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An Artist's Eye: Applying Art Techniques to Game Design

August 31, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

[Does the Golden Ratio have application in game design? These two trained artists -- Rob Kay, lead designer of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, and Andy Tudor, lead designer on Need for Speed: Shift, talk about using classic art training in game design, in this article originally published in Game Developer magazine earlier this year.]

Some people will tell you that having a good eye is an artist's gift -- that no sooner have artists left the womb than they're able to see the world differently than regular folk, and hence have a natural tendency toward brilliant art. These people couldn't be more wrong. The notion that artists are "born, not made" is complete nonsense. The simple truth is that artists learn to hone their eyes over many years of education and practice.

The two authors of this article both took this long journey to obtain good eyes, and then journeyed past, to the brave frontier of game design. In making the switch we found that visual arts and game design share a lot in common.

The principles we'd learned as we became artists were useful in game design too. In this article we'll share three art principles that we've found particularly useful as game designers: thumbnail sketches, the Golden Ratio, and anticipation.

Thumbnail Sketches

Thumbnail sketches are small abbreviated drawings, just an inch or two in size, which artists use to explore ideas quickly. A graphic designer might do thumbnail sketches of possible page layouts, a fashion designer might sketch interesting new silhouettes, and a product designer could explore new form factors.

These rapidly sketched ideas give them multiple directions for attacking their problem. They help artists find strong ideas and rule out weak ones before precious time and resources are committed.

A common practice is to explore a wide range of possible solutions with thumbnail sketches before committing to any single idea. This approach works, is widely practiced, and becomes second nature to most artists.

I first had thumbnail sketches explained to me in my high school graphic design class, and have used them non-stop since. Jumping into game design, the habit stuck and I've found thumbnail sketches really useful here as well. These "sketches" don't have to be in perfect visual form either, if you're not an artist. Ideas can be sketched out in text, diagram, diorama, or stick figures.

It's worth noting that the major difference between thumbnails and prototypes is that thumbnails are far faster to create. Creating them quickly means a range of possible options can be explored in minutes, not days. The key use of thumbnails then is a rapid exploration of the solution space prior to prototyping. The end result is one well-defined problem, and multiple ideas for solving it.

This early exploration via thumbnails increases the chances of revealing the "obvious solution," which of course only becomes obvious once it's found. Here are three examples, two from my time at Harmonix and one from AiLive.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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Kriss Daniels
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These are not rules, these are suggestions and yes you should know them but more importantly you should know when to break them.

Being educated to the point that you follow such rules blindly is as massive a fail as not knowing about them in the first place.

Don't look for cheap rules to fake an understanding, just educate yourself holistically.

Glen Isip
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Gotta agree with the first two comments. Also, with the exception of gameplay duration, there's little that is relevant to actual gameplay (what action draws what effect). It's more of a crash course in interface design to me, and while it's useful to be aware of it, it doesn't seem like gameplay is related.

Mike Stout
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Great article.

The concept of anticipation -> action -> reaction is one that I always stress to people designing enemy attacks. It's critical.

At Insomniac, when referring to enemy attacks we called them the "pre-attack," "attack," and "post-attack" phases, but they're exactly the same thing as what you're describing. The pre-attack phase gives the player time to recognize what the enemy is going to do and prepare his countermeasures. The post-attack gives the player time to respond with a counterattack.

There are a ton of other reasons why using the three phases are important (an article could probably be written about that alone). I'm really glad to see it called out here, and it's cool to see the connection with artistic concepts.

Rodney Brett
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I always found it fascinating how much animation quality affects the "feel" of a game. I'm constantly going through titles of action games new and old and I've been noticing this a lot. When enemies have no "reaction" animation, even if you see health bars above them draining, you don't feel like you are actually damaging them. There is this lack of satifaction in the "action". A game like Shadow of the Collosus has almost an over-exagherated "anticipation" phase, giving the game attacks a really strong feeling of tension.

Yikuno Barnaby
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Also, because someone is talented doesn't mean they have drive to get it. I'm talented at some things, but because it came easily, I'd quit if it got too hard. Not so much anymore. I mean I can't be a programmer with a quitting attitude. :P

William Collins
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The "rule of thirds" is common in a lot of media (from three acts in a play or movie to how much of the screen an actor takes up), but I like how it is used here. For us novice designers this really helps add structure to a project. I'm hoping a predictable pattern of pacing isn't used when designing this way. An example would be learning a new move/skill every 20 min, learning a new plot twist every 40 min and so on. RE4 was a super awesome game, but I can't help but feel like certain parts of it were "cyclical". You'd examine a new area, midway through there's a "mid-boss" challenge, story reveal, continue through area, boss fight, then major story reveal and repeat.

Enriching article, nonetheless. The Power of Limits and Universal Principles of Design are definitely being added to my wishlist.

Josh Foreman
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Raoul Duke: "i think i'm sorta in the camp of calling "bullshit" on the golden ratio."

I'll agree that this article, and specifically the images chosen don't do a good job. Taking a screen shot from a game with a user controlled camera just makes no sense whatsoever. half a second after the shot the horizon could be 4 inches lower in the frame or not visible.

"like, does mri tell us that the "oh that's beautiful" parts of the brain light up in the face of the golden ratio, but not in the face of other ratios?"

Here is an interesting series on how we determine beauty staring John Cleese that gets into the science of it a bit.

But when it comes to the "rules" of art, science is not necessarily the best lens to examine them. These laws came about by generations of artists tinkering and finding what "works best". Sure, there will be the electrical/chemical signals going on in the brain when something that works is experienced, but that level of materialistic atomism doesn't inspire the arts much.

As to the article... I can think of ways to apply artistic rules all day... I I do. I use balance, contrast, juxtaposition, etc. Not sure why these particular 3 were chosen, but I guess it's good to start somewhere. I'd love to see this developed more fully as applied to the DESIGN of the games, and less on the obvious bits of art assets that fill it.

Ryan Locke
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Very interesting read and something I'ver been researching for a while. As my final year project at University, I wanted to study the use of more traditional methods of art in computer games, more specifically, the aesthetic quality of the handpainted texture as a way to make games emulate the qualities of a painting.

there is a video here, of the level I built using the UDK.

The whole subject area ended up being a lot bigger than I imagined and stirred the passions of artists who viewed it. Its a wonderful topic to talk about and I'd be interested on anything further you have to add. Again this year I want to study a way to improve game art direction through classic art theory. I am a little worried however that the subject passions make more sense to me than they will ayone else - ultimatly most companies I may end up working for wont give a damn about classic art theory - they need models, textures and rigs as soon as they are ready - but I do strongly believe a greater sense of direction, style and aesthetic will only benefit from traditional lessons.

So where do we begin !? Im writing another paper as we speak, but I think ultimatly im gonna have to form a team of like-minded artists and do a small project that shows off our vision for the future of how we want games to look.


Brian Callahan
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I am currently taking color and design in college.. i can't believe that artists really need all these rules.......... it all seems like such common sense.. common sense turned into over analysis and science/math.. Pythagoras stick to your triangles and Galileo stick to your falling apples.. haha.. uh.. sure it helps but what is pleasing to the eye is pleasing to the eye and if you can't figure that out without having to know color theory and design theory.. then good luck at being an artist.. you would probably make a better mathematician.. props to dali.. and Michelangelo and DaVinci and those who do use the golden ratio though.. because it does work... especially if you want to become an endorsed artist by freemasons..

Wayne Wang
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Very helpful,thx!