I’ve wanted to write this article for some time now, and this seems like the perfect opportunity to do so. For those of you who are aware of Dinosaur Game and our recent release, Auro for iOS and Android, you know that we spent literally years producing carefully handmade, meticulous pixel art. After weeks of work, I just finished the most recent piece. The upcoming PC port of the game needed a new title screen image, as the game will be in landscape view.
I hope it’s clear from this image that I love pixel art. Auro was a love letter to the amazing stuff Nintendo, Capcom, Konami, and SNK produced in the 90s. That art was probably the primary reason I got into this field in the first place. It’s a beautiful form, and some of my favorite pixel artwork is being made today.
That said, the word “renounce” is not just click bait. Auro is likely to be the last Dinofarm Games title to feature pixel art.
Our team has been debating this for a long time, because we all unanimously love the aesthetic. The debate arose from the occasional anxiety we would get from the “HD this, HD that” fetishism that began in the early 2000s. In a way, our culture’s obsession with higher and higher resolutions made us defiant. It reinforced our stance on pixel art purism.
But in the last year, I’ve come to a very different conclusion. It’s not about what I like. It never is.
“HD fetishism” has always been around
HD is the current buzz word used to market both hardware and software. The “high” in “high definition” is relative. 25 years ago, “16 bit graphics” was the operative word, but it was ultimately the same concept; 16 bit graphics was just the the HD of its time. But as you all now, everything is on HD now, from games to movies or even gaming channels on youtube, here is a list of the the top YT channels
Creators understand that screen size/resolution is just a canvas like any other. A good artist can make anything from a Gameboy screen to a 60 inch LED look good. Problems arise when it comes time to convey to a non-artist what constitutes quality art. It takes a lot effort to explain how this:
has much better art than this:
However, it is easy to explain that the second image has a higher level of technology. To the average person, I’m sure it’s self-evident. Some may even be so taken with the spectacle of added color and resolution that they might think Bubsy has the better artwork!
I could write you an entire book on why that is absolutely not the case, but that’s the thing – it’s not the audience’s responsibility to read that book. It’s my responsibility deliver them quality in a language they understand.
“The H-est D”
Artists of any era tend to create with the best, most current tools available to them. Technology’s primary function is to make human life as easy and efficient as possible. This is no different in the case of art production technology. Greater production technology means fewer limitations imposed by the medium.
All mediums have their limitations, however. Just as the canvas has its edge, graphics processors have their thresholds. In the earliest days of game art, the extreme technological limitations created serious adversity.
We all get how pixels basically work. A computer divides a display into squares, and each square can be assigned one RGB value at a time. The total squares supported by the hardware is the device’s “resolution.”
This square grid is the smallest possible subdivision of detail available to an artist. It’s very much like tile/mosaic art – you can only add as much detail as your smallest available tile.
Early game artists had precious few “tiles.”
This constricted medium turned good artists into problem solvers. Good artists looked at the display like a mosaic artist, and not so good artists looked at it like a rock and chisel.
In Mighty Final Fight (pictured on the left above), Guy’s eye is constructed with illusion in mind. By strategically grouping colors and observing their relationships, more complex shapes and forms were implied. The use of flesh tone under the eyelash and on the iris even implies other colors!
The pixels in Mighty Final Fight contain actual information. To illustrate, I drew a higher- resolution extrapolation based on the information coded into these little squares. As you can see, I was able to infer a ton of detail and depth from Guy, but even though both examples use virtually the same amount of pixels, I could barely do anything with Rambo.
Techniques like those used in Mighty Final Fight, we have only retroactively come to call “pixel art techniques.” If the artists of the time had access to better production tools, I’m sure they would have been thrilled. “Pixel art” was never a thing – nobody was thinking “I think we’ll go with pixel art for this game.” Rather, they were simply working in the “H-est D” available to them.
Pixel art: a form after the fact
Only now, after the fact, is “pixel art” an elective aesthetic style. In the early 80s, IBM PCs could only display 4 colors for a full screen illustration(black, white, cyan and magenta). Blending colors was impossible, so artists would “checker board” two colors together. At a glance, this looks like a color exactly halfway between the two. This technique is called dithering.
Back then, they had to dither. Nowadays, it’s used to achieve a look(art by Larwick on Pixeljoint) Modern screens can literally display colors upwards of a billion.
I think it’s safe to say that the tricks of the trade employed to make primitive games look good are no longer required. Yet there is a small, but vibrant community of enthusiasts who not only keep these techniques alive (art by Snake on Pixeljoint), but even add to the form with bold expressionist techniques(art by Calv on Pixeljoint).
This community takes pride in doing extremely complex work(art by jamon on Pixeljoint) while keeping the color count very low.
The biggest sticklers and purists consider the use of alpha(semi-transparent pixels), or software-side lighting/shadow/particle effects a form of cheating.
All these aspects of the community culminate into a sort of sport-like atmosphere, similar to the remnants of the Jazz music scene. While these communities are full of dexterous, blistering performers and highly talented craftsmen, they are also very small and very insular.
“It’s good, but kind of pixelated…”
This sort of “inside baseball” aspect of a niche movement causes problems when it comes to communicating with people.
Sometimes the word “pixelated” is used in a derogatory sense, and sometimes not. Either way, anyone who uses the word clearly doesn’t grasp the concept that pixel art is a deliberate, predetermined art style. And it’s not just with us. The Reviewer of the SNK fighter King of Fighters XIII over at IGN had this to say about the sprite work:
“While they look a bit pixelated, the character models look quite good”-IGN review of KOF XIII
This sprite is not “quite good.” It’s among the best 2D animation ever made in a video game. However good it is, it’s good in spite of it being “pixelated” according to many.
Out of curiosity, I wondered what kind of treatment a game I consider to have pretty ghastly art got.
Yes. I think Street Fighter IV is a garish, sloppy eyesore with sub-par animation. Let’s see if IGN agrees.
The shoddy SFIV received a higher art score than one of the best looking games to date, and I believe it’s all due to a pixel tax. To demonstrate what I’m driving at, let’s put SFIV’s animation under the microscope.
At first glance, it looks serviceable. I think animators and artists can spot the issues right away, but to the average gamer, it’s perfectly clear and fine looking.
Anyone remember Street Fighter III: Third Strike?
SFIII’s animation is orders of magnitude better than SFIV’s. It’s not even close, but perhaps it’s still not totally evident at a glance.
Chun-li’s body in SFIII works like a whip cracking. When every frame is a new drawing, it allows for things like flowing drapery, muscles flexing and unflexing, the natural sort of warp the body takes when it moves in extreme ways, etc. The effect is nothing short of magical.
While I’ve seen far worse than Chun-li in SFIV, the animation is just kind of dead and sloppily done. There is no urgency, and many of her limbs and facial movements seem bizarre and out of place. Because of this, SFIV Chun-li looks like she’s posing for a photo shoot, whereas SFIII Chun-li looks full of adrenaline and intensity… almost as though she were in a fight!
To be clear, SFIV’s bad animation has nothing to do with it being 3D. I’m not saying SFIII is superior because it’s 2D. I’m saying it’s superior because it’s better art/animation. Pixar, for example, produces some of the most genius animation I’ve ever seen. Conversely, tons of American TV has terrible 2D animation.
Is the difference clear yet? Hopefully it is to most people. But look how long it took me to explain that. Now watch this:
Street Fighter IV is in 1080p
Street Fighter IV runs at 60 FPS
Street Fighter III, on the other hand, is pixelated.
See how quickly that takes? That’s because I’m communicating in a language that the average person living in this time can understand. When they see SFIII or KOFXIII, they don’t see the unbelievable craft that went into it, or if they do, they have to first reconcile what they see first, which is the magnified image above. They have to pay the pixel tax.
Same goes for another term highlighted above: “retro.” Auro
wasn’t supposed to be “retro.” To me, the “retro game” aesthetic isn’t
just pixel art, but an appeal to the specific sounds, feedback, and look
and feel of a specific set of old school games. While it’s true that Auro
was an homage to my favorite game art, I never intended for it to be
“retro.” I just wanted to make great pixel art, yet it inexorably gets
lumped in with the retro aesthetic.
But here’s the clincher. It’s not their fault.
The Artist’s Responsibility
Though I never intended for Auro to be a “retro-style” game, what I intended doesn’t matter at all, and it’s 100% my fault for failing to communicate in a language people understand.
As a game developer, time is the most valuable resource a human can give you. Nobody owes us their time or attention. As such, when someone gives us their time, an implicit agreement is made and we are now in debt to that person. We owe it to them to deliver value for their time, and to deliver it efficiently.
I am an illustrator/animator. The kind of value that illustrators/animators are responsible for is distinct among other types of visual artists. We must establish meaningful intent as close to instantaneously as possible. By meaningful intent, I simply mean that the audience has to internalize the concept, motion, emotion, perspective, etc. of a piece right away. The second the audience asks “how can he bend that way without breaking his spine,” or “Why is he shooting where he’s not looking,” we have failed them. They don’t owe us the time to look at our work in the first place. They certainly don’t owe us the time to squint their eyes and try to make sense of our work.
Meaningful intent applies to medium as well. In choosing to make our game with pixel art, we have accidentally taken on a war on two fronts. My job was to make Auro’s art polished, inviting, and clear to the audience, not to also educate the audience that pixel art is a deliberate style.
It’s not their problem that they don’t know what pixel art is, and it’s not their fault. Choosing pixel art was ultimately self-serving and wound up confusing and even frustrating people. This is all because we failed to embrace the medium.
Embracing The Medium
Earlier I mentioned that every medium has limitations. I also mentioned that artists endeavor to eliminate these limitations so that nothing comes between them and their vision. Paradoxically, good artists also embrace limitations. Limitations force ingenuity and innovation, as well as push a form forward.
Pixel artists appropriate the limitations that existed 25 years ago and self-impose them. Though this causes confusion among general audiences, it has made for some of the most advanced, ingenious pixel art yet (art by Fool on Pixeljoint).
Keeping the color count low, as mentioned before, isn’t just for the sport of it. A harmonious palette creates a cohesive piece(art by Thu on Pixeljoint). This principle, along with many others, applies to all visual art, pixel or otherwise.
No matter the period, there were artists who embraced the limitations of their time. That could mean using pixel art techniques to make the most out of a low resolution screen…
…rather than digitizing high resolution 3D models and cramming them into a low resolution sprite.
Embracing the medium could mean working with a low polygon model by using simple, symbol-like textures…
rather than against it by stretching a compressed photograph across a polygon slab.
Modern screens are so huge in terms of resolution, pixels are virtually invisible. To demonstrate how huge we’re talking, I looked into how many NES screens(256×240) fit on the iPhone 6 plus. The total comes to somewhere in the ballpark of 50!
When every pixel was visible to the naked eye, it made sense for an artist to hand-place each and every one. Nowadays, it’s no wonder people think something is wrong when they see games like ours on an iPhone 6 screen.
Pitfalls of Post-Pixel Pixel Art
Not only did my purism give my audience the chore of deciphering a language they don’t understand, but by not embracing the medium, we ran into all kinds of practical problems.
Some devices blur Auro. Some devices stretch it. Some devices letterbox it. No matter how hard I worked to make the art in Auro as good as I could, there’s no way a given person should be expected to see past all those roadblocks. Making Auro with higher-resolution art would have made it more resistant to constantly-changing sizes and aspect ratios of various devices.
Many developers who try to achieve the retro aesthetic overlook how much magnification is going on, resulting in not one, but several different resolutions at once. Not only can this be unsightly, but it’s “showing its strings,”which defeats the purpose of limiting your resolution in the first place.
Evidently, even some retro game enthusiasts want to get rid of pixels so badly that they would rather have a computer smear the art like runny makeup than appreciate the pixel art for what it is. A few years back, the Hebrew University and Microsoft set out to “depixelize” pixel art through a new anti-aliasing(pixel-smoothing) algorithm.
The hand-placement of the squares is precisely what makes this kind of art valuable. If anyone besides artists should appreciate that, it’s retro game enthusiasts. When even they are splintering on this issue, I think it’s time to face the chiptunes.
Dinofarm’s Art Moving Forward
It is with a heavy heart that I endeavor hang up the old pencil tool for all of our future games. To any dismayed pixel art heads out there, the good news is, we will continue to support Auro with expansion material, ports and other new content. Since we’re at the point of no return with Auro, all future art for it will still be pixel art. Like I said, I love pixel art, so on a personal note, I’m happy to be able to scratch that itch for a while.
As for the future, I’m planning to shed purism and do my best to mature. I plan to embrace the medium, whatever that may be, and make the best art I possibly can. No level of technology or spectacle can match the careful, hand-done touch of an artist. There are no shortcuts, and there are no algorithms. There is no cheap way to make it good, only relatively good ways to make it cheap.
Anyone think those smoothing algorithms above actually improved the pixel art? I wouldn’t blame you, as the smooth lines are speaking a more modern language. That said, I’ll close by illustrating my larger point with, well, an illustration. Pixel art, 3D art, mosaic art, stop motion art, etc. are just mediums. Don’t let the medium come between you and your audience. Speak in a language people can understand so that they can actually see what makes your work great without a tax.
Working in high resolution doesn’t prevent us from making great game art. I am not endorsing phoned in, safe, “sellout” cynicism. Take risks. Challenge people. Slave over your work until it’s perfect. That’s why we become artists in the first place. Never lose that. What I’m saying is, The things that made pixel art great are the same things that make “HD” art great. Artists must make the decisions, not computers. Instead of hand-placing squares, hand-place curves. Good art is good art, and nothing beats the real deal. Embracing the medium simply ensures that everybody else knows it.
Steve 05/12/2015 - 11:06 am
This post makes me sad. I loved the art in Auro!
blakereynolds 05/12/2015 - 3:59 pm
Thanks so much! Like I said though, we’ve got a lot of Auro work ahead of us. I’ll be making plenty more pixel art for it. We’re just moving on stylistically for future games.
Eric Bazilio 05/14/2015 - 1:29 am
“I still failed to speak in a language people speak.
There’s no guarantee that people will like your work.”
The last sentence makes the previous pretty much a moot and even contradictory point. Why bother trying to speak an universal language if such a thing doesn’t exist?
You speak of being quite against pandering, but immediately falls back to this “language” argument which sounds exaclty like pandering, in a quite glaring case of circular logic.
And in failing to realize that, you’re walking away from a path of love to one of commerce and surrender to outside tastes, instead of your own.
None of the quality of your post makes up for this half-assed defence of your own waiver.
Admitting a monetary decision to go for what’s currently safe to provide a stable working environment for your team would have been a much more reasonable (and respectable) argument.
With respect, I’ll repeat what Csanyk wrote before me:
“Art for the ages doesn’t need to concern itself with what the masses want. Picasso didn’t invent cubism because he saw massive commercial appeal in it. He explored his ideas with great passion and cubism was the result of that. All the people who complain that pixel art games are “pixelated, but good” look at modern art and say ‘My kid could draw something better than that, and he’s four.’ “
blakereynolds 05/14/2015 - 11:23 am
Thanks for the reply, but I assure you this really has nothing to do with financial gain. “I failed to speak in a language people speak,” and “there’s no guarantee people will like your work” are not contradictory or mutually exclusive. You can hold the virtue, “there are no guarantees in life,” and you can also hold the virtue “nobody is entitled to my time or attention.” I can value doing my absolute best, taking my ambition to its limits, making the best stuff I can possibly make(in a language people already speak) and STILL accept that it might totally fail for many reasons. It’s a complex world out there. I think the best we can do is artists is be principled and obstinate. Never pander. Never compromise. Change the world. Just… do it in a language people speak :). Thanks again!
Tapadi 06/12/2015 - 9:37 am
Pixel art is one of my favorite visual styles. Hardware forced everyone to practice it for a long time, which is a chance: some people became *insanely* good at it.
Therefore it must feel quite weird to see scientists trying to transform lovely pixel art into vectors. Well. Scientists actually have nothing against pixels. Here is an other article, published right after the pixel→vector algorithm:
Pixelating Vector Line Art (2012), http://src.acm.org/2013/TiffanyInglis.pdf
I believe this is science. They must not mean to judge either style. They are rather curious about understanding artistic processes.
Ryan 12/11/2015 - 1:19 am
Dear Mr. Reynolds,
First of all, thank you for such a wonderful and thoughtfully written article. I love “pixel art”, I loved it when it was the H-est D as I played Chrono Trigger on SNES for the first time, and I love it still today.
“It’s my responsibility deliver them quality in a language they understand.”
There are many languages spoken by consumers of art and video games. Many don’t understand pixel art, and something of the skill and craft is indeed lost in the translation. Still, others of us do speak that language. I just want to say, as a member of that smaller and more insulated audience, that I greatly appreciate your work.
I myself am a musician by profession. I love jazz. I’m not a jazz musician, mostly I’m classically trained. I don’t know the jazz language nearly as proficiently as jazz musicians or true jazz aficionados. But I understand enough of the language to derive enjoyment out of the music, and as my understanding deepens, the more depth there is to that enjoyment, and the more influence jazz has in elements of my own compositions/performances. The same goes for dozens of other languages of music with which I am still only partially fluent.
Your art, in whatever language you happen to be working in at the moment, influences the community of artists around you, and perhaps those to come later. Insulated communities are rarely completely isolated, and usually aren’t as insulated as the seem. I guess what I’m really trying to say is that, somewhere, there are people who will appreciate your art, who will find it inspiring and necessary even when the larger audience has a hard time understanding it.
So, thank you for your art, at whatever level of HD you choose to be working in at the moment.
AnonymousPoster 08/30/2016 - 10:08 am
Ok here’s what I think:
– Lot of people love good pixel art
– Big companies don’t want pixel art because it can run on crappy devices, I highly doubt they allow some pixel art app to stay featured on top of various Stores for much time
– Reviewers are mostly ignorant, most of them just take money for good reviews. I cannot explain otherwise how good movies/and films can get unnoticed while total crap receive very high votes.
– Lot of people should just stop reading reviews, the reviews system is flawed. Just get games blindly and put 5 stars if you like them.
– The problems of pixelart looking stretched and blurred should be fixed on Rendering engine level. I elegantly solved it for my games (I’m a programmer) so I get consistent look across all devices, however I didn’t have time/money to make my games (right know working on my last month as freelance for another company). Both for PixelArt and SVG assets (using third party importer but heavily modified) or a mix of them
– If I made some sucessfull game you’ll be sure first or later I’ll hire some good pixel artist with taste like you.
fofofofo 05/12/2015 - 12:07 pm
Nice article, but I think you missed the point with KoF XIII. The problem is not that it looks pixelated, the problem is that those sprites look out of place. Instead of fully embracing the HD, they used lower resolution sprites stretched against HD backgrounds and it looks hideous compared to all the other 2D HD games.
D 05/12/2015 - 5:42 pm
Read the article again and see “HD fetishism” . Kof13 had some of the best art of 2D fighters that “gen”.
blakereynolds 05/12/2015 - 8:51 pm
I disagree. I think good art doesn’t “age.” Bad art that relied on technological spectacle looks “dated.” KOFXIII will look great in ten years just like SFIII looks great now. SFIV on the other hand is already “showing its age.” What I think that really means is, it was never great to begin with, it just had the latest and greatest in terms of resolution/effects/tech. That said, I still think that making the sprites pixel art caused needless confusion. It was a mistake to expect an audience to have special knowledge that is not in line with the current understanding of how screens should look.
qmishery 05/14/2015 - 11:15 am
Thanks for article, it was joy to read, but i’m still not ok with some parts
1) Several people said yet you ignore it. Problem with KoF ’13 is not “pixelation”! It’s that they put pixelart sprites against “hd smooth” backgrounds. That contrast is what killing overall impression.
2) I can’t accept ur crazy love for “huge pixels”. Damn, those 224×240 resolution games fit ideal on monitors they were designed for (especially if we talk about arcades), back then there wasn’t such a bullshit like today”s “okay, let’s put our 320×240 game on 1280×720 sceen”!
You can laugh at HQX filters as long as you wanna, but they’re better than seen ugly garbage of HUGE BLOCKS before ur nose.
3) And that leads me to problem: how can we save legacy of old games screenshots for future? Look at any article where they put neo geo’s screenshots on the whole screen and they look like crazy mess. And if they keep them at original resolution, it becomes SO SMALL “thanks” to display race of resolutions. Man, i hate all that “FullHD, 4K” trend! I’m glad my display is good old x768, at least i have no need to increase everything.
