Pingudroid: pixels, music, videogames and stuff (and penguins)

A guide to creating pixel-art assets (part 1)

On the value of pre-made assets

(Tl;dr: Long dissertation about why royalty-free game assets are important in general, and to me personally. Feel free to skip and go to the first section of the actual guide, What is pixel-art and why use it?)

As you might know if you’ve read some of my previous entries (like this compilation of pixel-art top-down assets), during this last year, I’ve been slowly getting into the bottomless pit that is the world of royalty-free video game assets.

I didn’t use to care much about these; I had bought into the “do everything yourself, be a TRUE creator” mentality that many people in the indie industry often preach, citing one-of-a-kind examples like Eric Barone and his Stardew Valley. That led to a long string of unfinished projects, including my latest and most involved failure, a Godot project called Monster Embassy and later rebooted as Orosynthe.

However, a year ago, between September and December 2021, I did something I had never done before: I took practical game development classes. And that changed everything.

The course I took was VERY intense and with a hands-on approach, so we were developing games from almost day one. Not only that: we were supposed to FINISH games in a weekly or bi-weekly basis. After so many years of attempting huge, involved projects that never got anywhere, this blew my mind! And it changed the way I approach gamedev forever. It made me understand the game jam mentality too: there’s something to be said about a strict time limit and having to cut as many corners as possible to ship a minimum viable product.

The course was focused on Unity, but the most important lessons I learnt are universal (which is for the best, really, because I don’t think I’ll ever be touching Unity again, at least not of my own volition xD). One of these lessons, perhaps the most important one, was: take all of the shortcuts. If you can do something faster, if you can make things easier for yourself in any way, DO IT. Use an engine, for starters; use as many specific tools as possible to aid in your development; the more tailored to your needs your tools are, and the less programming you have to do, the better; and, the more pre-made assets you use, the faster you’ll advance in your game development and the higher the chances of you actually finishing the game.

Using assets during this course was not only encouraged, but necessary: most of the students weren’t adept at art, for starters, and even if they were there just was not enough time to make the assets and the game in the time frame that we were provided. So, like any good Unity beginners and gamedev-wannabes, we scoured the free assets in the Unity Asset Store, and some of us were even adventurous enough to search the deep and fascinating archives of OpenGameArt.org (amazing site, btw). For the first time ever, I created entire projects using only assets made by others: music, graphics, characters, fonts, sound effects, basically everything. And, guess what? I finished those projects. A couple of them were even decent enough that I published them on itch.io (they’re still crappy student projects, mind you, but they’re at least playable and quirky and FINISHED). And none of that would’ve been possible without the generous asset creators that released those materials into the world.

I didn’t think much of it at the time, but a few months after finishing the course, when I finally started to get an itch (and the time) to start working on my own projects again, one of the first things I considered was: should I really revert back to my previous frame of mind, and try to do absolutely everything on my own? Did I really have the time and motivation to finish a project like that? And the answer was no. I knew what it took to finish a short game now, and I understood that, under my circumstances, making a project in the scope that I had been previously envisioning wasn’t just difficult, it was outright impossible.

That understanding didn’t feel like a defeat, it felt like a victory. It felt like relief. Because I was finally able to accept this and start moving forward.

Admitting that you need help (in this case, in the form of assets) isn’t a bad thing. It means that you understand your circumstances and are willing to work around them or adapt to them. This admission has different consecuences depending on the person; in my case, I now understand that being technically able to do pixel-art, music and programming doesn’t mean that I should tackle all of those things on a single project, all at the same time. Having multiple talents isn’t a contractual obligation to solve all problems by myself. Amazing revelation, right? Such a weight lifted off my shoulders!

After realising this, I researched game assets. Slowly. At first I bought some Humble Bundles at the lowest tiers, and looked for the asset creators on GameDevMarket and Itch.io. I found incredible creators like Jason Perry or Joel Steudler. I subscribed to some Patreons. I bought even more bundles. Then I began to discover smaller, but equally talented creators. Eventually, I started working on my own assets to sell. I amassed a wide asset library and began supporting asset creators just because I wanted to, not just because I needed their assets. I realised how important, and often overlooked, this aspect of the game industry is.

