Posts Tagged ‘aesthetics’

Starfarer Ship Design


This is from a series of posts I’m writing to promote the space combat sandbox/rpg game Starfarer by Fractal Softworks.

Ahoy there! My name is David and I’m what passes for an artist around here. But enough about me; I’d like to talk a little about how the graphics of Starfarer come to be, starting with the Onslaught-class battleship which we have already featured from a standpoint of gameplay and game fiction. I’d like to show you my process of creating the visual design of the Onslaught from concept sketch to final sprite.

The Onslaught-class Battleship from concept to sprite:

Read the rest of this entry on the Starfarer blog

I don’t know what this is but I want to do the art for it


Painted these while daydreaming about tile-based games:

What is it, the world map of an RPG set in a post-apocalyptic world, a spiritual successor to Fallout? (The only Fallout.) Is it Armageddon Empires with charmingly re-interpreted graphics and non-awful UI?

(From a design and aesthetics standpoint, I admit  it’s actually a combination of the idea of Danc’s Miraculously Flexible Game Prototyping Tiles with a reaction to Arne’s art style, particularly how he draws terrain, as you can see in the Cortex Command campaign map.)

The Art of Neptune’s Pride


Sometimes one gets very busy and doesn’t have much time to write in one’s blog.

Then one can drink too much coffee and get the bright idea to write about other people’s work rather than one’s own. Let us to it.

I love the art for the alien species in the real-slow-time strategy game Neptune’s Pride by Iron Helment. The color and weirdness recalls the alien design of Star Control 2 and Ascendancy.

Did I mention the color? It’s just bright and bold and wonderful, the sense of design has a joyful weirdness to it. And it’s just so painterly. Very impressive.

[Image “borrowed” from the Neptune’s Pride review at Bene Factum.]

I’ll have to share more game art that I enjoy and find inspirational. (Makes good filler, if nothing else, hah!)

Update: The artwork above is done by Drew Whitmore.

Pixelcraft: The Colors of Frogatto


For quite some time I’ve been intending to write about pixel art technique. Today I stumbled on a pixel-art platformer game called Frogatto & Friends which has inspired me to get on this because I was struck by the game’s lovely art. (I haven’t actually played the game yet, though it is available for free on PC/Mac/Linux, and the code, but not the assets, is open source.)

So let’s see if I can explain what’s going on with the pixels of Guido Bos and Richard Kettering (who it seems also lead the art for Battle For Wesnoth; neat).

Use of Color

The artwork of Frogatto nicely demonstrates the intentional use of color (hue, in particular) to emphasize the depth of a scene. Warm colors pop out to the foreground while cooler colors recede to the background. I’ve pulled some of the color palettes out of a screenshot to show how this is operating:

Notice how much warmer the lighter colors are – the green and brown are pretty much the same shade of yellow at their lightest, while the stone’s gray takes on a noticeable brown tone at its highlights. On the other end, the green cools down even to the point of using a shade of blue while the stone goes toward a more neutral (and relatively cooler) gray.

The use of a blue tone in the tree is particularly interesting. It’s actually lighter than the mid-dark green but is so much cooler that it fits with the shadowy parts of the leaves – and the blue reflects the ambient, bluer light of the sky rather than the direct yellow sunlight — the use of color in the tree tells us a lot, very subtly, about the lighting in the environment.

As an experiment I replaced the original colors with “naive” color palettes that are simply light to dark gradients of a single hue with no change in ‘temperature’ or saturation.

The scene still works (ignore the yellowish leaves in the lower right), which is a testament to the skillful use of tone and shapes, but it’s flatter and less full of life than before.

  • In general, warm hues bring things forward, cool hues set things back. (Sometimes I like to play with inverting this rule to make a scene look weird.)
  • Ambiantly lit shadowy areas can be ‘lit’ with a color that offsets the primary lighting; Consider what color is coming from the rest of the environment, or what color the sky is.
  • Color can be used very subjectively. It doesn’t matter what exact color your color-picker displays, and it definitely doesn’t have to match the “naive” understanding of what color something is. What matters is how the color you use works in-context with the rest of the colors of the scene; Indeed, leaves can be blue.

