Programmer/Designer Need for Art

Jan 26, 2010

Design by Limits

A lot of programmers want to learn enough game design to make their own games, and a lot of game designers want to learn enough programming to make their own games. But let’s not kid ourselves when it comes to art: thousands of years of human progress have shaped art, and drawing or 3D modeling (especially animating) can be a very time consuming practice that requires a healthy dose of talent. What can a programmer/designer do to cope with lack of art time or ability?

First and foremost: minimize the amount of art needed!

A space-shooter (Space Invaders, Spacewar!) has nothing but sliding sprites and particle effects. A 2D brawler (Double Dragon or Street Fighter II style) or RPG. Some game types are focused on the action of simple things interacting, while others place central importance on complex animated figures and/or mountains of artwork to even earn a player’s attention.

Compare the art needed for an airplane game to that for a walking robot game: a plane is a single solid piece, whereas a walking robot body has indpendently moving limbs to animate.

Compare the art needed for an overhead driving game to that for an isometric one: an overhead car can be a single rotating sprite, whereas an isometric car requires sprites for 8+ angles or a 3D model.

For one of our old freeware PC games Battleship 88, the wide open ocean – no islands, no beaches, no bases – was our modern day choice of “space”. The water in that game is simply two full-screen images from Photoshop’s Cloud filter. The top layer has transparency holes, and the pieces slide over each other rhythmically. All other objects in that game were made by exporting renders of simple unanimated models; the code picks the right render to use based on the ship’s angle.

As another resource-saving consideration: maps designed to use tile art require far less drawing, since this style makes reuse of relatively few assets more passable by convention. If every level requires specific artist attention for custom decoration, custom placement per-pixel, and/or custom texture work, you’re hosed unless you are a speedy, talented artist.

There are other implications as well. Since 3D is inherently less abstract than 2D, amateur soundwork or art stands out even worse in a 3D game than it does in a pixelated 2D one. Low-fidelity 2D art/audio can even be regarded by some a choice in style; for examples of an entire community built on this premise, check out nearly anything at TIGSource.

Lower Standards

Are your graphics going to be better than those seen in Far Cry? Nope.

Is someone going to play your game because they want something pretty to look at? Probably not. (And, if they do, it’s rather unlikely to be because of your skill as the game’s programmer.)

You don’t have to be a jack-of-all-trades Da Vinci if you’re just willing to admit you’re not the best digital artist in the world, and learn to be happy doing whatever you can. For now.

It’s like those movies where the cast members are dancers instead of actors. Yes, the acting is bad, the story is weak, and the drama isn’t believable, but anybody silly enough to watch You Got Served or Step Up in search of brilliant stagecraft missed the point. The rest of us go home happy that enough story was hobbled together to frame ridiculously awesome dancing.

Need sound effects? Buy a cheap microphone for your computer, record blowing/popping/beeping/shhh’ing/yelling into it then mess with it in Audacity until you have some usable explosions, rocket thrust sounds, laser blasts, death effects, crumbling rocks, etc. Topple has been downloaded millions of times for iPhone, and virtually all of the sounds in it came from my mouth or simple Audacity filters applied to dropping things by the microphone. No one noticed or cared, because the game wasn’t trying to recreate an authentic jungle setting, just a cartoon puzzle universe.

Need art? My old games did not look good. But after I programmed 10 videogames, programmers – many of whom were otherwise let themselves be scared away by art requirements – were relatively impressed. Art people didn’t insult my work, either – instead they saw an opportunity to plug their talents into working videogames, expanding their own portfolios. It was easier to enlist art help for future projects since artists had high confidence that I knew how to make my end work. (Nothing says, “We’re going to finish this project” better than a virtual pile of finished projects.)

Short on money? Doesn’t matter! Lessons Vol. 1 links to free programs for creating sounds, artwork, etc.

Google’s Your Friend

The internet is full of reference material.

To narrow your search a bit, Wiki Commons has tons of artwork that is either in public domain (no money or original credit needed) or creative common attributions (free as long as your credit the original creator).

It’ll look hodgepodge if you take content directly from that site and throw it in your games, but what you can do instead is find something close to what you want, then draw something on your own on top. It won’t look great on its own, but your entire game will match, which is often more important.

Team Up

Regard yourself as a programmer, and feel paralyzed at the thought of trying to make a game’s worth of assets, however many corners you cut?

Just imagine how tricky programming must look to an artist or sound professional. It is far easier for a designer/programmer to fake bad art or bad sound than it is for artists and sound designers to fake bad programming. If you find someone with these skills, and you have already learned the basics by completing a few practice games using your own crude placeholder art, link up.

Since it’s hard to hold someone’s attention at a distance (or understand what’s going on in their life), I’d recommend giving priority to your in-person friend that “kinda knows Photoshop” instead of some Photoshop master elsewhere in the world that claims to have the time and interest. Your artist friend will get better with practice, just like you will through programming and design.

