For this entry, I’m going to focus on the most important (and significantly longer) advice first:
1- Find your Art Style ASAP. While I agree that prototyping mechanics with quick rough art is a better method to save time in the long run, I also think the desired Art Style should already be defined from day 1, right along with the game design, as they go hand in hand. We started Gravitators without a clear idea on what the Art Style should be. When we started working on the game, we had 3 potential Art Styles: Pixel Art, Vector(ish) and (somewhat) Realistic.
Here are a few fake screenshots we did at the beginning of the project:
Pixel style was my personal favorite from those 3, but we weren’t entirely sure that was the way to go. It’s been way overused in the last decade, and unless it looks absolutely amazing (adding a bunch of shaders, lighting, particles, etc. – stuff we didn’t have a lot of experience with), it’s not that easy to sell anymore. There was also the possibility of doing Neon style too (like Geometry Wars or Gravity Crash), but considering that style is more related to an arcade experience and that there are many twin stick shooters using it already, we wanted to try something else.
As good quality pixel art work usually takes a significantly longer time than a somewhat realistic approach, we started off with the realistic, doing what we could as fast as we could. Prototyping.
After implementing a lot of mechanics and features, we were still struggling to find the Art Style. This continued for quite some time, and we reached a point where the game was quite advanced, and the Art Style was still undefined. Gravitators was looking like this:
(That version of the Space Station looked like a Frog smiling to me. And once seen, cannot be unseen)
As you can probably tell, there are plenty of issues. I’ll mention a few:
– Not attractive. Graphics are the first thing players will see. It’s like a news article or a blog entry title. If not attractive, a significant percentage of people won’t even bother clicking and finding about the rest. That’s a lot of potential buyers lost.
– Too dark and gloomy. Our game didn’t really require the art to be that dark, it’s not a horror game.
– Art Discrepancy. It looks like a collage of different art styles. This is clearly due to the lack of art direction. Without a specific art style goal in mind, artists branch out too much. They need a direction, an idea to follow.
So it was at this point that I basically stopped working on the game until we settled on the Art Style. While the rest of the team continued adding content, I fully focused on this task. No more procrastinating.
I pretty much scoured through the entire internet. Pinterest, Google Images with lots of different keywords (and going through page after page after page of image results), all game sites and stores, etc. Anything you can imagine.
(BTW while doing this, I stumbled upon a great site: https://videogameartstyles.tumblr.com/ – super useful if you’re shopping for art styles)
When I was right about losing hope, I stumbled upon a game in Kongregate: Horse of Spring.
I had briefly considered low poly art before starting the project, but given it’s 3D I dismissed it immediately, as we don’t have a dedicated 3D Artist in the team.
However, seeing the terrain texture on this game made me wonder: What if we do all the low poly art in 2D (with all the advantages that gives us)? Even before presenting the idea to the rest of the team, I already knew we had it. This was the Art Style for Gravitators.
So I guess I’ll take this moment to personally thank the developers of Horse of Spring for the help. This is exactly why it’s so important to play as many other games as you can. It’s the best food for boosting your creativity.
With the Art Direction settled, we went ahead and did a somewhat quick fake screenshot, to see the potential. This was the result:
Far from great, but you can see the potential there already. Everything looks pretty consistent, clean and very colorful. The main issue was the difference on perceived depth (compare the cannons, which are pretty much like their current form vs the player ships which look flat and simplified). Likewise, it was a bit hard to distinguish between foreground and background. Those issues aside, this Art Style felt like a perfect match for the game.
It was not all pretty though. We had to go through every single sprite and update it. This took time, and almost halted progress on new objects and features for quite some time. And it created some unexpected bugs and other extra work as well.
If I had taken the necessary time before starting the project to define the Art Style, we would have started with this idea from day 1, and even if we did rough prototype art first we would have save da lot of time in the end.
Once the art was ready, we immediately started receiving compliments on how pretty the game looked, which was (thankfully) the confirmation we were after.
2- New Art Style vs Copying. Most of the times, your game will probably have a unique art even if you were heavily inspired by another game.
When you’re deciding how your game is going to look like, you can either go for something completely new and unique, or have some references to start with. It’s important you keep up with the trends, and see what’s popular, what’s no longer used (and could have a comeback), what’s niche but very appreciated, etc. Even if you go against the norm, you do need to know what the norm is to do it. The more you know, the better informed your decision will be, and the better you’ll be able to defend/sell it.
When pitching a new game, I like adding 2-3 potential Art Styles that could work for the proposed game. This way, the rest of the team can have a visual idea while they learn about the gameplay.
New and unique style is obviously hard to do (and harder as time goes by – as there are less and less new ways of showing visuals), but maybe you have a cool idea, or you learned a technique (or a combination of) that can make the graphics look completely different than anything else out there. This is worth pursuing in my opinion, as standing out graphically will probably get you a lot more eyes than something you can come up with on design or programming.
