Sunday, December 2, 2007

How to bootstrap your indie art needs

A goodly number of indie game developers are lured into by the free game graphics. Every few days an email pops into my inbox, "Hey, could you draw the graphics for my cool game design idea?"

I'm honored more than you can imagine when I get such a letter and they mean a lot to me. Unfortunately, I have my fingers in so many projects at the moment that squeezing in an additional graphics job wouldn't be doing anyone any favors. Still, it bothers me that talented people with amazing dreams can't make their games due to a lack of graphics.

Here's a run down of several techniques that help you get your game finished without being blocked by the graphics bottleneck.

Build a game that fits your level of art skills
The first path that you should go down is to build a game that fits your level of art skills. If you are a programmer and can only make squares, make a game that uses squares as graphics. It worked for Tetris and it can work for you.

At a functional level, graphics exist to provide feedback to the player, not to wow them with Hollywood-esque delights. Put those dreams of cinematic fantasms to the side and focus on the game mechanics, the interface and the level design. If you can nail all of these and you only have little ASCII art, people will still flock to your game.

Some successful games that designed the project around the developer's lack of traditional graphics skills include:
If they can do it, you can certainly finish your game without relying on an artist for graphics.

Use free graphics
The next step up is to use free graphics. There are thousands of game graphics out there on the web. Admittedly, they have problems:
  • They may not be the most attractive. "Dude, these free graphics are totally sucky compared to StarCraft."
  • They may not fit your exact mental vision. "No, the Xenli Sorcesses has four silver spikes on her bosom armor, not two. It is completely wrong!"
  • They may not be complete: "I really need a female knight and and they only supplied a male knight! The end is nigh!"
  • Other people might be using them in their games. "Argh, now my RPG looks just like the one done by that guy in Australia. *sigh* Now I will never be l33t."
My heartfelt recommendation is that you get over it. None of these is really a blocker. If you can build a game with limited art, you can certainly build a game with a few carefully chosen bits of free art. Here are some answers to common complaints.
  • You aren't Blizzard. That's okay. You can still make a fun game.
  • Design is about coming up with great solutions in the face of complex constraints. In order to design a great game, you will need to adapt your vision to reality a thousand times. Practice your problem solving skills by using free game graphics in the best way possible to get as close to your vision as possible.
  • If the set isn't complete, get creative! If you need two knight graphics, colorize one blue and one red. If you need a dragon boss, colorize one of your knights black and change the villain to be the Dark Knight. Even primitive graphics skills can triple the number of usable graphics if you show a little initiative.
  • You browse free game graphics archives, but your customers do not. Out of the thousands of people that play your game, only a small handful will recognize that you are using free graphics. The only ones who care are typically merely would-be game developers snobs. Ignore them. That is easy enough.
Here's an example of noted game developer Sean Cooper using my free tile graphics for his Flash game Boxhead. Sean has worked on Powermonger, Dungeon Keeper, Magic Carpet and Syndicate. It is instructive to observe how he uses free graphics to give his game a leg up.

Pay for competent graphics
If you absolutely must have quality custom graphics, you are going to need to pay an artist real money to produce them. There seems to be an odd opinion that that artists sit around all day doing nothing and whenever someone asks them for a painting, they scribble for a few moments and then non-nonchalantly hand over a masterpiece. Good art takes time and skill. Drawing a good tile set might take 20 or more hours. Drawing a simple background might take all day. If you aren't willing to pay for their very valuable time and effort, most competent artists will go work for someone who will.

Prices vary dramatically depending on the type of art, the quality of the art and the reputation of the artist. Expect to pay anywhere from $20 to $60 per hour. The best bet is to ask the artist what their standard rates might be. You can always negotiate, but remember if you squeeze the artist too much, you increase the chances that they will put your game on the back burner when a more appealing opportunity comes along. Negotiating for royalties is another option, but since 90% of the reason that games don't get finished is because the programmer flakes out, I would hope that most artists would be rather wary of this path.

There are numerous ways to bootstrap your art budget if you have your heart set on custom artwork.
  • Create art-free games to fund games with more polish. Release a version using free art. If it sells, reinvest the profits in creating the same exact game with better graphics.
  • Set aside a certain amount each month to pay for graphics. One fellow I know is setting aside 300 bucks a month to pay for game art. That will buy him about 2 days worth of a cheaper artist's output a month, but if he plans well enough and limits the amount of extravagant graphics in the game, this could be enough.
If you are looking for artist, you can find a reasonable collection of game artists for hire at these links. Just keep in mind that they all expect to be paid.

