This is a question I hear a lot on social media from aspiring game developers and programmers – getting the game to work well in a technical sense is one thing, but how do you actually make it attractive?
As much as we might wish it weren’t the case, visuals sell games. Apart from a few outliers such as Dwarf Fortress and Minecraft (which we might say are popular despite their limited graphics), almost all successful games have a fair amount of aesthetic polish.
This might be a daunting problem for somebody who feels that art isn’t their forté, but the good news is that you do have several options open to you. In this post, we’ll cover ways you might be able to get around a lack of artistic skill and also offer some ideas for quick and easy ways to make any game look a bit nicer.
Do you need fancy graphics?
Whereas many platformers typically start out as basic collision rectangles in the prototype stages and are later prettied up with the addition of nice character art and backgrounds, Mike Bithell’s 2012 game Thomas Was Alone embraces its no-frills geometric protagonists and finds other ways to make them appealing (some of which are entirely non-visual, such as the thoughtful voiceover narration delivered by Danny Wallace that suffuses the assorted coloured rectangles with distinct characters and personalities).
I don’t want to give the wrong impression – you probably can’t make a game out of coloured squares and tell everyone it’s the next Skyrim. The point I do want to make, however, is that some projects may not need super-shiny graphics, and that by finding a creative way to embrace your “programmer art” you might be able to make something that has its own distinctive and weird visual appeal.
Here’s another example – this is a game called West Of Loathing:
To be clear, I think the naive stickman graphical style is likely be a deliberate choice by skilled artists rather than the product of people who can’t draw properly. Nevertheless, it serves as a good example of making a virtue of an unconventional and unrefined art style.
Another thing to consider is basing the theme of your game around something that doesn’t require too much graphical skill in the first place. Do you know what cars, ghosts and fish all have in common? The answer is that you don’t have to animate walk cycles for them!
Okay, so we’ve covered a few ways to dodge having to do fancy graphics. But what do you do if your game definitely needs to look nicer, and you don’t know anything about art? Here’s some pointers.
Quick tips for improving any’s game graphics
My first tip is to learn a little bit of colour theory. Complementary colours are those which are directly opposite each other on an artist’s colour wheel, and when these colours are paired together they create an arresting “colour pop.” Let’s take a basic platformer screen with placeholder art:
Now let’s simply put a few colour glows and shaders on it, and suddenly it looks a lot more interesting – even though we haven’t actually changed the sprites at all. Add a few particles and stuff and suddenly our crude platformer is a good deal more interesting to look at.
Textures, too, are a great way to make things seem more interesting. What about if our platformer looked like this?
Next, let’s add a vignette. Vignetting is a photography term and refers to the darkened, unclear areas you can get around the outsides of a photograph (sometimes an accidental effect of improper camera use, but often a deliberate style utilised to frame the centre of an image).
It doesn’t take any artistic skill at all to slap a stock vignette with an alpha channel over your game’s graphics, but it can really help make things seem more attractive:
This is starting to look a bit more interesting as a screenshot now, but it probably won’t be very exciting in motion. Happily, even if you don’t know anything about animation you can give your game a lot of movement and life by doing some simple tweaks, tweens and transforms programmatically – for example:
- Falling rain and particles can be moved across the screen with some simple code
- Characters can be made to appear to be “breathing” by gently automating small transforms (growing and shrinking, expanding and contracting, etc)
- Squash and stretch principles can be easily done via code for platformers, so that the player character stretches upwards when jumping (as seen in Thomas Was Alone) or squashes down on landing
- Menu items can slide on and off screen as needed
- You can make plants seem to sway by simply changing the angle of their sprite to and fro
…and so on. One principle I try to use in my own games is to never have the player standing on a screen where nothing is moving – I never want it to feel as though they are standing in a static JPEG. Little details like those mentioned above can help your game world really come to life and seem appealing, and none of them really require you to have any knowledge of art techniques.
If all else fails…
If you simply don’t have the art chops necessary to make your game look the way it needs to – and cheapo art hacks aren’t going to save you – then there may be nothing for it than to get some help.
Option one might be to look for some premade assets, either free or paid (or you could make your own out of freely available materials). For example, you could chop up royalty-free stock images and make a photomontage game with assets of trees, rocks and so on adapted from images you found online. I know of at least one game development team that has used stock photographs of animals and run them through paint filters to generate art assets for their iOS game, Fox Solitaire.
On the other hand, it may not be too hard to find an artist to help you, especially if you have a near-complete game and the artist can see all of the temporary assets that will need replacing. Sometimes you can even find help for free – I’m not advocating exploiting a young artist who deserves to be paid (I’m an artist myself, and that kind of thing isn’t cool), but sometimes you can find people who are happy to draw things for you just for the fun of it.
Just don’t ask for too much; sometimes people can get prickly about being asked to do months and months of hard work for free!
Or… you could git gud
I’ve phrased this section’s header somewhat flippantly, and this might seem condescending coming from a trained artist, but it isn’t meant that way. It’s something of a stereotype that art and design can seem like mysteriously closed books to programmers and technical people, and I’ve met plenty of technical people who believed that about themselves, too.
I’m here to tell you, though, that art has a lot of straightforward rules and techniques you can learn which will improve the quality of your visuals. The rule of thirds, colour theory, composition, the golden ratio, leading lines, symmetry, principles of light and shadow, and many other concepts will, when mastered, help even a “non-artist” make something that looks pretty good.
Not convinced that your inexperienced hands can produce graphics that will do the job? Toby Fox drew the majority of the graphics for Undertale in MS Paint; Eric “ConcernedApe” Barone worked on Stardew Valley for five years and learned how to do the pixel art as he went along; and Markus “Notch” Persson picked a crude pixel style for Minecraft as he thought it would be the simplest thing for him to do. None of these people would have described themselves as accomplished artists when they started their projects – and yet I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that these games were enormously, stupidly, millions-of-dollars successful and completely unhampered by their lack of “professional” gloss and polish.
In the end, the takeaway is that if you can learn how to code a game, you can learn how to make it look good enough to get by – I guarantee it.
What are your thoughts on this subject? Do you know of any more tips, art hacks or other approaches than can help a non-artist gloss up their work? Please put them in the comments for everyone to see!