracy by offering cheaper, feature-cut versions like Elements (which might be right up Shamus’ alley), but it hasn’t helped much.

      I’m actually wondering if the same thing is going to happen to certain audio production software. Autotune is well-known by now (although due to T-Pain rather than its use in nearly every studio recording over the last 20 years), and you can even download iPhone apps that have similar but much cheaper approximations of the software. Yet if you want to buy the real Autotune, it’s going to run you several hundred dollars. The same goes for high-quality sample libraries – there are some that go for thousands of dollars. Yet when people start thinking they have the rights to pay nothing for these things, it throws off the entire balance between “professional equipment” and “consumer equipment”.

  2. MadTinkerer says:

    “I'm currently halfway through my one month trial, after which Adobe will hilariously ask me for one thousand American dollars.”

    Go take a class at a college. Any college (though I think online classes don’t necessarily count). Then you can get the Student Version for a FIFTH of that price (that’s what Amazon is charging, anyway). Or you could ask an existing college student to buy you a copy with their discount.

    You’re welcome. :)

    EDIT: BTW, where did you get the Admin model for Gmod?

    1. 1d30 says:

      Unfortunately if you’re not faculty, you’re a state resident, and you go to a community college, it’ll cost some money for a 1-credit class.

      I assume he can’t get financial aid to take just one class. If he can, to offset the $80 or so for tuition, yay.

      By the way, this is also a great way to get Office or an OS on the cheap. You can generally only buy one copy of each, though, so reselling isn’t really a sustainably viable prospect.

      1. Christopher says:

        The full version of Adobe Photoshop CS5 is only $699. Hardly a grand, but probably still way out of your price range.

        Another way to go about it would be to find an old copy of photoshop on ebay. I believe the filters you are using have been around since at least CS1 or CS2. Then, if you really want CS5, you can upgrade from an older version for only $199.

        If I had a computer that could handle it, this is how I would go about it. But Photoshop CS5 can make your best gaming machine weep for mercy if you’re working on large files.

        And, unfortunately, Adobe has cornered the market here and rightly so. There really is no comparison for photo processing.

    2. Factoid says:

      If you want to be legal (and I suspect that Shamus does) the student versions of Photoshop are not licensed for use creating commercial content.

      Yes, they’re fully functional and there’s absolutely no reason you couldn’t do it, and everyone already does, but strictly speaking the comic would not be treading legal grounds in those circumstances.

      I might suggest Photoshop Elements…it takes out a lot of the super high end features, but leaves in the big ones like layers and a lot of filters, color correction ,etc… and it has some features that Photoshop CS doesn’t have, like a red-eye remover (this was true at least as recently as CS2, can’t speak for newer versions). It was designed for photo editing and I think it costs around 100 dollars retail.

      1. asterismW says:

        Seconding the Elements suggestion. I don’t do high-end Photoshopping, but it meets my needs well. And it’s got a bunch of cool filters, including that watercolor one you used. I got Photoshop Elements 7 bundled with Premiere Elements 7 (Adobe’s video editing software) for $134. Version 8 is out now, and you can get both for $120.

        1. Goggalor says:

          Thirded. I use Elements most of the time, and GIMP when I want something that Elements doesn’t offer.

          A side note: Photoshop Elements doesn’t have the Layer Mask by default. It is present in the code, but the option to create one has been taken out of the UI. However, you can download an action (script snippet) that just creates a new Layer Mask on the selected layer. Once created, everything else will work as normal.

          You can download them for free over the net, by Googling for “Photoshop Elements Layer Mask”; one such download place is here.

      2. DmL says:

        Actually in the US they are legal for commercial work. There is alot of confusion about this and Adobe doesn’t make it plain. But it’s true.

  3. Groboclown says:

    Shamus – does Valve really have a character for the TF2 announcer, or is that some model that you found and used for her?

    1. Taellosse says:

      If you read his commentary over at the Escapist to the right of the comic, he links to a comic on the Valve site that shows her, so I’m guessing she’s an actual character.

      1. Groboclown says:

        Right – she’s in the comic, but I never knew they had a model for her. Maybe she’s the “10th class” rumored in the TF2 blog.

        1. Drexer says:

          It’s a fan-made model. I can’t find it right now, but I remember seeing the development thread at Facepunch.

  4. Mari says:

    I agree with you about Photoshop being…painfully priced. It hurt me a whole lot when I sucked it up and started buying fresh copies of Windows OS for each computer we run in our house. But I would pay almost the same amount for 5 copies of Windows 7 Professional (actually 3 upgrade copies for our Vista machines and 2 full copies for our XP machines) or 1 copy of Adobe Photoshop.

    But I have to admit, I got too addicted to Photoshop back in the 90s to ever think of giving it up. I don’t get to get new versions nearly as often as I would like (still running my circa-2000 copy) but I won’t give it up entirely.