The one technique that doesn't work
The most common strategy I see used by would-be developers is the only one that doesn't work. They pray that they can find an amazing artist who will work for free on their game. If only they hang out on enough forums and email enough artists and beg loudly enough...a godly artist will drop from the sky and gift them with amazing artwork.

It generally doesn't happen this way. Good artists can generally find work that pays in cash. Most likely what will happen is that you'll make a deal with a starving student who immediately leaves you in a lurch as soon as something that lets them eat comes along. They aren't being mean. They are just hungry.

So the would-be game developer mopes about the message boards, complaining about artists leaving their projects and how artists constantly ask for real money. Yet despite the substancial energy that goes into these activities, I've yet to see prayer or complaining ship software.

The big lesson
Out of all this discussion about graphics, never lose sight of the big picture. The single most important thing is for you to finish your game. Iterating towards completion is the root of all practical knowledge about game development. Putting a complete game in the hands of player is how you'll learn to make your future games shake the world to its core.

If you are telling yourself "Oh, I can't complete my game because I don't have an artist," be honest with yourself. You are making excuses. Graphics are not an impediment to making a great game. Do what ever it takes to finish your game.
  • Design a game that doesn't need professional graphics.
  • Use free graphics when possible.
  • Set up a rational budget to purchase custom graphics from a professional artist if needed.
Best wishes,


  1. I was able to get my start working with a great company in Rafaela, Argentina, called Sismo Studio who helped me make an excellent, professional quality casual game for a budget of about 8k.

  2. Build a game that fits your level of art skills

    Probably the wisest advice one can receive. This way, you're putting chances on your side that you will actually finish your project.

    That's exactly what I had to accept. However, after some hours of searching around, I've been able to put up a good list of useful resources that will allow me to finish my project.

    You can view the list here:

  3. Thanks for the article. Quite inspiring - Yes, I CAN do the art myself if I pick the right project to work on.

  4. I think there is an expansion on one of them. For my CuteGod project, I realized that I needed to have a few more tiles that weren't provided by your (excellent) set of graphics. So, I pulled out Inkscape and tried to duplicate your style, expanded on what you did to fit my own needs.

    Without having something to work with, I don't think I could have figured it out, but it is sometimes easier to copy a style of graphics than it is to come up with something new.

  5. The comment about Dwarf Fortress is a bit wrong. The developers DO have traditional art skills (ok, they're not that great, but a lot of their games have art -- some are 3d!) but they chose to ignore art completely for DF. Subtle difference :)

  6. Great article. Here's another approach that works well for me. When I develop a game, and have a fairly good idea of the art I need, I'll use someone else's free or commercial artwork to prototype out the game mechanics, game play, and programming. Then, with a working prototype in hand, it's easier to hire an artist who can look at what you've done and come up with something suitable. In many cases, the artist is able to come up with higher quality artwork because he or she knows how the artwork will fit into the game thematically. For reference, I use Dundjinni tile mapping software to create the background tilesets for overhead RPGs, and then pay an artist later to redo all the graphics in a manner that appropriately fits the gameplay.

  7. "They pray that they can find an amazing artist who will work for free on their game. If only they hang out on enough forums and email enough artists and beg loudly enough...a godly artist will drop from the sky and gift them with amazing artwork."

    Actually, every ad I've posted searching for a talented artist to help complete my project included the statement that I'd be willing to pay for top quality work to someone who can follow instructions. Yet all I get are a bunch of clowns who can't do what they're asked when given concise instructions on what is needed/expected of them. It's usually, gee here's what I got, hope you're happy with it. Of course if you didn't follow the instructions given, how could you expect that of me? Or worse, you get some kid who decides to bail after the first payment is made because "I've got enough money now to afford those speakers I wuz after so catch you later.."

    Quite frankly, I've had enough of people who can't follow simple instructions. That's why my site is still in Beta at

    One of these days someone that knows what they're doing will get the job done without a bunch of lame excuses.

  8. Good article, thanks! For decades I've dreamed of writing "pretty" games, but I've either just written engines (i.e. no graphics) that satisfy my intellectual curiosity, or I haven't bothered with it at all because of the graphics hump.