Steve 05/12/2015 - 12:56 pm
Really, really well-written article. I love how you provided examples! They really got your points across.
Tei 05/12/2015 - 1:18 pm
I am blow away by this blog post. Is incredible interesting to read, insightifull and fun. :-OOO
Eldiran 05/12/2015 - 1:22 pm
Good article! I hope you don’t permanently abandon pixel art, as it has its place among certain audiences. I think part of your problem was a mismatch between art style and gameplay/platform. People have expectations about mobile puzzle games – namely that they will use large, smooth vector art.
You also used a very high resolution for your pixel art, making it close enough to vector work that it could be mistaken for it by untrained eyes. If you had gone 16- or 8- bit, I’m sure it would be clear that the art style was intentional.
Mobile & puzzle is probably the furthest platform & genre from pixel art. If in the future, you end up creating an RPG or a platformer, on PC or on a console, I think you won’t have to pay any pixel tax : )
fidgetwidget 05/12/2015 - 2:40 pm
I’m sad you look at “Pixel Art” as the thing that people failed to appreciate… when you clearly understand that a games art style is but one aspect of the experience.
Pixels aren’t the problem. Context is. You even stated as much in this article.
But instead of recognizing that you can still make great games that use pixel art at a cost similar to that of hand drawn HD art – you decided to abandon Pixel art, rather than embracing what ever aesthetic best fits the game as a whole :(
Kiri 05/12/2015 - 2:49 pm
I feel like the problem here isn’t “pixel art vs HD” as much as it is 2D vs 3D and an issue of knowing what art styles to use where and how.
In regards to Auro and KoF13 being called “pixelated”, have you ever stopped to think that the high res displays these games are on and their high internal resolutions maybe dont help? Not everyone has perfect eyesight or even knows what a pixel really is, so it’s easy to look at them and not understand what’s going on.
And in the case of KoF13 especially, that game has non-pixel art backgrounds, which makes the characters look SUPER weird against them. The sprites are AMAZING when you look at them on a computer, but on a tv they’re kind of blurry and it’s not great.
I’m super confused how you wrote up this huge article and didn’t think about non-pixel 2D art at all. That whole section about Chun-Li being better animated in SF3 and SF4 just made me think about Skullgirls and how it’s animation is better than either of those games. How many games do you know that have legit smear frames? Chunners might be more “elastic” in 3, but the low fidelity of the art means it can’t be nearly as elastic as traditional 2D can be.
It’s not that the pixel art is better than the 3D models, it’s that 2D has more options than 3D does when it comes to animation. You cannot stretch and pull a model around the same way you can draw a character being stretched and pulled. 3D is more stiff because that’s just how 3D works.
Pixel art will always have it’s place, but it’s place is in restrained environments. It amazes me that you talked about NES restrictions, but it never occurred to you that resolution restraints are important in modern pixel art games as well. Seriously, if you’re going to have your internal resolution at anything above 600 pixels or so, maybe just go for traditional 2D instead? Those dots have to be big enough to see to be a functional art-style for a game.
Kiri 05/12/2015 - 2:50 pm
Why does this site not register pressing enter as a line break.
That is one big block of text.
blakereynolds 05/12/2015 - 3:27 pm
“In regards to Auro and KoF13 being called “pixelated”, have you ever stopped to think that the high res displays these games are on and their high internal resolutions maybe dont help?”
Yeah that’s exactly what I’m saying. Just because I point out the “pixel tax” doesn’t mean I’m BLAMING people for not getting it. In the following section I go out of my way to say just that. People are confused or put off by these squares on a giant screen, and rightly so. I’m on their side on this issue.
“I’m super confused how you wrote up this huge article and didn’t think about non-pixel 2D art at all.”
The point of comparing them was to point out that, even though SFIII’s animation is much, much better, the fact that it’s pixel art automatically detracts from the quality from the perspective of a modern eye. Again, I’m on their side. I’m not blaming them for looking at SFIII and thinking it’s “pixelated” and therefore worse than IV. What I’m saying is, communicating in a language people understand prevents your medium getting between you and your audience. How good Skull Girls is is irrelevant, though I do love the art in that game.
“Seriously, if you’re going to have your internal resolution at anything above 600 pixels or so, maybe just go for traditional 2D instead?”
Hah. Yeah. Again. I agree. That’s the whole point of the article. That’s exactly what I’m saying :).
Kiri 05/12/2015 - 3:55 pm
Lol well I guess my bad on not understanding the emotion meant to be conveyed by your words.
Anyway, my point was more along the lines of that you don’t need to stop doing pixel art, but changing how and when you use it might be beneficial to you, or at least is something you should think about.
Margaret Trauth 05/12/2015 - 3:05 pm
3D models *can* look fluid and lively. Go spend some time with Guilty Gear Xrd. They do a lot of model replacement to get the smears and multiple images of a hand-drawn fighting game. Or go watch some recent Pixar flicks; they have much more sophisticated rigging than the average video game, and can have a lot more expressiveness in their animation.
Most video games, of course, don’t put anywhere near that amount of love in their rigging and animation.
blakereynolds 05/12/2015 - 3:30 pm
I couldn’t agree more! Pixar does incredible 3d Animation. Wind Waker has wonderful 3D animation too. Nowhere in the article did I say that SFIV’s animation is worse by virtue of it being 3D. The 3D-ness is immaterial. 3D or 2D, I think SFIV has poor animation. The point of bringing it up was to illustrate that the average person sees and understands things like “3D,” “HD,” and “FPS.” So, no matter how much better SFIIIs art is, the modern eye sees magnified pixels and thinks “what’s with the squares? Something must be wrong.” And I’m on their side. It’s not their fault.
Margaret Trauth 05/12/2015 - 8:28 pm
I guess the big question becomes: how are you going to move forwards, now that you’re putting down the pencil tool? What parts of the “pixel art” aesthetic appeal to you besides the actual pixels – the bright colors? the limited palettes? the evocativeness? the chance to animate the hell out of something? something else? You can certainly do all of these in a higher-resolution medium; I’ve been doing a lot of those things as static images in Adobe Illustrator for the past decade and a half ever since I put my Amiga and Deluxe Paint on the shelf.
Time to play with new animation software, I suppose. TVPaint, Toon Boom, Flash, probably other stuff I’m not aware of because I’m out of the loop ever since I left the animation industry. See what kind of crazy time-saving shortcuts they’ve got. Good luck.
blakereynolds 05/12/2015 - 8:47 pm
Whatever it is, I’m always going to push my own limits and be ambitious and make art that I can take pride in. I’m open to whatever creative tools help me best accomplish this. I do non-pixel work but it’s still in photoshop. I’m petrified of vector but I really have to get on it. Good luck to you too! Photoshop has a limited animation function btw, but it’s great for spriting.
Reinfeldx 06/26/2015 - 12:08 pm
Fantastic article. Very interesting from the POV of a literate gamer who appreciates the art form.
I believe pixel art still has a place, and it remains a compelling tool for artists to use to convey a certain feel/message. I think the work you guys did on Auro was beautiful, but perhaps you feel like you could have chosen a better tool (art style) for the job? Maybe a Disneyish hand-drawn approach? Agree/disagree?
I happen to be burnt out on the recent pixel art revival, maybe because it seems like too many developers are turning to that style when another approach might be better. But still I’d stop short of saying that audiences just don’t read it well in general. I think it depends more on the nature of a project as a whole.
Thanks again for the article. A ton of good information here.
Orv 05/12/2015 - 3:14 pm
Personally, I tend to gravitate toward “pixel art” games because they seem to be the ones with artists that understand that not everything has to be gray and brown. We seem to be in an era when only shooters set in relentlessly dark, ugly landscapes qualify as having “good” graphics. But hey, I’ll see every fleck of mud in HD!
Jay Roberts 05/12/2015 - 3:18 pm
As a counter to the poor animation in SFIV, take a look at what Arc System Works did when they moved Guilty Gear to 3D:
Their work supports your point that careful intentional work from an artist is they key, not an arbitrary technical limitation.
blakereynolds 05/12/2015 - 3:32 pm
This seems to be a common misunderstanding. Maybe I’ll edit the article. SFIV’s animation being bad has nothing to do with it being 3d. Pixar does genius 3D animation. Wind Waker is great too. Sorry if I wasn’t clear on that point. I was comparing them in regards to animation quality. 3D or 2D is immaterial on that point.
Jay Roberts 05/12/2015 - 8:28 pm
No no, I get your point. I never said that the 3D was bad. I said the animation was poor which is exactly the point you made in your article.
The Guilty Gear example is meant to highlight your assertion that artistic care and intent are more important than technology.
Ben Reed 05/12/2015 - 4:16 pm
I think Guilty Gear Xrd is a good illustration of why Mr. Reynolds’ argument has such truth to it. I get what he’s saying about SF4; it’s not that the game looks horrible, but mostly that it doesn’t really capture any of the major strengths of the old 2D sprites. Tweens are still largely algorithmic, about the most ambitious squash-and-stretch gets is that a couple of limbs swell in size for a few frames. Motion blur looks limp because they just rely on the brevity of time the swing frames are displayed to imply motion, rather than using serious deformation. (You see too much of the process, so your imagination isn’t allowed to fill in the blanks and perceive the swing as sharper.) And then you have stuff like the texture on Cody’s arms where you get what they were thinking (“we can only get so fancy in this engine with lighting and such, so let’s just use textures to define Cody’s biceps and hope they don’t look too hokey”) but you still don’t like the result.
Xrd’s style is beautiful because its whole aim was basically to use 3D tools to do 2D animation the RIGHT way. The way they make it look so much better than SF4’s “3D 2D” is that they sacrifice basically all the convenience of 3D animation for greater control over every possible visual variable. The animators in Xrd manipulated pretty much every aspect of the models manually, for every frame — lighting, shaders, deforming the legions of bones to affect good squash-and-stretch. No algorithmic tweening whatsoever. It looks absolutely gorgeous (to my mind, I would rate it one of the three most gorgeous fighting games I’ve ever played, right up there with 3rd Strike and KOF 13), but at the cost of painstaking work extremely comparable to high-quality 2D (and likely commanding the same expense of time and money to get that high quality).
But at the same time, I think this style still offers a neat alternative to “traditional” 2D spriting for animators and developers willing to play with it. The main merit I can see is that even with heavy manual manipulation like in Xrd, it’s probably still less troublesome and less expensive to do re-takes with 3D models (with absolute proportions that can be referred to or snapped back to if a certain deformation is not working out) than it is to do with simple pixels. Seems like it’d be marginally less painful to reset bones than it would be to go all the way back to line art (particularly in small sprite sizes where you can’t easily digitize sharp lines to build on, you just have to zoom in and suggest like a boss).
The main limitations, of course, are that (1) where bigger-budget games are concerned, publishers may be (wrongly IMO) less willing to take a risk on such an “unconventional” visual style, and (2) to get a result as gorgeous as Xrd, you’d need animators not just with 3D animation experience, but also a very good grasp on 2D animation. If you only have the first part, then you tend to get “3D 2D” games that look kinda limp a la SF4.
Mr. Reynolds, thank you very much for writing this article. I think it’s one of the best ever written on the subject.
blakereynolds 05/12/2015 - 8:37 pm
Thank YOU for the thoughtful and wonderful response. I sense we’ve got an animator on our hands =].
Tristan Beckley 05/31/2015 - 9:21 pm
Just wanted to add a little food for thought for the animation. Read most of the posts didn’t see this being talked about.
The 3D Chun-li shows little balance of weight in general. This is most obvious between her feet and body. The beginning of her animation, both her feet glide to the left. The cloth doesn’t really react to her movement.
On the other hand the 2D Chun-li shows a clear understanding of weight. The back foot never moves, and her body is exaggerated to emphasis where the weight should be. When she completes her move the cloth stays in the air, and only after one or two frames does it slowly settle. This shows weight, the cloth is light because it falls slowly, while her body is heavier because it falls to the ground faster. This may seem obvious but that detail is not in the 3D version.
So why not copy the sprites pose by pose in the 2D? To steal a quote traditional animation is about getting the poses right, while 3D is a battle with the computer.
The poses you criticize for the 3D could be the best poses the animator could get without killing themselves. But I do agree with you that poses are really important in animation. Weight and follow-through are extremely important too, and is also why 3D Chun-Li seems to pack less of a punch. Most 3D that looks off have feet moving at the same time, and often have limited follow through animation, and the body parts tend to move in separately.
Another factor in 3D animation is it can cause glitches that are game breaking. I don’t know what street fighter had to work around, but in other games a simple animation of someone jumping for joy can offset a physics variable making the player jump higher than intended. Or a head going through a wall can trigger a cutscene that wasn’t suppose to be triggered.
I could go on but I think that’s enough for now. I hope that gave a little insight on why 3D in games might seem oddly limited. But I agree it’s also no excuse to try to hide everything behind blurs, and off poses.
Tristan Beckley 05/31/2015 - 9:26 pm
Oh I just wanted to add: this wasn’t really directed at anyone, so my apologies for repeating anything that you already know. I just didn’t see it talked about in the article so I thought I might share some insight.
Thanks for the article.
Kris Aubuchon 05/12/2015 - 3:42 pm
Solidarity in missing the days of Third Strike.
Jamie 05/12/2015 - 3:43 pm
Part of the reason I bought Auro was for the art!
Seblecaribou 05/12/2015 - 3:53 pm
Great article, but one thing in particular bothers me.
I think the big difference between pixelated as a flaw and pixelated as in “pixel art” comes from the overal look of the sprite in regard to the display it’s on, and its proximity to a smooth “HD version” of it. I totally get the point of IGN on the KOF XIII’s sprite because it is so tall, so big and uses so much color nuances (gradation) and yet with to small pixels for HD, that it would actually look better with smooth lines. It doesn’t look like pixel art because we barely see the pixels; instead it looks like a cool hand-drawn sprite in a poor resolution.
A good pixel art is a pixel art that gives you the clear signal that it is pixel art and not a low res version of a HD screenshot. Otherwise, it’s just “aliasing”, no matter how much work you put into it, and no matter the fact that you built the image pixel by pixel. That’s why, in my opinion, Pixel Art works mostly (not only) with less colors; it forces the artist to actually make clear contrast/separated colors. From what I saw of Auro, the sprite were either too small so we couldn’t figure out that it was pixel art, or just too precise and they needed a far bigger display to look good. On a phone, it looks pixelated and not like pixel art.
(deeply sorry for probable misspellings…my french is far better than my english).
blakereynolds 05/12/2015 - 3:56 pm
I agree with you about KOF. To be clear, I’m not blaming the journalists for falling prey to the pixel tax. It’s not their fault. They’re right to think the resolution is screwed up in today’s context.
BTW, right now Auro has a bug where it’s not displaying properly on some devices. If you’re getting scaling issues, we’re fixing that as we speak. Apologies!
davi 05/12/2015 - 4:00 pm
beautifully written and illustrated post. completely agree with the notion of a tax, although you could have gone deeper into the economics. clearly we have stunning mosaics 1,000s of years old that easily surpass oil paintings. it’s not only a communication issue to a viewer, a challenge well known to archaeologists (educating about input to better judge output). also there is the simple fact that cost of learning and producing via the latest tech/platform tends to be far lower than earlier methods. that’s tech/engineering innovation by definition.
Danno 05/12/2015 - 4:11 pm
Maybe you should do your animations in vector graphics so they’ll scale infinitely? Then you can raster out to the target display size.
dinkleburg 05/12/2015 - 4:12 pm
Bought Auro just because of this article.
EricWVGG 05/12/2015 - 4:15 pm
One additional thing I’d like to throw out: when people fixate on retro aesthetics, whether they mean to or not they are also rejecting modern aesthetics and new modes of thinking.
I love really solid pixel art and Paul Robinson and whatnot, but many of the artists who should be exploring the new possibilities and frontiers of digital art seem to be stuck being the videogame equivalent of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
blakereynolds 05/12/2015 - 4:21 pm
Excellent point. Paul Robertson is a genius(though I wish he would get a little wiser to how much he needlessly sexualizes his work), and I think he’s one of the few whose style and technique is so distinct that it transcends being pixel art. I agree that chasing the nostalgia dragon is regressive in general, game art aside. There is STILL a part of me that wants to make stuff like a Star Wars themed CPS2 Capcom Fighter. Having the discipline to ask larger questions is what prevents me from indulging stuff like that. I want to know how I can truly bring value to the world and enrich others, not just myself and a small contingent of fans “in the know.” Thanks for the great response and reposts!
QuietCanadian 05/12/2015 - 4:30 pm
A well written article, but I feel like it was also sort of a long-winded and round-about way of stating the obvious;
Art is subjective.
Some people think well-executed pixel art is gorgeous, others feel that the visible pixels and limited colour pallet detract. Neither side is wrong, nor is IGN wrong for saying they don’t like KOF sprites. A reviewer is paid to give their opinion, and that was the reviewer’s opinion. You don’t have to agree with it.
You can spend a “million billion” hours producing what you consider to be a gorgeous piece of pixel art, but if you’re selling it to an audience to whom pixel art holds no appeal, then yes, you may have wasted your time– but only if you’re more concerned with numbers than artistic expression, as most businesses necessarily are.
It’s not about whether or not people are informed enough to “get” pixel art. It’s about whether or not they like it. Suggesting otherwise just reeks of artist pretension.
werezompire 05/12/2015 - 4:37 pm
Interesting article in general, however I think in your own game, the highly detailed sprites clash horribly with the very minimalist, abstract nature of the battle field. It makes the whole thing look very cluttered and overly busy. Contrast that with something like Tactics Ogre where the sprites are less detailed and the battlefield is more detailed and less abstract – the two elements mesh together much better and so the player’s imagination can take over.
Corey Richardson 05/12/2015 - 4:50 pm
Excellent article, very well written. But also very sad. Looking forward to seeing the great things you all do with your future work!
blank 05/12/2015 - 5:47 pm
Right on the mark with Chun’s flat animations, not the only victim of course, most 3d animations come through flat and lifeless since they’re just simple model manipulations. I hope artists will be able to point to Guilty Gear Xrd in the future and show their bosses, “See, this is why redrawing the character is important, look how beautiful this looks.” And in the future on the more powerful hardware we have, we’ll have more great 3d animation in our games
Josh 05/12/2015 - 7:41 pm
I could totally read a book where all you do is talk about great animations or poor animations. I hadn’t heard of dino farm games before but this write up got me interested
Peter Vervloet 05/12/2015 - 7:49 pm
I feel like KoF XIII is an odd one though, because their sprite making evolved using 3D models and then basically tracing the pixel-art over the model as a time saving process, which means that some characters (par example Yuri) end up looking pretty weird with an oddly compressed face or out of proportion limbs.
Personally I vastly prefer the pre-HD KoF sprites over those find in XII & XIII, the traced 3D models cost them a fair bit of character for fluidity and fidelity (and of course the time and budget saving). But that is just my opinion, of course.
Test 05/12/2015 - 7:50 pm
Interesting article, but I think Pixel art is and always will be a very important type of art in game development.
blakereynolds 05/12/2015 - 8:50 pm
I think as long as there is at least some need for it, you’re right. I mean, when the GBA came out, there was a newfound demand for low res art. Before you know it, you’ve got Order of Ecclesia on DS. It’s got beautiful pixel art. The early iphones also were great for pixel art. Maybe next year, it’ll be the apple watch that benefits from it. This is of course outside the niche market who keep it alive through their own enthusiast community. I’m with you. I hope it’ll be around for a long long time!
Chris 05/12/2015 - 8:04 pm
Great article – thank you for the privilege to get the insights of an expert in the field – a little Inside Baseball is always welcome on any topic!
Of course the irony is you have just educated a whole bunch of people through the process of acknowledging that this is not your role!
Move on if you must, but don’t do it if the trade off to doing something you love is too great.
rmk 05/12/2015 - 8:29 pm
Great article, even if I do not necessarily agree with your conclusion, which I think is a bit like saying that since there is now photography and film, painting and animation are now irrelevant (sorry for the somehow clumsy comparison). These are just different medium, with different constrains and aesthetics. Totally agree that we shouldn’t limit ourselves for the sake of the “performance” though :)
Also this “When every pixel was visible to the naked eye” might have been true on PC, but certainly not on TV screens, which were definitely not as sharp. Actually “single” pixels caused flickering – which is actually how we created interesting effects and non-existing colors.