Simultaneously, I did two things that I’m really proud of: I began to contribute to a project that wasn’t just my own, instead taking on a particular role in the project (in this case, pixel-art and music – I’m the asset creator here!) and letting others handle the rest; we’re almost at demo stage now, and going strong. And, at the same time, I tackled a personal project, but with a very different approach from previous projects like Monster Embassy: I chose the simplest and shortest project from my to-do list and started working on it in the easiest engine possible (in this case, RPG Maker MZ) and using almost exclusively pre-made assets. I’m more than half-way done now, which is honestly something I never expected to say about a personal gamedev project, and the assets I’m using are giving the game a special vibe that I wouldn’t have been able to achieve on my own. To small victories!

My biggest conclusion here is: I can delegate game development, or asset creation, or anything else, at any time and for any reason, and that’s OK. Teamwork makes sense. You don’t need to do everything on your own. And using royalty-free assets is also, in a way, a bit like working on a team, for people who can’t afford (or don’t want to, or don’t need) to hire a dedicated artist to make unique assets for their game. When we make assets, free or non-free, we’re turning into that affordable teammate that so many indie gamedev projects need. And I think that’s wonderful.

Sooo, having gotten that out of the way… Now that you see why I value assets so much, you’ll understand the reasoning behind this guide. I love pixel-art and I love assets, but I know that many people are overwhelmed at the prospect of starting to make assets (no matter if they’re making assets for their own game, for a team or to sell them). So I’ll be compiling some ideas and some guidelines that I find can be useful during the process, in hopes of helping those new creators find their footing.

Also, a big thanks to eishiya, since it was a suggestion of theirs that got me thinking of asset formats (which we will tackle in a future entry of the series) and eventually decide to create this guide. I hope it will be useful to them as well. Thanks to Eccentric Stylist too for getting me thinking again about the importance of finishing.


What is pixel-art and why use it?

Let’s start from the basics: what is pixel-art? And why is it so relevant in the indie game world?

Pixel-art began as a technical limitation from the earliest computers and game consoles, but over time has been “reborn” (not that it was ever actually dead) and established as an art medium in itself, and one of the most characteristic art styles in current indie games.

At first, those machines had very low resolution (there weren’t a lot of pixels on the screen), little memory, and could only display a limited number of colors at the same time. To circumvent this, people used techniques not dissimilar to those of cross-stitching or mosaic, where each pixel was placed by hand, taking in mind the palette limitation, to create an “illusion” of complexity. This was aided by the fact that most screens were blurry, or had scanlines, so the pixels weren’t perfectly sharp.

Screenshot from the ZX Spectrum game Laser Squad (1988). Source: Wikipedia
Screenshot from Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, 1991). Source: Wikipedia

Here’s a pixel-art example, a mosaic example and a cross-stiching example for comparison (source: Wikipedia):

What pixel-art has in common with those other art forms is the use of a minimum unit (a pixel, a tessera/tile or a cross-stitch respectively) that has to be combined with other units in different colors in order to create a picture. These units aren’t seamless, but instead aligned in some kind of grid or pattern. The minimum unit is clearly apparent to the naked eye, even if at the same time it tries to trick it.

That’s perhaps what’s most attractive about these art forms: they engage our imagination because we need to mentally bridge the gap between the obvious pattern and what it’s attempting to convey. We’re always aware of the constraints of the medium and its artificiality, which is what makes it so fascinating and, in many ways, so useful, as we will see.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992) screenshot in sharp pixels vs as seen on a CRT screen. The CRT version looks more realistic and like it has actual translucencies, because of the screen blur. This example has been widely circulated and it showcases perfectly how artists took the most advantage of technical limitations at the time. Screenshots by GamesNosh

Nowadays, the screens we use are crisp and defined, and computers can display not only high resolution pictures with thousands of colors, but also advanced realistic 3D graphics. Pixel-art is no longer necessary from a technical standpoint.

