Adding the Art

My first 3D game programming experience was with a language called DarkBASIC. For those of you who know it, I don’t have to explain why my Grade 9 Comp. Sci. teacher at the time told me to drop that language like a bag of hammers. He also said to man up and start using C++. (Okay, I’m paraphrasing a bit, but he felt quite strongly on the subject. I’m grateful he did, though — moving to OpenGL was really the better option and I quickly learned why.)

DarkBASIC came with a fairly decent set of models, music, textures, and sound effects, meaning I didn’t have to make my own. Soon, however, I found myself needing resources that weren’t included. I started building my own 3D models, textures, and sounds. I enjoyed it, and took pride in my work even if it looked less than polished.

I really hate the term “programmer art”. It comes from the days long ago when programmers were also responsible for a game’s art [1]. Don’t ask me why I don’t like that term, because I’m not entirely sure: I suspect I’m just being overly defensive. Before even seeing my game, when people ask me, “Are you using programmer art?”, I think they’re making an inaccurate assumption regarding the goal of my work. Maybe it even places emphasis on the wrong aspects of gameplay. Or maybe they’re just curious and I’m being oversensitive. Of course, this is just a hobby for me. If I was really serious about my game art, I’d hire someone to do it for me. Or make some artist friends.

When showing off a video game, friends and family would ask me, “Wow, did you make that?” and I quickly learned that I hated saying things like, “Yes, except for the trees and the music and the gun and the sound effects.” Chances are that these fancy assets were the most impressive parts, and not having a game that wasn’t entirely mine was somewhat disheartening. Maybe it was a pride thing, but I wanted to develop every single byte of my game on my own. (Within reason, of course: this obviously doesn’t include things like writing my own graphics library. Imagine that. “OpenGN”.)

(I should mention that the real world isn’t like this. Everyone is expected to collaborate. Rarely is one person solely responsible for the development of an entire project. Almost no one hires a genius and stuffs him into a closet with a laptop and slides pizza under the door.)

In Gateway, I’m developing all of the graphics myself and I’m sure that it shows. The thing is, I don’t really care so much about making it look spectacularly professional. Even with programmer art, “spectacular” is within the realm of possibility. It’s how you use that art that is important. When developing Gateway, I wanted gamers to be thinking about the massive scale of the space battles and the sense of immersion. Who cares what the half-kilometer battle cruisers look like when there’s twenty of them bearing down on your space station, plus a hundred one-man fighters?

It’s important to realize that extremely low-detail game assets don’t made a game less enjoyable — we’ve all unplugged the XBox or PS4 from the TV to make room for the SNES before. The level of graphics on those games don’t make them any less fun to play. (Yes, I realize that the art was developed by professionals, and generally looks polished even if the level of detail is low.) I acknowledge the difference between low fidelity and low artistic quality, but for the same reason that one can enjoy a game with a less-than-mouth-watering graphics experience, one can enjoy a game with programmer art.

Unfortunately, I’m not a jack-of-all-trades. (Or is that “fortunately”? I’ve never understood if this was a good thing or a bad thing.) You might be able to build your own 3D models and textures, but no matter how versatile your voice and acting abilities might be, you can’t voice all of the characters in your game. Undoubtedly, you’ll require some extra people to help you out. This is actually my current dilemma: there’s not much dialogue in Gateway, but there’s enough that I require about 4-5 actors, and I have no idea where to get them from. I’ll let you know when I figure this out.

The other issue is music. Piano lessons that I’ve quit taking more than 15 years ago do not make me a composer. Recently, I’ve become interested in purchasing the rights to some royalty-free music that fits the style of the game.

Finally, the point of this post: if you really suck at art, don’t despair. There are plenty of insanely fun games whose level of detail are very low. There are also 2D and 3D resources available online, for free or for a price depending on where you go. If you want to model everything yourself but don’t have the skills, acquire them…or adjust the style of game to fit. If home-made high quality art isn’t your thing, then tone it down to something you can do reasonably well. Remember: no amount of bleeding-edge graphics can make up for poor gameplay. Some of my all-time favourite, most immersive games I’ve ever played may have been short on graphics, but were long on fun in a way that had nothing to do with art.


[1] Rogers, S. (2010). Welcome, N00bs! In Level up! the guide to great video game design (p. 13). Chichester: Wiley.

One response to “Adding the Art

  1. Pingback: Some Case Studies | Single-Handed Game Dev

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s