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How To Make A DCS Livery

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The TLDR:

  1. Get Gimp (or use Photoshop if you managed to not spend all of your money on internet airplanes).
  2. Get A Livery Template (3rd party modules typically distribute templates through their own sites).
  3. Open the template and go hog wild
  4. Export to DDS
  5. Stick it in your DCS install
  6. Edit a text file

The Basics

Like most 3D computer graphics engines, the DCS engine is told what the surfaces of the airplane actually look like via texture mapping: a process by which a 2d image is wrapped around the plane, not unlike wrapping paper, or a cardboard cutout. By editing the image that gets wrapped around the plane, we can give them whatever paint job we want.

Templates and Doing Art

DCS first party templates (and lots of third party templates) tend to take the form of photoshop files, with generally enough information to figure out what part of the image ends up on which part of the plane, as well as a series of prepared layers of base colors and details dirt and such, so you don't have to have an arts degree to make an airplane with a dick stamped on it look good. Most of the time, you only ever really muck around with the "livery" or "squadron" layers. Since templates between planes are very inconsistent, you'll have to figure out how to make it work within your artistic vision.

Once you've fiddled enough that you want to try to bring your textures in game, you will need to export the image to DDS format.

In Gimp, this is accomplished by:

  1. File->Export As...
  2. Export as a bitmap first. In the popup, select Advanced Options -> R8 G8 B8 (This is done because Gimp's DDS exporter seems to only ever want to do a single layer).
  3. Open your exported bitmap in Gimp, then export as DDS. Generate mipmaps, but leave other options to default.

The Hard Part

DCS, being an extremely well coded game, keeps its aircraft files in one of two places:

  • Old plane files (such as the A-10, and the FC3 planes) live in `DCSWorld\Bazar`. You will create a new folder for the livery in `DCSWorld\Bazar\Liveries\<airplane>\`
  • New plane files (F/A-18, F-14, F-16) live in `DCSWorld\CoreMods\aircraft`. You will create a new folder for the livery in `DCSWorld\CoreMods\aircraft\<airplane>\Liveries\`

All livery folders contain:

  • `description.lua` - This tells DCS the name of your livery, what countries it is for, and what files to use.
  • Zero or more .dds files, which are the actual textures.

So, to bring your glorious texture into the game, you need `description.lua` in your livery folder. I suggest copying one from another livery and just filling in the blanks. Remember to change `name` (usually found at the bottom of the document) to something unique.

As far as telling DCS what files to use, the lines do that use the following syntax: `{"f18c1", 0 ,"F18C_1_DIFF_420",false};` The first column tells the game what part of the plane to map to. Don't touch it. The second column tells the game what texture "channel" this is. Don't touch it. The third column should be the filename (without extension) of the texture being used. If you are overriding it with your own texture, then you need to change it. The fourth column tells DCS where to look for the texture: `true` means it will search the common textures directory for the texture. `false` means it will search your livery directory for the texture. If you want DCS to use your texture, you need to set it to false.

Gaze Upon Your Work

You could boot up DCS at this point and look at your plane in game, but that's a pain in the ass. Instead, we're going to use DCS's model viewer to look at your texture outside of the game.

  1. From your DCS install directory, launch `bin\ModelViewer2.exe`. Note that this must be executed from the DCS install root or it will break; you may wish to add a shortcut.
  2. File->Load Model. Load the EDM model for your aircraft from either `DCSWorld\Bazar\World\Shapes` or `DCSWorld\CoreMods\aircraft\<airplane>\Shapes. If an aircraft has many EDMs, the one named after the aircraft with the largest filesize is usually the correct one.
  3. Press `ctrl-L` to bring up the Livery Tool. Select the database type corresponding to your plane and look for your livery, then press the "Load Livery" button.
  4. As you fix errors in your textures and update them in the directory, you can see your changes by clicking on "Reload Textures". Should you make a change that updates description.lua, you will need to restart the model viewer.

The Bits ED Missed

A lot of the templates are missing items such as patches and helmets. You can make changes to those by copying the corresponding element from the `Textures` directory, making changes, and then adding your updated version to your livery folder, ensuring you update description.lua to match your new texture.

Materials

If you want your textures to really pop (or if you modded the F-16 and got burned by the default shit shining incorrectly), then you gotta learn how RoughMets work.

RoughMets are DDS textures just like the ones you've been creating so far, but the colors are not for display and actually are being used to store different information. You can see an example of alternative RoughMets at work with any of EDs F-16 skins, the F-14 Chromecat skin, or with the F-18 Canada 150 skin.

The roughmet color data is telling DCS the following:

  • Red - Ambient occlusion. The game will treat the red parts as things that cast a shadow, and uses that to give the appearance of depth without actually using polygons. Typically used on metal seams, this looks far better on an aircraft than baked-in shadows. Less red = darker/more shadows when not under direct light.
  • Green - The smoothness of a surface, more green will tell the game to make the surface appear rough and matte, less green will make the surface appear smooth, glossy and polished. Zero green will make the surface almost completely mirror like, which will look strange under most circumstances. F-16 textures notably use this to make their livery paint shine and stand out.
  • Blue - Metallicness of a surface. More blue will make the aircraft appear more metallic. Less blue results in less reflection and a "rubbery" surface.