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Illustrators: Four Things Your Indie Coder Wants You To Know About Game Art
by Rodain Joubert on 02/13/14 07:48:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


The following was originally posted on our QCF Design blog.

Over the years, I’ve learned a bit about the diversity of the drawy-artstuffs field. I speak from the outside, of course – the closest I’ve come to being an artist myself is a one year communication design course (read: layout and colour theory) and the occasional desperate move with game prototypes where I simply couldn’t find anybody to draw things for me.

However, while I cannot tell anybody how to “do” art, I am sympathetic to some of the difficulties that visual creatives have when they’re forced to operate in the weird and wondrous framework of a programmer’s code base. None more so than classically-trained artists, who usually operate in environments which have loose constraints (or none at all) in areas that happen to be of absolutely vital importance to the average programmer.

Sometimes a situation emerges where talented artists in the wrong category hop onto an indie project: the devs are hoping for a particular style, perhaps, or the project exists in a territory where game development is still getting its legs and the required specialists are rare. Or maybe some friends just wanna work together on something regardless of the hurdles.

This can be pretty cool in the long run – particularly if said illustrator is excited and enthused about learning a new form – but there’s a few growing pains that need to be worked past. In my experience, practically all classic artists will need to learn the following:

(1) You’re working under the most demanding constraints possible

If you’re a freelance illustrator or concept artist, you’re used to getting briefs with the necessary provisions: it needs certain dimensions, subject matter, format and all the usual trimmings. But if we assume a non-painful client, external constraints won’t matter much when you start putting pen to paper. You have thousands of pixels to work with in either direction and smaller details only matter when it comes down to your own style and standards (again, oversimplifying and assuming that your client isn’t an asshole).

When you start working with coders, your open playfield pretty much vanishes. Sure, you can comfortably send the first draft of your work in whatever style you prefer – a good team will provide valuable discussion points and feedback for that – but sooner or later, you’re going to lose your ability to play with broad strokes. You’ll be told that your work needs to fit strictly into however many pixels (and exactly that many pixels, mind). You won’t be allowed to use particular colours. You’ll have to draw sprites that will stand out against every conceivable background in multiple resolutions and lighting situations. Things need to mirror in sneaky ways. Your work needs to hue shift gracefully. And we won’t event go into animation!

In many instances, you’ll be forced to change your approach from “whichever style feels best” to “whichever style actually works”. And in any realistic setting, that’ll be downgraded to “start hoping that you can find a style that works”. Because while you may be an architect, the engineers you’re working with have a whole lot of immutable constraints that they’re trying to tell you about, based on the strength and availability of materials and components. And given the special hazards of a typical programming environment, such construction projects can often feel like building a house of cards.

Pushing back against your engineers and insisting on your vision usually won’t yield much – in some cases, a talented and accommodating coder can move virtual mountains to give you more wiggle room with a particular variable or especially important style hook, but that’s about the best you can hope for. And they’re not trying to be dicks. They’re just as bound to the rules as you are, if not moreso. You can always bend your style to suit their constraints. But the other way around? Usually impossible. Flatly, literally impossible.

So, this first point is the longest, but it’s also the most important: change your philosophy and learn to make project constraints your bread and butter. Breathe in specs and exhale precision work. Continue to think outside the box, but understand that your final product needs to exist firmly inside it, no matter how tiny that becomes. You won’t be making your best work – you’ll be making your best work for a particular situation.

If you can just get into this mindset, the rest will come far more easily.

(2) Your game dev clients tend to know more than the others

I’ve never met a professional indie coder who didn’t have at least a passing literacy in tools like Photoshop and GIMP. Reality often bumps into us and demands that we take up cross-class skills, and you’ll find that more experienced coders actually have a track record of meeting their artists halfway on concepts that are difficult to understand or implement precisely (everyone at QCF has spent countless hours cleaning up edge pixels and aligning tilesets at various points).

We also come pre-packaged with a certain technical understanding that other clients usually lack – we know what antialiasing is and how it works. We understand image channels, RGB, HSV, WTF and all the other delightful acronyms out there. And then there’s the ultimate fact that every bit of magic which goes into art software has to be coded and mathematically signed off by programmers, so there’s a lot of relatable language and understanding in there for us.