Again, great article though!
blakereynolds 05/12/2015 - 8:45 pm
Not a clumsy comparison at all! I mean, I hate to face this truth but…it’s kind of true especially in the case of painting. Realist portraiture is a dying form because it served a way more valuable function before the time of the photograph. Now it’s a sort of specialist, very niche thing. There are still tons of portrait artists today, but far fewer than there were in 1814. In the next hundred years it’ll probably be extinct. 2D animation is certainly on its way out because of how cost-effective 3D is. I still think it serves a different enough value from live action film that it’ll survive longer than portraiture. Let’s hope so! =]
busterbeam 05/12/2015 - 8:30 pm
You made some absolutely fantastic and insightful points that I love and you even share some of my own unpopular opinions (“classic, atmospheric, artistically purposeful pre-ruination Diablo” looks like trash) but I can’t help but question the idea that cleanly seeing the squares as they were placed by the artists one-by-one is the “true soul” of old 2D games. Old TVs meshed and smudged stuff together so you didn’t actually see the individual pixels that well: http://i.imgur.com/oVDsjat.png
The pixel art was made with this in mind. While playing Ristar on a TV from that era from your couch, you weren’t meant to see this:
You were meant to see THIS:
blakereynolds 05/12/2015 - 8:36 pm
Yeah that’s a really great point. I simply mean that, if you were to look at a sprite as a piece of art, it’s specifically the placement of the pixels that sells the illusion of, say, the hair or cape. To then have a computer smear it like a bug on a windshield defeats the purpose. That’s all I meant.
Chris Dlugosz 05/12/2015 - 8:48 pm
amazing article. i just wanted to share with you one of my all time favorite pixel arts. a cityscape from some old terribly game called powerslave. clearly a labor of love by the artist – http://i.imgur.com/kzu9SPD.png
GK Chesterton 05/12/2015 - 8:53 pm
Amazingly well done article. I’m forwarding it in a bit to a bunch of people.
FrozenPixel 05/12/2015 - 9:11 pm
I think you’re missing the point and not fully understanding the audience and/or the complaints about Auro’s graphics.
The game itself, the meat of the game looks great with the pixel art. The menus however are a different story. The GUI is a whole new ball game when you talk about game design and I think that is where a lot of the “pixelated” complaints arise. The choice for the pixel art interface is one that I can’t seem to wrap my head around – It looks less like an artistic choice and more like you used gif compression techniques (aka using less colors) and it just doesn’t translate well onto a modern medium such as a smartphone.
I admire great pixel art but I think the UI is detracting from the rest of the game too much
Huitzilopochtli 05/12/2015 - 9:25 pm
I’m confused by the fact that you mention mosaic art right at the start, and then go on to argue that pixel art fails to communicate with people, or has difficulty doing it. When confronted with mosaic art, people understand perfectly well what they’re being presented, and artists that did mosaic art in their period did it as a choice of style, not as a callback to times with less resources–paintings already existed, and yet mosaics were still being created, because everyone recognized that they were a distinct expression.
I guess a more appropriate simile to the way pixel art is considered retro would be with the different artistic languages or styles in each art medium that evolved with each culture, like in written music, where gregorian chants used really consonant harmonies and modal language, then in the renaisance polyphony was introduced, and later tonality, and in each case, the last language to be developed was regarded as the currently accepted form. Eventually though, as art diversifies, all previously existing languages coexist, and are understood in their own terms, regardles of the latest trends.
Considering this, perhaps the trouble with people finding pixel art retro, or using pixelated as derogatory, has to do not with the fact that pixel art has become a sort of niche, only understood by lovers of it, while it goes mostly misunderstood in the eyes of most people, but rather that pixel art is being presented in a context that has been consistently used to showcase the latest trends in graphic fidelity–add that to the list of crimes against art made by the corporate suits that control most of AAA gaming. Notice also that HD but cartoony styles do get general acceptance as their own form of expression, rather than as a failed depiction of a better ideal (when people see something as pixelated). So it seems to me that the failure to communicate that you describe stems from the fact that pixel art once belonged to a tradition of using the “Highest D”–as you describe–rather than always being a stablished style, and that this line eventually evolved into other styles. So perhaps a way to close the communication gap that troubled you would be to create a style of pixel art that establishes itself as clearly separate from this tradition, so that it is not seen as a “beautiful retro-graphics game” nor as a “pixelated new game”. It also seems like pixel artist have already done this to a degree? like, that expressionistic work you mentioned, that seems like, in a game, it would be instantly recognized as it’s own thing, not as a thing derived from old games. If a game were designed such that it established itself as an entirely new concept, and it used pixel art that was so drastically disimilar from that to which we are used to see in games that it couldn’t be lumped together with established styles of game pixel art, I think it would succeed in communicating its intentions entirely. Of course, it’s easier said than done, but I just wanted to question this assumption that seems to be present in what you said, that pixel art fundamentally makes communication with more audiences difficult, in the way intended by the artist.
Dorkling 05/12/2015 - 9:50 pm
Excellent article! I definitely feel like I’ve gained some valuable perspective on the art style I’ve invested so much in learning.
It seems, in spite of what critics and users might say, that pixel art is becoming its own “thing”, regardless of its humble beginning as the h-est d at its conception.
Google searches for (and, by corollary, interest in) “pixel art” have (has) never been as high as it is *right now*: https://www.google.com/trends/explore#q=pixel%20art
It may not be the medium of the masses, but it absolutely has a swelling audience.
Jason Billingsley 05/12/2015 - 10:11 pm
NOOOOOOO! I read this article and almost cried. I am pretty into pixel games and could spot the chun-li animation immediately. I am so sad this is happening
Jesse Green 05/12/2015 - 10:57 pm
Great article. It’s usually sad to hear about projects coming to an end but I’m sure there’s a beginning opening up somewhere. Thank you for helping to enlighten the issue not just on pixels but on art.
Joe 05/12/2015 - 11:33 pm
As a web and graphic designer, I run into similar issues all the time. It is rather sad that many people do not appreciate how much work goes into creating art like this. I grew up playing on a PS2 and PS3, so I never really got to see the N64-age games. About a month ago I got my hands on an SNES and bought a cartridge of Super Star Wars. As I played through the game, I was continually pausing so I could admire the detail that went in to the character and scene design. I love the effort that the artists made to put together such a masterpiece and am disheartened that more peapple don’t recognize such accomplishments.
I have not seen your game, but after reading this article, I think I need to look it up. I think the screenshots look awesome and I commend you on your choice to use an art style YOU appreciate, even if the masses don’t.
blakereynolds 05/13/2015 - 12:29 am
That’s very sweet of you to say, and thank you for your response. I have to be clear, though, in reiterating that “the masses don’t get it/I am sad about that” is not my sentiment. On reflection, I have realized more and more my responsibility to people. If they give me their time, I owe them value. Period. If something gets in the way of delivering that value, in this case my own stylistic choices, I take responsibility. While it is a shame when people don’t necessarily recognize the finer things about old styles, I say let’s MAKE them understand. The way to do that is not to push them away by trying to impose/educate them. It is to give them the utmost quality in a language they already speak. Sorry I sound like a broken record. I can’t stress it enough. I don’t blame anyone but myself.
Quazi 05/12/2015 - 11:59 pm
Youre very wrong on a lot of fronts imo. First off HD art cannot be created nearly as quickly or efficiently with the same visual quality as pixel art. In fact i can only think of a handful of games with great 2D HD art versus hundreds at lower resolutions. You simply cant animate large sprites in high quality without resorting to paper dolls to reduce workload. You cant place “curves” instead of pixels. Go ahead and try to animate a HD sprite drawn frame by frame with shading.
To top things off, the aestetic of pixel art can easily be kept consistent with a limited palette, and the low resolution lets the graphics be more believable when layered vs hd sprites. A background and foreground work well at low resolution, but at HD resolutions you need complex layering like in odin sphere games. Youre trivializing things far too much.
The issues youve run into are because your art is too high res to be quick to make, and your audience is mobile puzzle gamers who will play/denounce thing solely on the merit of popularity (e.g. Flappy bird and other fan games were terrible yet exploded) your graphics could be terrible and if you had more hype your game would be more popular.
Your choice in large format pixel art for mobile is the issue. Your art is large so the work you put in is exponentially greater, but youd be better served by photoshop and brushes since your audience and timeline dont allow you the necessary timeline to make your work top notch for the resolution. fool/snake/helm struggle to make one frame look great at large resolution, i doubt one person could do a games worth (owlboy has been in development for years and is still incomplete) you need to work smaller, and pixel art will make it fast and easy and look good. Your art is too large, so you gave yourself too much work.
blakereynolds 05/13/2015 - 12:26 am
Thanks for the response, Quazi. Even if every single low res pixel art game received zero critique, it wouldn’t make the critique of this game or ones like it any less valid. Maybe if Auro had lower resolution it would receive the same kind of feedback as if it were higher. The point still stands that I failed to communicate in a language people understand.
http://i.imgur.com/3ybIap5.gif That’s some spec work for a client. A high res, non-pixel, traditional 2d animation. It took about 45 hours. In my experience, any animation that size done traditionally by ONE artist will take that long. There are no shortcuts. Yes it’s a lot of work and yes it takes a long time but I would never produce art I cannot take pride in. I may as well shovel manure for a living. I chose a hard road, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Also, it may not be accurate to say that there is a disproportionately low representation of “non pixel art” games with amazing art. I think really amazing quality art is rare no matter what. We see and remember the cream of the crop when it comes to games. Combine that with the fast paced industry’s need to maximize profits with cheap art, and I suppose more HD paper doll art might be visible. I’m just saying that, in the grand scheme of things, quality is rare no matter what. It requires enough people with a combination of vision and money who are not afraid to lose the latter to achieve the former.
As to Auro’s resolution, well, I would say it’s no more in the uncanny valley of pixel art than most PSX/Neo Geo era 2D games were. Symphony of the Night, Valkyrie Profile, and Metal Slug all use a lot of colors and large sprites to make their art, because, as per the article, they were using the best production tools available to them. Is SOTN “not pixel art?” Depends on who you ask. That doesn’t really matter to me. What matters is whether or not I’m communicating in a language people understand. I believe this to be lower level than all of these finer points, fun as they are to discuss :).
Lachlan Cartland 05/13/2015 - 12:48 am
I think using examples from the 2000s was a bad idea, almost everyone was caught up in the graphical rat race back then trying to make high fidelity 3D art. It wasn’t simply a pixel art thing.
That mentality still exists a little, and always will, but it’s no longer anywhere near as bad. Colour pallets, blocking and stylistic direction have been the rise for the last 4 or so years, both in pixels, 2D and 3D. In fact I would say games are one of the healthier industries visually at the moment. We are getting a return to aesthetics and games are looking better then ever.
Mobile gaming is just a weird space. It could just be that your average mobile gamer lacks the history and is less visually trained? unsure.
blakereynolds 05/13/2015 - 1:19 am
Thanks for the comment! Even if all of that is true, the principle still applies to speak in a language people understand. Say many devs were hampered by the tech rat race, and had to make 3D games under strict limitation because that’s what the industry demanded. Well, that’s where pixel art came from. Extremely limited tech made artists figure out how to make it look good. Same should be the case for primitive 3D. Grim Fandango is always my go-to.
Oh, and also. Would you mind recommending some new games that you think are aesthetic achievements? The new 1st party Nintendo stuff is looking great, but what am I missing?! Thanks for reading!
Lachlan Cartland 05/13/2015 - 1:40 am
There is more then I can mention honestly but these ones that I have really struck out to me lately.
No Mans Sky
Hyper Light Drifters
Anything by Capybaragames (in particular below)
Anything by SuperGiantBomb (in particular transistor)
I could list more but I think that’s a nice modern sample (all from the last few years or upcoming).
blakereynolds 05/13/2015 - 9:27 am
Thanks! I’ll be checking these out!
minor point 05/13/2015 - 12:55 am
minor point but it doesn’t make sense to compare the hardware of the iphone and the nes.
the nes was intentionally low-end hardware from the beginning. this kept the price down to maximize the user-base (basically make it an easy sell for parents). on the other hand, the ios is made to be luxury hardware for high-end consumers.
WaveringRadiant 05/13/2015 - 1:47 am
The art in Auro is great, and I love pixel art, but I think that there’s a point where if you have lots of detailed sprites, there’s no point for keeping a low resolution. you could paint over Auro finely crafted pixel art and, without adding too much make sprites that have the exactly same intent and general palette and don’t look low res. Auro art is not great because it’s pixel art, it’s great because it’s colors and shapes. People are right, there’s a limit and a place for pixel art. In Auro it hurts those lovely sprites more than it helps. Great article and great game.
blakereynolds 05/13/2015 - 9:13 am
Thanks so much! At this point, if we had a budget for that, we probably would. I would also apply a lot of stuff I learned about color theory and design over the years. I made the art for Auro over 4 YEARS. Unfortunately, I’ll probably just have to look to future games to apply these principles. Though we will be making tweaks and additions to Auro, and do our best to make it look as good as we can with the resources available to us.
MEWMEW 05/13/2015 - 1:55 am
Other than for tech/screen resolution reasons, I think you’re wrong to quit pixel art.
People who love video games want games that challenge them, in terms of gameplay but also in terms of aesthetic/emotional/user experience. Inspired games rise above others! Not saying that switching to a different graphic style would mean that your next game is not inspired but clearly you and your team have an insane ability to create beautiful pixel art and I want to feel that love through the game I’m playing.
“The way to do that is not to push them away by trying to impose/educate them. It is to give them the utmost quality in a language they already speak. ”
I want to speak new languages! Some people find cell-shading to be somewhat of a lower tech/tier but some of my absolute favorite games use cell-shading. I love pixel art and I guess I’m just sorry to see that this is happening to work like this.
Olivier 05/13/2015 - 3:07 am
With this super high resolution nowadays have you ever considered hexagon art? Still the same concept but definitely not ‘retro’ ;-)
Here’s a cool article:
tuo 05/13/2015 - 3:21 am
I remember how I struggled to “love” the all-new, “real 3D” games with 3D enemies (Quake etc.). While technically wonderfull, I always missed the hand drawn enemy sprites, especially the death animations from for example Doom. The 3D enemies simply fell down, while watching the death animations, walking animations, shooting animations in the 3D generation before them was so satisfying.
Ray 05/13/2015 - 3:49 am
Great article but I have to take a bit of an issue with the part about depixelization. I would argue that art isn’t just done with brushes and pens, but in fact an artist can “paint” with an algorithm. You do take the trouble to point out that you are not condemning HD or 3D graphics, but 3D graphics don’t exist without algorithms and there are some masterful artists when it comes to pixel shading. Of course there are also the bubsy’s of 3D rendering as well.
That being said, I don’t see any reason why an animation rendered by filtering pixels as with the Yoshi pixel art can’t be beautiful (not that you explicitly made that claim, though there seems to be an implication that it will necessarily be inferior.) One could intentionally combine pixel art with an algorithm to get the effect they are looking for.
You know it makes me wonder… if the first computers and game consoles had 4k screens with millions or billions of colors would we ever have had pixel art at all. You make the case that good examples of pixel art such as Mighty Final Fight imply a more complex and detailed form (I agree, it does indeed). If the artists had the choice, I would imagine they would have just showed the detail they imagined or even drew in concept.
blakereynolds 05/13/2015 - 9:12 am
Thanks for the response! Yeah, I mean, anything can be beautiful if done well. Personally, I have never seen algorithms make organic illustration type stuff look good. The reason I made the hand-drawn Yoshi at the end is to show just how far from good those algorithms actually are. Maybe next to the exploded pixel art it looks ok, but next to a hand drawn frame, I think it points out just how many artifacts and smears there are. That said, computers can produce a lot of really nice shapes and patterns, and do a lot of things the human hand can’t. All of these creative tools are just mediums. Anything can be well done. I will say though, that even in the case of procedurally generated art, an artist should still at least be making the final decisions. He should oversee the parameters that require that human touch. Maybe in the future that won’t be necessary. Very interesting to think about!
Orv 05/13/2015 - 12:12 pm
I don’t think the point of the “depixellated” images was to replace hand-drawn sprites; I think it was intended as a technology demo for an image enhancement algorithm. An algorithm that can intuit edges from low-res sprites is also likely to be good at intuiting shapes and text in low-resolution, zoomed-in frames from security videos, for example.
nicolas 05/13/2015 - 4:01 am
Very nice article.
While I love King of Fighter’s graphics, I really find it pixelated because it seems like graphics has been drawn in 320×200 pixels, then upscaled to HD.
If graphics where drawn in HD, even more details could be filled, and it wouldn’t appear that “pixelated”.
Here is the Terry’s sprite that has been reduced to 50%, no aliasing, nothing, just the same pixels that aren’t doubled anymore: http://warpdesign.fr/images/terryScaledDown.png
In this Photoshop zoom which compares the small version with the big (“HD”) version of the sprite, you can clearly see that each pixel on the left, has simply been replaced by 4 pixels of the same color of the right: http://warpdesign.fr/images/terryZoom.png
That’s why it is “pixelated”. No wonder reviews say it is pixelated…
Like you said “Working in high resolution doesn’t prevent us from making great game art.”
I wish SNK designed King of Fighter sprites in HD, and don’t simply upscale low resolution sprites to HD…
blakereynolds 05/13/2015 - 9:26 am
Thanks for the great comment. Yeah, HD or no, if KOF’s art spoke in a language people already speak, all I’m saying is it would have been more likely to be noticed for just how amazing the art is. If that reviewer didn’t have to pay the pixel tax, who knows? Maybe it would have gotten a 9.5. Maybe it would have won awards(if it didn’t). I just think we should always make sure to make as great art as we can, and do everything we can to make it clear to an audience how great it is. This doesn’t mean pander, or make something cynically. I’ve been saying this all over the thread, I know. Do your best, make ambitious, challenging, original work. Just do it in a language people already speak. I don’t think it’s that contentious when you get right down to it.
X 05/13/2015 - 4:15 am
Pixel lover here!
Had a great time reading this, thank you!
Dave 05/13/2015 - 4:18 am
Super article. I’ve just bought your game because passion and pride in game design is something that’s sorely missing these days and it needs to be rewarded when it’s observed. Thank you.
Valdeir 05/13/2015 - 4:22 am
have you thought that the problem could be the market you guys are trying to enter?
i don’t know, but maybe mobile isn’t the best place for pixelart games, maybe you should aim for other market places and than after you have a good fanbase full of nice players you can bring then for mobile if they so want it. this way you have players that “gets it”
i really like your post and your points are very valid especially market-wise but, part of what makes art appealing( a huge part to me if i can say so) is the artist voice. if most of your public don’t like your art, but you like your art… at least you have your art.
the problem is if you make art that you don’t like, but is really accept by the public… you may feel slave of your own work in the end
find the people who want your work, not the work that the peoples want
people don’t know what they want until it’s right in front of then
unless you guys really want to make mobile games… than your decision of changing your work makes sense, but i think the decision should be a natural process and not just to fulfill part of the public expectation
i wish you guys good luck and hope your games find the recognition it deserves no matter the choice you make o/
Egon Elbre 05/13/2015 - 5:34 am
By the way one of the authors of depixelize algorithm also created an algorithm for pixelizing images
http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/um/people/kopf/downscaling/. Although it’s still not as crisp and bright as pixel art.
Ronnie Solbakken 05/13/2015 - 6:27 am
Call me crazy, but personally I think Zelda 3, even today, looks better than CoD.
In other words, graphics != aesthetics & style.
result 05/13/2015 - 6:53 am
From about many years pixel art is one of the great technology that has drastically changed the gaming series such as in 2d and 3d factors , we should always knows about the pixel art. many if the games has improved such as street fighter 1, 2, alpha and many more.
Kevin Crane 05/13/2015 - 6:55 am
Great article! I have always loved the art of the 1990’s Lucasarts games (Sam & Max, Monkey Island, etc). It’s always a mixed bag of emotions when they release an HD remake of those games. These new releases also have voice acting. It’s a different (arguably better) experience to play the game with pixel art and actually reading the text. Sort of like the difference of reading a book versus watching a movie/film. I fondly remember Roger Wilco (Sierra On-line / Space Quest) getting his pixelated arse handed to him in so many ways. I doubt many of the new generation would understand why I like the original versions better than the remakes.
Harri Salonen 05/13/2015 - 7:32 am
The article is great!
