Every amateur game programmer has a dream that goes something like this: You post an ad on Gamedev.net, looking for artists. Within an hour, you’re swamped with fifty emails from artists. After telling you they’ve quit their job to do art for your game full-time, they point you to some of their sample pictures, which are incredible, and in exactly the style you’re looking for. They then tell you they’ll be more than happy to work for free (or for royalties).
Ahh, what a good thing life would be if it were like this.
Unfortunately, it isn’t. Most teams have a difficult time finding dedicated art and modeling talent, and for many programmers, the only way they’re going to get art into their title is to put on the artist’s hat and do it themselves. Fortunately, modern technology has provided us with tools that can disguise our lack of artistic ability. Many of your game’s art needs can be fulfilled by a non-artist and some really good use of software.
This article was originally published to GameDev.net back in 2000. It was revised by the original author in 2008 and published in the book Design and Content Creation: A GameDev.net Collection, which is one of 4 books collecting both popular GameDev.net articles and new original content in print format.
Tip 0: Don’t Start with the Photoshop Filter
This first tip may be flying in the face of everything I’ve said so far, but - don’t fire up your art weapon of choice and start blindly applying filters hoping you’ll get to something that looks good. The very first thing you need to do is go to the basics, and Know Thine Enemy. You should spend some time actually drawing. Bust out a pencil and paper. Draw anything – draw what you see in front of you, or what you picture your game’s main character to look like, or pick up a how to draw book, or draw comics, anime, whatever. Draw in whatever medium and using whatever tools you feel comfortable with. Just – draw!
The reason for this is that art, like anything else, is something you can get better at with practice. It’s ridiculous to assume someone new to programming could sit down and write an engine, and the same is true on the art side as well. Sure, some people are naturally more or less talented than others, but there’s tons of really good 3D artists out there that started with the same thoughts about their inability that you’re having. Give it a shot.
Also – learn art. By this I mean, the basics of line and shape, perspective, color theory, and how to critique a work intelligently. Mastery of these concepts has nothing to do with your wrist’s motor skills, and understanding how artists create and critique images will help you immensely. You’ll gain a vocabulary to help you articulate, both to yourself and to “real” artists, what you want. Also, it will help you keep a consistent style, which will be especially valuable if you follow some of the later tips and assemble artwork from a variety of sources.
Tip 1: Hide It
OK, so you can’t draw. You’ve tried, and you’re getting better, but you find yourself staring up at a colossal mountain you’ll need to climb in order to create your game.
Take a step back. There are several decisions you can make regarding your game that will help shave some difficulty off the art. Don’t hesitate to let the artistic areas you’re good at, and not so good at, dictate some of the design of your game. Can’t draw people, but want to make a fighting game? Turn those people into blobs, or dinosaurs, or stick figures! You may find that in molding your game design to your art strengths, you come up with something that’s more creative than what you’d designed previously.
Consider different artistic styles, too – not everything has to be photoreal, and different styles –toon shading, pencil, crayon, or pixel art, to name just a few – are clearly better choices if your photoreal painting skills are lacking. While no art style is inherently easier or more difficult than any other, you may find that it’s easier for you, in particular, to make a “faux old school” game, with 16 colors and heavily pixilated characters, than it is to make something in full color. Maybe you don’t need to draw at all. Maybe you can use video! Experiment, and don’t be afraid to try something crazy.
A word of warning: the hardest thing about doing a game in a particular style is keeping that style throughout the game. Styles work best when they’re consistent - having more than one style on-screen at the same time could ruin the aesthetics of your game. So, drawing background art in a style different from your character art or GUI is probably not a good idea (however, if you wanted to switch styles between levels or worlds, that would be OK).
Tip 2: Start with the Photoshop Filter
Fire up Photoshop, or Paint Shop Pro, or The Gimp, whatever - take some time to experiment around with each plug-in or effect that you can generate. Knowing exactly what each thing does can help you later. Along those same lines, you should be very familiar with your art program’s interface, in general - learn how to use layers, how to color correct, how to path and mask things – all of these will be valuable tools. Don’t rely on the features of the software, the fancy filters and whatnot; rely on your art sense, and your ideas, but by all means, implement that vision using the tools you have available.
As an example - one of the most powerful abilities of today’s paint programs is the ability to create "shadow" and "highlight" layers. Create one layer that darkens anything under it, and create a second layer that lightens anything under it. Sandwich your flat image between these two layers, then airbrush onto the dark or light layers to create highlights and shadows on your original image. This is much easier than trying to manually highlight or shadow your image. (Note: most paint programs also have "dodge" and "burn" tools, which work like an airbrush to brighten or darken an image)
But in general, experiment! It’s quite possible that you can stumble upon a neat effect, and can then use that to create some neat art.
Tip 3: Sincerely Flatter
There is nothing wrong with going online and looking at other people’s artwork as a source of inspiration. This has been done since the beginning of time. Of course, there is something very wrong with going online, downloading someone’s art without permission, tweaking a pixel here and there, and then calling it your own. Don’t copy, but do analyze and try your own hand at the styles of art you like.
