Sunday, December 2, 2007

How to bootstrap your indie art needs


A goodly number of indie game developers are lured into Lostgarden.com 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,
Danc.