    For the next time I get some round tuits in stock, I now have the idea in my brain to use pre-existing free art. Cheers!

  9. Wonderful article. I think it falls into the broader scope of "design to your team", something that most students miss -- in other words, if you only have one programmer, you're not making the next World of Warcraft no matter how much design work you put into it.

    I'd add "Kingdom of Loathing" to your list of games -- it's an online multiplayer game where all the art is (intentionally badly drawn) stick figures, yet it's quite popular.

    Another thing to remember is that public-domain artwork doesn't have to be limited to tile sets. There's a physical card game called "Mystick" that looks something like a CCG, but all of the artwork on the cards is taken from Renaissance artwork, and a backstory was chosen to justify the fact that, um, the art was free.

    You could also take a digital camera if you have one, and just go out and snap photos of random things -- instant background art! For a less photorealistic look, mess with the camera settings so that it's intentionally out of focus or has the "wrong" lighting, so that it's no longer entirely clear what you're taking a picture of.

    All that said, most of the students I deal with are art students, so lack of art isn't a problem so much as lack of programmers. Any tips on how to make a computer game without programming? :)
    (My advice to this point is either to make a physical boardgame instead of anything on computer, or to take a moddable game like Unreal and make new art and new levels without touching the programming...)


    Nothing wow'd us like the incredible graphics of PONG!

  11. Is the featured image from an existing or upcoming game? Is it your creation? I love it and I want to see more! Please let me know.

  12. The interior RPG tiles shown above are from one of the sets of free game graphics that I have available for download.

  13. I'm glad I could help inspire one of your articles =P Good info in the post as well as some good resources in the comments so far. It will likely end up that I will be forced to pay lots of money to get the graphics I want, but until I get to that point I'll continue looking at some of the alternative options listed here.

  14. Excellent article. It goes to show that you don't need to be an "expert" at everything to get something done.

    The less you have the more creative you are, which is a help to those who aren't graphically able.


    Thanks to V, the #1 Pick Up Artist, for helping me live a better life. Thanks V.

  15. man,
    the art you used to illustrate the top of this post is just amazing!

  16. I slap together my own programmer art at the start of a project. My current background art is vertical stripes (all at random angles, which an artist friend told me looks better) in pastel colours. Honestly, they don't look half bad. I at least have something in the background, I have a colour scheme to work with, and it'll be easy to replace the file with final art without changing anything else.

  17. Thanks for another great post. Your posts always inspire some new ideas.

    Do any of you have any favorite game graphic sites (that you're willing to share)? (Aside from this site's "free game graphics" label?)

  18. They need to stick level requirements on art items.

    "You cannot equip this art into a game at your current level. Go back and grind ascii for a while."

    Then maybe wannabe game designers will realise they need to level up a bit before they can make WoW.

  19. "Build a game that fits your level of art skills"

    Bad advice. You could have said, "Build a game that fits your level
    of music skills" or "Build a game that fits your level of sound
    skills" or "Build a game that fits your level of programming skills".

    Good games are not based on art or music. They are based on good game

    You think I'm wrong? Consider Minesweeper. It has contributed to the
    most waste of time since the birth control pill. Why? Because it is
    a good casual game: you can play whenever you want; you can suspend
    it whenever you want; and you can ignored failures.

    What makes a good game consist of three phases. Games for younger
    folks may have one or two, but adults prefer three phases. Games
    with more are considered tedious.

    For example, consider Chess. During the first phase, you establish
    board position. During the second phase, you trade your position,
    through attrition, for a superior force. During the third phase, you
    use your superior force to control, corner, and defeat your opponent.

    Another example, Monopoly. During the first phase you run around the
    board acquiring assets. During the second phase, you trade these
    assets for positions of power. During the third phase, you use your
    power to put off, as long as possible, the bankruptcy that everyone is

    Sadly to say, but great graphics do not make a great game. Great
    games make great games. Great graphics can only enhance great games.
    :( (As can great music or great sounds.)

    And I haven't even started talking about emotional content! :)

  20. Another tile resource you may consider using is David Gervais' tiles. You'll probably have seen these in many Angband variants out there.

    You can download these from which is a site devoted to getting these tiles working in Tales of Middle Earth (An Angband variant).

    David requires that you contact him to let him know you're using his tiles, and that you provide attribution. However, he's made the working set available for the tiles, so it is possible to extend them if you need to.