There are so many useful tutorial sites online. Besides GameDev.net, there’s also deviantArt.com, highend3D.com, and good old Google. All of these sites are great resources for tutorials, as well as for seeing what other people are doing.
There are free sites online that allow you to download simple GUI or HTML artwork (buttons, lines, etc.) for use in web pages and the like. Usually, if this art can be copied and used on your web page, it can also be used in an indie game, but don’t take chances – read the site carefully, and if you don’t know for sure, play it safe and ask permission first. Also, tread carefully – many sites copy art from other places and distribute it under terms different than what the original artist specified. If Bob drew it and said it isn’t free, then just because it’s up on awesomefreeicons.com doesn’t mean it’s actually free.
Tip 4: Buy It
There are many comprehensive clip art CDs available. Unfortunately, most of them aren’t really suited for game development - they contain line-drawn images that work best for print work (unless of course that fits your game’s style). But look anyway, who knows.
However, there is an equivalent to clip art that is extremely viable for game development: buying texture packs, animations, and/or models. There are many sites that sell textures, models, and animations, in every subject, for a reasonable price. TurboSquid (www.turbosquid.com), one of my favorites, sells all manner of game assets, and operates as an open market - individual artists post their work and set their own prices (sometimes free!). Who knows, you may find an artist through this site that you want to contract to do all your game art.
Also, don’t forget that some fonts are "clipart" fonts, and can be used as art for your game. The classic example of this is the Wingdings font, which contains several commonly-used symbols. By taking a free “symbol” font, coloring it, and shading it, you can create some good looking icons or symbols for your game’s GUI. Use the character map application, included with windows (charmap.exe), to see a full list of all the glyphs in a given font.
Tip 5: Drop the Resolution
Drawing art for a game that runs in 320x200 mode is easier than drawing art for a game that runs in 1280x1024 mode. The big pixels reduce the complexity of sprite artwork. If you’re really in a pinch, consider dropping your game’s resolution.
Alternatively, you can keep the game at a high resolution, and the art at a low resolution, and just give the player a huge view of the action. If your main character is only 50 pixels tall, there’s a lot of extra screen space available. Small characters and big views of the play area can be cool - see if your game design could benefit from the zoom-out. For example: Street Fighter was a cool game partly because the characters were so big and detailed, but Lode Runner and Smash TV were equally fun because their main characters were very small, and you could see all the action.
Tip 6: Have the Computer Draw It
By “Have the Computer Draw It,” I mean, find a free tool, or buy a commercial one, specifically designed to render things. This could mean that your game’s art is all ray traced, or that your explosion billboards were generated by particle systems, in Maya or Max. There’s also Poser, which does a great job rendering characters, Bryce (by DAZ 3D), which is great for landscapes, SpeedTree for forests, etc. Also, don’t limit yourself to just one 3D program; what’s painful to model in - for example - SoftImage might be a piece of cake in SketchUp.
Don’t pirate, but do be thrifty. If there’s a piece of software that’d be valuable to you, but it’s expensive, email the company and explain your situation, and ask them if they can cut you a break, or if they have a special license for nonprofessional use, or try and find an open source equivalent. There are legal options.
There are some advantages to rendering your artwork. First of all, rendering all your artwork puts you on track for a consistent style throughout your game. If you render everything, your game art will automatically have a cohesive element that ties your entire game together. Yes, you still have to worry about creating a style and sticking to it, but even if you fail miserably at this, your game will still have a somewhat consistent look.
Some types of animation are also significantly easier to make. Animations where you fly in or around a scene are much easier to render than to draw by hand. Creating pictures of the same scene from different angles is much easier, too - just move the camera.
But there are some drawbacks. The biggest drawback (aside from the cost of the tools) is that rendered artwork often appears dull and boring to the gamer. Gamers have gotten used to seeing beautifully rendered scenes, and the learning curve on these programs is often terribly daunting. To achieve anything that gamers would even consider "average," you may have to spend an ungodly amount of time learning your tool. Be prepared to compromise, and don’t look for a magic bullet.
Rendering is best for scenes where light, reflection, and color are more important than shape and contour. Modeling and rendering anything "organic," or anything that has complex curves or weird shapes, is generally harder than just drawing it by hand (but of course, that’s assuming you can draw!)
Tip 7: Sketch First, Then Scan and Color
If you possess rudimentary pen-and-paper art skills, it’s often an easy job to draw something by hand, scan it in, and then color it and shade it on the computer.
This technique works really well with player or character portraits. And, it also allows you to solicit artists who may not be interested in making games - they can draw on plain old paper, and you can take the drawings, scan them, clean them up, and use them in your game (with permission, of course).
One final suggestion: As you’re drawing, repeat this phrase over and over: It doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be good enough. Your art isn’t standing on its own here - there’s a fun game design and a solid game behind it, and that means your art simply needs to be functional. The players need to recognize that a boomerang is not a banana, and that a gun is not a stick, but it doesn’t matter if there are slight blemishes in either drawing. If you can convey the correct message graphically, you’re home free, even if your art isn’t "perfect."
And remember what I said about actually drawing. Have fun!