On Spending Money to Avoid Learning

Nov 30, 2014

The world offers many opportunities to spend money to avoid the trouble of learning how to do things for ourselves.

This happens in many areas of day-to-day life. It’s often a perfectly sound decision! We pay mechanics, electricians, and doctors to do certain things for us, even though they’re born with practically the very same brains, hands, and initial abilities as you and I.

Videogame developers that decide to pay for premade art assets to use in their projects think of doing so as a similar scenario. A person mostly concerned with gameplay design or programming figures art should be left to someone that spends all their time on doing that.

There are some assumptions in the comparison that make it a dangerously limiting way to think about game development.

It really makes sense to hire mechanics, electricians, and doctors because:

• There’s potential for great physical harm and huge costs if it’s not done totally right.

• We are not creatively invested in the way that it’s done, as long as it’s done correctly.

• We believe it would take us a long time to achieve even a satisfactory level of ability.

In these kinds of situations paying to avoid learning how to do something for ourselves is often a logical trade off. It’s part of the benefit we enjoy from career specialization in the industrialized world.

It’s true that people spend decades developing a personal art style, investing a lot of money into years of formal training, practicing in dedicated communities and engaging in active peer critique to continually hone their skills. There’s no shortcut to mastering what they know, they bring a ton of value to the process, and nothing I’m saying here should be misinterpreted as saying that these people aren’t talented, irreplaceable potential collaborators on projects.

However buying a package of premade art is not at all the same as actually collaborating with an artist. Doing so is far worse for your game than learning how to whip together your own “programmer art” as a functional placeholder.

Buying premade art is not similar to hiring a mechanic, electrician, or doctor. The dangers of figuring it out as you go just aren’t there. It’s not something that merely has to be done correctly, meaning in a way that anyone equally qualified could do it for your game. In-game art is something for which there’s infinite room for creative consideration in what’s being done and how. Only you have a full understanding of what you wish to include in your game. Though it’s true being able to make fancy stylistic art or impressive images can take a ton of training and experience, at a purely functional level making in-game art that’s recognizable for what it’s supposed to be actually doesn’t take all that long to learn how to do.

There are ongoing long-term costs and hidden creative limitations accepted by choosing to buy pretty-looking premade art instead of learning enough to make your own assets that are functional, recognizable, and unique.

Any gameplay piece so frequently used that it has a paid asset floating around is going to be pretty generic and common. Whatever elements are unique to your game and have the potential to set it apart in people’s minds will never be found in there. If you try to make an element or two of your own to add in alongside those purchased art assets, yours will stick out in a bad way. For this reason I advise against even using found or paid assets as placeholders. A custom roughed out asset mixed in alongside polished proper artist assets really takes away from the overall experience in a far worse way than just everything equally shoddy but at least matching.

Break free from outside art assets entirely. Stop accepting that it’s ok to not know how to throw together a simple placeholder. Again the level of quality here isn’t about, “does this look awesome,” but merely, “can you tell that thing is a helicopter?”

As I’m often prone to pointing out some games even thrive with bad low-fidelity art, from Minecraft to Proteus to Crayon Physics to Thomas Was Alone, but that’s not even really the point here. The point is really to unlock your ability to throw together art based on concepts and pieces that you imagine. This frankly has less to do with becoming proficient as an artist than it does with lowering visual standards or accepting whatever style you can churn out rapidly enough to unblock your game design idea. If you’re not an artist and you’ve come to terms with that then just don’t stress over making game art as making final art assets for players to see. Instead aim to master just enough functional digital drawing ability to get enough of your gameplay working with recognizable, coherent, consistent elements that potential art collaborators or event judges can then see, try, and come to be excited about in your game.

Learn how to sketch working gameplay. That includes at least very basic art assets to get it working.

I discussed this in the past month with one of my training clients who’s working on overcoming this hurdle, and found a couple of examples that I think help drive home the point. Before Braid looked liked this:

Its core gameplay was figured out looking like this:

Before the Portal franchise was born from Valve’s polish:

The concept and mechanics were worked out by students making this:

The game developers figured out the gameplay, and got the project far enough along to attract and justify the attention and greater resources toward real artist involvement. Any art before that point just had to be good enough to recognize what’s supposed to be what in the game, and to not be so wildly out of style with the other things in the prototype as to distract from what’s going on.

As a less famous non-commercial example, Vision by Proxy Second Edition looked like this and reached millions of players worldwide:

You have to be very patient and very good at digital art to put together assets like that.

However the first Vision by Proxy, which reached thousands of players, looked like this:

The person who made art for the original is also very talented, but because the original was made for a class project not nearly as much time could be poured into getting the visuals as fancy. On a rushed timeline, the sort you might be on when every minute making art is time you’re away from code and gameplay design, don’t you feel the style of artwork in the second looks closer to what you could likely figure out how to do?

In exactly that style though the concept, core gameplay, and reception of that original game were exciting enough to attract the attention of an extra art collaborator (which in addition to her own excellent skills, freed up the original artist to do improved work this round!), and is also what drew me into getting involved on engine programming and level design for Second Edition.

Everyone has heard the old saying, “Give a person a fish, feed them for a day. Teach that person how to fish, feed them for a lifetime.” In 2014 thanks to the magic of the internet you’ve literally got the choice between buying a fish for your game, or putting in even a little extra time and work upfront watching YouTube videos and fiddling with free art programs to learn how to make make your own fish. In the former decision, you wind up on the hook to buy another art asset every time you need something different for every other situation forever after, and in the latter case you not only have total creative control over taking care of all other art on your own in the future, but you do so at $0 extra per asset.

In the long-run which approach is really saving money and time? More importantly, which approach is going to give you the freedom to create unique elements in your game that help set them apart from what anyone and everyone else is already doing by rearranging premade content?

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