However, the art in Auro is very much like Bubsy, which was considered a bad example. Low resulution gradients all over, and overused anti-aliasing everywhere. Perhaps you should revisit your examples?
True pixel art doesn’t try to imitate accurate, lifelike colors. It is more like a comic book look.
In my master thesis, I actually referenced the same paper about scaling, but you should familiarize yourself with fast frameworks, like scale2x:
I often found best results were achieved by scaling up multiple times and then actually scaling down from supersized image to fit the screen.
blakereynolds 05/13/2015 - 9:18 am
“art in Auro is very much like Bubsy” Heh. OUCH! Some people really know how to hit artists where it hurts. :). I can’t speak to how good Auro is. I try to make the best art I can. That’s all I can really say. But how good or not good Auro’s art is is irrelevant to my larger point, which is simply to say that whatever you’re doing, skilled or unskilled, ambitious or phoned in, stylized or realist, just communicate in a language people already speak. Thanks for reading!
Anon 05/13/2015 - 7:40 am
Sorry but you have no sense of aesthetics in the first place, people aren’t disparaging your work because of “HD fetishism” but because you make jaggy art not pixel art. You think people don’t “get it” but they got it for fez and sword&sworcery and other things where the artist knew what they were doing.
Pixelart today as an aesthetic is about resolution minimalism, it’s not being “retro” and it’s really not about color limits (beyond typical color conservation you would do in any graphic medium), if you’re making “pixel art” that looks like you went in photoshop and scaled down some vector art with nearest neighbor on then it goes without saying people are going to be unimpressed and rightfully so.
blakereynolds 05/13/2015 - 9:08 am
Thanks for reading! I will say that, if at the moment, you’re getting some weird nearest neightbor scaling that isn’t 1:1, it’s because of a visual glitch on iOS that we’re fixing right now. If you are referring to the screenshot, which is the correct aspect ratio, all I can say is, I can’t speak to how good I am. I do my best. That’s all I can say. But that’s ok because it’s not important. I could be the worst artist in the world and my points would stand or fall on their merits.
I agree that the modern retro game is very intentionally low res and stylish. I started Auro 4 years ago, and was going for a sort of love letter to the PSX/Neo Geo era higher res work. That’s the stuff I find most beautiful, so that’s the stuff I emulated. However close to the mark I got is immaterial. Even if i’m the only game with pixel art that gets called “pixelated,” I still failed to communicate in a language people already speak.
Thanks for the response.
Mark Venturelli 05/13/2015 - 7:49 am
Is Auro the first game you’ve shipped? Or at least the first one you have been at the creative forefront?
Because frankly you sound like someone who cannot deal with the fact that a lot of people won’t recognize your clearly lovingly-crafted, high-quality work.
If you try to change your true self to be accepted by more people, you will only find an endless well of disappointment as some people will always find ways to deny you your recognition.
If you do art just to be accepted by as many people as possible, you might as well just bake fucking chocolate cookies and distribute them on the street.
If you tell me you’ll abandon an entire language that you value and that is clearly a part of you just to be accepted by more people, with the excuse of being “more inclusive” or “embracing the medium”, to me you are not an artist, but an insecure child looking for validation.
What is it that you are looking for? What is it that you want? How many games do we have left on us? We’re young alright, but games take years to make. Our responsibility as artists is to be the tip of the spear, to confront society, to offer different points of view. If you “give people what they want” you are being an empty shell, a nothing. Even if you finally find this much-desired universal praise that you seem to be chasing, I guarantee you that it will feel bitter, it will feel meaningless.
Do you think that whoever animated that beautiful SF3 Chun-li should fucking care about the artistic opinions of an IGN reviewer? Is that who you want to serve? Not yourself, not art, not expression, not culture, not the spiritual advancement of mankind, but ignorance, mediocrity, comfort-food, a numbered scored on a pathetic “review” that will be forgotten as quickly as the next similar thing can come up on the website?
Do it whatever you believe in. Your art is what you have to say. It is what you are. Some people will not understand, some will disagree, and some people will try to change your mind and bring you down. Being an artist is not giving a fuck about that, because there is no right answer – there is only truth and honesty, or dissimulation and falsehood.
Do not embrace the lie.
blakereynolds 05/13/2015 - 9:04 am
I appreciate your passionate response, but I just wanted to clear up that my point isn’t exactly “give people what they want.” It’s lower level than that. I’m merely saying to communicate in a language people already speak, rather than taking on the extra task of educating people to some special knowledge they need to fully appreciate your work. I’m simply saying that isn’t their responsibility and they don’t owe us their time. We should not act as though they do. I do not condone “selling out,” or pandering or patronizing. Be ambitious. Challenge people. Make big sacrifices to realize your vision. All of that is wonderful. Just do it in a language people already speak. That’s what I hope people can take away from this.
As an aside, I think the brilliant craftsmen of SFIII cared very much for this “artist’s responsibility.” They did that by putting unbelievably care and sweat and tears into every single frame. They didn’t cut corners or take shortcuts because they didn’t take for granted that it would be “good enough” for the audience. That is a prime example of not feeling entitled to their time. It’s just a different manifestation.
Kurt Bieg 05/13/2015 - 7:57 am
You called Street Fighter 4 art ghastly.
You’re defending pixel art as some high and mighty technique while putting down other forms of game art.
Btw, at the time of its digital origin, pixel art was considered ghastly and barely passable compared to hand drawn illustrations at that time. Street Fighter has some of the best game art considering the hardware limitations, same as it was then, same as it is today.
And the part where you blame an uneducated audience for not understanding pixel art “Jazz”.
blakereynolds 05/13/2015 - 9:00 am
I think some people might be skimming this article rather than reading it. I know it’s long, so that’s probably my fault. But the only reasonable way I think a person could come to the conclusion you have is if you skimmed. I’m happy to clarify whatever I need to, but I think I made myself pretty clear in expressing precisely the opposite of what you’re saying. The whole point of the article was to not blame the audience for not having the special knowledge and training required to appreciate a form like jazz. It’s not their fault. I am very clear on this point.
I’m also doing the opposite of defending pixel art as a high and mighty technique. It’s a medium just like any other. No medium or tool is inherently better than another. Some people make good stuff with a given medium, some not so much.
I hope that’s cleared up.
Matthew 05/13/2015 - 8:20 am
You’ve got a good point, but I disagree. I do think it’s fair to blame the audience for having bad taste. I agree that nothing can be done about it, and it’s not your job to educate them, but it’s also NOT NOT their fault. Give me, at least, the right to be mad at them. They ARE idiots and they DO deserve blame.
When run on a display of the proper resolution, such as its original cabinet display or the televisions of the time, SF3 looks amazing, flawless, stunning, etc.—pick whatever word you like. There is no “pixel tax” to compensate for because there are no visible squares. Every single pixel of the display is hand-picked. SF3 looks about as good as a game can possibly look on a screen of that resolution.
Now imagine for a moment SF4 could only ever be run on a display of that exact same resolution as SF3. SF4 would not only look as bad as it does now, but it would also lose its scalability advantage over SF3, because it is locked to run at the exact same resolution.
Which game do you think the average gamer would think looks better? Even though I’ve contrived a situation where SF3 looks 100%, hands-down, unarguably better, I still think a lot of people would say SF4 looks better, because SF3 looks “primitive”, like old games, and SF4 looks “modern.”
We’re stuck at an unfortunate point in history where the masses just have an inherent, irrational bias against pixel art. I do think that will dissipate eventually, and the fact that there even is a small reactionary community of people who enjoy producing and consuming pixel art is one of the first signs that the tide is turning. I remember when the N64 and PS1 came out and I basically immediately thought they looked awful. It would be years and years before the pixel art community would come to exist, and until then I was isolated as that one freak who was against progress or whatever.
The fact that every indie game under the sun uses a primitive, ugly pixel art aesthetic deserves some blame as well. I’ve seen a number of people become counter-reactionaries against pixel art because of that.
somebody 05/13/2015 - 8:58 am
Have you ever seen the pixel art in old Japanese computer games? Here’s some examples if you haven’t:
They are probably all NEC PC-98 games, and use 16 colors maximum.
Pixel art really deserves much more recognition as an artform, especially as one that has mostly been unique to computer and video games (the same could be said for chip music, which likewise had to overcome severe technical limitations).
Putting aside technical issues with using pixel art on smartphones, you don’t have a responsibility to “communicate in a language people understand,” and it’s not like they don’t understand what they’re seeing; they just don’t like it. What this sounds like to me is just catering to the lowest common denominator possible in order to sell as much as possible. Which is fine, but you’re being needlessly dishonest about it. You’re also conflating smartphone users with actual gamers, and neglecting that Minecraft is super mega popular despite its conspicuously pixelated art and very simple graphics.
People don’t owe you their time, but you also don’t owe them a game that’s to their liking. The only thing you owe them is a game that is what you say it is (that is, the game is not being presented as something it’s not).
blakereynolds 05/13/2015 - 9:22 am
Thanks for the response. And wow! I haven’t seen those and they’re gorgeous!
Just to clarify, my point doesn’t really have to do with catering. I am very anti-catering actually. My message has nothing to do with how ambitious, challenging, different, or original you should make your art. I say batten down the hatches and sacrifice time, money and sanity for your art! Make the best stuff you can at all times! Never be cynical, and never lose ambition! While you’re doing all that, just make sure to communicate in a language people already speak. Even if Auro is the only game that gets the “pixel art uncanny valley” reaction, my point still stands. I still failed to speak in a language people speak.
There’s no guarantee that people will like your work. The more you honor their time and endeavor to give them value, the more of a chance you have, IMO.
Thanks again for those pictures. I’m gonna look into more.
slapmap 05/13/2015 - 9:20 am
There is more to pixel art style than just retro nostalgia, its sharply defined lines , patterns and minimalism often look better than high res images.
Speaking of your Auro I feel like its neither here not there, its too highres and detailed to be perceived as pixel art so it looks more like ‘normal’ 2d art with jagged edges .
Also its quite ironic that people don’t really care about graphics quality in this age of super technology. Realism is achieved but no one needs it. Strong good art style is more important.
? 05/13/2015 - 9:35 am
Where are the scanlines!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ?????????????? no one in this post mentioned scanlines…..
retro, pixel art, sprites without scanlines hahahahahahahaa what a joke!
Ket Ng 05/13/2015 - 9:43 am
A very interesting read, do you think the same argument applies to chiptunes?
JazGalaxy 05/13/2015 - 10:00 am
Oh my gosh, what a fantastic article.
I’m curious to know what you, the author, would say to the theory I have that pixel games tend to have better design than modern games due to developers having to stick to a pixel grid. I don’t think anyone would argue that games like Megaman and Ninja Gaiden on the NES had gameplay nuance that allowed players to control their movement to the pixel. It’s not at all uncommon for people who grew u in the NES era to know, to the pixel, how to navigate environments. High res games tend to be much less precise and ham-fisted in their design, compensating by having the player able to attack in every direction at once, or fire millions of bullets at a time.
ZGAMES 05/13/2015 - 10:04 am
Hi, I’ve wrote a blog post as a reply to this post. Hopefully you’ll take the time to read it:
TLDR; Here’s a possible solution to keep making pixel art games and be appreciated by the public more
No matter your decision, I wish you all the best in developing new exciting games!
Leon Spencer 05/13/2015 - 10:13 am
I see games with pixel art as being part of a very specific movement, part of a cultural reaction to the AAA crush, a call to arms to bring back days when small passionate groups made everything. That call was successful: AAAs are far riskier, even more safer and much rarer while independent titles dominate. Creatives once shackled to large publishers now roam free, kickstarting, using radically democratised tools and self publishing. They no longer have to wear that revolutionary uniform of pixel art as they are now in power. And like the tiny mammals who won the planet from the doomed lumbering dinosaurs, they can stop hiding in the shadows of the past and diversify, come out into the light and discover whole new niches no one ever thought of.
Brian 05/13/2015 - 10:50 am
Absolutely excellent article. I’ve been a pixel artist since 1989 back when machines required it, and it seems you’ve been through the same gamut of emotion I have.
I made my last iOS game in HD 2D, People said it looked like a flash game. HAd I done it at 320×200, people may have said it looked better… Sometimes you can’t win.
I am now looking into new piplenies of rendered sprites with multiple passes to create a modern 2D look.. I’ll probably still get told I should have made it look like NES art..
GoldenJoe 05/13/2015 - 11:11 am
Complain about people not appreciating pixel art, or having a “pixel art tax”, or whatever all you want. There have been wildly successful games which use this art style on mobile devices, some of which use a much lower resolution than your game.
Your problem isn’t pixels, it’s your presentation. I hopped on over to the App Store to see what your game was like, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out what it’s supposed to be. Some kind of strategy or RPG? You are totally wasting the screenshots on your store page. Those are your best and fastest place to sell your game, or explain it if necessary. Don’t just post straight screenshots, especially when they all look so similar.
Also, the app icon does not appear to be pixel art. Add the fact that some of your sprites are so high res they could be mistaken for hand drawn art at a glance to the average user, and you have a recipe for confusion. What’s more, you make no mention of the pixel art in your app description when it is clearly a feature. Yes, you can educate the user! People do not implicitly understand higher art, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth pursuing.
I suggest you take more time to think about the mistakes you’ve made with this project, and what your motivations are for future projects. Is your priority to make products you love and are proud of, or to make the most money possible? How much are you willing to compromise one way or another? How are you going to market hand-drawn art game #18768 and differentiate it from the others?
Will 05/13/2015 - 11:20 am
Thanks for the interesting post, I’d love to see you explore this topic further.
My advice is to not give up on pixel art, since it’s clearly a style you love. Evolve the form to make it new and wonderful. I personally think that there’s plenty of inspiration to be gained from mosaic art. Notice how each tile isn’t a uniform square, but that the unique shapes of each tile (‘pixel’) add something to the overall art? I would personally find a carefully-crafted pixel-mosaic piece of art much more interesting than low-color dithered gradients (the pixel art technique I personally think is the most ‘dated’ and ‘pixelated’).
Aside from that, I was surprised that you said absolutely nothing about Minecraft, the giant elephant in the room. Can you reflect on what made its pixel-based art style so successful, or do you think its success was despite its artistic style? (I think it was essential to it.)
Orv 05/13/2015 - 12:22 pm
My personal opinion is that Minecraft was a hit because the simple 3D model let anyone build something interesting. Up to that point, most 3D games that allowed freeform building required shaping individual polygons, or learning a mesh editing program. Minecraft was more like a box of Lego. You didn’t have to have a lot of esoteric knowledge to make something impressive.
It was also accessible in another way — you don’t need a lot of computing power to render stacks of cubes. People who weren’t hardcore gamers with powerful rigs could run it acceptably.
The fact that there are so many fan-made texture and shader packs for Minecraft suggests people *are* kind of unhappy with the art. (My personal complaint isn’t so much that it’s low-res as that a lot of it is ugly, especially the default player skin.)
Daniel 05/13/2015 - 11:29 am
I really liked this article, but mostly for the whole “It’s not the audiences job to decipher why we’re doing a thing” bit. I think that’s not only a very mature realization, I think it’s vital to being a professional artist using any of this to make a living. Sometimes we have to check our inner artist for the greater, business good. I respect that a lot, I love the dichotomy of business and self expression. I think it actually makes some of the best artists as it forces one out of their comfort zone, their preferred style and makes them very deliberate in how/when they do it.
Most recently I’ve found my way to Disney where there’s a conscious push to understand the beauties and craft of 2D in order to make the 3D better, to really be students of what came before.
This French interview of Glen Keane, transcribed to English, is a great read as he touches on the “used car salesman” of 3D software, reflections, etc.
CW: The computer forces you to lower your expectations?
GK: Yes, to lower the bar, but also to suggest… like a ‘used car salesman’: “You want a car? WELL, I have this very nice model…” “Uhm, I was thinking more a Mustang.” “No, but LOOK! The PRICE, the COLOR! You like it?”
The computer is *exactly* like that. A used car salesman…
CW: It tries to sell you something.
CW: And it’s not necessarily what you want.
GK: It tries every possible way – “Look at those reflections!” – but it’s not what you had in mind…
Later however, I think Glen was sitting in dailies for Frozen, maybe Big Hero 6 and he remarked:
“We could never do this before (in 2D). What you’re doing with the eyes, that subtlety, the tiny, delicate tensing.. we just couldn’t do that with the pencil, it would be so hard to space the lines that small…” or something to that effect…
So as you move from Pixel Art to 3D or whatever is more modern, take heart in knowing that your deliberate, calculated aesthetic will find new use in driving how you use an expanded tool set. Yes, it’s easier for a hack to get most of the way there, the price of entry to “HD” is cheaper, but for those that know good from bad and hard work from the lazy… you’re going to have your hands full managing nuances you never had before and when you do, it’s going to be fucking great.
RiceGnat 05/13/2015 - 11:55 am
I want to start off by saying I think this is a great article. You nailed a lot of points regarding the elasticity, fluidity, and technique that go into good animation, particularly the distinction between good and bad pixel art. There were a few things that crossed my mind, some that have been touched on in other comments, that I want to mention.
The biggest one I want to get at is that you seem to have missed the point a little in your discussion of “communicating in a language people understand”. It is absolutely true that it is the responsibility of the artist to ensure that their intent comes through in their work, not the viewer/player’s to figure it out. However, you seem to be fixating a little too much on the idea of a “pixel tax” preventing you from communicating in the “HD language”.
Don’t get me wrong, the “pixel tax” is undoubtedly a real thing, but I think it’s distracting you from another issue. I confess to never having played Auro, but the screenshots you provide (as well as others I looked up) would show that you seem to have placed yourself squarely in a bit of an “uncanny resolution valley”. Judging by one of your replies to a previous comment I think you realize this, but it’s a little difficult to tell at first glance that Auro was even supposed to be pixel art.
Modern consumers have certain expectations of “modern graphics”. They also have certain expectations of “retro graphics” and “pixel art”. If the title card you began the post with is any indication, your pixel work is beautiful, but silly fact of the matter is it has too many pixels. When the average person thinks “pixel graphics” they think of Super Mario Bros, Final Fantasy, Pokemon Red/Blue–EXTREMELY low resolution sprites where the pixel squares are enormous.
I’m of course not trying to say it’s what it “should be”, but, just as you mentioned the expectations of 1080p, 60fps, and 3D, expectations for pixel art exist as well, and you met neither. The problem is evident when examining Auro’s UI: it looks like you were trying to be as high res as possible while keeping one foot in the pixel art area. The blur from upscaling/downscaling certainly doesn’t help. This is why it looks “pixelated” instead of “pixel art” (important distinction!).
I’ve spent too long on that point now, so I’ll move on. As good as your comments on animation were, they may be a little distracting from discussing your reasons for abandoning pixel art. What I ultimately wanted to lead into is that the answer to the “pixel tax” is not necessarily to give up pixels, but to think about how to make your “pixel art” intent clearer.
As an artist myself, I’d hate to see your studio give up a style you love in order to have a “wider appeal”. I’m sure it wasn’t an impulse decision, but I hope you continue thinking about it and possibly reconsider for future projects. Pixel art games have a huge audience; you just need to make sure you reach the right people.
blakereynolds 05/13/2015 - 1:43 pm
Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I’ve been addressing the “uncanny pixel valley” argument from a few people. What I have to say is, even if that’s correct, and hell, even if Auro is literally the only game that gets the “pixellated” scarlet letter, I think my point still stands. Maybe the super low res “retro look” is a language a lot of people do understand. Maybe Auro’s art would benefit from being lower res art just as much as higher. The fact remains that I didn’t use a language people speak. It requires special knowledge and patience from an audience to see through these confusing things, and that’s on me.
I was going for a Neo Geo/PSX era art style. During that time, resolutions were higher, sprites were bigger and more colors were being used. Is Symphony of the Night pixel art? Depends on who you ask. Ultimately it doesn’t matter. All that matter is communicating in a language people understand.
Finally, I need to make the distinction between “communicating in a language people understand” and “appealing to a wider audience.” I do not endorse writing down. I don’t endorse cynically underestimating the intelligence of an audience. I say be as ambitious, challenging, advanced, and original as you can. Ruffle feathers. Change the world. Sacrifice your sanity for the sake of your art. All that stuff is what brings the best stuff into the world. Just do it in a language people speak. anyone clever enough to create things of quality in the first place should be clever enough to deliver that quality in a way people understand. You want to write an avant garde, esoteric novel? Great! Just don’t write it in Latin :).
