Best Tools and Tricks from a Pixel Art Guru
The recent article by Blake Reynolds (Dinofarm Games) made a lot of people in the industry wonder if developers should really pursue pixel art. Seems like the general public does not really understand this style and can’t see all the effort that was put into it. However not all pixel artists feel this way. We’ve talked with Paul Conway – a freelance pixel artist from Ireland and talked about the best ways to work with pixel art and use it in videogames.
About Paul Conway & Aporkalypse Now
I’m a freelance video game artist working under the handle of DoomCube. I’ve been working professionally in the games industry for ten years. I always wanted to work in games as a child, being awe-inspired by classic games such as Another World and Flashback. I started in game industry with the now defunct studio Nephin Games, which specialized in old Java phone games. I was originally a 3D animation student, but games jobs were thin on the ground in Ireland when Nephin were advertising for an artist. I did my best to learn rudimentary pixel art over night and applied for the job. Apparently it was good enough, as they hired me shortly after my submission and the rest is history.
I’m working on Aporkalyspe Now with local Irish indie dev studio, Tribal City Interactive. The game is a homage to all things 80s and 90s, born from my misspent youth watching cheesy movies and playing video games. It’s a love story of sorts dedicated to the simpler imagination of a VHS child, when transforming robots were the best thing ever invented and one man could believably take down an entire army with a handgun.
The story of the game is set in “the far distant future of 1996” and is a very tropey tongue in cheek affair. Scientist experimenting on bacon to enhance its already perfect flavor accidentally create a super race of pigs who quickly rise to the top of the food chain. The pigs start to take revenge on humanity for its unapologetic eating habits. Only one man has the strength to fight back, Steak Blisterin.
It’s aimed at the mobile market, and the current prototype of the game is a take on the endless runner genre, mixing in lots of gun play and huge explosions. Its development has been stalled for a while due to other commitments (I’m currently working on Gunman Taco Truck with John Romero of Doom fame and my own game The Darkside Detective is deep into development), but the time away from the project (and public reaction) has convinced us to return to it as a more straight up shooter in the vein of Metal Slug and Contra and to release it onto Steam. We hope to release some more content from it soon, when our schedules align a bit better.
The Charm of Pixel Art
I tend to lean toward pixels as my medium of choice. I see it as a stylistic choice which, in my opinion, can help to realize unique visuals that capture the heart of a video game world better than most AAA 3D engines can.
There will always be a retro charm to pixel art which draws users of a certain age toward it, but I also see it as a means to find art through limitation. To my mind it’s like video game impressionism. There is just enough iconic and essential detail in some styles of pixel art, which I believe players mentally translate into pieces of art, or vistas of beauty. For me that transformation is a kind of magic that places a certain amount of investment in the users imagination which is ultimately rewarding. It also doesn’t hurt that pixel art, when done right, looks cool as hell.
Best Tools for the Pixel Artist
The main tools I use to create pixel art are Adobe Photoshop and Graphics Gale.
Photoshop is very flexible when it comes to drawing up pixel graphics. It’s graphics tablet friendly compared to Gale and has a smooth work flow for image editing in general. It’s especially handy for figuring out general color palettes as is has some useful tools to quickly edit and filter your pixel art, pushing the results into unexpected areas.
Graphics Gale has a particularly good animation time line. Its general tool set shares a lot similarity to Photoshop when it comes to pixel art, its layers in particular, but otherwise it far exceeds it when comes to frame based animation, which is essential for pixel art. There are other pixel art specific tools out there that other artists would favor, but Gale and Photoshop mixed would be my weapons of choice.
The other tool I find very useful when creating game concepts is Adobe Flash. It’s useful for some complex game play animations, allowing me to mix pre-animated sprites in a more random play like fashion. I find this helps to sell a game’s concept since it is more alive than a static screenshot concept.
Animating in pixels can be tough, particularly because most pixel art sprites by their nature are quite small with very little resolution to capture information.
I think the most important thing to remember when animating in such a small and restrictive medium is to focus on strong key frames. If your character’s key poses are strong it can help to sell their actions and motivations with very little else. Frames can be on screen for such a short amount of time, you really need to send that information snapshot into a persons’ eye with as much clarity as possible. Hardware restrictions, particularly on mobile, may limit the amount of frames a character can use, so strong key frames are essential in selling the whole effect with very little in-between frames.
Secondary animations such as weapon recoil, overlapping clothes and hair movement really add to an animation, so should always be considered once the basics are in place. They push the physical effects of a sprite’s actions to the player. They show the weight and gravity of a character in the world. An animation without them, even with solid key frames, will always seem stiff.
Tips & Tricks of Pixel Art
Game art in general lives and dies based on readability. If a player can’t easily discern the relevant objects and characters from the background or surrounding items then there is a problem. I think strong (but considered) contrasts in light and color are always important for readability, if you can nail this early in your design process you’ll save yourself a lot of work. If you can’t see what’s going on at a glance, you need to pull back and figure out how to solve this immediately.
When using color in pixel art it is always advisable to use a limited amount. Some of the more purist pixel artists pride themselves on achieving strong image fidelity with a dramatically small amount of colors and it is mind blowing what they can achieve. When a lot of artists start pixelling (myself included) they tend to put tons of different shades into their work, but as a result it can look muddy and lack the sharp definition of a more considered piece of pixel art.
We can use all the colors we want to now, but using a large amount results in a lot of work when animating your sprites. You quite literally have to place each pixel one at a time, so having a large palette is a lot to manage when drawing so many frames. That said, modern computers can handle a large variety of color now so it’s good to inject your palettes with as many rich hues as you can afford. I strongly believe a lot of modern pixel art thrives on its color We’re not restricted to some of the garish limitations of the past, so I revel in the fact I can push the color in my work in so many interesting ways. The dusty and saturated palette I’m using in Aporkalypse Now is a joy to work with.
Another more recent technique is to meld modern effects with retro pixels. In The Darkside Detective, an adventure game I’m currently working on, I’ve been able to blend rich gradients of color and light on top of a very simple style ofpixel art. This has resulted in a very classic looking game, often compared to the Lucas Arts classics by our supporters, but with a sense of mood and atmosphere which would otherwise be quite difficult to achieve using more traditional techniques. It’s not an advisable art style for every game, but has done wonders for The Darkside Detective.
Strong character silhouettes are of major importance. I’ll always try to define a rough shape of a character before I go too far with its detail and color Distinct silhouettes define one object or character from another, and in the quick play nature of most games, when we’re not exactly looking at the details closely, it is essential to help the players identify each object on the screen quickly. Silhouette will also sell a characters mood or intentions, and in the diminutive world of pixel sprites it stands in for a lot of what you can’t physically put on screen.
As I said earlier, readability is also key. The assets on screen should not be fighting for your attention. It’s of the utmost importance to find a balance to insure that players can take in the action on screen.
Pixel Art & Gameplay
Pixel art may influence level design because it is very tile based in a lot of genres, but other than that I don’t think it affects gameplay decisions anymore than other forms of 2D art. Modern gameplay mechanics work quite well in pixelart games, but the added incongruity of a modern play style with retro visuals adds a certain charm which I find hugely appealing.