Tales from the Dev Side: You Gotta Have Style by Scott Tykoski

Scott Tykoski’s Elfsquad7 was perhaps not the most commercially successful title released on Xbox Live Indie Games in 2011.  However, I found the game to be charming, if a bit simplistic, and I’m kind of surprised the timely release did not have better sales over the holidays. 

Despite dipping his toes in XBLIG, Scott is an honest-to-goodness professional game designer with a decade of game design under his belt.  His Stardock games is famous for such PC titles as Sins of the Solar Empire, Galactic Civilizations, and the Political Machine.  Okay, well the Political Machine isn’t exactly their calling card, but I liked it, damn it!

Scott eagerly jumped at the opportunity to do an editorial for my site.  And then I took three weeks while I struggled to correctly format it.  But it’s finally time to publish it.  Developers have talked about pricing hereThey’ve talked about standing out here.  Yet, what could be more important to a game in our visually-minded society that what style of graphics you give it?  In that spirit, Scott talks about graphics. 

Like with previous Tales from the Dev sides, Scott has provided prizes for you, the readers.  He’s really outdone himself, providing two IndieRoyale Xmas Bundle codes, which include the PC version of Scott’s Elfsquad7 game.  Since tracking down who has retweeted articles is a bitch, the prizes will be handled differently this time.  To win, reply to this article stating what graphic style you think is the most advantageous for potential Xbox Live Indie Game developers and why.  One winner will be chosen by me, the other by Scott.  Whoever makes the best case for their point will win.  We’ll decide who wins on Friday, January 20, 2012.  Be sure to include either a valid e-mail address or a link to your Twitter account when you reply. 

Ya’ Gotta have STYLE!

by Scott Tryoski

Greetings, fellow game makers, players, and critics!

My name is Scott Tykoski, an Xbox Indie developer with one well-received-yet-low-selling title under my belt (Elfsquad7). It’s not much, but I also have 10+ years experience in the PC game industry, so hopefully that holds some weight.

Today we’re going to talk about my favorite part of the video game equation – graphics and presentation. Notably QUALITY graphics and presentation. Like I said above, Elfsquad7 didn’t sell very well, so I’ll keep this outside the realm of “how to make a successful XBLIG”. Instead, assume this is geared more towards folks that want to start pursuing other distribution avenues.

So…’good’ art. Even in the industry, this fairly subjective issue can be a touchy one, so I’ll sugar coat what needs to be said…

Chocolate cake. Playful Kitten. Ice cream. Most Xbox Indie games look like steaming-hot horse balls. Lollypop.

Hmm…that didn’t soften the blow like I’d hoped. Let’s try it again…

Cookies. Milkshake. A Baby. The marketplace’s lack of polish and absence of quality control means that – from all viewpoints other than our own – we absolutely deserve to be tucked deep within in the darkest crevasses of the dashboard.

Peanut-butter Fudge.

Now let’s point some fingers. MS dropped the ball from the start on the lack of search options. Cash-grab games can always outperform ‘quality’ games. It’s very hard to find artists on such a tight budget. Gameplay innovation should be what Indie games are about, not fancy production values. This is my first game, cut me some slack!

Alas, none of that matters…our games are assumed to be crap because most of our games look like crap. Indie Marketplace aside, you want your game to be your personal height of awesomeness, not just something you hastily whipped together to try and make a buck.

Double Rainbow.

OK – let’s get our hands dirty, shall we? :)

PROGRAMMER ART IS NOT A STYLE

I don’t understand why so many Indie games ship with developer art. And by “I don’t” I mean “I do”…it’s really a budget thing. I dig.

But regardless of cost, artistic connections, or personal skill, the fact is simple: developer art should never reach the eyeballs of the consumer. Even if you feel the gimmick is strong enough on its own, a games visuals need your TLC until they’re ready for public consumption.


YES – Zombie Fart Doctor may sell a few copies, but NO – you should not release it in this state. They’re laughing AT us, not with us.

I know it’s frustrating. Writing code and creating art require a very different synapses to fire, but both quality art and quality code are required for making a quality game. Luckily, half of your artistic battle can be won by simply picking the right STYLE.

An art style is a set of rules that you adhere to when creating visual assets for your game. The retro style, for instance, means that you increase the pixels of all artwork and limit your color palette. If you suddenly have a photo-realistic object in your retro game, it breaks the style and will feel un-polished (aka ‘crappy’).