I hope that clears things up.
Eric Fraga 05/13/2015 - 12:11 pm
If you read only one article on pixel art this year, or any other year… it HAS to be this one. Amazing reading. So much great examples and proof of what pixel art REALLY is on this article that is not even funny. You, sir, are a genius on the subject. I was not the only one to think that Street Fighter IV was a bit “off” — now I know why, thanks.
Turning on my OUYA right now to meet 100 Rogues, just found out that it was ported to OUYA (I don’t have any iOS device).
Again, thanks for an amazing time by just reading your article.
blakereynolds 05/13/2015 - 1:31 pm
Thanks so much! The perfectionist in me has to warn you. I made 100 Rogues’s art as early as 2007! It does not reflect what I’m currently capable of :). Also, the OUYA version was made by our publisher, not us. Dinofarm has no control over 100 Rogues these days, unfortunately. That said, it’s still a charming little roguelike that I, myself, play from time to time. Thanks again!
ryan 05/13/2015 - 12:18 pm
Fantastic read. I was just mulling this over when re-creating Fleischer character models in Illustrator.
While I appreciate the minimalism and beauty of pixel art, the audience that can recognize what makes it good is very, very small.
Dave Cooper 05/13/2015 - 12:22 pm
I used to really enjoy reading your posts, but it more and more appears that you are spending far too much time talking to Keith Burgun. While this post isn’t QUITE as intolerable as his stuffy, narrow-minded screeds – you have generally shown an aptitude for flexible thinking that Keith has never been able to muster – here you come dangerously close in a few spots. It would be unfortunate if you ever went fully in that direction. You’ve always been too good to be working with him; you’re a genuine talent as opposed to someone who only talks about it.
Keith Burgun is a cancer. Here’s to hoping you find your own way before he taints you beyond repair.
Lisandro 05/13/2015 - 12:30 pm
I don’t get it. Did your game fail miserably because of its art style? All I see here is that you read some reviews and are caring too much about them.
As many pointed out before, Minecraft art style is not only low resolution but ugly from every possible point of view. It’s not only pixelated but programmer art and if any landscape looks pretty it’s because of math and random chance and not because some artistic decision. Yet the game is extremely popular.
Hotline Miami was also very popular and looks like GTA 1.
I’m sure some people must have complained that Limbo was in black and white or that the characters lacked detail.
I would understand if you said you were abandoning pixel art because it doesn’t sell, but you’re abandoning it because you don’t have a skin thick enough to deal with stupid critics and this whole article, and I’ve read every word, it’s just a rationalization of that decision
You love pixel art, you are very good at pixel art, it’s a valid art form, and it’s a commercially viable art form. Do what you fucking love and stop caring so much about some people not getting it!
Lisandro 05/13/2015 - 12:36 pm
Here’s someone asking if you unlock “color mode” after beating Limbo. :facepalm:
BStrong 05/13/2015 - 12:36 pm
This article is fantastic, as is the art for Auro. I am going to buy this right away. Great work.
Ivan Gulkov 05/13/2015 - 12:46 pm
What a great and thoughtful article!
Speaking on niches, are you familiar with the “ZX Spectrum” sub-genre within the pixel art scene?
In addition to a low resolution and a rather psychedelic color pallet, the machine imposed another limitation, known as the “Attribute Clash”. The whole screen was divided into 8×8 pixel squares, while each square could only hold two colors and a brightness setting. http://gfxzone.planet-d.net/articles/zx_spectrum_graphics-explanation_symbol_places.png
This called for some very careful and creative planning, that would at once embrace and hide the color grid from view. Surprisingly, ZX Spectrum art still enjoys quite a vibrant following (especially in Eastern Europe, where grey market spectrum clones were a de-facto home computer of the late 80’s and early 90’s).
Petruza 05/13/2015 - 1:33 pm
Wow that Microsoft algorithm looks amazing, although it doesn’t improve pixelart, I don’t think such a thing can be achieved, but it’s kind of a new artform on itself, and you can get it automatically from already made beautiful pixelart.
Chas 05/13/2015 - 1:36 pm
The artwork for Auro is beautiful!
I thought your explanations and examples were spot-on. A big part of the problem, when using game-magazine critics/reviewer’s comments is something along the lines of, you are trying to serve filet-mignon and a good wine to the McDonald’s hamburger and supersize cola drink crowd. Your “weird meat” isn’t going to impress them.
mikiex 05/13/2015 - 1:52 pm
The iPhone 6 plus screen is only 1080×1920 of real pixels tho :)
mikiex 05/13/2015 - 1:55 pm
btw I like your game, to me it actually looks too high res, the larger the pixels the more people understand its meant to looks like it does, double your pixels sizes and people get the aesthetic more.
Shoop Lor 05/13/2015 - 2:07 pm
I really loved this article. I am so sad when I read these things though. And YES, it is true, people just don’t understand pixel art, but being an indie game developer myself I still use pixel art and intend to use it. I am not making a living out of games YET, I am making games because I love making them. And doing pixel art makes me happy and makes my games look exactly as I (not the public) want them to look. So I am happy with the precious FEW who will cherish my style and art, I am not sad about the MANY who will not. There are still many companies like NITROME or Vlambeer who still use and will not stop using pixel art. But yea, if you believe that you will reach your public better with “HD art” as everyone calls it :) then go for it. Thanks for the wonderful article.
Gregg 05/13/2015 - 2:31 pm
I have been playing Auro, and I really like the background and the character art. However, I find the text to be painful to read. The style of the text and buttons makes it hard to believe that ‘retro’ is not the impression you were trying to make with this game.
tam 05/13/2015 - 2:55 pm
Maybe you should go into making 4 color comics! http://4cp.posthaven.com/in-defense-of-dots-the-lost-art-of-comic-book
Jason 05/13/2015 - 3:39 pm
The problem is your target audience, not the pixel art style. Of course the retards who only play mobile games can’t stand pixel art and don’t have any experience with it. You should have made your game targeting Steam and consoles where the art style can actually be appreciated rather than chasing the bloated Whales of the mobile gold rush.
blakereynolds 05/13/2015 - 3:47 pm
Heh. We aren’t exactly chasing whales. Auro is a “pay once and it’s yours” kind of thing. We try to be ethical on that front, for better or worse. Thanks for reading!
Aulbath 05/13/2015 - 3:57 pm
This is a topic that has grieved me a lot when talking to friends and friends of friends about games – I never really understood why people wouldn’t see what I see in pixels. Then again, I have been playing games for 30 years – so I guess I “learned” to read these visuals properly and have a deep understanding of how and why they work. Personally, I always loved the fact that pixels are “hinting” at what they are depicting and are not perfect images of what they are trying to display. Funny enough, even though I am a huge admirer of the pixel art and a collector of retro games – even I try to “cheat” by using scanline filters or trying to replicate the bad image quality of oldschool TVs (something you kinda missed in your text) – those crappy TV sets and RF-connections made the games look better by bluring the pixels together and changing the perception of the game. Back in the days the “pixels” never stood out as much (well, apart from games like DooM or something) – these days everything’s just way too sharp.
Also, great point on animation – I always get angry when I see some good high-res art that is poorly animated (you know, typical flash style – using simple transitions by chopping up arms and legs into stiff segments that get animated individually – yuck!). Makes me wonder what you think about Guilty Gear Xrd (it has been mentioned before) , which I think is the game that right now is on the absolute forefront of doing what you are suggesting in your article.
However, what are your thoughts on detail in HD art? Personally, I think the Yoshi HD “sprite” you made needs more detail or more shades to work in that resolution. It looks very sharp and vectorish – kinda awesome, but for some weird reason I think it has lost some of it’s original character. I can’t quite pinpoint why that is Experiements in these past, like Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix had good individual sprites – but looked way too clean in the end and seemed rather “cheap” (and would have needed tons more frames of animation to work in that resolution – which wasn’t really the scope and/or goal of the game). I really wonder if HD actually kills off “classic” 2D sprite art – as soon as animation is involved, I could imagine it takes a lot of manpower to do something like Chun-Lis fireball in HD.
Oh and somewhat off topic – any thoughts on the Street Fighter V animations?
Maximüs Groves 05/13/2015 - 4:26 pm
I really enjoyed your article. I definitely think there’s an opportunity for niche styles to transcend superficial judgements like in IGN’s King of Fighters review, but that’s got to come from the entire game ensemble rather than the art alone. Maybe you can retain the style in choice areas to enforce some dissonance in the narrative or setting. I’ll definitely give Auro a shot, your screens looks beautiful.
James G 05/13/2015 - 4:58 pm
I don’t believe it was mentioned that the former medium was CRT monitors and televisions, and a lot of this beautiful art truly looks best on it. There are a few devices out there to convert and filter composite signals to look similar on VGA, but the average user won’t have this.
Now we’re in an era of ever-changing screen sizes and vector art is clearly the way to go, unless you code in the ability to adapt a tiled background to the screensize. But this won’t fix your core problem of not being able to scale your sprites/mobs without altering how it was intended to appear.
This all being said, I do think that using vectors doesn’t need to be a limiting factor. You can focus on art direction and theme. Not all the vector art in games is good. There’s quite a bit lacking in originality of the styles. This is where I think you can focus your attention; much like World of Warcraft, develop an art style that is unique to the brand.
PixelPiledriver 05/13/2015 - 4:59 pm
Read the thing.
There’s some decent info and examples here and there about… stuff.
But all together it’s kind of confusing.
It really comes across as a guy being salty rather than informative about art and games.
I kind of wondered if a long dev time and low sales prompted writing this article.
So I looked up Auro on my phone.
$2.99, 1 thousand downloads.
Not the greatest return on 4 years of development.
I might be a bit salty as well.
The lack of a demo might attribute to the low sales.
But I’m not very familiar with the flow of the mobile market.
The HUD is really weird for sure.
The numbers on the pink bubbles are very hard to read.
The overall composition of the screen is… creative… but weird.
The character animations are fun but completely unresponsive to the actions of the game.
A point that was amusingly illustrated with the street fighter example, say cheese, but disregarded in your own project.
The 15 minute video tutorial is somewhat hard to digest.
Aside from talking about pixels and announcing that they won’t use them anymore, this article basically just raised awareness of Auro.
Seems like a solid marketing move.
And it worked, on me at least.
Regardless of odd choices, I like weird puzzle games.
Countless hours of my life have been spent playing Builders Block and One Piece Mansion.
A weird game was presented to me and now that I know it exists, I’ll probly buy it.
There’s definitely deep interesting conversations about pixel art, game art, graphics tech, etc to be had.
But I don’t really think this one comes together all that well.
blakereynolds 05/13/2015 - 5:48 pm
I’m very happy that this article seems to have caught on. I suppose anything our company does publicly is a means of marketing, but it seems like most people found value in what I was trying to say, which is all I can hope for.
I’ve got to make it clear, though, that I am not salty. I’m not bitter. We think Auro is on a healthy path considering our small size and very limited resources. In any case, thank you for trying Auro. There are many people who aren’t wowed by it at first, but once it sinks in, they come back and go “holy cow!” It takes a bit to sink in because it’s actually not a puzzle at all. It’s a really deep strategy game in what I attempted to make an inviting package. Stick with it! Maybe you’ll fall in love. I know I have. I’m just the artist, not the designer. So I say that as a fan first, dev second. Thanks so much for reading.
P.S. As to character animations, the direction was to make 1 detailed idle for each character so we could have a high framerate and still be able to finish. SFIII cost millions of dollars. Auro was made for practically nothing. I did the best with the resources I had. If I could have had full animations, I would have. This is an example of me trying to work inside my limitations in a smart way to make decent looking art under the circumstances.
csanyk 05/13/2015 - 7:59 pm
I agree with everything you said here, except for the decision to abandon pixel art, which I understand your reasons for doing, but still hate them. The idea that it’s not your job to tell the masses what art style to prefer, well, it makes total sense if the purpose of the art is to serve commercial interests, I suppose.
But art is art. Art serves Art’s interests. And video games need not be commercial ventures, they can be capital-A Art. If audiences aren’t ready for it or don’t appreciate it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have failed at communication. It might mean that, but it doesn’t necessarily.
Art for the ages doesn’t need to concern itself with what the masses want. Picasso didn’t invent cubism because he saw massive commercial appeal in it. He explored his ideas with great passion and cubism was the result of that. All the people who complain that pixel art games are “pixelated, but good” look at modern art and say “My kid could draw something better than that, and he’s four.”
Still, there’s a lot of those people, and comparatively few people who truly care for and appreciate cubism. So, if you’re trying to be a successful game artist, I guess don’t bother with creating a cubist graphical style, right? Which, is a shame. Because once we got to so many polygons, and physics rigging, and super realistic texture bumpmapping and shaders, attempting to re-create reality with extreme fidelity, I had hoped that game artists might finally start to realize that there are lots of other art styles to choose besides hyper-realist fantasy, and really unlock their, and our, imaginations.
John 05/13/2015 - 8:51 pm
Thanks for this article, some great insight into the thought process behind the art.
I would however argue that pixel art in recent years has become quite popular, especially so with the younger generation who are experiencing it for he first time due to some popular pixel titles like Shovel Knight and Goblin Sword.
I’m no expert but in almost certain there are workflows to create scalable pixel art which remains crisp edged on low and high resolutions. (Dynamic sprite sheeting). its about matching up the cortect dev tools to the art style
blakereynolds 05/14/2015 - 11:29 am
Yes those are wonderful, popular, great looking games. However, their core audience is retro gamers. They’re not only getting a pixel art experience, but a gameplay experience they’re very familiar with. A 17 year old young woman with an iPad, though, might download shovel knight and think “what’s with the pixelation? I’d better call Apple Care.” The point is, even if that number is smaller than I estimate, those who feel that way are not to blame. Creators are. Nothing against Shovel Knight on a personal note. It’s gorgeous.
Justin Leingang 05/14/2015 - 11:41 am
Oh! And another interesting fact is that of how much better (in general) pixel art communicates certain important aspects of play, such as: Volume, spacial relationships, clarity of boundaries, and more. I don’t believe that this was an intention of artists in the past, but rather a happy side effect.
It is perfectly possible to carry over such aspects into higher-resolution art, but it becomes more and more challenging to do so the higher the resolution becomes. This is likely due to the fact that the example aspects that I gave are reliant on simple shapes. In lower resolutions, it’s easier to render complex ideas into simple shapes and have them look “cute”. Whereas, in higher-resolution, the more that an artist tries to render a complex idea into a simple shape, the more stiff it tends to look (or lacking in proper detail).
This is something that I’ve been uncomfortably aware of for a long time, and have been constantly trying to solve for in my own video game graphics. Fun challenge!
Ric Filippetti 05/13/2015 - 9:04 pm
Phenomenal post. You wrote it perfectly. I couldn’t agree more. I really enjoy pixel art and it’s just not everyone’s cup of tea these days. You hit the nail on the head with SFIII vs SF IV. I loved the CPS3 engine and I really hoped that it would have evolved further into something like UbiArt Framework. The animation is what really sold me on it. SFIV does have horrendous animations and it really was a step back from SFIII, imo. 2D Beat-em ups are my thing and I never got my CPS3 title. Scott Pilgrim vs the World was a game that caught me by surprise in that they executed with Pixelart and smooth animations. It was excellent. I always had a feeling that 2D Art in games would make a comeback and with mobile devices it came back strong. At the same time I can also agree with the sentiment of this article because hand drawing the sprites must be easier with today’s technology than making Pixelart. Top that with the average person thinking its pixelated and being retro and it just doesn’t have its place anymore. I just don’t get why people aren’t taking the time to animate things at a higher frame rate, like with CPS3.
Thanks for turning me onto Pixeljoint! I’ll be all over that now.
blakereynolds 05/14/2015 - 11:27 am
Yeah, I mean, I think applying capitalism to the arts just creates a more and more high stakes, risk-averse environment. SFIII had a blank check, I’m pretty sure. As did Symphony of the Night. Today, all we can bank on are either rich cooks who don’t care about bleeding out money for their art(or for the sake of someone else’s), or those of us who don’t mind starving to do what we love. I’m one of those. Heh. Yeah man. If Street Fighter IV was traditionally done by those best and brightest capcom animators, I would be in love. Conversely, if Pixar made a Street Fighter movie, I’d probably adore that animation too.
Torbjorn van Heeswijck 05/14/2015 - 12:02 am
I think the old Marshal McLuhan quote “the medium is the message” is relevant to a lot of what you’re saying.
Increasing graphical power has meant that modern, high quality art can have qualities like ‘retro’ ascribed to it simply because of the medium, and this is to some extent true regardless of your intention.
Good blog post by the way :)
Josh 05/14/2015 - 12:19 am
“Problems arise when it comes time to convey to a lay person what constitutes good art.”
That seems like a problematic statement. Is art not inherently subjective?
I am skeptical someone with more of an ability to create art is is any position to assert what constitutes ‘good art’.
I don’t mean to distract from the main article and maybe I read too much into that statement, but I was thinking about it as I read the rest of the article.
Anonymous 05/14/2015 - 5:55 am
Fantastic article. Thank you for your insight.
Considering how passionate you seem about pixel art and how it’s evolved I’m sure you know, but I still have to ask if you’ve ever seen or played A Boy and his Blob for the original Wii. I think the 2D art there really resembles your final Yoshi picture in how it approaches pixel art.
sondre 05/14/2015 - 6:00 am
I sense a certain sadness in this post which brings back some memories. I stopped making pixel graphics after having had my work rejected by the pixeljoint community a few years ago. I just couldn’t muster the motivation to plot pictures pixel by pixel anymore when even people who care about pixels didn’t appreciate it.
I really hope you will be able to work in a way that you enjoy while also getting some recognition for what you do. A different medium presents different opportunities and challenges, but colour and composition always matters. Good luck.
takosuke 05/14/2015 - 6:07 am
This is something which I’ve been thinking about for quite some time – i love pixel art to death, and i think it has never ending possibilities, but sometimes I wish all the creative energy that goes into pixel art could also go into new avenues, since there’s not much variety of aesthetics in games outside of pixel art.
The invention of photography didn’t put all painters out of work or turn them into photographers. It forced them to go into all sorts of crazy new directions instead.
Stollz 05/14/2015 - 6:31 am
As much as I agree with your points, I must disagree with you on your Diablo comment. Because apart from analyzing the art separately, you really need to put it into context in order to see if “it works”. I dont see another type of art doing the trick for that game. The game sent me a very clear message – this is a depressive, gothic, horror world with it’s own style. That game is the reason I fell in love with gaming, it’s unique in it’s own way and kickstarted a whole franchise that people obviously love very much. I know for a fact that if it used pixel art and more colors it wouldn’t convey the message it did.
blakereynolds 05/14/2015 - 11:20 am
Thanks for the comment. You may be right that having muddy, oppressive visuals was instrumental in establishing a mood. On the other hand,this was during the time when digitized 3d was the thing to do, especially in American PC games. Since Mortal Kombat, there was this craze. The promise of these super detailed, “realistic” looking sprites with a billion colors was more about technological spectacle and the state of the market and consumer education than it was about art direction/aesthetics. Also, as a practical matter, an isometric game would be a humungous pain to make assets for with traditional animation. All those attacks and run cycles with 4 facings? Talk about a nightmater ;). I do believe that if they had a killer art director and an unlimited budget, they could have made traditional art(not necessarily pixel art), have it look amazing, and also achieve the ambiance you’re talking about. I do see your point though. Those visuals sure are scary. And I’m not even being funny there. It’s like… you do feel uneasy playing that game. Maybe that was the point.
Jeremy 05/14/2015 - 9:46 am
I totally feel you on the “HQ” filters that emulators use these days. It always makes me kinda sad to go back and play Chrono Trigger or Super Metroid and see a bunch of oddly smooth rounded lines instead of the awesome pixels that I remember so fondly. Unfortunately just scaling the original picture to match modern hardware doesn’t look particularly good either. I wish someone would investigate a technique for scaling up pixel art in a way that retains the “feel” of the original picture while adapting it for a higher resolution. I know it still wouldn’t be as good as good pixel art made specifically for the end resolution, but it’d be better than the smooth, bubbly look that is the dominant trend in scaling filters today.
polyoptics 05/14/2015 - 9:54 am
It seems true that people will always gravitate to the latest greatest technology (gotta get that iphone!) — but at the same time, well made art/games will always be popular despite the style.
