What to do With Programmer Art?

One of the most frustrating things about game development—for me anyways—is coming up with art and an overall aesthetic. Namely because I suck at art. I would rather write code all day long, but at some point I have to try to convey to others my mental images of my current game. And that is a pain in the ass.

Lately Jeff and I have been talking about using a neon and monochrome mash-up. But beyond that we’ve not come up with anything particular. The other week I drew an idea for a boss, which in the game would look more like this (although probably inverted). I have no serious intent to use it; I just took the basic shape and ran crazily with it.

Procedurally-generated art is something I am considering for stage backgrounds, to some degree. Of course I would want them to be restricted by certain parameters so as not to give up complete creative control. But I haven’t worked out in my head the best way to do that, or if we should do that at all.

It may tempt some people to point out the obvious answer: “Just go get some artists.” The problem with that is they are going to ask me what I want the game to look like, and I need to be able to respond with something beyond a blank expression and a shrug. I don’t know—maybe we are setting the bar too high or just not going about describing the aesthetic we want in the best way. Watching anime for inspiration has also been a horribly double-edged sword.

I realize this is nothing but a rant that has gone nowhere. And truthfully I am writing it for myself more than anyone. I just can’t figure it out though: when you’re a game developer and you don’t have the resources to hire people with the talents you need, where do you go? What compromises do you make? How far do you attempt to step outside of your own comfort zone?

Maybe (hopefully) someone has some good advice.

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4 thoughts on “What to do With Programmer Art?

  1. Though I’m nowhere near professionally experienced, in my personal game projects in the previous years, I usually focus on doing very basic shapes to represent elements within the game. If you need decent graphics, of course you’re going to need to find an artist, but as a developer without access to one, I think just basic shapes that describe the elements in question is enough.

    For example, in one of my games, we had arrows as enemies and the player was just a circle with a different symbol, depending on his attack (Sword for melee, crosshair for ranged). In another one, I just focused on using squares and a circle, representing destructible elements and the player object respectively, to map out the gameplay, and the artists took creative freedom.

    I find that looking at other games, rather than anime (as good as they are :D) is probably more appropriate for inspiration, although they may prove to be a double-edged sword as well! As well as games, I think you should focus on a specific theme (neon and monochrome mash-up) then do research into games that display such elements, or at least display one or the other, such as geometry wars as a good example, or just search ‘neon’ or ‘monochrome’ in flash game websites and app stores. You can also search for other art that displays such elements (we took a look at Tron Legacy, for example), as games is just one medium of inspiration.

    I still think that it is important to get an artist if you want someone to flesh out the theme. If you can’t get a paid one, I think you should try networking or joining groups or meetings where artists, especially game artists, reside. A good artist will be able to take creative freedom based on what’s available and the direction of the project, not just go “huh?” if the game developers don’t know what the game will look like. After all, they’re artists for a reason :)

    1. Thanks for the post, as you make a lot of great points.

      The basic shape approach is what we’re doing at the moment. Personally I’d be fine with it, but I am also a big fan of MUDs and roguelikes so I don’t have big demands about graphics in games, heh. But there is a concern that gamers in general wouldn’t like the style, would consider it too amateur, lazy, and so on.

      Which is why I also agree with you about bringing an artist on board. At least one nice thing about games is that so many people want to make them that it’s not hard to find people willing to contribute their talents.

      I don’t think that looking at other games for inspiration is inherently bad; unconsciously I do it every day when I’m playing Touhou games, heh. But a big reason that I prefer to look more towards film, television, anime, etc., is they have no gameplay. There is nothing really interactive about them, and so I don’t have to filter that out in my head. Where as if I were looking at a game for inspiration I could easily get caught up examining its gameplay mechanics. So for me it’s just a lot easier to get visual/artistic inspiration from other media where I can focus on the visuals without anything interactive ‘distracting’ me.

  2. I found that when looking for artists (especially if you don’t have a way of paying) it’s very important to: show that you can actually finish a project (either by having a well built prototype or a polished demo of some sort) since you’ll attract people who have more experience or at least people who are more serious about finishing things; have a clear vision of what you want your game be, look and feel like, while allowing for the artist to have his own input into all that such that hopefully you can both come to a happy medium between your and his vision without getting too annoyed at each other.

    Of course it’s just easier to not have an artist and not have to deal with all that, and that’s fine, provided you can do what Peter said up there.

    1. > I found that when looking for artists (especially if you don’t have a way of paying) it’s very important to: show that you can actually finish a project…

      Completely agreed. Furthermore I would say that it is necessary when looking for anyone to help on a game, not just artists. I think we’ve all seen those people who mean well but have “nothing” except an idea for a game, they just need helpful people to do… everything.

      > …have a clear vision of what you want your game be, look and feel like, while allowing for the artist to have his own input into all that such that hopefully you can both come to a happy medium between your and his vision without getting too annoyed at each other.

      I feel like that is the ideal situation. Where I’ve gotten in the way of that, however, is by being unable to settle on a ‘clear vision’. One thing I look forward to when releasing the game is to also release images of previous visual styles we considered, because the original vision we began with looks absolutely nothing like the game now, heh.

      That’s not to say we have no current vision. There are solid ideas in place for characters, some enemies, a few areas. But it still is not cohesive enough to where I’d feel confident presenting it to an artist and saying, “This represents the idea we have in mind,” and it being enough of a foundation for them to contribute efficiently. I have to admit I’m struggling to figure out what I feel is missing to reach that point. Because I do not want to go too far either; I want to work with artists that will introduce their own creative input and even challenge some of our ideas with their own suggestions. So I do not want to create so much of a visual foundation that it would look intimidating to throw away or change any of it, if that makes any sense.

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