It’s also important to note the mood of your game when picking a style, so melt that icy, analytical ones-and-zeros heart and consider the players feelings. Are you trying to make them smile or think? A cartoony style works for lighthearted romps, but may feel wrong used for a serious RPG.

Assuming you have a game designed, it’s time to find the right look for your masterpiece.

THE RETRO STYLE

I have to admit – retro is my favorite art-style ATM, so it gets first-to-bat status.

As 80’s gamers are getting older, you can tap into their nostalgia with a slick 8-bit or 16-bit retro look. Accomplishing this style is pretty easy, provided you follow a few simple rules…

- Pick a color palette and do not deviate. (Retro Palettes 4 U)
– Pixels need to be at least 2x larger than the Xbox default (unless your going for a liney Asteroids feel)
– No anti-aliasing on fonts.
– Be careful with rotations and transparency…only 16bit systems really allowed these.
– Stay consistent with your pixel size, damnit!

THE HYPER-RETRO STYLE

Think of this as the “Geometry Wars” or “Pac-Man Championship Editon” look.

Basically, the Hyper-Retro style takes the look of any old-school style and break the rules just enough to make it feel modern. This often results in a more psychedelic feel to the game, so it’s not perfect for everything – you tend to see it in short-burst arcade style games.

- Lots of glow and bloom!
– Ultra colorful!!
– Mega particles!!!!!
– AWESOMENESS OVERLOADDDD!!!!!!

Kairi had a seizure just by looking at this one.

THE CARTOONY STYLE

I break this out from the ANIME style because they cater to different demographics. Anime (which I talk about below) can pull of a more serious tone, whereas ‘Cartoony’ tends to be more lightweight fare.
– Well animated game objects against simple backgrounds.
– Powerpuff Girls, He-man, Winnie the Pooh, Adventure Time!…get reacquainted with cartoons and find a sub-style to emulate.

THE ANIME STYLE

You can do some pretty outrageous things with the Anime style, both in story and design, but somehow it never degrades into the realm of ‘silly’.

A great choice if you want to carry a somewhat heavier theme without going with a ‘realistic’ art style.

-Big eyes, fun colors, wild character design
– Keep it tasteful: no tentacles, upskirts, or watermelon breasts (we’ll talk about ‘respect’ later)

THE MINIMALIST STYLE

By limiting your palette and really sticking to core shapes, you can pull off the fairly appealing Minimalist look. Limbo did this wonderfully, but I’d also rope our own The Impossible Game into the mix.
Quality through simplification.
– limited palette
– hard, obvious shapes

THE REALISM STYLE

Not so much your ‘Mortal Kombat’ styles…instead I’m referring to the higher quality artwork we see out of studios such as “Mommy’s Best Games”. It tends to follow the lighting and surface quality rules of real-life, so the end result has what I believe the consumer perceives as “higher production values”.

You’ll probably need a real artist to pull this off though…it’s very easy for things to look ‘too photoshoppy’ if you don’t have a professional on board.

A tough style, but worth the effort if done right.

- Realistic looking art assets
– Realistic-ish design work

THE 3D STYLE(S)

All the above can be pulled off in 3D, but the moment you add that extra dimension things get considerably trickier.

To get the look you want, you’re going to have to dig through shaders and deal with exporters. There are at least 3x as many steps to getting a 3d model made and into your game, and even then you better be a Linear Algebra pimp to move those objects around. And remember…at that point you’re up against the big studios and will be judged even more critically, so I suggest only the elite try to pull off 3D.

But if you can do it, all the above Art Styles are completely acceptable in 3D space, so best of luck.

(I’ll personally be sticking to my 2-axis Cartesian coordinate system for the foreseeable future, TYVM.)

DIY STYLE

The real beauty of art is that, while I’m fully advocating rules for consistency, there really are no rules. Feel free to take what you know and come up with your own personal art style. All you have to do is establish and adhere to 2-3 core design points and your game will feel considerably more polished.

For instance, I found this “2-color challenge” going on over at Pixel Joint.

Some really appealing mock-ups going on, just from limiting their palette to only 2 colors! So cool.

BRAIN JUICES EXTRACTED

While I’d love to go into more detail as to the wealth of art resources available on the web, that would devolve this editorial into tutorial territory. And such a thing isn’t permitted by Kairi’s “Journal Whip”.