[Yes, I’ve spoken out about how I don’t care for using small fixed palettes in pixel art. The upside of the practice is that it forces artists to be very conscious about their color choices, so from that perspective it promotes some artistic rigor and, on occasion, very creative use of color.]

And that’s that for now. This game has wonderfully rendered shapes – those pointy leaves and contrast between bulbous and cubic rocks – so it feels like there’s going to have to be another post on the art of Frogatto. Soon.

Against Pixel Art Formalism


Pixel art is for the pixels!

I don’t care for being formalistic about pixel art, of adhering to a limited palette or carefully anti-aliasing my lines by hand, of using all-or-nothing transparency (actually, I do the latter two more often than I’d like to admit). What matters is what I wish to do with the aesthetic of pixels – and what specifications I must meet for the graphics to work at all in the given platform. It is ridiculous to throw away perfectly good tools like brush effects, gradient tools, and overall image adjustments. Tedium is not artistically uplifting.

If the art is about pixels, it’s pixel art. It doesn’t matter how I make it.

I actually followed all the “rules” of pixel art to draw these. Oops. Then I used the adjust levels tool in Photoshop. Ha! I have overthrown the tyranny of aesthetic canon!

There! It’s not a manifesto unless you try to sound controversial in the first paragraph.


Two and a half perspectives on Game Design


(above, a concept sketch for one of many game designs I’ve been kicking around)

Mechanics Dynamics Aesthetics

First, the paper with the above title by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, Robert Zubek :

To quote two analogous flows from the paper:

Rules -> System -> “Fun”*

Mechanics -> Dynamics -> Aesthetics

Now I’m going to paraphrase and rough over a lot of what the authors surely intended, so read the (short) paper if you have a minute.

So:  Mechanics are the encoded rules of the world; the most basic units of interaction the player has with the world and the world has with itself. Dynamics are the system that arise from the interactions of the rules — (And how beautiful this is! It explains the interest I had in doing A-life stuff in art school).  From Dynamics and a little artistic nudging come the aesthetics of the game, the experience evoked. Simple, yeah?

I’ve played Super Mario World recently. To try this out:

  • Mechanics: The player can jumping, move; There is a world that constrains and moves in particular ways; There are enemies that remove abilities from the player or end the level that move by set rules and timings.
  • Dynamics: The Player jumps off the backs of a row of flying turtles to cross a pit, grabbing coins in the air along the way.
  • Aesthetics: The thrill of success, the fear of falling, the narrative righteousness of fighting the bad guys, exploring the world and finding novelty in new elements.

MDA provides a framework for thinking about game design. Interesting.

* Regarding the word fun, I’m a huge fan of the Tom Chick school of never using the word “fun” when seriously discussing games. (Apologies if I paraphrased his intend incorrectly – I’m just taking a sentiment he’s expressed and running with it). “Fun” is a rhetorical escape, a vague and generic desirable quality that avoids discussion of what exactly it is that is supposed to be fun. It implies that interest and enjoyment (in the broad sense) of media is only about a “fun” feel-good quality. Surely people can also enjoy media that makes them sad, angry, wistful, whatever; there are any number of emotions and aesthetics that a game could evoke from its audience that are not at all easily contained in the word “fun”.

The MDA paper does indeed expand upon what it means by “fun”, so don’t take the above as leveled at them.

A Game Is Not A Story

MDA reminded me of an interview (by Tom Chick, actually) of Andrew Mayer, a designer of “social games” (think: Facebook games). If I recall correctly, Andrew Mayer observed that when people find out he makes games for a living they come to him with their ideas for games — but what they have are not game ideas but story ideas.