    1. Factoid says:

      What sucks is that I don’t think you can get an upgrade edition anymore. I think at this point you’d have to buy a whole new copy. I’m pretty sure you can only upgrade to CS4 as far back as Photoshop CS. You can’t upgrade versions 7 or 8 even though it’s still 95% the same product.

      1. Christopher says:

        Again, I have to disagree. The difference between Photoshop 7 and CS5 is astounding. They’ve come a long way since the early days. When CS came out, they did a complete retooling of the software. Similar to what Apple did in the transition between OS9 and OSX. I’ve been using photoshop professionally for 10 years If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that CS5 is closer to 50-60% the same product. The rest is all new features. And the stuff they’re doing now will blow you away.

    2. lowlymarine says:

      Sooo I’m sure you would have liked to have known this earlier, but while you can’t do an in-place upgrade of XP to 7, XP is still an eligible target for an upgrade license. And yes, you can do a clean install using upgrade media.

  5. SatansBestBuddy says:

    The most hilarious part is that Adobe will ask with a completely straight face because they are, in fact, being serious, and that just cracks me up.

    To be fair, it isn’t meant to be used by normal people, it’s meant for the artists in big name game studios and big name movie studios and such, so they can afford to pay ten times the price of what it’s worth because it’s going to make them ten times as much as they paid for it.

    1. Christopher says:

      Or even small name graphic design studios like the one I work at. To be a serious designer, you NEED the Adobe Creative Suite. We just have to adjust our hourly rate to be able to afford such prices. But, we couldn’t do our jobs without it.

      1. Peter H. Coffin says:

        It also becomes then, a tax deduction. You need it for your job, therefore… Which makes it only 100-120 Happy Meals to buy instead of 200. (Gotta keep units of currency flexible, you know?)

    2. How can they be charging 10x what it’s worth if someone can pay that price and then earn a 1000% profit on it?

      I mean, I wouldn’t pay $1k for it. But I don’t run a business that would let me profit from it. Adobe offers consumer-grade versions of the product at more reasonable prices. I don’t see anything outrageous about the price.

    3. Mari says:

      It’s not just the big guys using it. I got hooked when I was one of three whole people doing web design for a regional ISP back in the mid-90’s with the Adobe suite. I don’t so much miss PageMill because about 75% of the time it was easier and faster to just code the damn things myself (remember that HTML was much simpler and less flexible then) but I just never could give up the power of Photoshop.

  6. Kolobus says:

    The Adobe software is an industry standard with no real competition and most independent designers I know only consider upgrading ever other version or so. You MIGHT be able to get away with using an educational version of the software, but I’m not sure what you get paid to make. Education versions are sold at an 80% discount with the understanding that anything you make with the software can’t be for a profit.

    I enjoyed the look of today’s comic. It’s always nice to try something new once in awhile. Most of the Photoshop filter are rubbish, it’s true, but many of them can be made bearable if you mess with the sliders and use them in combination with other effects. I always enjoyed duplicating a finished image, setting the top layer to “Hard Light”, putting a .5 Gaussian Blur on it and then tweaking the overall transparency. Great for making darks dark and brights bright with a movie-like feel to it. Kind of like the Max Payne series you did.

    EDIT: Oops, looks like someone else suggestion an educational version while I was writing this. Sorry for the repeat advice!

  7. Binks says:

    “And the GIMP doesn't have anything that can hold a candle to it, either.”

    o.O? That doesn’t look like too hard of an effect to duplicate in GIMP, looks a lot like the oil painting filter with maybe a little level re-balancing. What filters in photoshop are you using? Aside from a few almost all of the photoshop filters have equivalents in GIMP. I’m as much of a photoshop fan as anyone (wish I could afford it) but GIMP can do almost everything photoshop can do, with a slightly worse UI and less user-friendly features of course.

    1. Shamus says:

      I stand corrected. The Oilify filter is pretty dang close.

      Cool. Thanks.

    2. “Gimp can do almost everything photoshop can do”. Not really. Gimp doesn’t have the power of Photoshop. I won’t really comment on the Gimp’s interface as I’m not that used to it – but PS’s interface is pretty awful itself. However the sheer amount of flex you have when running it is incredible.

      I do wish that they’d junked a bunch of the features (animation is so superfluous – you should be doing that in an animation app instead, and the 3D seems a little tacked on) but companies who use Gimp instead of Photoshop (and Illustrator, etc.) would be seriously hampering their abilities.

      edit: Huh, it seems a whole thread of this is discussed just a bit further down. Oh well.

  8. evileeyore says:

    WUH?!? 1K$?!?

    I had to look that up. That is … astoundingly crazy. There is no possible way that can be a real price. I refuse to beleive in a world that such outrageous pricing is not only true, but accepted within the business world.

