Tales from the Dev Side: You Gotta Have Style by Scott Tykoski
January 9, 2012 31 Comments
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 here. They’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.
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.
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.
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!!!!!!
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.)
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!!