Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

16 July, 2006

The programmer talks about art
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 4:58 PM

Yeah, let me ramble on about art. I know, I’m a programmer by training so I shouldn’t really talk about art, right? Well, I’m also a designer, so I have to know something about art in order to do a proper design. And, much of game programming is about putting that art on the screen. Although, true, most of my work tends to be implementing gameplay from the designs I wrote. Anyway, I’m still going to talk about art.

This post was inspired by Dan Cook, aka Danc, over at his blog Lost Garden. He does project management these days, but back in the day he was a game developer. He did some art, and you can see an example of his beautiful work in a recent post of his. Danc has a lovely tendency to provide artwork that he has for free to people wanting to develop games, so you can use that beautiful artwork in your own game.

However, in one of one of his more recent posts, he talks about how pixel art’s time has come and gone. He argues that the art was created to fulfill the needs to be fast and cheap to get older games in front of 12-year-olds. The subtext here is that people pining for the old days of pixel art are perhaps a bit silly. He goes on to argue that the cutting edge attitudes can be found in the people playing around with new 3D art and working on pixel shaders. The world of pixel art is dead as technology moved on and gave us something better.

Loyal readers will know that if I’m posting about something, it’s probably to disagree with it. Well, you’re right. :P I’m getting predictable in my old age.

Why should we not count pixel art as completely dead?

First of all, not all platforms are modern consoles. Downloadable games are a growing segment of the market, and download size makes a difference. Especially for those holdouts still on dialup modems. Sure, more people are getting broadband, but for some people this isn’t an option. If I can reduce my art size considerably (and going from lush 24-bit sprites to more modest 8-bit sprites can help), then I can reduce the download size and perhaps more people will download and try my game. Going fully 3D requires larger assets in most cases. And, the same techniques that let you make and show beautiful games on a 386 are the same techniques that let you make a game to fit on a mid-range mobile phone. And, have you played 3D games in Flash? They’re usually sad, sad affairs. Give me a great little 2D game rather than a 3D game that runs like garbage. Contrary to what some people think, there are still some really great 2D games out there.

Next, retro always makes a comeback. You already see some people deeply involved with emulated games, and people that play them. People born in the 70′s grew up playing pixel games, and many are starting to find that the newer games just don’t hold the same allure. Sure, the teenagers of today scoff at the “ugly” 2D game, but eventually that makes a comeback. Consider the brief resurgence of WW2 nostalgia around the time of Saving Private Ryan. I don’t think it was young people asking for those movies to be made.

In addition, 3D graphics aren’t a cure-all. In EverQuest 2, having detailed 3D graphics doesn’t help me much if I drop to 10 seconds per frame in a busy area. If I have to turn all my graphics settings to the minimum just to move around, then the luscious graphics do nothing for me. This is especially sad considering that I’m not playing on a sissy computer: it was pretty cutting-edge around the time the game was launched. If I have to play the game in a mode that makes the original EQ look pretty, then I haven’t really gained much from the advance of 3D graphics.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, 2D art is more iconic. While there’s something to be said for lush, detailed 3D graphics, it is very specific. Any good artist knows that the more iconic art can involve the viewer more. I have to supply a bit of the personality to that “mess of pixels” on the screen representing the hero. Whereas the modern games all have very distinct characters that you control, because they have to be very detailed to fit in with the rest of the game. The focus has always been on making 3D graphics more photorealistic and less iconic. The exceptions to this are notable, but mostly prove this rule: World of Warcraft has used a much more “cartoony” style, but the hard-core players count this as a negative. Interestingly enough, I think this style helps people identify with the characters a bit more, as well as preventing the graphics from appearing too aged too quickly. For a more in-depth discussion of iconic vs. realistic images and what they mean, see the wonderful book Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud.

One of the big problems here is what I’ve described before: the large game developers focus almost entirely on newer games and have spent considerable time and effort to convince people that old games are bad. They make more money if you make the most recent games (Really Big Explosions IV for $60) rather than older games (Really Big Explosions I-III, in the bargain bin for $20 for all 3). So, the spend a lot of marketing getting you interested in the newer games and not so interested in the older ones. In particular, Sony focused a considerable amount of marketing convincing people that 2D sucked and that 3D was awesome primarily because the original Playstation was able to do 3D graphics better than the competitors. Sony caused their competitors to rush ill-fated 3D systems to market. The view of 2D games being “outdated” is one of the remnants of that particular console battle.

In the end, I think pixel art isn’t quite dead yet. Perhaps this is the old-school gamer in me that refuses to let go of the past, but I think there’s more than one of me out there. Perhaps even enough of a market to make new games aimed at that market.