So, to recap – you can save yourself tremendous presentation pain by picking an Art Style and sticking with it. If your game looks like crap, you won’t get respect. And if you don’t have respect, you have zero chance getting onto Steam (and other, more lucrative, platforms). Even if the Indie Marketplace may not have the best return on investment, it does give you a public platform with active media attention, and that cannot be undervalued.

Your game needs to represent the BEST of your abilities, so for the love of Megazord, pick an art style, put some effort into the graphics and make sure the released product is 110% hot-horseballs-free!!

Playful wink.

About Indie Gamer Chick
The most read Xbox Live Indie Game critic in the world.

31 Responses to Tales from the Dev Side: You Gotta Have Style by Scott Tykoski

  1. Well written article. Games also need polish and that can be the funnest part of making a game but for some reason games don’t get enough time set aside for polishing. I know I just opened the door to the old saying “you can’t polish a turd” but at least it shows you care about what your putting out in the market.
    But you pretty much said what a lot of us think but won’t say since

  2. Kairi Vice says:

    Note: developers in the future who wish to write these editorials should try to avoid using shortcuts shut as ATM or IMO. Just sayin’ LOL ya get me :P

  3. An interesting read, and very valid points. I was remarking only yesterday that most games on the indie channel look like poo. The thought process that comes across to me from those games (correctly or not) is to just stick some sort of visual representation on their AWESOME CORE IDEA! It’s not good enough. If you’re not a very capable artist, pick a deliberate art style that doesn’t require you to be. Don’t just draw your graphics in Paint after an all-nighter.

    • “If you’re not a very capable artist, pick a deliberate art style that doesn’t require you to be.”

      Exactly…you’d be amazing how far a little continuity goes, aesthetically speaking. Tie that in with some solid gameplay and baby, you got a stew goin’ :)

  4. Tim Roast says:

    There’s a couple of links missing in your intro. The places where it says here should be linked but aren’t on my version.

  5. Tim Roast says:

    As for your exam question:
    “what graphic style you think is the most advantageous for potential Xbox Live Indie Game developers and why?”

    First I have to agree with your point:
    “Gameplay innovation should be what Indie games are about, not fancy production values.”

    But ultimately, like you say, if the game looks bad then it won’t be given a chance.

    I’d like to see graphic styles that offer something different. For example: It seems First Person Shooters (FPS) are the best selling games at the moment and they go for the realism look. Imagine a FPS done cartoon style. This would be an unorthodox style for this type of game.

    I think this is something that Cute Things Dying Violently tapped into (cute things and violent happenings not being the things you’d normally put together) and that proved to be a success so it could be a success if done again. (Of course there could be countless examples of mash-ups that didn’t prove successful too that I am not aware of.)

  6. jph says:

    These ideas are a very good starting point, however the lack of good looking games may go deeper. Some folks just have no eye for style, you see this in how people dress, decorate their homes, and indeed the things they create. Some very simple things like the colors used and the shapes and arrangements of objects can make a game look good or not so much. Don’t even get me started on sound design, this is another area where having an ear for it, is what is needed, and is near impossible to explain or point to the skill itself. This is why some painters, photographers, musicians, etc. are good and others will never be. I am not saying all hope is lost, and for sure by thinking about the good suggestions above all game makers can improve. There is a fine line there somewhere that is perhaps just an accident of having an inborn talent or not, the main thing is recognizing where your true talents lie.

    To the issue of what visual style XBLIG developers can or should be perusing, I am saying that it is in recognizing what your individual talent is and playing up that. I am no illustrator, and would not show a drawing I have made publicly, as I know they are not good. I can create interesting abstract digital objects (2d, 3d) and do have a good eye for putting these together in ways that look good. I suppose you would stick me in the hyper-retro style for the bulk of my games [ iterationGAMES.com ] . My big suggestion for folks is to focus on the talents they posses and work to create games in the style you actually like. Please yourself, and do not think too much on what other may want, as you really can not know this, or hope to achieve it.

    • http://radiangames.com/?p=532

      I love this post from RadianGames, where we walks through his process from Inspiration to Actualization. Gives a nice workflow for anyone that says they don’t have an eye for art…go out and emulate something that you find appealing. :)

      For my next game, I have several rules in place that I’ve established after critiquing the look of Beck’s “E-Pro” music video, so while other games are the easiest source of inspiration, don’t discount other forms of media to help establish your look.

      But yeah, I totally agree on pleasing yourself. If you make something that you enjoy and are proud of, its likely that other will appreciate it as well.