    Un uh. Not gonna beleive it.

    1. Bethor says:

      If you think 1k$ is steep, you probably shouldn’t think about the price tag on CAD/PLM software ;)

      As a developer on CATIA (, I’m not privy to the exact details of the pricing structure but I do know that a license will cost you anywhere from 10 to 100 k$ depending on the exact setup you need.

      Then again, it’s pretty much your only choice if you want to design that car/boat/building/aircraft that’s going to make you way more than the cost of a license for each of your engineers ;)

    2. Adeon says:

      Actually within the business world even higher price tags for software are not uncommon. There are a lot of very specialized software tools the companies need to do their job but that it doesn’t make financial sense for them to develop in house.

      Other software companies exist to supply them with these tools but they charge a very high premium for it. Partly this is because they can but it’s also because the development effort to sales ratio is a lot higher than for shrink wrapped software so they need to charge more to make a profit.

      Software packages like Adobe Photoshop and AutoCAD are somewhere in between. Their primary customers are still businesses but there are some non-business users and the business users tend to buy a lot of seats and so their pricing reflects that.

  9. Deoxy says:

    I'm as much of a photoshop fan as anyone (wish I could afford it) but GIMP can do almost everything photoshop can do, with a slightly worse UI and less user-friendly features of course.

    I’m no GIMP expert, but I’ve played around with it a good bit, and this seems to be fairly accurate – I’ve seen it claimed several different times and places over the years.

    So yeah, as far as I can tell, the entire obscene and ridiculous cost of Photoshop (or at least really darn close) is for a nicer user interface*. GIMP is free.

    (*Actually, it’s probably also for the official support – running a for-profit company on freeware that doesn’t have a professional help line makes execs and bean-counters crazy-scared. Never mind that most “professional help lines” these days are pathetic automated jokes that, if you are really lucky, might eventually connect you to a real human being… with an accent so thick that you can’t understand them.)

    1. Groboclown says:

      There’s a few companies who do have awesome support – I’ve used the Perforce support many times, and you get in contact with someone who really knows what they’re talking about. For example, once we went back-and-forth on some Perl scripts to get past the problems.

    2. Christopher says:

      Have you seen what Photoshop CS5 can do? Its way more than a set of filters and painting tools. Here, let me enlighten you:

      This is just a small sampling of the power of photoshop. Your paying for raw image processing, 3D capabilities, HDR imaging, Abobe Illustrator and InDesign integration, batch processing, 64-bit support… shall I go on?

      I know I sound like an Adobe salesman, but I think that Photoshop is actually worth the high price. IF you are a photographer, designer, or animator where you’re job depends on the software. GIMP is fine for a free program, but it might as well be a sack of potatoes for all the good it does true professionals.

      1. Drexer says:

        I’m going to have to agree here.

        I’m not an high end user of Photoshop, but I still note that many of its exclusive functions are pretty much the only option in the market and they are very high quality.

        For myself I use GIMP, the most common needs I have are easily workable with its tools, and I’ve grown used to its interface. For something along your comic examples Shamus, I’m not really seeing the necessity for Photoshop instead of GIMP or CS. On another note, GIMP is the best when on a small netbook like an eee, both for its low processor consumption and for the fact that in such a small screen, the interface actually is more friendly that a normal interface which would fill 30% of the screen.

      2. chuko says:

        I dunno about that. Many people, like me, say, use GIMP for professional work. Certainly GIMP runs behind Photoshop CS5 in features. The question is whether those specific features are worth $1000 to you. I’m not being rhetorical: sometimes a person does need those specific features.

        GIMP also has a few features that Photoshop doesn’t, and it has the joys of free software. You can hack into GIMP if you want to. Noting that GIMP does do 95% of what Photoshop does, for free, I sometimes wonder what it could do if everyone who paid $1000 to Adobe for Photoshop instead donated $100 to GIMP.

      3. Jabor says:

        There are GIMP plugins for content-aware fill and the like already.

        In fact, I’d even venture to say that GIMP had it before photoshop.

        1. Roll-a-die says:

          Gimp had content aware fill via a plugin in 2006, IIRC.

  10. Casper says:

    My first thought was- is Breen covering Dwarf Fortress now? Team Fortress was only the second thought.

    1. Davie says:

      That would be amazing. I don’t know quite how it would play out, but there would be nothing more awesome than Breen interviewing a giant ASCII character.

      1. TSED says:

        It’d be really hard to get the blinking effect right.

        You know what I mean. What’s one thing you can’t have Dwarf Fortress without? The same thing that causes the blinking.

        Which always results in fun!

  11. Someone says:

    Am I the only one who thinks the announcer looks kinda like Joker in the last panel?

  12. Tom says:

    I can recommend Paint.NET. It’s free and if the basic package doesn’t have what you want in the way of filters they have lots of user-created plug-ins. I’ve used it for years and it’s been actively maintained and improved. My only caveats would be that it’s Windows only and the documentation sucks.

