Pixel art talk with mondekuro
Mondekuro (an awesome animation student who also touched base with our team at Chromacon 2019) chucked some pixel art related questions our way, which Thomas (our artist) attempts to answer below!
What are the steps you take in making a pixel artwork for a game? (How would you go from the blank page to the final piece?)
Okay! Let’s start with my recommended ~software~
ShelfLife as a whole is a Unity project. To make assets I use Photoshop and Aseprite for making pixel art, and Blender (with Sprytile) for 3D.
I’d also definitely suggest checking out Crocotile3D for low-res 3D, JuiceFX for animation, and Krita as an open-source painting tool.
And then on to ~workflow~
I typically will have decided on a palette first. If I am working freestyle I might use the colour picker (and keep the colours as limited as possible). I start by using my ancient Wacom tablet to draw basic shapes for the components in the image, usually using a brush size of around 6px or 4px (and the fill tool). I always look out for good reference pictures and stock photos, too. I generally begin with the darker colours (or just black and white) and move on to lighter shades, blocking out areas of detail and using a dark-brown for outlines.
Once you have a good composition blocked out the biggest chunk of work begins: making nice “clusters” and clean lines... I can be a little lazy with this (I quite like chunky outlines and I don’t mind rougher forms), but good practice is to remove all messy spots with isolated individual pixels and reshape out all the groupings of pixels in the image so that they create appealing shapes. I generally zoom in to isolate areas to focus on. Here are some of the shapes I like using:
Last step is adding dithering and anti-aliasing. You can also experiment with tints, filters and hue adjustments. I’m not maaasively into dithering & anti-aliasing, but if you are going for grit or realism, these techniques can really bring a piece together.
Finally you may need to scale up your piece! Aim for a platform appropriate size, but be sure to scale in even multiples of 100%. So like 200%, 300%, 400% etc etc. Always use the ‘nearest-neighbour’ setting if available, and just keep an eye on your pixel grid to make sure things are consistent, otherwise you get weird messy garbage.
Are there big differences when creating art for a game rather than a film, show, or standalone artwork?
For me the difference is mostly in terms of polish. A lot of the pieces I create for game assets are going to be edited multiple times so I try not to get too married to specifics. Not every frame of an animation needs to be perfect, nor every object, wallpaper or carpet pattern. Focusing on what is important, and trying to keep the process moving is better. I like to fantasise about coming back to earlier assets and giving them a quality update, and I just promise myself that it will happen eventually (hah).
When working on game dev, using a nice curated colour palette across all of your assets will REALLY improve the look of things (it’s pretty much always better to do this in any pixel-related context). I also tend to try and focus detail on objects that are more important for the player to interact with, to emphasise what the player should focus on in a scene.
When creating something for a standalone image, I tend to experiment more with using different/weird colours, odd framing, or an unconventional perspective. If you aren’t creating for an ongoing project, you don’t have to be concerned about reproducing content at multiple different angles, or redrawing elements/characters many, many times. Things can be more detailed and superfluous.
What would you keep in mind when creating art for games?
Experiment as you go! Aim for something cohesive, your work doesn't necessarily need to be clean, minimal, or even polished in a conventional sense. The quality and finish can be something more along the lines of ‘harmony across all game elements’ rather than peaks and troughs of exceptional detail or realism.
You can see in my example below that the sheep and the fox I’ve drawn feel at odds with the twig, rocks and plant due to the difference in outline placement/thickness, lighting, and the overall perspective of the object(s):
In your project/game, your aim should be for everything to feel meshed together and purposeful. Things that will help with this are: consistent perspective, lighting, line weights, and a limited but versatile colour palette. Finding quality influences and focusing on them helps a lot, for ShelfLife I’m visually informed a lot by Earthbound, Persona 4, Breath of Fire 4, and The World Ends With You, so a lot of our stylistic decisions might have us referring back to qualities found in these titles.
How would you decide on a resolution/size for a pixel game and/or pixel art?
The Hyper Light Drifter team found a pretty effective solution for keeping a consistent pixel screen size, which involves upscaling (see a link here.) Basically, for modern games, you are probably looking at creating for a 16:9 ratio (like 1920x1080 pixels) so you might work in a resolution like 480x270 pixels, and scale it up four times to become 1920x1080.
I think with many pixel games, the resolution/size can also often be informed by the era of retro game you are inspired by. Like GameBoy Advance vs Playstation 1/2. Fighting games like King of Fighters and Street Fighter III: Third Strike (and Guilty Gear) have quite large assets; sprites and backgrounds with a lot of colours — assets with more detail, at a larger size, optimised for Arcade play and bigger home consoles (at a 4:3 ratio). Compare this to something like Pokemon Red for GameBoy Colour (1.11:1 ratio), which was made for a super small handheld resolution and has a very limited colour palette, but still contains a lot of assets, albeit with less detail.