Sometimes the style doesn’t have to be completely and 100% new. Perhaps it already exists, but no popular game has been made with it. That could be a great opportunity for your game, as most people will probably remember the first popular game with that specific art style.
Think Minecraft, Paper Mario, XIII, Mirror’s Edge, etc. Very distinct style, though perhaps not truly the first ones to try it.
When being inspired by a released game, you should be careful: directly ripping off an Art Style could be rather dangerous, especially if the style will be easily associated with a popular game. Breath of the Wild graphics looked so pretty that other developers started using it. Fans will normally dislike those kind of maneuvers, so if you’re aiming towards the same player base, this isn’t probably the way to go.
On the other hand, some styles have been used so much already that using them will instantly remind players of that game, but they won’t accuse you of ripping off. Balance is the key.
3- Keep Consistency. Something that isn’t discussed a lot is the fact that you might have multiple artists in your team (with different backgrounds and skillsets) , but you must keep consistency in the overall look of your visuals (both 2D and 3D, being characters, objects, animations, textures, etc.). Some details here and there will go by unnoticed, but you should always keep a look out for consistency. When reviewing art, don’t forget to keep this in mind. Having a defined Art Style and direction is necessary, but you’ll always need to do corrections along the way.
4- Flexibility and synergy with other areas. Being an artist is not just drawing or modeling or animating in your software of choice.
Sometimes projects require you to use another less familiar software. Each engine has its own work methods and little quirks. Programmers might not always implement things the same way. Designers might not be entirely clear with their guidelines.
Experienced artists are one step ahead of all these potential problems.
You don’t need to be an expert in all software choices, but it’ll certainly help playing around with most of the industry standard ones. Both paid and free. You never know when you’re going to need that knowledge, so why not be prepared for that eventuality?
Game Development is a rather interesting industry because teams are comprised of people from very different backgrounds. And in many cases, it really feels like they speak different languages. So good communication is key to a smooth project experience.
If the team is big enough, there might be a Producer or Project Manager in charge of ironing out potential communication issues. In smaller teams, sometimes that role falls into the Game Designer.
But there might be situations where things aren’t that clear. As an artist, part of your job is to ensure that you’re doing your job in a way that’s exactly what was requested and it’s easy for the rest of the team to implement or work with.
Redoing tasks due to poor communication is very frustrating for all sides. So when you feel you miss information, request it!
You might think this is a really obvious advice, but sometimes when people are in “battle mode”, they just focus on the next task ahead. And I think everyone needs to keep a bit of an eye on the bigger picture. An artist can easily spot that a certain object might not have a good contrast with the background or its surroundings. It’s better to warn about this before you waste a day working on it, and then getting the feedback “improve contrast”. If you notice a problem (concerning your area of expertise or not), there’s a big chance it is a problem. Better to check. And in small indie teams, this is super easy to do.
5- Use art into level design. Sometimes this tends to be overlooked by both art and design. What does this mean? Stuff like:
– Use colors, lighting or objects to guide players’ eyes to where you want. That could be objects, enemies, paths, anything really.
– Have landmarks visible from far, to be used as a compass.
– Each world or section having a distinct look & feel.
The more of this you have, the less confusion players will have, because everything will feel intuitive. Many of these can be done with subtle indications on what you need to do or where you need to go. UI arrows cannot be avoided sometimes, but they do tend to break immersion and a lot of players don’t like the feeling of you holding their hands. Using subtle techniques can get you the same result without players noticing.
A couple of examples to wrap the idea up:
– Left 4 Dead. Lights and objects in most levels will guide you forward, like the illuminated EXIT signs in buildings:
– Doom 2016. Platforms that are important for level progression normally have green lights:
There are plenty of articles about this topic by people much more experienced than us, so I won’t get deeper into it. But you should definitely check this out, especially if your game is an open world or where exploration is a big part – it can make a huge difference.
6- Flashy Art. Unless you’re going with a specific somber/dark style, most of the times exaggerating a bit is the right way to go.
High saturation, bloom, particles, etc. can go a long way to transform your game from plain to amazing looking. Next time you play a game, check how flashy and colorful everything usually is. Even realistic games do this. Too much can perhaps bother a bit, but too little will make your game looking dull and boring.
7- Give Options. Nothing is better to a Producer or Game Designer than seeing a few options of what you can achieve with anything you need to do.
For example, if you’re doing concept art for a character design, you could do 1 very polished character concept and wait for feedback or ideas, or you could do 3 distinct, less-polished options for people to check out.
I will always prefer having 3 options, even if not very polished. It’s much easier to decide this way, and it normally reduces a lot of feedback rounds. It’s the equivalent of prototyping game mechanics.
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