Skyward's DCS World Livery/Skin Creation Guide
This idea has been in my backburner for a while now. I started making liveries for DCS:World in 2019 when I finally got my hands on a PC that could run it, but I have been creating liveries for different flight simulators for the past decade or so. And as time passes, I have realized that I have not really seen many tutorials or detailed guides on this aspect of games and that most of what I know has come from teaching myself how to do things from experimenting.
In this guide, I will try and teach you everything that you might need to get started with livery/skin creation for flight simulators but more specifically for DCS: World. I will provide you with tools, explain basic concepts and guide you through the creation of a complete livery for the Community A-29B Super Tucano mod. Let's get started!
THIS IS VERSION 1 OF THIS GUIDE, IT WILL KEEP BEING EXPANDED!
STEP 1: BASIC CONCEPTS AND NECESSARY SOFTWARE
To start, I would like to explain what a "texture" is and how it interacts with the model of the plane we are going to texture, in our case, the Super Tucano. This also applies to any other 3D model you might encounter out there. A texture is nothing more than an image consisting of pixels (a bitmap) that carries color or some other information (such as reflectivity, bumpiness, etc.) in which a 3D model is unwrapped over. Usually, this unwrapping process is done by the 3D artist while creating the model. The best way to visualize this would be with an example most of us are familiar with: A candy/chocolate bar!
To the left, the "textured model"
To the right, the "unwrapped" texture for model.
See how the 2D plastic wrapper (right) bends to form the complete wrap (left)? That is essentially what a texture is. The chocolate, in this case, would be the untextured 3D model; hence why textures are sometimes referred to as "skins" that envelop this model.
Now that we all understand what a texture is, let's start creating one by downloading an image manipulation software of any kind. This will be our main tool to work with textures as well as with any other images we wish to edit for it. I will recommend two for our use case:
GNU IMAGE MANIPULATION SOFTWARE (GIMP)
Free and open source, this is the best alternative to Photoshop available at the moment. It has all the tools we might need for texture creation with one particular exception: It's lack of options for DDS compression. I will explain what DDS is in the next part of this article, but let's just say that it is important.
Aside from that, GIMP is an excellent platform with a very friendly and intuitive UI that resembles that of some Photoshop versions. This is, in my honest opinion, the ideal tool for those who do not want to pay for Adobe software. This will be the software we will use throughout this tutorial with only one exception which you will see in the guide.
Utilizing the .NET framework, this image manipulation software is also sufficiently useful for what it offers. Despite having a less intuitive UI, it has almost complete feature parity with GIMP and surpasses it in some very specific aspects.
We will use it for a single aspect of our creation but feel free to use it for all your livery creation needs. Just know that most examples throughout this guide will be depicted with GIMP.
Now that we understand what a texture is and we have the software we will need, let's get started!
STEP 2: KNOWING YOUR SOFTWARE, WORK ON THE BASE TEXTURE AND INITIAL TESTING
For the purpose of this tutorial, you will need to download the following things before we start:
Install the module in: Users>user>Saved Games>DCS>Mods>aircraft. Example:
Now, open a-29b-community and go to the Textures folder. You will find a single file named A-29B.zip. Delete this file and replace it with the one you downloaded from the Improved Textures link. IMPORTANT: Do not unzip the new file, just delete the old zip and replace it with the new one. The DCS side of things is done, so let's proceed to creating our first livery. Open GIMP and load the template you downloaded. You should be greeted by something like this:
It might look a bit intimidating at first, but let me break it up a bit so you can understand what you are seeing a bit more:
GREEN: These are your tools, most of them are self-explanatory so try them out to see what they do.
BLUE: These are your tool options. This is how you configure the active tool (brush, paths...)
RED: These are your layers. You will have several layer groups that can be opened by clicking the PLUS sign to the left of the name, the one next to the image preview window.
Group and layer names change between templates, but usually you will find:
WEATHERING: These layers will usually have wear and tear effects such as carbon residue from the engines, oil leaks, panel line accents, etc.
MECHANICAL: These are usually parts are are left untouched. They include landing gears, wheels and other mechanical elements of the plane that are not as crucial for the look of the skin as they are not part of the fuselage. In general, you can also find parts that might be optional such as radio antennas, formation lights, etc.
PD: You usually find these at the top of the template, seeing as they will need to be over all other layers to be visible
PAINTABLE PARTS: These are self-explanatory. You paint in these. In the case of the template that I created for the Tucano you can also paint certain parts of the aircraft inside of the Mechanical folder, such as the propeller blades and propeller hub.
Now, remember when I explained what a texture was and how 3D models are laid-out over them? There is a better way to see that now that we have the template open. On the layers tab (RED) find the "FULL UV LAYOUT" layer and make it visible by clicking the eye icon. You should see this:
Do you see that web of lines? That is our 3D model! By looking at this, you get a much better idea of how the 3D model has been mapped over the texture map. Neat, huh? However, while this might help us in some ways, we are still lacking a small detail. Direction. While we might know it is mapped, this does not tell us if the mapping is inverted. This means that you might have to look at the text to find which parts are mirrored and which are "normal".