This is idealised, of course. Some coders are as thick as two bricks being rubbed together when it comes to graphics lore, and there’s a lot of savvy clients that exist outside our bubble, but unlike a lot of other people who usually need art from you, our job regularly forces us to dip into your world and understand things. Not enough that we can go without artists entirely, but enough to make your life easier.

Use this. Speak to your team and find out exactly how much they know, then take advantage. If it’s easier for you to send a PSD with unbaked layers, fixed alpha masks, grouped shapes, unrasterised text and a box of rabid gerbils, perhaps you can do just that! We’re not going to be stumped and panic the moment you give us something that isn’t a web-ready PNG. Better still, we may even be able to edit it and send back a revision showing you what we want more clearly!

(3) You’ll have to build a more technical understanding of your own tools

I have, on rare occasions, had to point artists towards bits and pieces of Photoshop business that they knew nothing about. More than once, I’ve worked with people (directly and indirectly, formally and informally) who didn’t understand how image layers worked or why they were important.

It makes a lot of sense, especially when modern art tablets allow you to treat digital projects almost exactly like your physical medium of choice. Tools that don’t assert their importance won’t be learned because there’s no obvious need for them and no damage done by ignoring them. This can be a shock for people the first time they transition to a more demanding environment.

Do you understand feathering, anti-aliasing and tolerance when selecting or filling a region? Perhaps so, perhaps not – but the important thing to realise is that a lot of people don’t have to understand, and thus never learn. This is by no means a condemnation – default values tend to be good fits for a lot of situations and it can feel almost absurd the first time a coder has a frothy fit because you gave hir a 50% alpha-edged sprite baked on a black background. Especially – especially – when just about any other client wouldn’t actually give a shit or even notice that the situation exists in the first place.

But as a good yardstick: if any terminology mentioned in this article is unfamiliar to you, look it up and learn how to control that variable, because a coder at some point will probably make a demand related to it. If you demonstrate confidence with these things, you’ll be thanked with genuine emotion and possible tear-shedding because you’ve saved some poor engineer several hours (even days) of work trying to reprocess your graphics for you.

(4) You’ll need diversity (and to look at what others have done)

I left this semi-obvious point until last because I reckon that the other ideas needed more screentime, but it’s always worth restating somewhere: learn from your digitally inclined peers! Some artists have been dealing with curmudgeons and coders for most of their careers and have super-helpful advice about all the small things that each specific task requires.

Game art is such a diverse field that even those within it tend towards radically different specialisations. Making a tileset requires its own considerations. Building a 32x32 sprite animation is a particular kind of art, even when compared to doing the same at double the resolution. And 3D stuff? Well, even if you never lay a hand on a modelling program, being asked for a 256x256 wall texture requires a quick look at some important points.

The simplest game projects can draw upon multiple art styles and types of challenges, and unless you have the luxury of working with a team where individual artists can focus on just one aspect of the game, you’re going to find yourself performing a lot of radically different – and equally demanding – tasks. Even Desktop Dungeons required our artists to switch approaches between tiny pixel sprites, tilesets, detailed portraits, double-sized elements, and screenwide backgrounds. All of these had their own art considerations while still needing to click in with each other for the same “overall feel”. And that shit is hard. Or so I’ve observed.

But hey, that’s the glorious part of the job: game art is diverse and interesting and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise! The challenge and variety, at least on an indie level, is a fantastic experience for even the most poorly-equipped artist and the skills you gain will be invaluable.

Ultimately, you can view it as an exchange of one priority for another: you’ll lose a bit of freedom, but in return your work will come to life in a way that lets people experience it more deeply over greater sessions of exposure. In contrast, the equivalent effort on a piece of promo material, a once-off splash image or even some concept art will earn glances from the majority and focused attention from only a precious few – if you’re lucky. Or as an actual artist once put it to me: “You’ll never see a dedicated Let’s Play video of someone’s box art.”

So if this life appeals to you, dear illustrator, and you want to try something new … come join us! It's new, it's interesting and you'll be doing your bit to save the world from the scourge of Programmer Art.

