What's old is new

I was going through some old sketch books yesterday, and came across some of the very first ideas I had for HeroMachine. What struck me was how similar they are to some of the knockoffs I've seen since then, and how some of the ideas back then may surface in HeroMachine 3. Since part of what I want to do with this blog is to include you in the process of developing a piece of software, I thought I should share those old drawings; here goes!

In the beginning, all I knew was that I wanted to do something like the old "Mighty Men and Monster Maker" set I'd had as a kid:

Mighty Men and Monster Maker

It was like "fashion plates" for boys, you had separate tiles for the head, torso, and legs that fit into a holding device -- in the photo, the head tiles are yellow, the torso tiles are orange, and the leg tiles are red. Each plate had an embossed image on it. You'd lay your paper over the combined set of three tiles, and make a rubbing with the included crayon to get your final character image. I wanted to replicate that digitally, so you'd have a lot more options than the dozen or so that came with the set originally. But I wasn't sure how to even begin, as you can see from this sketch book scan:

Early HeroMachine interface 1

I didn't know anything at all about JavaScript or programming of any sort. I'd built a web page in basic HTML, and that was the extent of my knowledge. But, I knew I wanted to make this thing, it was just a matter of figuring out how.

Eventually I decided to investigate VisualBasic because (and I'm not kidding) I figured that if it had the word "Visual" in it, it might be good for doing something with images. Brilliant, right? But it did lead to a modification of the design into something more "computery":

Another early HeroMachine interface design

What strikes me about this now, fifteen years later, is the tabbed interface. I don't have any clue what was supposed to be on those tabs, but it's something that has resurfaced as I've been thinking about HeroMachine 3. There is so much more information to keep track of now than I originally thought, when there were only four components (I got bold and included "background", as you can see in the sketch), that I have to be careful not to overwhelm the user with too much clutter.

In the early design stages, I kept getting stuck with the thought that it ought to look like it could be held in your hand. I don't know why. But I see it again and again in the early sketches. HeroMachine version 1 still has that legacy a bit with the sliding doors rotating around to show your choices, but it's pretty much gone in HeroMachine 2.

I even found the original two sets of heads, bodies, and legs I did for this very simple first version of HeroMachine, a hawk-warrior guy and some sort of aquatic ruler guy; I don't think these have ever been seen before in this format:

Early HeroMachine character design 1
Early HeroMachine character design 2

The last little nugget I uncovered was a set of possible heads for inclusion. You can see my inking skills were pretty poor, and I didn't have a clue how to draw hair. I know, I know -- what's with the past tense, you no-hair-drawing, bad inker?

Early HeroMachine head designs

I do still think there's some good value in doing a very simple, limited set of components like this. I could pose the bodies however I wanted, there'd be a lot more flexibility in terms of expressions, the overall design of the pieces would be much tighter, etc. I still might do a one-off like this at some point, depending on how things go. And I have a feeling that the tab interface, at least, is going to survive and re-emerge in HeroMachine 3 down the road.

Anyway, I hope you got something out of this little trip down memory lane.

18 Responses to What's old is new

  1. cybersavant says:

    Hi Jeff.

    Cool. I have that set – used it to make my core set of characters for my own line of comics- Hammer & Anvil Waaaayyyyyyyyyyyy back when.

  2. Sam says:

    I, too, had the old Mighty Men and Monster Maker kit. It was awesome, and when I first saw HeroMachine, it was the first thing I thought of.


  3. Me says:


    Google images leads to new stuff on Mighty Men and Monster Maker.

    Meanwhile, that hawk helmet & hawk breastplate are aching to get into HM3 =:-o

  4. Ashton Jakobson says:

    Hey Jeff!!!!!

    Is this a hint at the start of whole heads!? not just faces but heads… that would be an awesoe Idea! another cool thing for HM3 would different poses, and if you are allowed to tell me, any ETA on HM3?

  5. Rob Rogers says:

    It’s funny, Jeff. HeroMachine always reminded me of the Mighty Men and Monster Maker, but I never realized that it was the actual inspiration for the program. That’s pretty cool.