  21. Hi Danc,

    Quick question...are your free game graphics limited to use for your game competitions? I was hoping to use some of your Cute series of free game graphics for a little project I'm building, which I plan to enter into Dream Build Play 2.0. Please let me know if I can use your graphics.


  22. Hi Danc.

    Really nice article, and very helpful. As for myself, I'm developing my first game and I though just like this, on the begining "I won't waste time on graphics until my game is working fine". So I took some graphics from the web and got things rolling.

    @Ian: "Any tips on how to make a computer game without programming?" I would go for Game Maker or RPG maker. They can really help you put your graphics together and get a game experience without much effort.

    -Alvaro Cavalcanti.

  23. Excellent article. About a year ago, I was at I3D 2007 and saw a talk by Andrew Glassner. He was making a point very similar to yours: If you want your game universe to be consistent and immersive, then no element (sound, gfx, animation) should be better than the worst one. Ie. if you are bad at animation, then do equaly bad graphics, so that it will be consistent. At first it seems a strange idea, but looking at games around, I think this is very true. I mean, in research we spend a lot of time developping very complex lighting effects, but in the end we too often show them on badly modeled objects. And it does not make a convincing realistic scene ;-)

    Anyway, great article. I have been facing this problem of having game ideas and code but poor graphics so many times... I tried to go around by using simple shapes and good shaders (jalweg), by buying models (ragsmash). Once I got lucky enough to have a friend make cool graphics :-) (etees).

    I really enjoy your idea of giving graphics away and see what games people can make from them. I'll give it a try with CuteGod I think!

  24. Could you draw some kewl graphics for me? =)

    (Sorry, couldn't help it)

    Instead, I will just offer you a compliment. The SpaceCrack graphics are quite nice!

  25. Wow, I must have lucked out then.

    I frequented message boards, made a few artist friends, and one starving student worked on the graphics for my Grammar Ninja flash game. Admittedly the art workload was light and only took 4 or 5 hours. I actually spent more time with the sound designer getting the sound effects right as well as a custom theme song. He was so generous!


  26. Yeah good article. Expands upon the art points I raised in this post about overcoming game development obstacles:

  27. In fact it IS possible to get some great artist to do free art...

    I made a deal with several of them, they do great art, and they are free to use it on their portifolio, also they were free to leave the project if they found someone willing to pay for their work...

    In fact it worked, I got some great art, altough it was nowhere complete, since all those great artists as they started doing great art for my game they also started to get more known, and ended being hired...

    But I do not complain :)

  28. Hey,
    Thanks for that great article!
    I might be a little late to this party, but I wanted to let you know about yet another way to get art for a game project. You see, I am one of those programmers who could not draw a tree if my life depended on it... Yet I always got unique graphics for every concept-game I played around with.
    The trick is to approach art creation keeping in mind that
    1) you cannot do it the traditional way and
    2) you are a programmer.

    So just go ahead and create your art with software-support and a little out-of-the-box-thinking.

    You need a space setting? -- Scrolling a few white and fewer colorful dots in the background goes a long way towards replacing drawn background art.

    Textures? -- Use some genetic algorithms to provide them! Take a look at free software like evolvotron to see what I mean. Not fond of abstract ones? -- Most graphic software packages (gimp as a free and capable example) allow scripting of texture filters!

    Animations? -- Here it gets tricky, but some hints are: Try to limit traditional, drawn animation. Rather get your game engine to rotate and zoom parts of your sprites to achieve some movement in a static scene. Add some lights and shadows... Particle effects especially help a lot. Parallax scrolling is a wonderful tool as well.

    Sprites? -- If you really, positively need new sprites, here are some hints beyond what is said in the article: Try using machines wherever possible: A tank is so much easier to animate than a soldier! Again, make your engine do the dirty work: Nobody says your main character has to consist of one sprite only... make it a group and zoom/rotate/light up/whatever parts of it.

    More Sprites? -- If you cannot draw but program, chances are that you will do better modeling your graphics than painting them. Use blender(again, free software) or similar to construct them like you would in a CAD application. No free-form painting and scary empty paper, just a good old reliable 3d mesh.

    Music -- A little more tricky, but there are ways to get nice tunes into your game as well:
    Look for CC-licensed music. A lot of great bands put their stuff on the web free for use as long as you mention that it is theirs. Contact them! You might be in a win-win situation where the band can get some exposure through your game and you might get a custom soundtrack made.
    Or: Program this part as well. Take a look at Kobo deluxe: The soundtrack is completely scripted! No cheap midi, either.