I love the article, but I’m not sure if I agree 100% with everything written, for example :
Yes the 3d version of Chun-Li is definitely not animated as well as the 2d version. However, I think (just like with pixel art) knowing WHY it looks this way is an important factor when dealing with new tech. The 3d version looking worse, is not only subjective, but also relative to how it was made.
Yes the 3d animation wasn’t fluid, and yes the 2d pixel art looks blocky. The point of the article is that it’s hard for the general audience to look past those things because it requires an understanding of the technology.
Who knows… but the pixel art at the head of the page looks absolutely amazing, its really too bad they won’t do more.
Justin Leingang 05/14/2015 - 11:26 am
Fantastic article. Though one interesting “phenomena” that we have to keep in mind is that of peer psychology. I honestly believe that “hard core” video game players see pixels vs. high res much more overtly than do the common mass of mobile video game players. If Angry Birds were rendered in pixel art graphics, I still feel that it would be hugely popular. The throngs of players of that game don’t see the specifics of the art — they’re already invested before they even see the game because of the way that the media and their peers hype up it. Case in point on the opposite end of the spectrum: Flappy Bird. You can’t get much more pixel art-y than Flappy Bird, yet ten gajillion people not only downloaded it, but also for some reason think it’s a good video game! They don’t even see the graphics for how they’re rendered. They don’t care.
So, then, perhaps pixel art isn’t *always* a damning sub-medium. But, rather, what’s damning is perfectly knowing your sub-audience. (Note: I understand that you successfully point out the importance of creating for your audience. I just thought it might be valuable to get a bit more granular. There are always exceptions to the rule in this crazy, crazy world!)
Thanks for such a wonderfully thought out and executed article!
Justin Leingang 05/14/2015 - 11:55 am
Oh! And another interesting fact is that of how much better (in general) pixel art communicates certain important aspects of play, such as: Volume, spacial relationships, clarity of boundaries, and more. I don’t believe that this was an intention of artists in the past, but rather a happy side effect.
It is perfectly possible to carry over such aspects into higher-resolution art, but it becomes more and more challenging to do so the higher the resolution becomes. This is likely due to the fact that the example aspects that I gave are reliant on simple shapes. In lower resolutions, it’s easier to render complex ideas into simple shapes and have them look “cute”. Whereas, in higher-resolution, the more that an artist tries to render a complex idea into a simple shape, the more stiff it tends to look (or lacking in proper detail).
This is something that I’ve been uncomfortably aware of for a long time, and have been constantly trying to solve for in my own video game graphics. Fun challenge!
Fernando 05/14/2015 - 11:58 am
Excellent article, very well written.
Firia 05/14/2015 - 1:21 pm
This is sad, and I worry if this is the trend of things. I’m a new game designer working in a two person team (total). We’ve opted for a pixel art take on things, and I’m full of hope that it will look gorgeous and be imaginative (that’s my job, after all). But if something as brilliant looking an Auro can be panned as “pixelated,” I sort of find myself worried where I once had hope.
I also don’t fully understand the aspect of “The Artist’s Responsibility,” or establishing meaningful intent. Maybe I’m to green to understand.
I will endeavor to fill my pixel art and animations with as much love and life as I can muster. :) I can only hope that for those that understand, it will appeal towards.
quash 05/14/2015 - 1:48 pm
I do like this article overall, especially the part where you compared the “mosaic” sprite with the “rock and chisel” sprite.
However, I can’t help but feel a slight bit of animosity in your whole spiel about “pixel tax”. You didn’t really elaborate on what you meant by it and it really just comes off as you saying that the more “pixelated” 2D art is, the better it looks. Your addendum about the quality of animation being independent of whether it’s 2D or not doesn’t really address that, either.
You also entirely neglected the importance of viewing sprites at their proper (read: native) resolution. The reason KOFXIII looks so much better than KOFXII, in spite of using the same sprites, is because the sprites are viewed at the correct size and aren’t zoomed in on. The visual effects on the sprites (namely the coloring and shading) aren’t lost on the viewer in KOFXIII the same way they are in KOFXII because the game doesn’t shove the sprites in your face. Incidentally, this was done in KOFXII as a homage to the older Neo-Geo titles that would zoom in on player sprites in the same way, but those sprites had less to lose in doing that because they didn’t have anywhere near the level of detail. In this case, I feel like even a seasoned 2D fan can reserve the right to be mad about going for the “pixelated” look, because it was entirely unnecessary and detracted from the visual prowess of the sprites in question.
Which brings me to my point, which I will assume good faith and say you wanted to get at, but ended up kind of dancing around: it is not a matter of higher or lower resolution necessarily being better than the other, rather it is a matter of which resolution brings out the most details in 2D art (read: the native resolution). Taking higher resolution sprites and zooming in on them for a “low res” look is a recipe for disaster, as is upscaling low res sprites, though obviously for different reasons.
As an aside, while I do think your particular example from Third Strike is good, that game suffers from a serious case of aesthetic inconsistency, and you could find nearly as many cases of sloppy animation in that game as you could just about any other. I recognize that it managed to squeeze more frames of animation out of the characters than any other game of the time, but it also had a very goofy art style with awful proportions and sprites that looked like they straight up belonged in another game. Not to mention all those frames of animation came at the price of virtually static backgrounds, recycled animations, etc. That’s not to say that there aren’t some excellent examples of 2D animation in Third Strike, but I wouldn’t say the game as a whole is worth the praise it often receives in this regard; and it certainly doesn’t hold a candle to KOFXIII, BlazBlue, GGXrd, etc., as some people seem to think it does.
tldr 05/14/2015 - 2:25 pm
blakereynolds 05/14/2015 - 5:13 pm
Well if you do end up reading it, make sure to read it all because I think some people skim and take the opposite message from it. That said, it’s not as long as it looks. There’s lotsa fun pictures!
Wouter 05/14/2015 - 3:42 pm
Fantastic article, and food for thought.
I think one thing you’re missing is that there may be such a thing as “the uncanny valley of pixel art”, i.e. art works best when it is either crisp at the native resolution of the device (which nowadays is very high) or when it is unmistakably using very few pixels to be expressive (like e.g. Zelda above).
In between creates problems. Auro’s sprites are gorgeous, but they are actually fairly high-res for a pixel art game, such that when viewed on the small physical dimensions of a phone, the untrained eye could mistake them easily for being “aliased”. Even more obvious are the shapes that form your UI, which are organic shapes of very high resolution, yet still lower than the native resolution, so they look aliased.
There are also rendering problems at the high resolution you have, in that you have to to scale up by a whole number to get crisp looking “nearest neighbor” sampling for your pixels.. that’s a LOT easier if the scaling factor is big. If on any devices the scaling factor would be 1.8 say, you have to choose between every 5th pixel being smaller than the others (2-2-2-2-1), or blurryness (interpolated sampling), or huge letterboxing, all of which look terrible.
Ironically, I think the art of your game would have been better received at half its current resolution (and with more conservative, square-ish UI shapes).
Josh 05/14/2015 - 3:45 pm
This post made me proud of the pixel and your artistic savvy, but then a little sad. You and your team have a great deal of talent and you shouldn’t let trends or technical challenges destroy your artist vision. You’re insight is truly keen, except for one point where I disagree: pixel art can be vector and can therefore work in HD (more on this in a moment). Plus no one says that you must go all the way with one medium, why not combine pixel art with 3D or other forms to create interesting modern compositions. Why not use something to convert your pixel art to vector graphics, like this online demo of a simple pixel art program I put together today that produces an SVG that is editable in Illustrator and can therefore be scaled to oblivion, allowing for some pretty neat uses: http://jpgamesarcade.com/boxworx/
I hope to use something like this (much upgraded) in my own future developments and would like to see someone else fighting the good fight for this art form too!
matt 05/14/2015 - 7:10 pm
When a CRT television displayed games with RF or composite cables the images looked more blurred and there was color bleed and it looked different on glass, the way the light projected with that technology. For instance, in the rosy cheeks of the girl character in Zombies Ate My Neighbors on the Sega Genesis, at the character select screen, the red of her cheeks blends in naturally, the way a painter or color pencilist or someone would smear with chalk when doing chalk art. But this effect is lost with a pure pixel view of LCD.
In general you could do more smearing and shading. It is hard to do shading in pixel art on LCD screens. Unless the pixel art is making use of the high resolution truly, so that the image is very detailed, rather than working in 16 or 8-bit -style limitations of resolutions like 320×240 and blowing it up to 1 megapixel or more.
matt 05/14/2015 - 7:13 pm
What I mean to say is that the image was actually more complex when viewed off a tube TV; I think even with RGB output on monitors that artists may have used to draw the art. The colors literally blend a little together at the edges. If you have a red pixel next to a white pixel, there is a little bit of pink produced in between. It’s a more complex image.
If you take a digital photo of a tube TV (CRT) displaying a retro game, such as SNES, NES, Genesis, etc., then the JPEG file is larger and has more shades in it than if you take a photo with the same camera off an emulator running it on your LCD computer monitor. Yes, of course a screengrab saved in PNG or GIF is smaller, but I mean the JPEG that a typical point-n-shoot camera takes off screen, from the glass of a CRT (Tube) or off a flat screen (LCD). You will get more picture information because the eye is seeing more colors and data due to the imperfections of the display from the analog cables used.
Mr.Owl 05/14/2015 - 11:25 pm
I just want to point out that King of Fighter XIII’s sprites were made by tracing 3D models and animations
blakereynolds 05/15/2015 - 1:44 am
Yep, I’m well aware, but that doesn’t matter at all. The end result is still wonderful 2D animation. They started with the 3d models, yes, but from there, they’re able to hand-draw clothing drapery folding and compressing properly, muscles flexing and warping, bellies sucking in, chests filling with air. Hair moving the way it should. Capes not looking like they’re made of clay. The list goes on and on. Having a discrete 3D model is only a little different from doing an underdrawing in traditional animation. The ends justify the means. And again, it’s got nothing to do with 2D vs 3D. If KOFXIII’s animation was 3D but they were still somehow able to incorporate what I just listed, it wouldn’t change my opinion one bit.
Buck Fuggler 05/15/2015 - 12:58 am
This was a fascinating article to read. I’ve enjoyed pixel art the same way I’ve enjoyed electronic music made by less club-ready artists who are still in love with cheesy tones from Casio equipment from the 90’s, but I’m much less aware of the process of what does or does not make good pixel art; very much a layman.
One of the things that I wanted to mention was the animation SFIV uses. While I agree that KOFXIII is a game that will stand the test of time because of its aesthetic and animation (much like Garou: Mark of the Wolves), I think a key distinction to note is that the animations in SFIV are a result of procedurally generated hitboxes. This is data that can (and has) be altered in order to change the fundamental balance at competitive play, whereas with the case of the SF3 series of games, that was a much more laborious process of constant re-releases. An example would be the difference in Rufus’ far-stanking MK in AE2012 and Ultra. It received one more active frame, causing it to linger seemingly much longer than it did before. Even though a single frame out of 60 per second otherwise wouldn’t be noticable, now it is because of the way that data interacts with procedurally generated hitboxes.
More importantly, I think that while SFIV is already showing its age in a way that 3S didn’t, it’s important to note that the limitations of its engine have already produced interesting ways of combating such an obvious problem of how procedurally generated hitboxes can result in awkward animations. Guilty Gear Xrd uses a very rigorous method of animating characters using decals that color and lay over 3D models (very interesting watch: http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1022031/GuiltyGearXrd-s-Art-Style-The) that has an obvious application for creating a fighting game that can still have a strong aesthetic without animations suffering too much from procedurally generated hitboxes being present or altered.
It kind of worries me that pixel art is something that people are looking to phase out of fighting games with the idea that it’s not next-gen enough, as it’s been one of the things that’s drawn me to many fighting games over the ages (I remember my jaw dropping at the sight of the sprite work in Darkstalkers 3 when I was young). It does seem like the change in aesthetics, at least when it comes to the genre, are only partially about aesthetic choice, though. We’re talking about a genre that is still not ready for the patch cycle that even Blizzard games get without turning its competitive playerbase away, the exact opposite response patches for an FPS or MOBA would elicit.
I understand that this article pretty much isn’t about fighting games and is more about artistic design, but I think that fighting games, especially now, have a serious overlap of artistic and functional design. You’re pretty much buying a game where your entire experience is watching two(usually) characters move, so there’s going to be an awful lot of time to examine not only the animations, but how it relates to the game engine itself. Either way, it was a great read. And yes, 3S is still beautiful (and fun!) to this day.
blakereynolds 05/15/2015 - 1:41 am
Wow! Fascinating insights. Thanks for the link! And what you’re speaking to is yet another issue we’ve got to watch out for in game art. Fashion vs. Function. We have to sacrifice good animation for game balance. Just like with Auro, I had to sacrifice certain visual doo dads and details for the sake of gamestate clarity. Perhaps another article for another time, though I’m sure that topic has been very well trod. Thanks again. Really wonderful comment.
madadric 05/15/2015 - 5:44 am
What a great introspective and frank article! The skill and dedication dispayed in masters of the pixel medium is truly impressive, but realising your tastes are putting a barrier between yourself and your audience can be a tough place to reach.
Your philosophy of “What I think doesn’t matter” rings true for me when I regard my relationship to how others experience the things I make. For the audience, their experience trumps my desire for the experience I want them to have.
“Art isn’t sacred” isn’t a popular opinion to have, particularly amongst artists or dedicated fans. When you care so deeply and personally about something, it can be hard to come to terms with the fact that this thing you care about isn’t as important as other people’s experiences of it.
Jespersen 05/15/2015 - 10:09 am
I love your commentary, but I’m baffled why you interpreted the depixelizing algorithm as “scientists hate pixel art so much they wish to see it destroyed!!1”
If anything, technology of this sort would help avoid the resizing and blur issues you mentioned even in higher resolution, and the whole thing actually demonstrates quite nicely how clusters of pixels of different colours can represent complex imagery. Personally, I find it fascinating.
Craig 05/15/2015 - 10:12 am
Great article, but no mention or examples of Vanillaware games… the best pixel artists in the world? Hmm.
blakereynolds 05/15/2015 - 11:50 am
Keyword there is “among.” It’s “among” the best pixel art, and not in the world. In any game. So, the sentiment is “among the best pixel art in any game.” Small, but important distinction. Most of the pixeljoint guys I love are way better.
David 05/15/2015 - 7:36 pm
The image of Bubsy, to which you contrast an image of Gamebody Zelda, has great art. Maybe it is a case of the viewer not willing to admit to the aesthetics, or maybe they just don’t get it. It has a charm and a style that I think is more deliberate than the critic is aware of, and its sensibilities are something that I’ve always been able to tap into, and I love tapping in to them. I don’t think that the Gameboy Zelda image is of greater art, but is more compact in its conveyed meaning. The Bubsy art is trying to stimulate imagination to evoke a sense of possibility beyond what is visually seen and expected, while the Zelda art is trying to invite a sense that can be more familiarly referenced.
radiantdreamer 05/16/2015 - 3:56 am
I really liked your article explaining what the layman can’t understand about pixel art. While I agree that it’s not their fault, I do have to say you’re wrong to think pixel art isn’t appreciated. Especially when they fit into the restrictions of 8bit and 16bit aesthetics. Examples of successfully appreciated games include Retro City Rampage, Towerfall, Fez, Crypt of the Necrodancer, Spelunky, and many more.
I think you’re making a huge mistake in renouncing pixel art for your games. You just need a different approach!
Jo 05/16/2015 - 5:01 am
I don’t understand why people are concerned about big ass pixel that today looks exactly like they did when old games were released.
I’m kind of old (30) but I got the original playstation as first console but I managed to play NES and SNES games at friends houses. I still like these games and I eventually pop out my *cough* emulator for some good old FFVI , Tactics Ogre or Star Ocean. Especially tactics ogre, I find them masterpieces in many ways.
On another note, and this does not concern pixel art but gaming on smartphones in general. I own a Windows Phone and I am not ever going back to iOS (awesome systems but too pricey) and especially Androids (slow as hell) I wonder how much costs to software houses to develop apps and games on WP as well, I really hate being cut out from amazing stuff like Auro, because I’d buy it in a heartbeat.
qmishery 05/16/2015 - 7:51 am
not exactly, man. Though if you play on authenthic CRT – i would agree.
But resizing 240p on 1080p display sucks until u play within 3 m from it.
HASJ 05/16/2015 - 6:21 am
I love 2D art but to this day I don’t understand the love for pixelated stuff.
Back then, I didn’t care because, well, it was the norm but now, it is the exception.
You don’t really have to ditch 2D animation if all you want to do is get rid of them pixelated sprites… Take a look at Skullgirls.
Hand drawn to it’s core but the sprites were put in a 3D rendering engine and Voilá! (From what I understand)
That allowed them to apply lighting effects, create character custom colors without worrying about palettes and much more without being pixelated.
I thought it was really weird you mentioned SF3 and Guilty Gear but not Skullgirls.
Rishabh Dangwal 05/16/2015 - 7:48 am
Very well written article, loved Auro & have been drooling over classic 2d games since the time I can perceive things. Its a shame that pixel art has to be defended right now to reach broader mass appeal. Damn I miss the demoscene.
Ambassador Duck 05/16/2015 - 7:53 am
First off, this was really interesting and well written, so I thank you for that. But your main conclusion was naive. You assume you know what “language” your audience speaks. You don’t. And what’s even worse is that neither you nor anyone can predict the “languages” of next year.
Yes as an artist you can aim to please. But you have only your personal aesthetic criteria (and thank god for that) to go by. All else are assumptions.
And to be frank an artist is an artist when she/he wants to share with others how she sees the world. Not return to them assumptions and poorly or well educated guesses about how they see the world. The more “inclusive” and “rounded” you strive to be, the less personal you get. And art has always been personal, both to the artist and the beholder.
Best of luck to you and your team.
Akim 05/16/2015 - 8:20 am
I think SF4 has one the best animations in fighting game history, I don’t get why someone thinks that they are bad. Of course there are moves that looks awkward but hey every fighting game has those (usually they are those necessary quick moves with low frame count). I like also SF3 animations but they are different, they are much more cartoony with their elastic movement what you can see excatly when comparing those Chunli FB animations. SF3 has less realistic animation than SF4. That cloth animation could be better in SF4 but it could be limitation of used engine.
I’m one those guys that hates Pixar 3D animations because they are over elastic over animated (I called them usually “Disney Animation”) and very awkward at times. Real people don’t move like that. There fine examples of so called “Disney Animation” in gaming as well like Bioshock Infinite. I’m not good explaining but if you watch Pixar’s movie Brave for example and look how character turns his/her head and you see what I mean. The animation is very awkward. Animation starts, fasten and sudden stop.
bamtam 05/16/2015 - 10:52 am
thxs for cleearing that up: i did think sf4 is just laziness over details and to me kof13 isnt hires enough: skullgirls. the ignorant’s needs should come first, not the advanced players’ like it is, like, tradition in japan.
Denis a faria 05/16/2015 - 1:47 pm
Darkstalkers (bengus+akiman+kinu nishmura) + meander disney(paperman)
Eric Rodman 05/16/2015 - 8:44 pm
I don’t think the comparison for Rambo and Mighty Final Fight is entirely fair considering they came out six years apart. There’s also a seven year difference for Diablo and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and Diablo is a lot faster paced. Don’t get me wrong, I like 2D games but you also have to take into account gameplay as well.
Forty 05/16/2015 - 8:52 pm
The mistake here isn’t pixel art, it was making anything of beauty for the tasteless masses who use an iPhone. Release your set resolution games on PC or some kind of home console where people who do enjoy video games will appreciate it. Make a quick buck by feeding the iPhone peasants the cake they want, we’ll keep our fine cheeses in the PC palace.
blakereynolds 05/16/2015 - 10:04 pm
Well, I can’t stress enough how my attitude is never to look at the audience as inferior or lesser than. I think it’s harmful for the arts to see other people as anything other than smart, capable of being challenged, and discerning. Maybe that’s naive of me, but that’s my operating philosophy.
That said, I hope you’re right about PC, because it’s coming out soon!
qmishery 05/17/2015 - 4:09 am
Damn you! In 2008-2012 there were many good games made by “unknown” devs for iOS that i still pleased to enjoy yet nowodays everything is FTP bullshit with level up etc.