  7. Have you seen the indie FPS/MMO “LOVE”?

    Super minimalistic 3d, but very cool. Unfortunatly it has the naming issue that Kairi brought up a few days ago (Even “Love Indie Game” dosen’t place the game in the top 100).

  8. Farwalk says:

    Graphics.Importance = True;
    Graphics.Difficulty = Hard;
    While ((Developer.ArtisticTalent == False) && (Developer.Funds == Low))
    {
    Developer.Mood = Sad;
    practiceDrawing(); //must work on this function, check online for tutorials
    checkKickstarterAccount(); //must add “will come and mow your lawn” pledge level
    }

    • lol @ “Will come mow your lawn”

      There’s a story about my boss, the CEO of Stardock, making a bet and having to mow a reviewers lawn once. You make the joke but never underestimate the appeal of off-the-wall situations to get some attention :)

  9. The Unallied says:

    I think this article will miss the point entirely with both the XBLIG consumers and developers. My view is that its not a lack of “art style” that hurts us, but rather a fundamental misunderstanding of how to Polish a Game. Sure you can replace your programmer-art with commissioned graphics that look Contra-style realistic, but maybe you still go on to sell no copies.

    It’s because you still see a game as component parts, and not a complete experience. And I think this article furthers that line of thought, even if that was not its intent.

    Graphics are the main highway through which your world is experienced, so they’re important. They’re also why there are (as the final DIY Style section highlights) no rules for graphics – you’re free to make your world look however you wish.

    What truly matters in making a game ‘Polished’ is a combination of graphics, sound, rumble, and other FEEDBACK that gives the player an unmistakable sense that the World inside their TV is REAL.

    The sound effects should sound like the objects they represent – if every wall in the game make a wooden sound when struck, players will eventually get the illusion your world is made of wood. Likewise don’t make the controller rumble inappropriately, or risk breaking the illusion – pulling them out of your trying-to-be seamless world, back into their living room. A moviegoer hates to see the string holding up a ‘flying’ actor, just as much as a gamer hates to see a stutter in your animations when you change from running to jumping. (No matter how good those animations look on their own.)

    So my point is let’s quit hating on art styles, especially Programmer-Art because I think that Geom Wars is more an example of hyper-programmer-art than hyper-retro art (with its complex mathematically-generated waves and particles, that only a coder would create).

    Let’s talk a language of ‘continuity’ rather than showing a screenshot and saying ‘lame graphics’. If a game’s graphics serve its purpose well, praise them for that. If the graphics and gameplay seem inconsistent or lazy (as Zombie Fart Doctor appears) lampoon the game for being a mess. If a game looks good but the hitboxes are badly aligned to their representative items don’t ‘let it slide’ – comment on how you seem to ‘have magic bullets’.

    Just please, please, please realize that more difficult than making sprites/models, writing songs, and programming is the overarching challenge of making a game that ties these things together AND feels internally consistent at every moment – a game that truly takes you to another world.

    Ever since the dawn of game reviews, individual items like “Gameplay” “Graphics” and “Sound” have been judged, and rolled together into a “Final Score” continuing the impression that a game is simply the sum of these parts (luckily not here with the Chick!)

    Wouldn’t it be great if we started reviewing how well we ‘tie the knots’ of our games? With catgories like “Consistency” “Drama” and “Fluidity” reviewers will more easily remind gamers that The Impossible Game can somehow be more fun than a AAA title – even if screenshots alone can’t convince you.

    • http://www.neogaf.com/forum/showthread.php?t=384792

      This is the kind of visual presentation most XBox user associate with the channel.

      I’m all for synergy, and the idea that a game is more than the sum of it’s ‘bits’, but the visual part of the equation is your players first point of attachment to your creation. If hooked there, then you get to wow them with the overall experience.

    • This is pretty much what I was going to say. Sometimes you come across a game that may have good gameplay graphics and style, but the menus are completely simplistic or out of place, or the UI is just plain text with number in an otherwise graphically stunning game. I think Dead Pixels is an excellent example of a game that got two out of three right. The retro graphics worked well, and they kept the movie theme going throughout the game, but the music (while good) didn’t really seem to mesh imo with the rest of the game.

      As far as the contest question, I have to go with the hyper-retro style. The reason being you can make good looking art with little real art skill using shaders, particles, and other programming techniques (which, as a programmer, is easier to learn). Similarly techniques like cell shading can give a 3D game some pop (and by the way, talking about 3D cartoony games: Team Fortress 2 anyone?). Cell shading isn’t hard, but it still requires a higher level of artistic skill/ modeling skill to pull off than the hyper-retro style.

