See how the animated magic of dynamic themes on PS3 comes together in our exclusive interview with PlayStation Plus graphic designer Alex Franks.
Discounts, demos and games to download at no extra cost are just three highlights of PlayStation Plus, the high value service available for PlayStation 3. However, did you know about the brilliant selection of dynamic themes available to you to give your PS3 system's XMB Menu a dashing new look? There are hundreds of entertaining animated themes available to download from PlayStation Store, and PlayStation Plus subscribers can access a variety of exclusive ones at no extra cost.
We chat to graphic designer Alex Franks to discover what makes a good dynamic theme, how he creates these artistic gems and which ones are his favourites.
"Dynamic theme ideas can come from anywhere."
Like many artists, Alex just needs to look at the world around him for inspiration. From nature to classic video game titles, Alex's dynamic themes cover a variety of subjects to match the tastes of anyone looking to brighten up their PS3 system's XMB Menu.
"I try to base my ideas around what can be done well," explains Alex. "There's plenty of scope for variety from a visual point of view, and where possible I try to push the dynamic theme format beyond being purely visual, like the Growing Garden theme which grows and changes every day of the month, or the Cuckoo Clock theme where the cuckoo alarm goes off at certain times."
It's this inventiveness which has led to Alex creating over 50 dynamic themes for PlayStation Plus, with many more to come and his work has been enthusiastically received by the online community and on YouTube. Each dynamic theme takes around two weeks to produce - and it's a process that has definitely become easier over time.
"My first one was The Game Is Just The Start theme in 2010. It was one of the most complex themes I've worked on to date," reveals Alex. And you can see why - it's a theme loaded with spinning PlayStation Move motion controllers, video streaming and objects flying in and out of the screen, to name but a few animations. Still diving into the deep end had its advantages: "Working on that and with Mark Anthony in Sony Computer Entertainment Europe's R&D department, I learned a lot from having to work with all the different elements."
Behind the scenes - creating a dynamic theme
One of Alex's more recent creations for PlayStation Plus members is his Athletics dynamic theme, which displays a thrilling retro video game style 100-metre track race where a different runner claims gold each time.
"I based it on a penalty shoot-out football theme I did before, where the outcome would be different each time," says Alex. "I liked the idea of being able to see a competition happening in the theme and not knowing who's going to win - and I thought about doing a theme with a retro style, so the two ideas naturally came together.
"As it was a style I had never worked in before, I created a static mock-up image to get an idea of how it would look, and to fit everything around the position of the XMB Menu. I then created the final artwork, trying to test everything out in the theme as soon as possible to check it worked as planned, and coding scripts to create the random outcomes of the race.
"I put in some rough pixelated icons near the start to get an idea of their feel, and then refined them at the end. Once I was happy with it, I just had to produce a thumbnail, icon and video, put in localised titles, and then it was time to submit the theme... and start on the next one."
"It reminds them of their youth"
There are many dynamic themes Alex hasn't created which have caught the artist's eye, too. "The Studio has released a lot of nice themes, normally based on the artwork of well-known designers and artists and then implemented by Michael Edwards at Studio Output. I like the themes for Flower and LittleBigPlanet as well, as they make good use of the clock-based functionality on PS3, and there are a lot of other themes that cater for a wide range of tastes."
When asked what makes a good dynamic theme, Alex offers a smile. "I think on the whole it's good to do something that fits well with the XMB Menu and isn't too intrusive, although people seem to like all kinds of different things. Some like the more work-intensive, character-based ones, like my Halloween themes or the Samurai theme, but I also often hear people say that they like the simpler, more subtle ones, like Symbol Flow."
And his favourite? "I think the SEGA Mega Drive Classics theme came out well," says Alex. "There were no in-game assets to work with, so I went for a 1990s style bedroom with game footage playing on the TV. There are six versions of the theme and I actually tried to make it so a progression can be seen between them, with the angle of the sunlight and the amount of drink left in the bottle suggesting different times of day.
"Maybe the biggest challenge was capturing footage of the six games so it could form a brief loop. We had to sit there playing the same section of Golden Axe over and over until I had footage where both players were in the same position at the start and the end of the clip. Hopefully eagle-eyed PlayStation Plus members have noticed those little touches. A lot of people really liked this theme - they said that it reminds them of their youth, so I was pleased with that."
While the SEGA Mega Drive Classics theme brings back good memories for those who downloaded it, and Alex, there are still other examples which are close to becoming even more popular with the artist: "Any themes that involved buying cakes," he laughs. "Those were some of my favourites as well."
Want to take a bite out of some of Alex's tasty dynamic themes? Which one is your favourite? Make sure you download all of these dynamic themes at no extra cost by subscribing to PlayStation Plus - find out how to at eu.playstation.com/playstationplus.