Perhaps the naïve approach is to the start thinking from the endpoint of game design, about the high level aesthetic/narrative. “I want to make a game about a guy who does really cool stuff in a neat place!”. As a game design, this forgets an awful lot of low level design that lies beneath the high level narrative.

(And I would say that a lot of major games miss this as well — they really ought to be making something more than an occasionally interactive movie. Or maybe I expect too much; A lot of big-budget games nowadays are, when compared to old SNES games, just as simple and likely much more forgiving in terms of difficulty. Maybe I expect too much sophistication because of the monstrously sophisticated media production that goes into these games.  But this digression is getting huge; This deserves more thought elsewhere.)

This is not to say that  my personal approach to design doesn’t begin with a vague idea of the finished game I’d like to make, of course. The trick to being a game designer is perhaps seeing all the little moving parts within the game, under the story and characters and aesthetics.

(Tangentially again, I have to say that I have a strange time playing games nowadays: Everywhere in games I see and “read” designer intentions rather than the world-narrative of the game. I game the game, and it’s so much harder than it used to be to find myself completely enveloped in the game’s fiction.)

Restraint, Rigor, Rationale

From Fullbright, Steve Gaynor discusses The Three R’s [of game design], which I simply must go on to compare with MDA.

Restraint is the act of resisting the urge to throw in every idea you have simply because it sounds cool, awesome, or hilarious.

Rigor is applied through the act of objectively and deeply considering the practical implications of an idea.  …Your job is to attack your design idea from all directions– technical and gameplay systems in equal measure– and find the holes in it before moving forward.

If Restraint questions the “what” of your idea, and Rigor questions the “how,” then Rationale questions the “why.” Does this idea fit into the broader experience– the identity of the gameworld, the conceits of the fiction?

Though the Three R’s post is worded in a more, um, imperative manner than MDA, it proposes a roughly analogous model of game design. Yeah, Mechanics and Dynamics are not distinguished, but Rationale fits with the notion of Aesthetics and further demands that the Mechanics and Dynamics (“ideas”) of a game support its Aesthetics.

And at that, Restraint and Rigor are fundamentally useful values to hold for creating elegant, efficient design — and a design, at that, which will ever be completed. (–Because, as those of us who’ve worked on making games know, games are intensely complex beasts that can grow in on themselves and out on new features forever if you don’t draw a line somewhere).

* * *

I think it will be fascinating to discuss Dungeons of Dredmor in terms of all the above, because wow, if one learns from mistakes then I’m learning a hell of a lot through making Dredmor. We’re kinda in the midst of pushing to beta so things are crazy. And the desire to ship is such that I think desire to ship a playable game is overcoming creative preciousness. But more on this another time.




If infernopunk isn’t yet the name of a genre of works inspired somehow by Dante’s Inferno (or, more generally, the medieval conception of hell), …  it should be.  And because someone is going to ask, perhaps the punk implies some kind of post/modern rather than medieval sensibility in approaching the subject and themes surrounding hell. Done.

What are some examples of infernopunk [in video games]? The big one: Id’s Doom.  But the latest I’ve been paying a little attention to in the indie game world is Vic Davis’ Solium Infernum. Outside of video games, there are all kinds of movies and comic books — Hellboy? — , and literature: I think of the Niven/Pournell novel Inferno or Blish’s Black Easter, though I think both of those stick to what is fundamentally a medieval hell upsetting modern sensibilities (which is itself perhaps postmodern?).

Or here’s an angle: Look at what made Blizzard North’s Diablo, the first one in the series, but not Diablo 2 so much — I’d contend that perhaps the difference between the two is that the former is somehow much more infernopunk than the latter (which is a subject fit for its own post). Or, in counterpoint, does Diablo play inferno straight and therefore not count as punk?

… This all came to me this morning reading an infernopunk game idea by some fellow on the GameDev forums and I couldn’t believe that infernopunk didn’t show up on Google. So I had to say it first.

[Image from “Hell“, a painting by Bosch ]