      So my answer: anything you can do with code instead of actually creating complex graphical assets is the way to go for XBLIG devs.

  10. Nathan Fouts says:

    Nice write up and lots of good suggestions Scott. And thanks to Kairi for opening up your site for editorials like this.

    Thinking along the lines of ‘limited palette’, I found a recent shmup in development called “Final Boss” (it’s tough to search on) that looks nice and sticks with green-ish and orange-ish:

  11. Keven says:

    I’m a fan of the 3D style.
    Those games look gorgeous and will catch everyone’s attention in the crowded indie market.
    However, once you try the trial, you often realize that there is nothing except the way it looks.
    Too much time is spent on looking good, no time on playing well.

    So I much prefer a cartoon, minimalist or retro design that looks professional but ALSO plays well.

  12. Just another XBLIG dev guy says:

    Why is sales data a measure of success? Let’s chat about some facts:
    * XNA Framework is FREE.
    * Visual C# Express is FREE. Visual Basic Express is FREE too (and yes, XNA is compatible with Visual Basic, which means that the amount of developers working with it got doubled last year)
    * These tools are available worldwide.
    * MS charges $99.00 USD per year for an XBLIG subscription. This, if I may say, it’s pretty much like a symbolic amount to pay, considering that it grants access to an international channel.
    * XNA has been out there for five years, give or take.
    * There is a yearly contest to promote game development on XBLIG.
    * That said, I am astounded that there are ONLY 2250 games in XBLIG. To be honest, when I joined, I was expecting at least five times that amount.
    * The reason for this low number is that creating a game all the way to the release stage is not that easy after all. Specially for people that can work with such hobby during spare time only.

    Indeed, I understand why people want to get a living out of game development using the XBLIG channel as means of income. But the channel also includes hobbyists (just look at the membership type). Although our games are not as polished as those created by people that work full-time with them and have extensive experience in an artistic discipline, they do have merit.

    After all, if someone wants to get serious about game development, then there’s always XBLA.

  13. Gamertag: Alfred Saxon says:

    Scott i didn’t buy your game because it was not fun.

    I am a big XBLIG fan and have over 200 games.

    Your game did look very good. Sorry if i am being rude.

    • No, that wasn’t rude…your positive comment canceled out the negative one ;)

      Elfsquad7 was tested almost entirely in a MP environment (with 4 players, no less), so the single player experience was certainly lacking. Plus I kept gameplay simple for Grandmas and little ones, which was fairly pointless now that I fully understand the XBLIG demographic.

      If I have time next year I’ll do another X-Mas game that fits the channel better.

      • Personally I enjoyed ElfSquad7. Will I still be playing it in a year? Probably not. But I did have a couple of hours of lighthearted fun with it, and that’s more than 90% of XBLIGs can manage.

        Still, without dissenting opinion how would I be able to tell that I’m right? :p

  14. The style must extend beyond the game itself and also cover the Marketplace iconography, box art and all associated graphic imagery related to the game.

    Developers on XBLIG typically don’t have the hard deadlines to meet like we do when making commercial games. Sure, they want to get the game out into the Marketplace but that is more self-imposed than anything else. There is no need to rush it. Take the time to add the polish and make the style consistent. You have the time. Use it wisely.

    • Kairi Vice says:

      Welcome to the site, Steve!

      I would like to say that Box Art does seem to make some difference in generating sales for XBLIG. I’ve seen some fairly bad ones lately. Lots of Guns, for example. It’s box art is not consistent at all with it’s graphics style. It also looks like Mr. Potato Head gone commando.

      And, as always, I have to stress that your game should be Google search friendly. This is of the utmost importance. A one-word, generic name is brutal for page views on my site. If it’s true of my site, it’s probably true of your sales potential.

      http://indiegamerchick.com/2012/01/05/the-name-of-the-game-is-google-search-friendly/

    • Indeed, and it’s a good point that’s arguably deserving of its own article. But this one was specifically on in-game art, so box art and the like falls outside its remit, I feel. If Scott Tykoski had included EVERYTHING that’s relevant to making an XBLIG, the article would have been ten times as long.

  15. Pingback: Tales from the Dev Side: 150,000 Served Edition – May 2, 2012 « Indie Gamer Chick

  16. Pingback: Tales from the Dev Side: Unity in a Splintered Industry | Indie Gamer Chick

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