Unblock Yourself

Never allow someone else’s abilities or someone else’s availability become an excuse for your own abilities or availability. When in doubt, mash together whatever you have to in order to move forward.

I strongly encourage choosing an art style that you, personally, can handle for the entire game. Don’t spend 20 hours drawing or animating a character if your game requires 30 characters of that complexity. (For that matter, avoid making a game that needs 50 complex characters! Figure out a clever way to get away with doing one body type, like how the first Metal Gear Solid explained that every enemy was actually a genetic clone made from the player’s DNA. If Metal Gear Solid can get away with an absurd shenanigan like that, you’d better believe that you can.)

Don’t get trapped in details. 90% of what goes into the game, the player won’t notice, doesn’t care about, or if anything, may be subtly aware of in the background. An amateur artist makes the mistake of spending all day getting a zipper looking right on a jacket that’s hanging on a coat rack in a dark corner – or, to be fair, someone involved in making a PS3 game might seriously be compelled to do this. A smart and independent videogame developer doesn’t just consider what it is and isn’t worth spending time on, but also thinks up a game and style that doesn’t require an insane level of fidelity.

Art in Wii Sports isn’t fancy – the textures are two colors, the bodies are made of geometric primitives, and some players are missing limbs to simplify animations. The consumer backlash: no one cares! At all. The only people that even noticed this peculiarity were stunned developers that have been wasting time on detail no one cares about.

Always make your own art as you go, however crude it needs to be. Does it need to be drawn with polygons and lines like Asteroids? Geometry Wars demonstrated that there are still players that dig that style, once some particle effects and glow filters are added. Does it need to be in colored circles and rectangles? So be it; if/when you find an artist to help you out, you can hand over your colored shapes to be drawn over, providing an easy template capturing them the format and dimensions of every image, ready to be plugged immediately into the game.

There’s another benefit to gaining some proficiency in art software: the best way to gauge sizes of stuff on screen is to fool around in Photoshop making a pretend “screenshot”, which compels a developer consider aspects like on-screen information, player size, and level format. Then you can borrow elements directly from that crude pixel sketch for placeholder bitmaps while you’re getting the game working.

Possible Exception: Music

Music is much harder to fake. People will tolerate amateur sound and amateur art. Amateur music will send them running for the hills. Learning to use Photoshop doesn’t make you an artist, but it does mean that you can draw something small that suggests it’s intended to be a spaceship, which is enough. Learning to push keys on a piano or place notes on a bar even moreso doesn’t make someone a musician, any more than knowing how to type on keys makes them a programmer, and in music it doesn’t cut it to “suggest” that the song is supposed to be something it isn’t.

I’ve been partial to the hundreds of songs Kevin MacLeod makes available through his website (free to use as long as you properly credit him).

For a few games (Ghosts in the Machine, Trichromic) I bought music from stockmusic.net (reasonably affordable). For Battleship 88, I negotiated a deal for music from omnimusic.com / bangbangzoom.net (this was otherwise way outside my price range at that time), since they wanted a game demo built to show off how well their music works in a gameplay environment.

Note too that classical music is old enough that copyright doesn’t apply, provided that you can find a public domain performance (ex. US Airforce Band, since they’re the government) or creative commons version (Kevin MacLeod has synthesized some classics for us), otherwise the performance itself is still the protected intellectual property of whoever performed it.

If you do want to venture into composing your own music – and certainly there’s value in understanding mediums outside of your main strength – in college a lot of my games had their soundtracks made by a computer programmer who liked Fruity Loops for generating techno’ey stuff. My friend Tuscan Knox used Fruity Loops to make excellent soundtracks for Rowdy Rollerz, Saturn Storm, Shotgun Debugger, Dragon of Shiuliang, and a handful of other games developed by the Game Creation Society.

Cut Scope

Feeling overwhelmed by how many sound effects, animations, and backgrounds are needed? Cut project scope.

A shorter, finished game means substantially more to the outside world than a grander, unfinished one!

Don’t just think in details like removing an animation frame or two from some characters. Prune and trim with a fire axe. Remove an entire chapter and chunk from the game, which in the process cuts music for that area, enemies from that area (sounds/animation/programming for those enemies)…

To return to where we began: design with limitations in mind. An experienced game producer will work with a concept that has at least a few isolated modules ready to be chopped off if the project needs to cheat a little bit to reach the finish line – plan for a few ways to move the finish line closer to where you already are if/when you and others on the project begin to lose energy or feel overwhelmed.

(Originally posted as GameDevLessons.com Vol. 10 Sec. 2)



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  1. […] Vol 10 Beg – Art Considerations for Programmers/Designers […]

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