Game Artwork: Choosing the Perfect Style for You

Indie and student developers should recognize that artwork is a component of their games, whether they like it or not, and make clear decisions about what they want their art to say. So what does your game's artwork say? [From]

This post originally came from  Visit for more articles, resources, and intelligent analysis of indie and student game development.

Photo: Mr. T in DC

"Don't judge a book by its cover" is a phrase that many people are familiar with.  The point is that the essence of a book has nothing to do with the cover.  The experience of a book is spend between the pages, reading and enjoying the story, not by staring at the cover.  If you skip on a book because it has a blank or boring cover, then you are selling youself short.  Don't judge by the cover, the phrase goes, because you will miss out on what's really important inside.

But of course, people do judge books by their cover.  You know this, I know this, and authors and book publishers certainly know this.  That's why you'll never find blank book covers on the shelf of the best sellers - because a catch cover draws attention and will get people to read it.  Even though it's not what people are ultimately looking at when they read the book, it affects their experience.

Games are similar to books in this fashion.  A game is made of many components within the Game Design Canvas.  The ones that the player often spends the most time thinking about, processing, and experiencing are the Base Mechanics - what the player actually does.  Other components, such as the Aesthetic Layout, are integral to the game, but may not be integral to the gameplay. So in the same way, many good games, from a Base Mechanics standpoint, get passed over because of their poorly designed Aesthetic Layout.  The game artwork is shoddy, there are uninspiring backgrounds, or the music and sounds are generic and dull.  And sadly, people do judge books by their cover.  Good games with fresh, fun gameplay get ignored because they don't have the look and feel of their peers.  Especially in independent and student games that many of the readers on this site work on, a large amount of games don't get the chance they deserve because of their artwork.

This article isn't about the importance of gameplay versus graphics -- that debate rages on and is, I believe, largely pointless.  Instead, smart developers should recognize that artwork is a component of their games, whether they like it or not, and make clear decisions about what they want their art to say about their title. So what does your game's artwork say?

Seeing is Believing

Most indie developers sadly don't put much thought into their game artwork.  The current trend, running along with the Experimental Gameplay Sessions and other conferences, is to focus squarely on mechanics.  Artwork is an afterthought, often just chosen randomly or by deciding what is the easiest to pull off.

I'm not saying that more time should be invested in artwork planning than gameplay planning.  But I am saying that it should be something developers think about.  As part of the Aesthetic Layout, artwork is what makes your game come alive.  It can augment or reduce the theme and effectiveness of your game, and as such it should not be taken lightly. During gameplay as well as in screenshots on your blog or review sites, artwork speaks volumes, and purposefully chosen artwork screams your game's uniqueness.  Action packed games will have an action packed style.  Thoughtful or somber titles will have sadder tones, colors, and UI elements.

The choices are as endless as the choices for your game design.  But the central idea is that your artwork should match your gameplay. This is a good challenge, because it forces a developer to practically ask themselves: "What is my game really about?"  Understand the Core Experience and the artwork will flow from it. Let's take a look at how some other indie game artists have supported their gameplay with their artwork.

The Minimalist Approach - "Achievement Unlocked"

Achievement Unlocked is a popular flash game where the player runs around through a single level.  For a game with only one level, it does a great job extending gameplay a good deal by adding many different, you guessed it, achievements for the player to find.  The focus of the game therefore is not on multiple levels or stages or even characters, but just on exploring the one stage that makes up the whole game.

The artwork for Achievement Unlocked is about as simple as it gets.  Simple flash art, easy to make, likely drawn by the programmer who made the game.  There are no animations - the elephant that you play as only bounces up and down and turns grey when he dies.  All of the game is made up of shapes and text, nothing complicated or eye catching at all.

This is a successful game and a great example that you don't need great art to make something fun.  However, in this discussion of art styles for games, we're going to use Achievement Unlocked as the lower bound, the bare minimum.  I personally would only recommend this approach if no other options are available, if the team is out of time, or has no money to spend on art, or doesn't have the resources.  Sure, it makes a fine game on its own, but any added artwork on top of it could have made it better, more eye catching, and possibly more successful.

Classic Nintendo - "Banana Nababa"

Banana Nababa is Shadow-of-the-Colossus style indie game where you play as Harry Flowerpower, fighting through various bosses to reach the top of a ominous tower.