Overall, deciding on a strict resolution for pixel art is something I find hard! I'm really bad with sticking to a specific size, often I will add more to a frame, or crop it at the end if I'm not happy with the piece. I like to adjust things a lot as I go — I think it's fine to let the work dictate the best size as it comes together.
How do you tackle size and detail when creating pixel art?
Size really impacts the level of detail and the decisions the creator needs to make when realising a work. As you can see with my tree progression below, creating a general shape with no texture is acceptable but can end up feeling quite flat and boring if it’s too large. It’s a good idea to add some ‘flavour you can see’! When adding more detail, the simplicity of the original shape can become a bit restrictive for the piece, so don’t be afraid to adjust and rework the silhouette.
The smaller the piece, the more one needs to use suggestion, rather than rendering every detail. A small pixel character often doesn't have a nose or mouth, but may have quite detailed hair to convey their personality (this is super common in JPRGS). If a work is too detailed it tends to be considered "noisey" which is sort of bad practice — but can be used to create interesting effects, too.
How do you decide the view of your game - isometric, topdown, etc. Is it mainly an aesthetic choice, or is it to do with mechanics?
For me it is aesthetic and genre-based, so I guess mechanics definitely come into it as well. Choosing a sort of 25/30 degree ‘isometric’ angle has a lot to do with how you want to draw your characters. It's kind of like the magic view in which both the front and most of the top of an object are visible. It's fairly typical for RPGs and is quite evocative of the genre (and perhaps, nostalgic).
That being said I think there is room for really cool perspectives that break genre rules and bring something fresh to the table — The Danganronpa series comes to mind. Danganronpa has first-person perspective 3D exploration, in which the characters kind of exist in the space as weird flat billboards. The game is a murder-mystery battle-royale puzzle romance visual novel, so it totally works. It’s wild.
Camera view is more difficult to experiment with in a fully 2D game, as the view is really implied by the angle at which you have drawn your assets. So the viewing angle in a 2D game should probably be built around the artist(s) choosing a perspective and aesthetic style that they are comfortable working in, and going from there.
How did you start out with pixel art, and what has your journey been like?
I became interested in pixel art when I was like 11 by through playing SNES and PS1 games with my friend Ana. We were in love with Suikoden 2, Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger specifically. We used to draw a bunch of characters, and planned out a fairly (lame/cool) extensive world for them to exist in. Fast forward to me dabbling in digital art at high school, but mostly in the genre of photo manipulation, as indie games hadn’t quite blasted pixel imagery back into my mind yet. Then I went to study Fine Arts at the University of Canterbury (aw jeez!) For my 3rd year project I made a short RPGmaker game, and that was my first time working specifically with pixel art. I totally fell in love with the medium!
I went into marketing worked mostly in e-commerce, but I liked to try and sneak custom made pixel gifs into my EDM product newsletters when I could (ahhhaha). Around this time I wanted to make a pixel project so I started developing some GameBoy era art assets part time. I made a model of one of the flats I used to live in, and some lil characters to inhabit it.
The ShelfLife project came about in early 2018 when my friends and I saw that there were funding opportunities for videogame developers being offered by the New Zealand Film Commission. So we put together a proposal for that... and here we are! I've been dabbling for a few years on and off, but have really started focusing on the development of ShelfLife (and pixel art in general) since the beginning of 2019. I’ve still got a long way to go, but it's been really coo00ol and good and wholesome.
Any general pointers or resources that would be good to keep in mind as a beginner?
I think it’s a good idea to start small and work your way up to larger canvas sizes — but don’t underestimate how difficult it is to get really good results at small sizes. Aaaand as a general rule study the games you love. I take screen shots of games I really like and try to think critically when I am playing them about how certain things have been achieved.
Here’s my list of cool stuff to check out:
+ ‘So, you want to be a Pixel Artist?’ - Tutorial by Tsugumo
+ ‘How to start making Pixel Art’ - Tutorial by Pedro Medeiros
+ Pixeljoint.com - Cool Pixel Art community v1.0
+ Pixelation.org - Cool Pixel Art community v2.0
+ NeoRice’s ‘Hero Oh Hero’ - Pixel Art Webcomic
+ Noclip.website - An in-browser tool to explore environments from games.
+ Art of Sully - Amazing 3D artist who works a lot with retro/pixel textures.
Thanks for reading!