What do you think? Do you agree that pixel art has a place in game development, or are you just wrong? ;)


  1. Bartoneus: I focused on what Danc wrote in his post. He seemed to be a bit down on pixel art. Yes, some of the comments came to the defense, but that wasn’t the focus of my discussion. :) I was disagreeing with Danc’s main point, that technology has “moved on” and that pixel art isn’t necessary anymore.

    I thought this was particularly ironic given that he posted some absolutely lovely pixel art tiles for a Zelda-type game in a previous post.

    My thoughts,

    Comment by Psychochild — 17 July, 2006 @ 4:51 AM

  2. Art Not Dead…

    Psychochild says pixel art isn’t dead and that 2D games are cool. That’s fine….

    Trackback by A Clockwork Mind — 17 July, 2006 @ 9:01 AM

  3. Psychochild: No need to defend yourself, as I began my post: I completely agree with everything you said. I just wanted to make sure that you caught the additional discussion that came in the comments. I certainly hope you are right and that there is some emmerging market for 2D games to make a come back of sorts.

    Chas also touches on some excellent points. There have been several parallel thoughts to these going around lately, such as Danc’s earlier post about the mathematic imagery and erotism, where the simple combination of curves and shapes can suggest something sexual. Also the e-mail that has circulated with the sentence where all of the letters in the words are scrambled, yet you can still skim throgh the paragraph and understand every word that is written. The human mind is a very powerful tool, and letting it fill in the details can not only save you time, money, and resources, but it can also result in a better end product. Psychochild’s example of World of Warcraft is dead on, the game style is what drew me to the game to begin with, because I could never stand the textures and environments of the original Everquest. I have always been much more partial to games that had cartoony styles like Final Fantasy VI, Chronotrigger, etc.

    Comment by Bartoneus — 17 July, 2006 @ 9:36 AM

  4. Chas wrote:
    [i]Some people have suggested that we’ve reached a plateau on "photorealistic" games- where the images are so close to "real" that the plastic nature of the characters become much more obvious…[/i]

    This is known as the Uncanny Valley.  The theory is that as you get closer to being "realistic", you notice little things that are not quite right.  It’s a conflict between your eyes saying, "This looks mostly human" and your brain saying, "But, it doesn’t move or look exactly human!"

    However, I’m sure that eventually we’ll conquer that last hurdle.  Early attempts at 3D look hideous.  Hell, just look at some of the early 3D games that went "mainstream" and you’ll see some very unappealing art: low polygons, low resolution textures, etc.  It’s almost painful to try to look at the original EverQuest, for example, as the primitive graphics are not very appealing.  But, people became convinced that 3D was the future and stuck with it.  I suspect that we’ll find a hard-core audience willing to buy games and suffer through the Uncanny Valley until we get to a level of good photorealistic graphics.

    My thoughts,

    Comment by Psychochild — 19 July, 2006 @ 7:19 PM

  5. A good example of these ideas being put to use is the recently popular trailer for Team Fortress 2. I believe it is running on the source engine, but it is entirely cell-shaded and should turn out to be a beautiful game to play and experience! The lack of realism allows the eye to fill in what is not there, and thus creates a more fluid and enjoyable perception of reality.

    If you haven’t watched the trailer yet, go do it!

    Comment by Bartoneus — 20 July, 2006 @ 6:05 AM

  6. Most significant reason why tons of very decent games are made in 2d: 3d is and always will require significant math skills, unless you’re making games from a kit (and hence, making clones of other people’s games).

    And if you’re required to make a game in 2d, well done pixel art does seem to me to be objectively more appealing than most other forms of visual art on a computer screen, for similar reasons as to why ‘bright saturated colors’ have inherent attraction compared to dull colors, to humans looking at them (assuming they’re applied with discretion). I honestly think they stumbled onto something that although accidentally discovered, is actually empirically, measurably more appealing to people.

    I did not “grow up” playing console videogames, but for some reason, pixelated graphics almost universally seem to be more appealing than other styles for 2d game art – and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that it’s animated.

    You can’t convincingly do ‘realistic’ animated 2d graphics in a videogame, because as soon as the lighting changes, it looks off. Back in the 90s, there were a lot of games that use pre-raytraced imagery of human beings, and it always, universally, looks stilted. You could make a game that appeared to look like a ‘realistic’ animated 2d game, such as a platformer, but the only way to get the lighting realistically correct, and to have enough fluidity in possible motions and tweening between positions, would be to make it an actual 3d engine doing the rendering of 2d gameplay, and we’re back to the same problem of 3d being too hard to do.

    Comment by Jetrel — 24 July, 2008 @ 3:14 PM

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