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Zachary Strebeck
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I've known plenty of artists that really didn't understand the tools (Photoshop, Illustrator, Maya) that they work with on a daily basis. Generally, and I'm guilty of this too, you know just enough to get by! Great article.

Michele Kribel
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Great article. There is a piece of advice that was once given to me: "as an engineer / designer take your time to clearly explain and tutorialise the artists regarding the restrictions / limitations that you ask them to respect". I've helped some indies in the past with some music, for instance, and I only later realised that they hadn't told me what mixing levels they were after, how they were dealing with loops, you name it. They were taking it upon themselves to fix my mess, which I would have gladly dealt with myself, had I only known the mess was there in the first place!

Joaquin Bello
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Love this "And they’re not trying to be dicks"

I think you should add "Don't invent fuck up names, if you want your programmer not to kill you"

Kaze Kai
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I don't think the artists understanding this is a very good cure for programmer art syndrome. I've met some decent programmers and some decent artists, each wanted to understand the fields of the other party enough to work together with the best of their ability, but I've also seen a lot of developers and players who think the technical side of game development far outweighs the other fields and that attitude is so common among the gamer scene in general that it can really make your specialty feel invalidated or unwanted when spoken in a large enough concentration.

The deeper issue though, is that compared to animation, there is a distinct disconnect between programmers and everyone else. Artists and musicians can get some idea of the others' territory by intuitive human observation; we see and hear examples of how music and art work together in film and animation, and both fields are dominantly right-brain specialties. The same is true for writing, acting, and every other creative medium. In my experience, programming is a whole different kind of creativity hinging on abstract mental calculations and dominated by left-brain thinkers whose mentality is squarely founded in advanced math and logical, efficient solutions. I don't mean to imply that programmers aren't creative people, but their natural intuition is not even on the same page as that of the other mediums. They don't speak the same language as everyone else and as a result, because game development is primarily sustained and propelled by programmers, it's hard for anyone else to get their foot in the door. I think at some point we're going to have to find a way to bridge the chasm between these two very different types of human ingenuity if we want video games to be fun and enjoyable for everyone to make.

Luke Meeken
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I feel like this was definitely weighted toward the technical side of things, and projected/expected a myopia onto the artists while not recognizing that it was being a little bit myopic, too.

It reminds me of a project an engineer friend had to do in undergrad, where his class had to collaborate with a class from the school of design. His mind was kind of blown when he realized the different, biased mentalities both classes came into the project with. The engineers came into the collaboration thinking "Those designers are just going to skin MY project," while the designers came in thinking, "Those engineers are just going to make MY design functional."

The same sort of issue can readily come into games, especially when the development atmosphere is less collaborative and more compartmentalized, I think. However, development environments with a lot of messy collaborative back and forth are probably significantly less efficient than a more rigidly striated compartmentalized hierarchy.

On a sort-of related side-note, one of the most interesting things about DF's Amnesia Fortnight events is getting to see how the different teams, run by folks from different disciplines, operate. Because anyone can submit a design, you'll end up with projects led by, say, a concept artist, or a programmer, or an interface designer or whatever, and it can be really interesting to see those different priorities and leadership styles operating in the different parallel teams.

Kaze Kai
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I am a pretty big DF fan and I really should make an effort to watch their game jam's progress if only to satisfy my curiosity.

I guess my bias is that I'm an artist, the restrictions I'm used to working with are canvas size, color gamut, and a host of little things depending on the medium. Programmers have entirely different things to worry about like stack efficiency, concise syntax, and a bunch of other things I barely understand. I admittedly know very little about the worlds my programmer friends operate in - I respect their work and even envy them a little, and they respect my work and envy me, but they also have no relation to my field. And even people with the best intentions clash when these two fields meet because communicating between them is its own kind of language and skillset.

But my experience is minimal. The most technical thing I've ever done with art was use a tool to hack a sega genesis rom and edit the color palette. I was unsuccessful in that I could not get a working build to compile. In spite of all the horrible programmer art I see, I've never seen artist code before, probably because the learning curve is significant steeper, or because there aren't any effective teaching tools, I don't really know.