Imagine the text in 3D space as if it was the wrapper of the Snickers bar. Notice how the top of the wrapper has its text upside down. Well, that is because when it is wrapped it moves to its proper orientation. The same concept applies here. In our case, the Tucano has no mirroring in its texture so you have it easy, for now.
STEP 2.2: TIME TO PAINT!
Now, as a singer I like used to say: Let's get creative! Open up the "PAINT HERE" layer group to find the place to paint. I have already made a mask for you (the one that can be seen to the right of the preview) so that you can paint like a madman and still make a convincing-looking aircraft! Additionally, I have also given you a couple of pre-made liveries so that you can check how I create them.
There is a very important rule when it comes to layers: The ones at the top rise over the ones bellow, meaning that to make a multi-layered camouflage paint you will need to watch how your layers are placed in relation to each other. There is an example of that inside of the template as well! Don't forget to save often, you might lose hours of progress. In my template I have also included a set of decals for you for both PTBR and EN, to make livery creation easier. These are on the Decals layer group, the one above the main painting area. Play around with them and remember, not all template have these so you might have to create your own for other aircraft. Additionally, you might want to tune the weathering to your liking. Use the opacity bar at the top of the layer with the layer selected to make it more or less translucent. I will use the premade USAF livery for the rest of the examples!
STEP 3: SAVING AND IMPLEMENTING YOUR LIVERY IN-GAME
For this part, I might suggest downloading Notepad++ seeing as we will be editing some very simple code to make all work smoothly and nicely. Now that your livery is all nice and done, it is ready for testing! Let's start by making our livery into a single layer. Go to the LAYER tab to the right, select one of the top layers and right click to get a pop-up menu. Select "New from Visible"
A new layer should have been created. Click over this newly created layer and go to File>Export as. This is on the top row of buttons.
Export it to your Desktop as a .dds file. In our case, the file name should be a29b_01.dds Select to export it WITHOUT compression (for now) and WITH mipmaps. If you want to compress it with a modern compression standard such as BC7, use paint.NET and save it with that compression there. GIMP is limited to older compression models that ruin quality! You now have your first texture file, but how do you make it appear in your game? Well, this is where the coding aspect starts. I will explain to you how to create a livery folder from scratch and modify a description file that will allow you to see your livery in-game. Go to the Mods folder and open the one for the Super Tucano. Inside you will find the sub-folders, click the one that says Liveries and then the A-29B folder inside it. You will see something like this:
These are the liveries that your Super Tucano install has and the ones you see in-game. For convenience purposes, we will duplicate one of these and modify it so that it will read our file! Grab the FAB folder, copy and paste it, and then rename it to something else. In my case, I will rename it to "EXAMPLE LIVERY". Let's open that one:
This is what you should see. Now move your a29b_01.dds file here. After you have moved it, it should look like this:
Now, let's open the description.lua file with Notepad++, you should see something like this:
Appearances can be deceiving, so let's break it down into the segments that you need to know as they are the only ones you will be using constantly.
YELLOW: This is the part that declares which part of the 3D model is being called-in. Do not change it as this name is usually set when the model is export it.
RED: This is the part that defines which type of texture you are using. 0 in this case means that it is a DIFFUSE (color information or a normal image). ROUGHNESS_METALLIC carries reflectivity information as well as roughness and metallicness. NORMAL_MAP refers to a normalmap, a type of texture that carries height data to emulate depth with light reflections.
DARK BLUE: This is the part that declares the name of the texture the game will look for, in our case, the name will be a29b_01 (the one that is there by default on line 3)
MAGENTA: This one can be either TRUE or FALSE. If it is set to FALSE, then the game will look for the texture inside of this folder. If it is set to TRUE, it will look for it in the Texture folder for that module or elsewhere.
CYAN: This one declares the name that will be displayed in-game. This name can differ from the folder name for the texture (in this case EXAMPLE LIVERY)
LIME: This variable is the one that declares which countries will have the livery available for it. I usually leave this space empty as that makes it available for ALL countries, I recommend you do so as well!
For our case, we will comment out (remove the two -- at the front of the line) LINE 3. This line already has everything set up for us as it is declaring the part we want (a29b_01.bmp) with a DIFFUSE (0), the texture name (a29b_01) is correct and it is telling the game top search for this file inside of this folder. Change the name to your liking, careful with the syntax as the quotation marks are necessary. Whenever you are more experienced you will find yourself creating your own roughmets and normalmaps, but we will leave those out for now as this guide is intended for newcommers. If you have any questions about.
Your description.lua file should look like this now:
STEP 3: THE MOMENT OF TRUTH
Now, go in-game and check your livery out!
I hope that this guide was good enough to give you the crucial information that might be needed to start making your own liveries. Go ahead, create and fly! What I thought you here applies to ANY other aircraft, these are just basic concepts to get you going. You can find most official templates on the Download page of the official DCS website. If they are not there, then Google away!
About the author: Santiago "Cubeboy" Cuberos
Longtime aviation fanatic with particular preference towards military aviation and its history. Said interests date back to the early 2000's leading into his livelong dive into civil and combat flight simulators. He has been involved in a few communities but only started being active around the mid 2010's. Joined as a Spanish to English translator in 2017, he has been active as a writer and the co-founder of Skyward ever since. Twitter | Discord: Cubeboy #9034