So, you want to even more decrease number of good games there? GRRRRRR
blakereynolds 05/17/2015 - 1:52 pm
For what’s it’s worth, Auro is not F2P, and I’m pretty sure we’d never ever use that model. Also, I hope that our games will only get better with time!
qmishery 05/17/2015 - 3:03 pm
Sure, that’s why i get angry – while there are still good games in the field, there is still a hope! While i mostly stick to iOS because of it’s music making software (which is also moslty created by talented enthusiasts rather than big companies, at least that’s how it started before Korg, Moog and other started contributing), i still think that idea “wow! i can make my game and put it in my pocket” still amaze some devs, also potential of touchscreen/gyroscope controls often used not in 100% (and where it shouldnt be applied – we have wireless gamepads and anything u wanna)..Road is not closed BUT it’s painful how it’s near impossible to find your auditory unless you’re slave of publishers or trends. I got link of this post from another blogger who is unrelated to mobile gaming. In early years of appstore rise, i could read “Top 100” of ios related sites which often reviewed not only “hit sellers” but many hidden gems too, while nowodays i can only randomly find anything or monitor what other people play and get fun from. It’s a tough place cause “nearly everyone” moved here, and it’s bad that appstore or google play mix everything (you have tactic rpg near Plants vs Zombie, what?). But there are also examples how games found gamer’s heart on smartphone first, some of them later got ported to Steam or PSN. Just do what you love and do it at your best, that’s what i wish you.
David 05/16/2015 - 10:03 pm
A really interesting and thought out article. I have never player King of Fighters, but I have played The Last Blade 1 & 2, and while the character models aren’t as good as the ones shown the background animations are stunning.
Scroll down to the Last Blade 1 & 2 images
KeyPhact Moon 05/17/2015 - 6:54 am
Could not agree more with this post, and this is one of the main reasons why I cannot get into SF4 or most HD looking games. Whilst playing SF4 the characters feel so dead, so much lack of natural movement, that I can’t feel any soul from the character. SF3s had so much life, you could feel those attacks, get into the combos, become the character.
I also love this quote “Limitations force ingenuity and innovation, as well as push a form forward”, this is so true about the programming and systems engineering industry right now as well. Back when processing power and memory resources were limited, some pretty ingenious programs and systems were written and created. Nowadays everything is “we throw money and resources” at problems instead of demonstrating our human potentials.
I digress, but again thanks for the great read :)
Patrick Carter 04/12/2017 - 2:17 am
I know this is kind of an old article, but I adore coming back to read through it from time to time. The concise way you talk about pixel art and techniques is great! Auro looks awesome, by the way.
Moreso 05/17/2015 - 7:39 am
“Choosing pixel art was ultimately self-serving and wound up confusing and even frustrating people.”
I think that art should be self-serving. The only thing you owe people is a good game, if they buy it. Some people don’t get why you’d choose a pixel-art style. Well, here’s one who doesn’t understand why you’d move away from it if that’s the style you want to work in.
keithburgun 05/20/2015 - 1:27 pm
Part of “a good game” is “good art”, and part of “good art” is “art that expresses its ideas as clearly as possible”.
I think Blake doesn’t actually care that much whether he’s working in pixel art or in another medium. It’s just a medium, and he will make great art regardless. So he’s saying, well, there’s not really a cost to going to a different style, and there IS a benefit which is that few people will be automatically turned off by it.
Mike Justmike 05/17/2015 - 8:10 am
You keep using words that seem to place these things as fact. In your earliest case of this you say that LoZ looks better than Bubsy. You don’t state this as your opinion on the matter, or your preference. You state it as though it’s a fact.
When it comes to art though, EVERYTHING is an opinion. While yes, I agree that pixel art was a beautiful art form in not only a graphical sense but a technical one; and even a creative one, I don’t find that you’re taking into account modern limitations as well. You’re a pixel purist, or were rather, and you made a game with that art style and took offense when others didn’t understand what you were going for. You didn’t express yourself clearly enough that your game was in fact an homage to those artists of old and was meant to have a pixeled style.
Plenty of other games that use pixel art to their advantage get great reviews constantly, and some of them like Minecraft even give the players the option to upgrade the graphics with texture packs, and shaders, because pixel art simply isn’t everyone’s favorite style.
I like how Bubsy looked, and Diablo 1, 2, and 3. And Street Fighter 4, which took a new art style and wasn’t going for realism at all. You wouldn’t claim Borderlands to have an inferior or boring or terrible art style just because they went with the cell shaded look. In fact you’ll find many applauding them on their art, and not because they pioneered it or stood out from the crowd. Around the time Borderlands was released other cell shaded games such as Crackdown were also out (and even out for longer at that point) and weren’t praised for their art but rather shunned. People called it lazy and boring and plenty of other negative things. But that was due to the artists techniques.
You created a pixel art game with a technique that much like Crackdown’s was not popular despite other titles using the same art style and a different technique gaining praise. It’s simply what your consumer prefers. You shouldn’t be mad that IGN didn’t appreciate your technique despite how much work you put into it (setting aside that IGN is a terrible reviewing company in my opinion) but rather look to those who enjoyed your art’s style and technique and see if you can do more to please them. Don’t just give up, you’re very talented, that’s evident enough, and if you’re wondering by now; yes I did enjoy the art in your game though I didn’t enjoy the gameplay itself much.
I guess I broke away from my main point. Don’t confuse opinions with facts. Yes, Rambo looked terrible in many people’s eyes and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would see that and enjoy it. But I bet you there’s at LEAST one person out there who played that game as a kid and loved the hell out of it’s art and maybe still does. Opinions are what they are, and to critique art by stating your own opinions are facts just made you look bad here.
And that’s my opinion most certainly.
keithburgun 05/20/2015 - 1:25 pm
You over-state it when you say that EVERYTHING in art is “an opinion”. Would you also say it’s an “opinion” of a given scientist that evolution by natural selection occurs in nature? I mean, he does not *know* it with 100% certainty. But he does know it with a pretty high degree of certainty, which he can verify through peer review and testing.
Similarly, let’s take a really easy example from the world of visual arts. It is my opinion that scribbling all over a painting will not improve it. This will also be verified by most other artists I talk to (peers) and on the general viewing public (test subjects). It’s the same thing.
Sure, it’s difficult to reach high levels of certainty on some things in art, but you vastly overstate the case when you say EVERYTHING is an opinion. We know many things with a high degree of certainty about how to create better art.
metatime 05/17/2015 - 9:55 am
SF4 was capcoms first true attempt in 3D animation so you gotta compare it to SF1 and not SF3.
SF4 is showing its age but its gameplay is timeless and will continue being one of the most played fighting game for ages so that’s why its still the #1 fighting game in tournaments
Weber 05/17/2015 - 6:54 pm
Well, that title picture seems like it was leaning on dithering to achieve it’s look. And Auro doesn’t even come close to looking as good as the old nintendo and capcom stuff…
blakereynolds 05/17/2015 - 7:51 pm
The quality of Auro’s art is irrelevant to the point of the article. If an audience requires special knowledge to ensure they don’t think there is some visual glitch, they can’t even get to the assessment of the art’s quality. I put a barrier between them and that assessment. They first have to understand that something isn’t wrong with their phone before they can determine whether they think the art is good or bad on its merits. While some people may think I’m good and others not so much, I will continue to do my best to make the highest quality art I can. In the future, I simply plan to do it in a language people already speak, rather than feeling as though they owe it to me to acquire special knowledge. Hope that’s a clear distinction now. Thanks for reading.
Ömer 05/18/2015 - 3:12 am
Most mainstream gaming sites don’t konow how to review a fighting game. This is from The Fighters Generation’s review of KOF XIII:
“A pure 2D fighting game like KOF XIII will always have a certain “magic” that cannot be obtained with 3D graphics. I highly prefer KOF 13’s visuals to SF4’s any day of the week. King of Fighters XIII is a work of art in motion.”
Vladimir 05/18/2015 - 6:16 am
I don’t really follow the logic from the author of this article.
By taking this decision, he will piss off people who love pixel art in order to please people who prefer HD. Considering how things are he is leaving a format he knows and loves to compete in a really saturated, different format…
Some people can complain because a game is “pixelated”, but that doesn’t mean it is what most people think: Most of us will enjoy the art and just never bother creating a website and paying for a host to explain how much we like it. Usually we write to complain, not to praise!
Was this decision taken accounting financial and serious reports, or just some forum posts and reviews from videogames critics(not trustworthly)?.
blakereynolds 05/18/2015 - 11:33 am
it’s funny. I’ve actually never met a person who is into pixel art who would be like, upset or disappointed if a game didn’t have pixel art. Conversely, lots of people express a vocal distaste for pixel art. Logically, this means I would alienate practically nobody, pixel art fans included, for making games in higher definition(provided the art is any good), and I would be inclusive to those who don’t have the special knowledge required to know that pixel art is an elective style. I’d say logic is on my side! Thanks for reading!
Benjamin C 05/20/2015 - 2:06 am
This reminds me of a concept in aesthetics called “medium specificity”. From the Wikipedia page:
> Medium specificity holds that “the unique and proper area of competence” for a form of art corresponds with the ability of an artist to manipulate those features that are “unique to the nature” of a particular medium.
I think there are good reasons for going with pixel art on modern platforms but when the style clashes with the narrative tone, gameplay, etc., it feels like the decision was made arbitrarily.
Lukasz 05/21/2015 - 8:11 am
Hd doesen’t mean “better”. Your game’s pixel art is a true work of art. There is so much shitty Hd content out there and a person needs to be either very artistic or open minded (or both) to appreciate pixel art to it’s fullest. Almost like impressionism…many say it’s not “hd” enough but they sadly miss the point. It’s all about the vibe, the atmosphere, the color palette, the mood. As an illustrator i clap to this article and the guts you had creating a pixel art game in today’s over abundance of bad hd content.
Zippydsmlee 05/21/2015 - 8:59 am
Well frankly it comes down to what can sell, if it sells use it if not you are forced by the market to change.Pixel art is fine but it dose not have to be grainy, is it so hard to have both pixel art/2d animation and a lack of grainy pixels? Now if the game is based on retro themes then the graininess dose not bother me so much. When dealing with remakes I want to the best graphics possible, everything else I judge on gameplay. AS for SF goes its dead to be till they go soul caliber route with maybe large desucrtuable environments…. persudo 3d is sooooooo over rated.
tomosaigon 05/21/2015 - 10:12 am
It seems there was a revival in the pixel art aesthetic and now it’s turning back… there are other communities in the same vein, though, trying to keep the low-res aesthetic alive, like Blocktronics (or Apathy) and the collection of Sixteencolors.
flashback 05/21/2015 - 12:44 pm
Man, this article made me shiver. Very insightful look into a cold truth for all of us who like pixel art. I think that 7-10 years ago, when the industry “forced” us all to buy an HD television there was a resurgence of interest in pixel art, which was already artificial for the most part. Now it’s maybe finally turning into ashes. However, even if we’re niche now, I hope some people keeps producing this kind of art (and using it in games). I’ve been wanting to develop a game for ages, and just now I got my stuff together and started to code stuff. I am afraid I may have lost the train because I’d like to make games with this kind of art.
I hope whatever you choose to communicate your art fills you as much as pixel art did, I’m sure you’ll know how to find that. Best wishes!
Toastor 05/21/2015 - 12:50 pm
So you’re giving up on your passion because some ignorant dickhead blogger from ign thinks street fighter 4 looks better than kof?
You know those people also think call of duty looks better than street fighter and they won’t care about whatever art you do unless it’s super realistic 3D marine soldiers.
So for that you’re giving up out of spite? You are basically saying you value the judgement of people who don’t know better and aren’t interested in knowing better anyways more than of loyal 2D fans?
To me that looks like a pretty weak reasoning.
blakereynolds 05/21/2015 - 1:10 pm
That is not at all the message of the article, though I understand taking that message away if it was skimmed. Look among the comments for explanations to other people who took that message away. Sorry you did, but rest assured it is not my sentiment.
David 05/21/2015 - 9:38 pm
You raise some good points, but I can tell you that in my eyes, the original SNES version of Final Fantasy 6 is much more appealing than the mobile version. Then again, maybe that’s because Square phoned it in, much like they’ve been doing with everything they’ve made for a while. Pixel art is what you make of it. All the same, it’s your decision and I respect it.
Glauber 05/22/2015 - 8:19 am
Best post I ever read. Bookmarked.
blakereynolds 05/22/2015 - 3:40 pm
Thanks! So glad you got so much value!
Mike 05/30/2015 - 10:48 am
I’m not an art afficiando, so it took some doing to understand the points you were making.
One thing I noticed, that you may not have, though…
You mention the detail in the Mighty Final Fight images versus Rambo, and then later go on to lament the advent of the depixelating software.
I take both of these to be flip sides of the same coin, both proving your point, yet also muting your despair.
That is to say, the very detail that you laud being available in the Final Fight art is what enables the technology of the depixelization software to function. You certainly wouldn’t get similar results for the Rambo sprites. I think that proves your point about the artwork being better.
So, from my point of view, the depixelator is more of a fulfillment of the idea of preservation of artistic detail between different artistic styles, as I believe you have called it. So, operationally, what it does is provide the flexibility to choose between styles. And as seems clearly appreciated in your post, most people prefer the unpixelated style.
I would tend to agree with you on those points, and I summarize as follows:
-Good artwork is a technical skill
-Good artwork has a life beyond its original embodiment because of inherent information content
-Artistic style is not a commercial selling point
It seems your fundamental struggle, and the point of this post, is to reconcile the first point with the last. This doesn’t seem so difficult for me. I don’t even see a real conflict.
I think what I do see is that you are invested in a particular art style, and are surely very adept at it. That particular style is now clearly becoming a niche. So the time has come for you to choose. What are your fundamental principles? Do you believe in art, or do you believe in the pixelated style more firmly?
I’m not saying there’s a right answer. I can see both potentially working for you, but I think you need to judge for yourself which is your conviction, and whether or not commercial success is part of your goal.
It’s even possible that you can have your cake and eat it, too. You certainly could pursue pixel art as a hobby, while at the same time producing high-quality art for commercial gain.
Bill Lawrence 05/31/2015 - 7:46 am
A really great article. I’ve been seriously enjoying serious retro Spiderweb stuff (Avernum, Avadon) pixels and all. To me it’s the thought that goes into the story and the puzzles.
I agree that it’s not about the method the artist chooses but the thought put into what’s depicted. If the artist is thinking about things deeply the greater the chance the rest of the crew is as well.
Of course, if the artists are limiting themselves to pixels it is pretty likely that they are putting some thought into the product.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the artist can’t be thoughtful using the newer, more efficient methods.
Bill Lawrence 05/31/2015 - 7:49 am
And yeah, I will be getting Auro
Clint Hobson 06/13/2015 - 9:26 pm
This is such a great article on what makes good game art.
But I’m iffy about the conclusion.
I think there’s a pixel-art “appreciation threshold.” When something is clearly 8-bit looking, even lay-people can appreciate it as “pixel art”. Even if they don’t like it, they can see what you’re trying to do.
The “appreciation threshold” is probably breached when you get to the giant 16-bit SF characters you posted. It’s trying to be an illustrated style, and people can see that, and they’ll start calling the graphics “pixelated”, because it’s getting in the way of the illustrated look.
Case in point – no one is pointing at Nidhogg, or BroForce, or 1001 Spikes, or Risk of Rain, etc. etc. and said “Ugh, if only the graphics weren’t so pixelated!” Even the layperson can tell that’s part of the aesthetic.
And if they identify with it as “retro”, who cares?? If they’re buying it and liking it, then calling it retro or not is just tom-ay-toes or tom-ah-toes.
I don’t think pixel art is something you can “renounce”. That would be like renouncing impressionism, or sculpting. It has a place, and maybe the kinds of games you want to make aren’t it.
Either way, your hand-drawn Yoshi looks amazing, it would be cool to see a “retro” style game done in that style. Not because it’s better, but because it’s different.
jimbo1qaz 06/15/2015 - 5:42 pm
You say that you have technological issues related to blurring vs scaling, etc.
Why couldn’t you simply render at an integer multiple of the original pixel size? Is the UI fixed-scale or dynamic-scale? If it’s fixed-scale, Android emulator authors have already solved the integer-multiple problem (but will cause necessary letterboxing).
Prakash Desai 06/18/2015 - 7:53 am
I actually just bought Auro I’m looking forward to playing the game. It makes me sad to hear that they are not doing pixel art anymore. Im actually going to school for game design and animation. And im gonna make all my games pixel if you guys want to check out a great looking pixel game that is just like smash bros. here is a link to the video. I dont work on this game but i saw this ans i was like more people need to see this. It will be on Xbox one and PC
Rivals of Aether Trailer 3 – Maypul and Forsburn
test 06/21/2015 - 2:08 am
this is a test comment.
game news websites 07/22/2015 - 9:27 pm
Treefrog Games have lost the license for Discworld board
video games. Hm. Why does this matter?
FontsDownloadFree 07/30/2015 - 3:55 am
To me, the “retro game” aesthetic isn’t just pixel art, but an appeal to the specific sounds, feedback, and look and feel of a specific set of old-school games.
damn 08/08/2015 - 4:15 am
the problem with pixel art nowadays is the flat panels of today can’t display low resolutions so they have to upscale and that completely ruins the sprites
you have to display low res pixel art on a CRT to not look like shit
Games in the 8-bit and 16-bit era didn’t look like this blocky mess
Fattie 10/15/2015 - 10:15 am
Beautifully written article, thanks for this!
david 12/07/2015 - 5:06 pm
create beautiful or fashionable art? old as the hills
currently pixel art might be out of favor (for some) but it’ll come back. its very beautiful. & anyone with an actual artistic eye will’ve never gone off it.
the choice? carefully crafted pixel art that communicates shape & form very clearly VS sloppy 3D engine rendering that only looks good cos its the best tech currently available & thus has that ‘new & shiny’ feel
just watch the 20 best playstation 1 or 2 games on youtube. u’ll see most 3D games have aged terribly
Domarius 12/15/2015 - 7:09 pm
Can’t help but notice – Undertale is selling extremely well :) Downwell, Cave story, list goes on.
Pixel art dead? Not likely.
It’s ok to be bitter that your pixel art games didn’t sell, but it’s more to do with people’s expectations of the game. StreetFighter etc. are good pixel art, but they weren’t trying to be pixel art, they were trying to be animated cartoons, they were only restricted by pixel art by the hardware. People can instinctively see that – they can see a pixelly anime character when they look at it.
Whereas when a game is quite obviously “retro”, people love that, as Shovel Knight etc. continue to show.
However, this article is indirectly the best example of good artwork and pixel art I’ve seen in forever, and I refer to it constantly in my role as a tutor in game development. The article is good, it’s just the final message is drawing the wrong conclusion from the situation.
Cal Mozzie 12/28/2015 - 1:22 am
Really interesting and insightful post my friend! Thank you very much for this!
Manuel Gutierrez Rojas 01/03/2016 - 5:23 pm
I discovered this article, because I was shocked at the art design of Street Fighter V. I was okay with Street Fighter IV: at least Cammy looked good, but Chun-Li was meh. Overall, the art had a ‘style,’ though; SFV is all over the place.
Pixel art is a term I just heard. I usually just called it 2D art. The Mortal Kombat trilogy used digitized graphics, but they were clearly pixelated, although I don’t think I would’ve noticed that in the CRT-monitored generation.
I see the development of definition in terms of resolution, not of pixels. It is a philosophical distinction. I understand that animators had to be very creative when the resolution was really low (NES-era). 2D art with a 1080p raster at your disposal: would you call ‘that’ pixel art?
Disney’s Aladdin on the Sega Genesis, would you call that pixel art? I’d call that terrific 2D art in a low resolution. I wish 2D animators of the ’80s would still be able to work their craft today, so that we’d have Street Fighter II in glorious 2D art, as if it’s an animated film. . . Oh, they did that with Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix! . . . Oh no, they didn’t. I think you could use that game as another example. The craft of animation is lost, or so it seems.
The only two games that I can think of that did this well are DuckTales Remastered (though the backgrounds are 3D) and especially South Park: The Stick of Truth. I know that the animation of the show is (stylistically) crap, but it is really the only game I can think of that is truly (or as close as that) you playing/performing the show.
Anon 03/17/2016 - 1:11 pm
Are you planning on doing a similar comparison, but with SFV?
I think they improved their art and specifically animation in that one
David Fallows 04/07/2016 - 1:17 pm
Hand-placed Pixel Art still has its place, as long as it’s delivered correctly.