Despite this, there has never been a time when pixel-art wasn’t created or used in some form. Back when home consoles and arcades had already made the jump to 3D, portable consoles like the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS still used pixel-art in their games. When even portable games made the full jump to 3D, indie games recovered those pixels for a “nostalgia” or retro value and turned them into something new. Nowadays, nostalgia is still a factor, but pixel-art has mostly established itself as simply another way to do art, and in particular to do art for games (although not exclusively: many people do pixel-art for its own sake too, not just for gamedev!). Even the most popular game of all time, Minecraft, uses pixel-art textures for its blocks and models. Pixel-art is a established medium independently from technical limitations and the current console tech race, and it’s here to stay.

Screenshot from Advance Wars (2001), a Game Boy Advance game. The Game Boy Advance had an LCD screen, so the pixel-art was designed keeping in mind that all pixels would be sharp, unlike older consoles that were played on tube TV sets, making it closer to “modern” pixel-art. Source: Wikipedia

A genuine question could be… why? What is so attractive about pixel-art, when much more “advanced” techniques are available today?

Not everyone likes pixel-art, of course. Some are (understandably) tired of it, others just find it too clunky and can’t see the appeal. And that’s fine. Everyone is entitled to their own tastes. However, it’s obvious that pixel-art is still a favorite for a wide chunk of the indie world, both from the creator and the consumer side, and there’s many reasons for it.

The first one would be nostalgia, from the people who remember playing games in those styles when they were younger. Nostalgia becomes a self-sustaining circle, since those creators make new pixel-art games based on the games they played as children, and children today play those games, which in turn may inspire similar nostalgia-driven creations if they become gamedevs, and so on.

However, nostalgia isn’t everything, and in fact I’d dare say that it doesn’t matter as much as we think. Pixel-art is genuinely attractive by itself, for starters: many people who never played pixel-art games when they were younger discover pixel-art later on and show interest in it, because it’s beautiful, clever, or just abstract enough to tickle our brains pleasantly and engage our imagination. Pixel-art has gone beyond a simple technical limitation and has become an art medium on its own merits, and for good reason. It has its roots in perfectly valid and ancient traditions of tesselated, tiled and stitched art, as we’ve seen, and I’m sure that it would have appeared anyway as an art form even if older computers didn’t originally force us to use it for technical reasons.

Thirdly, though, pixel-art is extremely useful and has many advantages, particularly when working with many moving parts, which is common in most videogames. Since you can choose to work with a very small canvas, there’s less variables (pixels) to worry about, which is very useful when you want to make animations, generate variants of the same asset or put different pieces together to create something new. The pixel is the base unit, and since there’s relatively few of them, you can get the wide picture easily and iterate, edit, copy and paste, modify, etc. the moving parts much faster. This is true for characters, backgrounds, tile sets, icons and interfaces.

The main reason that pixel-art has stuck, in my opinion, is not because of “nostalgia”, although that definitely drove its adoption at first, but because it strikes a very good balance between “looks good” and “is fast to create, edit and iterate on”.

Pixel-art is hard to master, but easy enough to learn. Most of all, its accessible, both in its making process (even the simplest graphics editing program allows you to draw pixel-art in it) and the computing power required, since pixel-art graphics and textures take up very little memory and are supported by all hardware or software imaginable. You can make pixel-art on a phone. You can make it on a computer from 35 years ago. You can draw it on a grid paper, like they used to do back in the day, and then transfer it to your computer. It’s the epithome of simplicity and that’s what makes it so powerful and the go-to choice for many indie developers and asset makers.

There’s a reason why precision platformers are usually pixel-art, or why pixel animation is often much smoother and detailed than any other kind of animation in 2D games (setting aside extreme examples like Cuphead). In pixel-art you sacrifice resolution in exchange for control.

So yes, if you’re considering making game assets, be it for your own use or for others, pixel-art is always a good, safe choice. If done well, it not only looks nice, but it can make the game development process much easier.

However, in order to make pixel-art assets that are usable and useful, it’s important to understand the underlying principles and know the standard formats of pixel-art, which we will be looking at in future entries.


Thanks for reading this far! I hope you enjoyed this introduction. In next entries I’ll dive deeper into pixel-art assets and share some useful information about asset formats, the software you can use to make pixel-art and which formats are required for the most popular game engines out there.

Take care,

pingudroid


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