Mureena's Juhana Myllys discussed the sci-fi puzzle platformer Bionic Bay, talked about its painterly pixel art, and shared how the robotic arm made of one million pixels was created.
My name is Juhana Myllys, and I'm currently working as a game designer and artist at my company, Mureena.
I graduated as an industrial designer in 2005 and did not have a background in game art or pixel art. I've always been an avid gamer, but working in a game studio felt like an unreachable dream, and I never thought it would be possible. However, as it turned out, the game industry, particularly the mobile gaming sector, was starting to rise in Finland, and a swarm of new companies emerged. Mobile games were mostly pixel art, and I thought this would be a great opportunity to get into the game industry, thinking that making pixel art would be easy. Of course, it wasn't, and at first, I did not get hired anywhere. But I understood I needed to improve, so I started to practice pixel art daily
Finally, it paid off and I started as a game artist in a THQ-owned game studio Universomo in 2007. I worked as a lead artist in several games including franchises such as Star Wars, Spongebob Squarepants, Puzzle Quest, and de Blob.
I created pixel art almost daily for two years and really loved it. However, eventually, I felt the need to keep improving as an artist. I also wanted to be more involved in the design process. I continued my journey at the legendary Finnish game studio Redlynx, known for its popular Trials series.
At Redlynx, I worked as a lead artist and a lead designer on a game project that combined the physics-based racing of Trials with Super Mario-like platforming. This project would materialize as the Nintendo Wii game, Motoheroz. During that time, I learned a lot about game design and did lot of concept art and menu design. I felt that my days with pixel art were over.
After my time at Redlynx, it was time to establish my own company, and Frogmind was born. Our first game, Badland, was a major hit. It won the Apple Design Award, along with many other acknowledgments, including two Bafta nominations.
With Badland, I essentially performed many of the same tasks in game design and art creation as I did at Redlynx, but this time, it was different: I had complete independence. This was also the first time I was responsible for the entire creative aspect of a game project, from the initial ideas to designing the levels, and finally creating the trailers and other marketing assets for the game. I understood that all these elements are interconnected; they are parts of the same creative process.
After Badland, we developed a sequel that essentially replicated the success of the first game. At that point, I felt the need to move forward, and my current company, Mureena, was born.
One day in August 2019, I was wasting my time on Reddit in r/indiegaming when I came across an interesting demo. It introduced a unique mechanic that I thought would be a perfect fit for a sci-fi game I was conceptualizing at the time. I contacted the developer, and he turned out to be Xiao-Fong Huang, a student from Taipei, Taiwan. We started talking, and one thing led to another, and the project Bionic Bay was born.
Xiao-Fong founded Psychoflow with his friend Kevin Lai, both of whom are programmers. My tasks remain exactly the same as before, as I am responsible for the creative side of Bionic Bay, including art, design, and marketing.
Delegating tasks is straightforward, as we all have very specific and separate areas of expertise. I create the art almost entirely on my own, and they handle the coding themselves. Our paths intersect when it comes to our in-house level editor. I use it to create the levels, and most of the time when we interact, it's related to the editor and its features. Now, four years later, we have developed an incredibly versatile level maker for a physics-based 2D game.
All the art is created using Photoshop CC. When I began to explore the art style for Bionic Bay, I made an early decision to experiment with pixel art. It was fascinating to see what kind of pixel art I could produce after so many years. It felt like most pixel art in games leans heavily on the past, which is not a bad thing, but I wanted to try something different. So, I decided to experiment with a technique I call 'painterly pixel art.' I hadn't created pixel art in almost a decade, and during that time, I had learned to paint digitally. Instead of trying to revert to my 2008 pixelated Spongebob Squarepants Kart days, I decided to combine my knowledge of digital painting with pixel art.
The initial tests were far from perfect, but they showed promise. It was a process of trial and error. How far could I push pixel art toward a more traditional painting style while still retaining its pixel art essence? I also conducted tests by blending realism with stylized pixel art, aiming to find a style that struck a balance between realism and stylization. Finally, I managed to create a concept where everything clicked.
One key idea was to have all physical objects rendered in pixel art, while elements like rays of light, shadows, smoke, particles, etc., would not be pixelated.
The ancient tree in the third test played a crucial role in defining this new approach to pixel art. It involved slightly smaller pixels than usual and a broader range of color tones. I knew that some might consider it borderline pixel art, pushing the boundaries of what defines pixel art. But isn't art about pushing boundaries and doing things differently? Whenever I have doubts, I ask myself these questions: "Is this beautiful? Does it fit within the overall design?" If the answers are yes, then who cares about definitions?
