Ship Rant!

I’ve been asked to make my previous threat come true and do a rant about ships in games.

Here goes! Ships for game developers.

The things that I’ve seen in some games, especially older games, you wouldn’t believe it. When it comes to ships, artists have this tendency to just make things up on the spot because to do it right requires a bit of research. The result is sometimes astonishing. To give you some background, I come from a city where we really see a lot of traditional ships. And it’s those that I want to rant about. The things with sails and all that, you know. Not the boring modern ones.

The thing that ships in video games very often get wrong is the rigging, and the type of sails.

Sail types


So over the course of history, different types of sails (or rigs) developed in different places on the planet. That is the first possibility to make mistakes. A viking ship, as you see here, uses a single squareish sail (square rig) hanging from a long yard. Logically, this requires only a single mast. Most northern/western European ships from the middle ages onward used one or several of those for their mainsails (sometimes on extra masts – bigger ships are heavier and need more propulsion.) Also watch how there are several lines (ropes) – each of them has a purpose. More about that later.

There are some other major types of sail – for example, the Lateen or latin rig. This is the other major type of European sail, used for a mainsail around the Mediterranean from the Romans to Columbus. It is similar to the Viking one, but the sail itself is triangular so the yard it’s hanging from is in a diagonal position. (This is different from the triangular headsails on a lot of ships, because those don’t have a yard.)

A more modern development that’s usually seen in combination with headsails and/or square rigs is the gaff rig. It’s got beams at the top and bottom and is attached to the mast “sideways”. It rarely appears on its own.

Needless to say, because of these regional differences, a viking ship with a triangular latin rig (or with headsails – good gods…) is going to look hilarious. Wrong combination of sail and ship for the period and region.

There are other types of sail that are more typical to Asian regions and so forth. You get the idea.

Many ship types used combinations of different sails, but a tea clipper or a ship-of-the-line with a combination of Lateen and Junk rigs would just not look believable. It is going to use a combination of square rigs and headsails and perhaps a gaff rig. Difficult? Perhaps. But many of those ship types are quite iconic and people will notice that something is off about them even if they can’t put their finger on it.

Tl;dr – You shouldn’t just put any old sail on there.


And by rigging, here I mean cordage, ie. the various ropes that some ships seem to have such a whole lot of.

The only really important thing to know about this is that there is standing rigging and running rigging.

Standing rigging are usually ropes used to fasten the masts to the ship’s hull or deck. It is always under tension. A mast will be held in place by standing rigs on the sides as well as on the front (and often the back, too.) Rope ladders are also standing rigging (old ships don’t have those.)

Running rigging are the ropes that are used to control the sail’s position, i.e. its angle to the wind and its shape. Running rigging also raises and lowers the yards, spars etc on some ships. All these ropes usually run between the yards/spars/corners of the sails and the deck where they are typically fastened. They only come under tension if the wind pulls on the sail, or if used to hoist a sail.

You shouldn’t put fantasy rigging on there; you can’t go wrong if you keep to a bit of standing rigging and insert a few ropes that hoist or control the sails on top of that. It’s better to just imply the ship’s rigging than to overdo it. But the ropes that are there need to be believable. The important thing is to keep it functional.


The general thing here is that the side rudder / steering oar (starboard) is older than the stern rudder. Most European ships before 1300 had side rudders, practically all modern ships have stern rudders.


Some older ships from Northern Europe such as the viking ones use clinker planking (the planks overlap each other.) With this method, the hull is actually built first. Most other ship types (as far as I know) use carvel planking where the planks butt up against each other and the ship requires a lot more timbers (ribs.)


Holy crap, do video game ships have crazy stuff on them. Dragon heads, tons of flags, golden embellishments, incredible figureheads, elaborately painted sails.

The thing to keep in mind here is that the vast majority of vessels will never have been decorated in this manner. Fishing boats, small traders, freighters would be more believable without all this stuff, because it simply costs money to decorate ships.

Do some research here. For example, to this day scientists have not found a lot of “dragon heads”, although they did find a ton of viking ships that have nothing of the sort. Unfortunately, the entire thing about having scary looking dragon heads on viking ships might just be a myth. Who would have thought? Maybe those vikings were more practically-oriented than we thought: Go really fast, slam into the beach, run up the hill, grab everything – none of this requires decoration on your ship, it’s just gotta go fast and carry enough plunder.

The take away is that when it comes to decoration, it might be good to practice some restraint.

I hope this will benefit someone. I have noticed that ships are done better in more recent games, no doubt due to the amount of reference material on the internet and also the generally more detailed models in games these days. Let’s hope the trend continues. It really can’t hurt to understand some basics though.

Final trivia – did you know that ships with a longer waterline will go faster than smaller ones? It’s really true. The downside is that bigger ships will have a much bigger draft, so can’t operate in shallow water. This is why they usually carry ship’s boats.

OK. Enough smart-assing, I’ll leave it at that.

Picture of Havhingsten fra Glendalough by William Murphy [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.


2 responses to “Ship Rant!

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