Now, I promised I'd ramble on and on about things, and now I'm making good on that!
Right now I've just finished up doing some monster designs for an upcoming Dredmor patch, so let's talk sprite design. Dredmor is a bit of an unusual game in that the art style can often be all over the place (at least 4 artists have contributed over the years to its various monster sprites), so I have a bit more leeway to go in different directions with the new ones that I make. That said, there are some things that are just always important when I sit down and work on a new sprite.
I beleive that the most important thing when it comes to sprites is readability. Players need to know what they're seeing and what the thing they're seeing is doing, even in the midst of a huge mess of effects. The faster someone can realize what they are seeing when they look at a game screenshot, the easier it is on the eye. Even though dredmor is not an action game, I believe very firmly in keeping strong readability in its sprites - not just because of how busy the screen can get, but because art is such an important part of dredmor; readable sprites are always better art.
I think that good design can generally be broken down into steps.
This is an example from the TIGsource forums where I took a rather boring-looking sprite and made it a bit more interesting. I've laid it out so that the distinctive elements can be easily recognised.
1. Interesting posing / silhouette. I really think this is vital to making a character recognisable and appealing. Think about times in games when the screen has flashed white and you only see a black outline of your character. How many of those times were you confused as to which thing on screen was your char? Not very often, I'd wager.That's because the character was designed to stand out from others, all the way down to the "outline".
Silhouettes of the new set of monsters I'm making for dredmor. Notice how each one conveys a significant amount of WHAT the char is, despite having no color or interior detail.
2. Non-uniformity. Stripes on clothing, bangs, whatever. It's important not to fall into the trap of thinking of everything as a simple, symmetrical shape. Details can be added everywhere and breaking up a character's design with little things is a great way to make them distinctive and memorable.
The Cloud Gremlin went through a number of (shall I say, rather ugly) aborted designs before I finally came up with something appealing.
Non Shitty Design
He has a very simple character design, but adding the flight helmet with goggles was what really made him click with me, taking him from "boring monster" to something perhaps a bit more charming. Adding context and "story" for players to think about - suggesting there's more to the universe than just what the game shows - really brings characters to life.
3. Good color palette. This is EXTREMELY important with sprites, especially smaller ones. Color selection says a ton about a character, and ideally it should be one that is easy on the eyes at any resolution. A lot of beginners like to stick with pure, fully saturated colors for their sprites, but this can cause a bit of eye strain due to all the bright clashing. Brightness used sparingly can often be a lot more effective and eyecatching than brightness everywhere. Note that another important use of color is to separate out parts of the character. In the initial example at the top, the green backpack really stands out and gives the character a nice detail that's both interesting to animate and recognisable for the player. It'd be much less distinctive if it weren't such a unique color!
The original concept for the Shield Crab was fairly similar to the end result, but had a few color issues.
The Shield Crab could easily clash with itself or other nearby objects with the wrong color palette. Bright red, in particular, can be very hard on the eyes. Here, I'm going with a slightly desaturated purple-red to ease the color a bit. Similarly, the armor is tinted slightly blue to give it a softer feel. I think the result is fairly pleasing to look at.
4. Good shading. This is a tricky one and a subject all unto itself, but simply put - a well-lit character can make all the difference when it comes to readability. Good lighting defines the dimensionality of a character and lets you know how they're shaped. Bad lighting just confuses the eye. I find the best way to keep yourself aware of whether something is readable is to zoom way out and see if you can still tell what you're looking at. If it degenerates into a mishmash of colors or is otherwise unrecognisable, something is wrong. It's also important not to go overboard - it's entirely possible to shade something with such complexity that it becomes difficult to read from farther away; people don't always end up looking at screens of a game from the most ideal angle or resolution.
While the main problem with this original design was that it didn't look much like a Rutabaga at all, the basic "face shading" stayed the same througout.Having that strong light source from the right is key to making it clear exactly what was going on with the character - as is keeping the bright areas small enough to give a real sense of roundness. Sometimes less is more when it comes to shading.
Shading larger surfaces can be tricky when it's interlaced with a number of color changes. However, if you step back and squint, you'll notice the lit "front" of the character stands out very distinctly. This is super important! People will be able to tell what it's shaped like, no matter how far away they are.
These three characters barely changed at all from their initial concepts, and I'm pretty happy with how they all turned out.
Fun times! Spriting for Dredmor really lets me experiment with a wild variety of characters. Next post I'll likely be in the throes of animating these characters and you'll get some rambling on that subject.
Also, I'd love to hear your comments / questions / things you'd like to see me blog about. I wanna make this a very feedback-y blog http://public.gamedev.net//public/style_emoticons/default/biggrin.png
Thanks for reading!