  6. XAN says:

    hey i love the hero machine program but new poses n backgrounds that would sett it off mighty men n monster maker was awesome

  7. dom says:

    well it should be really good but you should make it wear you can choose hand positions so you can make a cool figure of the sort example: your holding a sword in 2 hands and a sword on your back or that funny samuri holding whne you put your hands on the katana and have it in its sheth

  8. Danny Beaty says:

    I used to have a Mighty Men and Monster Maker set!

  9. Bob says:

    Awesome! I think that the new hero machine should have costume parts such as X-Men 2 Wolverine’s claws, Cable’s organic steel arm, X-Men 2 Lady Deathstrike’s talons, Iron Man armor (movie version), Ultimate Iron Man’s armor, Ultimate War Machine’s armor, more robot-body skins that are better then the one in version 2.5, more weapons, and more motercycles in companions/big weapons. Also you should make a hero machine in which you can build vehicles of any kind and anyway that you want, like motercycles.

  10. Brandon says:

    I love Heromachine. My only wish is that there was away to overlap more things. Sometimes I want to put one of the vest type undershirts from expansion one on top of another undershirt.

    I guess I also wish there were some mask selections with permanent white eyes so I don’t have to use the eyeglasses underneath the mask trick to create the Batman/Dare Devil type of eyes.

  11. Sofos says:

    Just made a huge suggestion comment in another topic here 🙂

    And I’d like to add a suggestion to Brandon’s comment:
    Maybe you could make some masks and half-masks without eye slots? Then I could place “evil” slanted eyes on top of them.

    And, one more thing 🙂
    Please, more different masks!
    Especially small Robin/Black Cat-type masks that cover only the eyes.
    There’s currently only one such mask.

  12. Drake says:

    Hm3 sounds great, but I think you ought to make it a bit bigger. I hate having to scroll up and down. And possibly the ability to make two or three people in one picture, to make teams and make your own sidekicks and such. I’m not sure if it’s just my computer, but when I reload characters, the left hand weapon is always missing.

    Just some suggestions.

  13. Thomas says:

    Renaissance and Baroque clothing, especially some women´s delta-shaped dresses would be great. I tried to do some 17th century-characters with Heromachine 2.5, and most of the male ones are okay, but the dresses are much too slim and narrow.

  14. null says:

    Hey there, not sure if this is the right place, but…no bespectacled head on the Pinup Edition? Maybe have one of the bodies carrying a book or something? I can’t be the only geek with nerd-woman fantasies…

  15. Alexander says:

    I absolutely agree with wanting a larger display area! Scrolling up and down is a huge pain if you are viewing the screen at any larger magnification than 1x, and sometimes it is crucial to SEE the images at higher magnification.

    Realizing that you have a ton of work as you hone this app, more costume choices, as Thomas said, would be nice. What if all items were click-and-drag, so we could adjust items that don’t quite fit where we want them (I have noticed this about some hair styles, headgear, etc.)…

    just my two cents again…

  16. Justin says:

    trying to see the face is hard to do so making it bigger would be all right. i have problems with the adds coming down into the screen when selecting items that are high on the list. the custom color thing is outta wak also. try working on stuff like how belts fit around armor ive tried to get broad leather belts to fit some swords and what not and it goes around the waste but not the armor. One last thing make more armored legs, its hard to make anything with really cool legs they ussualy have issues with boots going through them or vice versa.

  17. Sunblayde says:

    Hey Big Guy,

    Awhile back I asked permission to upload the basic HM to my site for my kids to use in their comic book creation class. Thanks again for that. I would like to ask permission to upload HM 2.5 with all the expansion sets to the site. Let me know what I need to do if I can do this. Thanks.


  18. Jeff Hebert says:

    Sunblayde, unfortunately 2.5 is a different kettle of fish, and since said kettle is wholly owned now by UGO, they’re being pretty firm about keeping the only online copy on their site. My apologies.