When creating assets in pixel art, I typically start with black and white. This approach allows me to focus solely on fundamental values, shapes, and design. Once the basics are in place, I proceed to add color to match the intended color tones. To achieve this, I use the gradient map tool in Photoshop, which provides a quick and effective way to find the right colors.
However, the final look of the game relies much more on the level editor than on Photoshop. In our in-house level editor, we have a wide range of tools to manipulate assets and the overall visual style. Each asset can be modified by adjusting or adding color tones. Additionally, we can utilize various blending modes to fine-tune the assets.
One of the most frequently used features is the ability to mask assets or make them behave as masks. While not groundbreaking as a feature, this has had a profound impact on the visual aesthetics of Bionic Bay. Essentially, it allows me to incorporate assets as shadows or lights within the environments, providing a constant variation of light and shadow in the levels. Although it might sound obvious, this approach has added a significant amount of personality and atmosphere to Bionic Bay. Playing around with light and shadow can also be a very effective method to highlight certain areas or objects. So it can be used to guide players in a subtle way. Shadows can also be used to smoothly combine different types of assets together.
Our level editor also offers a variety of global environmental effects, making it easy to change the atmosphere of the levels. These effects include color overlays with multiple blending modes, bloom, color gradients, and more.
The ultimate goal with these tools is to keep players consistently engaged. We aim for players to always feel immersed, surprised, and to never have the sensation of having seen this place before.
I've outlined the key moments in the story of Bionic Bay. It's not a story-heavy game, but our goal is still to tell an intriguing story. The place should have a history and a reason to exist. The robotic arm will play a crucial role in this. So I knew I'd need a big arm and I knew I'd only use it once in a crucial moment. So let's make it spectacular!
I simply started the process by taking a photograph from my own hand. I used it as a reference and designed the visual robotic look above that image in simple line art. This way I could purely focus on the mechanical design instead of the anatomy of a hand.
I had some visual inspirations for the hand like Travis Charest's Space Girl or the way Ian McQue draws his Mileships but the actual drawing was done rather quickly, in 10 minutes or so, and just straight from the head. After that, I scaled the lineart design to the intended scale for reference and started doing pixel art in Photoshop above it. I started with basic values and forms and lastly detailed the piece with leaks, dirt, and scratches. Each phase took significantly longer than others since I was working on such a tiny scale. Design is fast to do but detailing takes time. I did not clock it but I'd estimate it taking 50-60 hours.
I broke the hand into separate pieces and placed every part in a little bit different depth in the level. This really makes the hand feel like an actual three-dimensional object.
I try to be active on social media as much as I can. Most of the wishlists we have have come from popular posts on Reddit. It's by far the most effective place to get attention. However, Reddit has strict self-promo rules so it is not a convenient place to post regularly. I use Twitter a lot, but the traction there is nowhere near Reddit. Instagram is in a very bad state currently, but I'm starting to have some momentum on TikTok.
For the past year, I've been using all major social media platforms and analysing how they work and what kind of content most likely succeeds. Due to different types of algorithms, it's hard to get viral hits just by making good content. It's so much about understanding where to post, when to post, how to post, etc.
What I've learned is that you should do it a lot, analyze why something worked or did not work, and try again. Also, it's important to remember that just like making a game, making marketing is supposed to be creative. It's important to try weird stuff and not be too cautious about failing. Everything goes away so fast and no one will remember your bad posts. But a good post can have a significant impact.
Alongside social media, we have a Discord server for Bionic Bay. It's not huge yet but I try to participate there. Mostly I open up about the design process and share sketches, artwork, and videos from the game.
We don't have a release date yet. Bionic Bay has become a much bigger project than we first anticipated. We still have lots of pretty special features planned for the game. The next thing we are starting to implement is an Online Mode for the speedrunners and making the levels for the later section of the game. We are also making significant improvements to our main character. Visual look, physics, and animations getting a massive upgrade.
You can follow the project on my social media channels on Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram. Also, we have a Discord for more in-depth discussion.
Tips for Beginners
I started watching closely how the games in my childhood were made. Basically, I googled an image of Super Mario or Megaman and tried to pixelate them in the same way. The next step was to design unique characters the same way. Every now and then you start having these little moments where you do something differently. It means your personal style is starting to form.
One thing that I've done since the very beginning is to use two or three separate windows in Photoshop. The main window is where I paint which is on a zoom level of around 600%. Other ones I keep on 100% and 200% zoom level. This way I constantly have a clear understanding of the whole.
I've only used Photoshop when making pixel art so that is the only one I can truly recommend. But it's great software being so feature-heavy these days. You can really try so much different things with it.