Despite first appearances, the game's graphics and music are superb and well thought out, because unlike Achievement Unlocked, they were created with a plan in mind and a purpose that reflects the gameplay. Banana Nababa is meant to look and feel like a game for the original Nintendo Entertainment System.  The letters used in the text are the same letters used in old NES games.  The pixel size is the same size as pixels in old NES games.  And finally, the color palette used to draw the game never goes outside the old NES's color palette.

Each of these deliberate choices (along with the music) make the game play and feel like an old Nintendo game.  This matches the gameplay very well - very difficult, punishing, with only a directional pad and two other buttons to play with.  Banana Nababa is a game that, although at first glance looks like it is bare minimalist programmer art, was actually carefully crafted and well chosen.

Psychedelic - Cactus Games

Cactus is a widely known indie developer who is extremely prolific.  His titles cross a wide range of genres and are often quite unusual or absurd in their premise.  Most of Cactus' games seem to be made up of programmer art, but what makes him worth mentioning here is that he goes out of his way to put his programming skills to use in the artwork.  Sure, much of his games are nothing more than simple shapes and colors, but there are effects, explosions, particles, gradients, and shading flying everywhere.  He compensates for his lack of strong artwork by using his programming to auto-generate the artwork for him.

These explosions and particles bursting forth certainly support his core experience as well.  With titles called things like "Ad Nauseum", Cactus games come off as a kind of enjoyable seizure.  The gameplay is frenetic and the action is fast, just like the art that the player sees.

Super Nintendo - "Owlboy"

Owlboy was a contender at this year's Independent Game's Festival in San Francisco, and is modeled to look like a classic game at the height of the Super Nintendo era.  Games like Chrono Trigger or Kirby Superstar had similar whimsical art styles constrained to the Super Nintendo palette.

This art style supports Owlboy's gameplay because, as least as much as has been revealed so far, it seems that Owlboy is attempting to harken back to the gameplay of Super Nintendo.  Exploration, giant beautiful, pixelated world.  Thus again the artwork supports this style of game.

Action Comic Book - "Shank"

Shank, the indie brawler published by EA that was released recently, is a classic beat-'em-up game.  The game is very violent, with blood and sweat spewing everywhere with each hit in a very stylized manner.  In that way, the gameplay is similar to the stories and action sequences of an american comic book, and the artwork conveys that.  The dark shadows, the stylized caricature faces, the gushing fountains of blood from chainsaw attacks, all are drawn in styles reminiscent of 90's Superman or Spiderman comic books.

Because of the game artwork, the punches feel harder, the damage feels more visceral, and the levels feel grittier and more dangerous.  A good deal of thought was put into an art style that would match both the gameplay and the audience the game was being developed for, and it pays off in the feel.

Classical Paintings - "Braid"

Braid, one of the poster child indie games, has a very complex art style -- not complex in presentation, but complex in how the art style was conceived.  You don't see many games that attempt to look like a painting or piece of classical artwork.  Indeed, the backgrounds and tiles look like they come out of an impressionist Monet painting.

The art style of Braid was likely meant to look very unique and support the designer's attempt at a highly intellectual title.  With the difficult puzzles and long narrative quotations, the gameplay holds itself to a high standard of sophistication.  Thus once again, this is a great example of an art style that had much thought put into it, that the developers choose purposefully to convey what the game was about.

Choosing Your Art Style

There are an infinite number of art styles to choose to go with your game.  To get started on the right track, as yourself these questions:

What are my resources? Are you an an aspiring artist yourself?  Do you have a friend or fellow student who is an artist who would like to work on a project with you?  If not, then you may have a difficult time going to the level of some of the more sophisticated art styles we have covered in this article.  Another option is to hire an artist.  If you have the money, sites such as oDesk or Elance are great resources for contract work.

What is the Core Experience of my game, and how can my artwork reflect that? This is a great question for practical developers to ask themselves because it forces you to hone in on what the purpose of your game is.  Is your game about violence?  About peace?  About intellectual puzzles or a mystery crime?  The artwork should reflect what the game is truly about and what you want to convey to your players.

How much time am I willing to put into artwork? Some developers aren't interested in artwork at all.  It's Base Mechanics or nothing.  Others, however, deeply enjoy developing the artwork of their game.  Finding out what works for you will allow you to budget your time accordingly.

This post came from  Visit for more articles, resources, and analysis of indie and student game development.

Discussion: What games not mentioned above have game artwork that strongly reflects the gameplay?  How does the game do so?

Please leave a comment below!

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