    Also, if you decide to go open source with your game, (and it is halfway descend) you might be surprised by a helping hand... do not count on it, but it might happen and it did happen before. If you can gather a small community around your game, someone is bound to be able to help out.
    Let's be very honest here: If you are reading this, chances of making a profit out of your game a very very slim. (Do not forget to calculate the hours of work that go into your game, even when it is "fun" for you). Free your game under a permissive license and profit from that. Use the source, Luke!


  29. Another late to the party,
    apparently now in flash game development worlds, artists spawn in wish to join game development. Most of them are cheap and don't mind of percentage based income, though that also means theirs skill are limited.

    One of site that dedicated for this is .

    I consider myself more towards an artist than game programmer though I try to make my own games. Though it is tempting to see upfront money offered from developers, I prefer to work on projects I like.

  30. I am an artist, and I would just like to say thank you. You seem to have a lot of experience working with artists and are very sensitive to how we work (and the fact that we need to eat, too!) Your article was a great read!

  31. I'm following a kinda different strategy. I'm coding my game using an art pack I bought for $15 USD from here

    Then I'm simply coding the entire game based on it, changing some colors where I need different stuff and all. Once I get the whole thing ready for beta, or at least in some kind of very-near-beta stage, THEN I'll start looking for an artist keen to negotiate for royalties.

    Well, at least I think it's a good idea...

  32. I'd like to point out something you left out, aimed toward programmers, this one would have really saved me a lot of headache had I figured it out sooner.

    Procedural noise functions, they come in several flavors but the two most significant will be fractal types and perlin noise. Not only can you generate textures and normal maps with them, but you can also model a lot plant life, complex terrain including cave networks that run under them, realistic rain/snow patterns, clouds that change shape as they move, really there is no end to what you can do with them if you just get down and dirty and experiment with the stuff.

    What's really awesome about noise functions is that it requires you to store very little on disk. Especially for things like textures, can just plop the noise function into a pixel shader and load that from disk instead, massive savings on disk space over storing an entire image.

  33. Greeeeat article. All the tips I needed.

    I was fighting with the tools I had in hand because they were not comparable to.. well.. zinga, for example.

    You see, not only I am using free graphics, they were made as alternative design for a GPL game I am porting using an application builder.

    So in the end I am not the programmer, designer nor even idealized the game - but since the original game is totally unknown and looks so much like some addictive facebook games, I am spending quite a few weeks on porting it.

    I do miss owning at least the idea for the game, so with a free tool to do the programming, here I am looking for new graphics for a second - more original game.
    If I can be creative enough to use those powerful resources I have already, maybe I'll be able to hire my third game from a small company - and then deal with the new budget and time limitations.

  34. However, don't let the art problem choke your game development. You can draw stick figures and sketchy houses, scan and export them as your assets. When you found an art solution, draw over them.

  35. I just found this post, I hope is not lost and forgotten.

    I'm also a programmer with a negative drawing skill. My projects also tend to bottleneck with the graphic problem. But anyway, my point here is another...
    Why is it so hard to find a graphic designer, as opposed to a programmer? Why is a piece of code different to an sprite? If I wanted to add another ten programmers to my team, I would find them by the end of the week; I doubt I could get a single artist by the end of the month.
    I can find AI, physics, 3D, 2D, sound, you name it, libraries, OPEN libraries. There are very, very few open graphic stocks.
    So, to sum up, why is programming different to drawing?

  36. Wow. Thank you. You have just helped me get back up and trudge on. I am now going to (continue trying to) make a game. Thank you, Danc. I hope you will not be offended when I ask my God to bless you.

  37. What about art packs that you can purchase? Like the ones listed at or You don't have to hire an artist, and you're limited by the assets you get, but you'd still end up with something looking closer to professional quality, no?

  38. When I look at these interfaces, it brings me back to the original 16 or 32 bit, 'Legend of Zelda'.

    Brian Weck

  39. Nice article, I´m a programmer, not a designer. But, i can make a fun game :)

  40. Nice article. Thanks a lot for opening our eyes :) I've been a programmer. I do make a lot of complaints that "I'm a programmer, I need an artist to work on my game." I learned one thing. Game is about fun and not about graphics. I better get started right away.. :)