    1. Joe Cool says:

      Aw, you beat me to it.

      But Yes, the Oil Painting filter in Paint.NET is very similar to what you’re looking for.

      I use Paint.NET for everything (my needs are simple). A little while ago, I tried to convince my wife to switch to it from her pirated copy of photoshop (6? 7? Old version; she didn’t like the first few CS releases), but she gave up on Paint because she couldn’t make the adjustment, so she still uses her pirated version, for which she shall burn in pirate hell (its full of ninja).

    2. Nixorbo says:

      I will third the support for

  13. Mad Flavius says:

    Shamus, aside from going to a community college just to get Adobe, log onto their site and see if they still offer their educational discount for homeschoolers. They did about six, seven years ago, when I was in high school and first starting my videography business. I got their entire Creative Suite (Premiere Pro 2, Encore DVD, Photoshop, After Effects, Audition) for about one thousand dollars. I’m sure you could get the same discount for your family. Just a thought.

  14. Kdansky says:

    Think of it like this: 1000 $ is not that much compared to a single monthly wage, even for a small business with only a handful of employees. If you have any job that needs some brain, you cost your employee five to twenty times that per month (don’t forget that the employer also pays quite a big sum for insurances, supplies, office rental, hardware and what-do-you know on top of what you see on your pay-check). If a single licence can be used for at least a year (and in reality, it can be used a lot longer), then that is hardly visible on the employer’s tax report.

    The price point makes sense for businesses, and adobe can “afford” to make everyone pay the same.

  15. Tuck says:

    Paint.NET, Paint.NET, Paint.NET!

    (like at least two people above this is the completely free Photoshop-replacement I use and it’s got all the filters you need)

  16. Davie says:

    I’ve never understood why professional-level software was so expensive. After all, AAA video games cost $10-$30 million to develop, and are sold for $50 apiece. Why can Adobe get away with charging twenty times that? Is it because the market is smaller? Because it’s intended for corporations with lots of money anyway? Please, Shamus, or someone else, enlighten me!

    1. Moridin says:

      It’s because it’s meant for professionals. As Kdansky said, they can afford to pay that much, and there isn’t really any competition(as for as the businesses are concerned, they generally don’t pay just for software, but also for support).

      I remember a CS course in high-school, where we were taught to use a software used for presentations and such. It was basically same as Powerpoint except it allowed to pages to run scripts. If I remember correctly, the price of that software would have been about €500(about $650). There’s no way a home-user is going to pay that much. But for a business it’s not really that big of an expense. And no-one is going to sell similar software for cheaper. Sure, there’s probably open source equivalent, but it doesn’t have an official support and if something goes wrong, it’s you who’s going to have to pay for it.

      1. Davie says:

        Thanks. Makes sense. I’d suspected something along those lines. It’s still rather ridiculous though.

  17. xd20for desirable result. says:

    Interesting that a conversation about Photoshop comes up, on Shamus’s website, renowned for his anti-DRM stance.

    Adobe has done remarkably well at stopping pirating. But it is $1000 so it makes sense. Regardless, I think cs5 has been broken already.

    Anyway GIMP is a pretty decent alternative, however if you are used to Photoshop it's hard to get into.

    1. Roll-a-die says:

      It was cracked release day. :shifty eyes:

  18. Warstrike says:

    Radiation oncology treatment planning software ~$100K-200K. Each license. Manufacturer needs FDA clearance, nearly bug-free software (at least in the critical parts), lots of user training resources, and some seriously talented tech-support. (they recoup a fair amount{i.e. all plus a profit, of course} of that through really expensive service contracts, but those contracts also guarantee all upgrades, so you essentially buy the software once)
    Number of users : ~1000 (order of magnitude)

    A $50 game is about 1/2000 of the cost, so you can make an equivalent gross revenue by selling ~ 2 million units. Either model can be equally profitable, depending on your development expenses.

  19. Gandaug says:

    I took a look at Photoshop prices because $1,000 just seemed like Shamus was exaggerating even though he’s not known for that. The Extended edition is even worse. It’s $1,800.

  20. TSED says:

    I’m always surprised by people who are surprised when things are expensive.

    You don’t see people complaining about high end musical instruments costing >$7000. You don’t see people complaining about the hundreds of thousands of dollars race cars cost. Or how much professional sport equipment can run. How much medical equipment can cost.

    Why would professional software be any different? It has an extremely demanding customer base (the professionals) who will not tolerate ANY fault. When it comes to the tools people use to make a profit, they’re not just being snobby when they want that extra mile out of their purchase. They need it to be, well, economical. Think of how long it would take to do everything from Photoshop by hand – a grand is literally nothing compared to those countless lost man hours.

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