Check out Lottes Halation shader for Retroarch. It mimics CRT scanlines and even aperture grille and phosphor bloom. THAT’S how games used to look! Not super-sharp blocky messes, no wonder people instantly apply smoothing shaders.
David Fallows 04/07/2016 - 1:18 pm
David Fallows 04/07/2016 - 1:28 pm
Basically you can create visuals in a super-reduced scale format, boost them 8x to match current device output, and then slap a scan line and aperture grille shader over the top of it to make it look super hot.
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Gamesunday 05/18/2016 - 11:30 pm
Love the in-depth-ness of all this. I guess in the old days pixels were just the best thing you got, and nowadays older people are just used to that presentation. Not sure about younger generation though, it might be just weird to them.
thing 05/31/2016 - 4:32 pm
I’m just confused as to how you’re making sprites now. Is it vector? Because if it’s raster, it’s still technically pixels, no?
gibo1021 08/13/2016 - 8:28 am
I enjoyed reading your article. Yes i am a developer and publisher of pixel art and i love reading articles about pixel art. And it was really nice that found this one. It was really a fantastic
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Justin 09/15/2016 - 9:56 am
You’re very wrong. You take a rather realist perspective in a dogmatic way for really no good reason. Limitations breed creativity and pixel art is just another medium. Was Vincent van Gogh negligent as an artist because he didn’t paint realist paintings that conveyed exactly what he meant? You’re argument is ridiculous.
I’m sorry that your game didn’t sell well, and that the expectations of your “customers” were not aligned to this kind of art style, but some people create art as more than a product to package up and sell, please don’t cast aspersions on the people who creating enjoy pixel art as just another medium of art. You sound like a child who wants their daddy to like the art that they drew.
I particularly take issue with the fact that you seem to believe it is the artists responsibility to always ride on the latest wave of what the common people expect out of art. It’s a particularly consumerist/product based way of thinking about things, devoid of many of the most important parts of art, the things that make art transcendental.
Pixel art is just as valid a medium as any other, it is not superior nor inferior to other forms of art. Just as an impressionist watercolor painting is not superior or inferior to a digital hyper precise realist painting of a landscape.
“Constraints breed creativity”
alert(2) 09/15/2016 - 1:21 pm
Frostbite 09/24/2016 - 9:38 am
I don’t care how much explaining goes into it. Street Fighter looks absolutely horrible in 3D, not to mention is has more cheese than a 3 cheese pizza with the animations and faces. Megaman platformers were awful in 3D and felt like some bizarre alpha game, looked it too from the incredibly bad animation and goofy models. Mario is another, though he has fared much better and I can’t really say his games were terrible. Not all of them, anyway, but I still enjoyed it more in 2D when it’s sidescrolling. It’s fine though, I just don’t buy any of those any longer, especially SF though, it’s easily the dumbest looking fighter I’ve played when we’re talking art.
John 09/25/2016 - 12:19 pm
Are you sure it doesn’t have something to do with the fact that people who play and unironically enjoy mobile games tend to be older audiences with no history playing older games?
I think you guys need to re-evaluate the kind of people you are trying to market to. The vast majority of people who enjoy retro games do not play gimmicky mobile games, and thus tend to stay away from them. The people that DO tend to play these games are much older, and usually from outside of the retro-gaming sphere. Making pixel art for this game is a combination of completely misunderstanding the available consuming audience, and simple hubris on the artists’ part.
Have you ever even spoke to the people that tend to download these games?
Or do you all need more multi-million dollar Chinese studies to tell you what common sense would tell you?
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Nickelbawker 10/04/2016 - 2:23 pm
I really like Diablo, SfIII and SfIV. I actually love Sakura’s animations in street fighter IV and when these animations run at 60fps on a pc they look and feel different it’s kind of a mixture of realistic and arcade or comic art rather than the extreme pose frame to frame of third strike that is strictly comic or anime. While a modern multiplayer Street Fighter Alpha 2 with some of third strikes improvements and a giant character roaster not including bosses accept for akuma would be my dream of a street fighter game I really loved IV. I’m curious on what you’re diagnosis of V is and if they’ve improved the animations? I’ve never heard of Auro doesn’t look like my cup of tea I play Castlevania, Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil, Zelda, DooM, Dark Souls and Street Fighter the most. When I play doom I use my custom sprite pack or a bilinear filter typically. I’m considering the new upscalar released this year with gzdoom. Minecrafts graphics I find amazing I love the way the the textures look far and close. I don’t have a problem with pixel art and it actually started looking more HD to me back in 2009 I released if I turned off bilinear things looked more crisp less blurry. I don’t know about imaginative though the blurry bilinear textures and sprites of the N64 aged content seems to me personally to invoke imagination more than having stylized hd scaled up accurate pixel art. Especially DooMs sprites are a good example you in both bilinear and pixel you imagine there is more detail but then you convert it to a image similar to sfiiturbo hd remix and it looks stylized and intentional. The imagination factor is gone a bit with that though because the image is clear and sharp. I kind of dislike vector I feel it’s for common graphic design much prefer raster when made a strict way that can be scaled without distorting the original. Raster seems to constrict you to silhouettes and artificially able to add more detail rather than naturally with pixel or raster.
Nickelbawker 10/04/2016 - 11:23 pm
Ops I meant Vector seems to constrict you to silhouettes and then expands from there. Where as raster/pixel in a layered app like Gimp or photoshop seems to flow free.
Derek Boe 12/03/2016 - 12:30 pm
Pixel art rules, anyone who gives up on it as a medium has their own issues with it.
Look at Owlboy as the prime example of pixel art done properly and with loving detail.
Not only that, but pixel art is the ONLY medium that can do “sub-pixel animation” which is where by changing the colour of surrounding pixels you can create motion. Samus’ sprite in Super Metroid uses a ton of subpixel animation. It’s very subtle movement that cannot be achieved in any other form of animation except for pixel art.
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Daniel 01/09/2017 - 3:03 pm
Stumbled upon this blog, loved the post and bought the game, will play tonight :)
Clint Hobson 01/14/2017 - 8:21 pm
Well, here we are, nearly a year later, and the “pixel art” aesthetic is more popular than it was before, if anything. Undertale and Stardew Valley were huge hits that have been released since, both relying on a pixel art aesthetic as a major selling point. There are plenty more. I don’t know how you could ignore Shovel Knight, which was out at the time this article was written.
I have to agree with some of the other comments – as good as the article is in breaking down what makes good pixel art and good art in general, the general tone does come across a bit petulant, and the “it’s 100% my fault ” sentiment comes across as a thinly veiled attempt to play nice with a (perceived) situation you’re not happy with.
I think your fault is taking the small amount of anti-pixel art comments too seriously, as if it’s indicative of where the “trend” is going rather than stepping back, taking a deep breath, stop being so offended, and see it for what it is – a small number of voices that don’t represent your target demographic.
(Oh and I see your Chrome users are still unable to leave comments)
James 04/23/2017 - 9:35 pm
You are right to a degree. I think the problem is that pixel game art hasn’t upgraded like low poly 3d gaming art has. Instead of limiting color and pixel count(to 64×64).why not show people what 1024×1024 or 2048×2048 or what pixel count that hasn’t been done yet. It seems like it would be a lot harder than hand drawn at these levels but if there is something amazing that only pixel art can do maybe it’s worth it.
The question is why are you holding on to old traditions in pixel art? Show people what pixel art can be when pushed to it’s new limit. You are not limited to a 32×32. So show us the edge of the new limits.
annoyed artist 06/25/2017 - 5:53 am
This article is very interesting, and I see that many still can’t resist putting in their two cents, even though years have passed since it was written. I am no exception. Rarely do I feel opinionated enough to comment on something like this. You’re a grownup and its your decision, blah blah blah. Even more rarely do I get so opinionated that I compose a rant like the one about to ensue. Frankly, what I took away from your article was that you made a questionable business decision and and an unforgivable artistic comprimise based on stupid logic and steeped in either greed or low self-esteem and finished off with a lack of respect for the actual and abstract importance and value of art and the creative process.
See, the biggest problem with the crux of your whole reason to abandon your former artistic identity, is the notion of a failure to communicate to every user. See, the thing is is that in every medium, visual aesthetics, while based on a foundation of defined standards, is a totally subjective matter, despite being refined over time through experience. An adult has an overall better sense of what looks good and what doesn’t than a child does. But even then, one adult might love pixel art, and find (for sake of an example) even the most technically perfect oil paintings to be “old-fashioned”. The next adult in line studied classical art and the very notion that pixel art might look “better” or require a comparable amount of technique makes them feel faint. Those are opinions, and each is just as valid as the other provided that the examples and reasoning are technically sound. Because of that knowledge of basic theory, the people observing the medium have at least have some idea of why they feel the way they do.
Now, enter children. Children and adolescents form their opinions about visual media from an entirely different set of influences and information, and also lack the capacity to filter, authenticate, or assess the validity of what they take in with any real accuracy on their own. Add to that the inherent juvenile ego (not a judgement. rather, a long-observed and well-documented developmental phase.) which reinforces those opinions to a point of near-extremism, and you simply have no way to predictably please their aesthetic palette, or find any logic or reason behind their tastes. They don’t understand what makes “good” art look good. Instead, they take in a bunch of data from sources that span the range of credibility, believe whatever they wish and reject what they dislike or don’t understand, and perceive this process as a sound, intellectual one. So they end up highly opinionated, and so unaware of the flaws in their perceived expertise that it doesn’t even occur to them that they could be “wrong”. They just don’t, and can’t, understand how to make those connections in an informed logical way. (I’m sure there are plenty of adults who think like this, too, but just count them under “children” for the sake of the argument since in this context that’s what they function as, anyway.)
The lengthy amble about children in the previous paragraph serves as a framework for my next point. We as a society have now placed mobile devices into the hands of an enormous number of these children, and still more are granted access to the internet with varying amounts of adult supervision. Great in many ways, for sure, but these children think their opinions are well-informed, and anyone who’s visited the internet knows that they love to share them in the form of ratings and reviews, which range from nonsense and vulgarity to inappropriately low ratings for very minor offenses, to hostage-situation-style bargaining to get their way (“3/5 but fix all these things and I will raise to 5/5!”). In fact, the strength of the juvenile ego makes perceive these ratings and reviews to have a huge amount of societal value, and so kids and teens are far more likely to compose them for a much higher percentage of their total downloaded content than adults. So, every kid who doesn’t know jack about pixel art as a deliberately implemented visual aesthetic is going to take one look at it and think “low res”, “pixellated”, or, at best, “retro”, because that is what they have heard getting thrown around within their limited knowledge base. So, needing to inform the world of their “expert” opinion, that’s what gets posted in google play, with no way for a passing reader to assess their real expertise.
All that uninformed feedback skews the whole system of ratings and reviews, and games are the most affected. What seems like popular opinion is not really a representative sampling of the opinions of the total audience, and is hardly reflective of the content’s actual objective quality. So developers should absolutely NOT be using their user reviews as their only compass. Why is their ignorance of the medium on your shoulders as an artist? As an example, the most common poor review posted about ad-supported free apps is “too many ads”, with seemingly no understanding that those ads are the only reason they didn’t have to pay for the app in the first place, or perhaps a blatant disbelief that the developer should receive some compensation for their time and effort like every other professional at every other job that exists.
All that said, even if that skewing of data didn’t exist, I strongly believe that viewer feedback should never, ever be the basis for an artist’s decision to alter their personal style. Art appreciation is, as i stated above, totally subjective by nature, and true artists find and perfect their style in a reconciliation of both positive and negative external feedback, while still within the values they have developed for their own personal aesthetic. What if Van Gogh had, upon hearing people call his paintings “blotchy” decided to scrap impressionism and start doing technically sound hotel art? Was he somehow obligated to do that because people gave up a few moments of their time to view his work? Absolutely not. In believing that you have an obligation to cater to your audience to “repay” them for their time, you are really just weakening your final product, because you don’t have faith in the value of your style, skill, and time. True artists stand behind their art because they believe in its inherent value. What you have done in abandoning your preferred personal style in favor of something that might be better received is pandering, pure and simple. Not only does is devalue the validity of all art as a valuable commercial product, it will still end up alienating other parts of your audience. At minimum, you will likely lose credibility as an artist with the aesthetically intelligent fans who now just see someone who would abandon their artistic values to please the least-informed group. People who value art, value artistic integrity.
But I think in all of this, the worst thing you’ve done with your pandering is that you’ve provided positive reinforcement to these ill-informed reviewers that their ignorance-based opinions and insistence upon shelter from anything that they don’t like or understand are more valuable than your contribution and identity as an artist and a developer. They grow ever more entitled and have less and less appreciation for the sheer effort someone else put into providing them with something they can sit on their butt and play with, usually for free. This is a trend growing more rampant all the time, and it’s going to choke the life out of creative work as a valid commodity, artists and developers as valuable skilled professionals, and indie gaming and development in general. Artists don’t owe anything to the people who view their art, no matter how the viewer feels about it. They owe only their honest best effort, like any other professional, to provide something of technical quality and personal integrity. If you’ve given that, fuck the people who don’t understand it. it’s on them to become informed. and really fuck the ones want their ignorance catered to or their preferences favored. it’s on them to understand that other people get to have their own minds and they can’t do shit about it. and that nobody owes them shit. Instead of trying to appease them, show your appreciation to the people who give due acknowledgement of the quality and value of your work by giving them more. The people who “get it” are the people who your art is really supposed to be for.
And they are the ones whose faces you spit in. because their love and appreciation wasn’t worth as much as allaying the criticism of some dumb kids writing game reviews despite the fact that they have only ever played roblox. good job.
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Emma 11/08/2017 - 12:37 am
Amazing article, no dought is very properly written, it’s also very heartouching. You have written great points, but I totally disagree with your some points because I don’t think it’s good to blame the audience for having bad taste. but In my opinion Pixel, art is and always will be a very important type of art in the 2D game development world.
Mason 12/10/2017 - 11:21 pm
“I could write you an entire book on why that is absolutely not the case”
It’s an ageless truism that there is no objective measure of the quality of art. If someone perceives one object to be more aesthetically pleasing than another, they cannot be mistaken.
Since the claim is false, nothing can follow from it.
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Paul 02/21/2018 - 12:02 pm
Its funny how wrong you can ben this. article was written a few years ago and pixel art has only gone from strength to strength since. Holy crap I mean undertail is as basic pixel art as it comes. Then you have stuff like hyperlight drifter and narito boy and so much more. The kids totally get it and are producing some of the most amazing pixel art ever…
HEAVY SYSTEMS, Inc. 03/09/2018 - 3:31 pm
As someone who enjoys good design and especially good graphic design, pixel art is going nowhere. I think if your goal is to reach the largest amount of people, then that’s the classic ‘lowest common denominator’, the dumbest of dumb, the least thinking and least observant and least inquiring of us. From a perspective of your wallet, yeah, that’s probably a good decision. But from the perspective of design, it’s absolutely appalling. Good design EDUCATES as well as pleases the eye. If the initial look is off putting to the lowest common denominator, you educate them, must like this article does when it comes to hand-made animation vs. soulless computer animation (which is mostly what you point out…pixel art, even if you cannot see the pixels is still pixel art…you can do low-color full screen pixel art with no jaggies on a mega HD screen and no one would be the wiser…in fact, Photoshop ONLY makes pixel art because it ONLY exports pixelmaps!)
That said, I reiterate; if you truly love this, then you have to respect the audiences point of view and bridge that gap rather than pick one side of the chasm to be on. Real gamers will want to explore all of gaming and the greatest thing that can happen is that artists help build new bridges to enjoy all kinds of aesthetic and styles. For the most part, I would argue that the glutton of bad pixel art in games made by people going after the nostalgia alone of blocky, ugly graphics have saturated the marketplace to reject anything with blocky art and praising anything that doesn’t look like that, even if there’s a clear superiority of what you’ve done with Aura over something like Pixel Dungeons which looks generic as hell.
I also think that a good portion of it is that people that are making these pixel art games are inbreeding bad information about how to go about making pixel art. I myself have seen nothing but bad advice and tutorials on pixel art, always trying to get people to use very bad tools, do things the hard way, etc. Which means if it’s hard, then all efforts are wasted in creating a good image and redirected towards the pixel-look side of things, which results in terrible pixel art.
For instance, to my knowledge there’s only 2 programs actually _designed_ for giving traditional and digital artists tools for DRAWING in pixel art, complete with palette limitations, dithering options and more being automated into the actual act of drawing on a tablet, which is how all of the best pixel art of the past was made…very little of it was done with a mouse and hand clicking little squares all day. NO ONE should have to do that and NO ONE should be expected to make great art that way except monks making a physical tile mosaic for a temple. So anyone reading this, if you’re not using Pro-Motion or Grafx2, you’re fucking doing it wrong, PERIOD. Pixel art is FUN to make when you have a tablet and software designed for it and the results are 1000x better with 1/100 the effort most people are putting in.
There’s a lot of things that could make pixel art be more viable and pretty to look at and more appreciated and education is a huge part of that. As they say in GI Joe, “Knowing is half the battle”.
Spread knowledge, don’t give into the lowest common denominator…if you raise the floor, we all stand a little higher.
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Justin 07/27/2018 - 10:49 pm
A really good article.
Fighting games tend to need really exaggerated poses.
Since you have a limited number of frames for each attack, one of the best ways to make the combat seem fluid, and have impact is overemphasize the actions.
I found the graphics in street fighter IV too look off as well.
Using 3D models makes it hard to distort the body as it’s moved, so it looks sort of stiff and boring compared to some older fighting game art.
Also, your hand-drawn Yoshi is nice, but you need more light green under the eye, next to the cheek.
jay 08/04/2018 - 5:38 am
I think you’re right about KOF13 being underrated. But i honestly think that game is literally just hand drawn pictures, rendered and downscaled into pixel art rather than a great example of the medium. I also think, there is a huge love for pixel art but only in a nostalgic sense. if you’re going to go pixel art in modern times it has to be very, very low res and blocky. That’s the stuff people love and remember. The stuff that goes “beep boop” when you play it. I also think the art you showcased in that game you made, how people were calling it pixelated… That isn’t because there is disdain for pixel art, it is ACTUALLY because that art style comes off looking more like a low res jpeg than it does pixel art. It has no connection to the nostalgia of 8 bit consoles and the time when pixel art was all there was.
ted 10/10/2018 - 11:30 pm
The point of Pixel art is to improve gameplay for certain game genres. One thing that happened in the 2000’s era was that the quality of games declined compared to what the older SNES RPG’s offered. Rather than have compelling storylines, game developers focused on “exciting graphics” and since so much time was spent on graphics, not a lot of time was left for compelling gameplay development, or compelling storylines.
If you want to see a prime example of why to use pixel art, look at Crosscode. The game has amazing gameplay, amazing level/ability development, and an amazing storyline. All this was accomplished by having a retro-pixelated game feel.
People who recognize and understand this, appreciated pixel art. Also, when done right, there is an artistic aesthetic to pixel art that is desirable. Yes, perfectly done 3D is better… when they spend tremendous dollars on the 3d art. So when they have the budget of Microsoft and spend a million dollars on art development, 3D art looks great. Otherwise, low-budget 3D art games, often look like junk. Where as a low-budget 2D pixel sprite game can deliver a very compelling game, for a fraction of the resources spent.
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compare and contrast essay topic ideas for college 03/15/2019 - 4:20 am
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Eden 06/08/2019 - 12:45 am
When every pixel was visible to the naked eye, it made sense for an artist to hand-place each and every one. Nowadays, it’s no wonder people think something is wrong when they see games like ours on an iPhone 6 screen. Honestly the problem is that many indie games are taking the easy way out with pixel art. There is pixel art and then there s pixel art . Well crafted, high quality sprites are beautiful, but that beauty gets lost when there s a dirge of games using pixel art and trying to hand-wave it by saying oh it s retro! we all like pixel art right? and then you end up with great looking games getting yawns because of oh, another pixel art game, huh? Yeah, wooo, retro. even when there s nothing retro about the game, or the sprite graphics.
Alex 07/03/2019 - 7:20 pm
This article left a bad taste in my mouth. I love how you talk about art, techniques, compare some works, and how good art is good art.
Like another user said: “The only thing you owe people is a good game, if they buy it. Some people don’t get why you’d choose a pixel-art style. Well, here’s one who doesn’t understand why you’d move away from it if that’s the style you want to work in.”
The reason It left a bad taste is that to me it feels like you’re curving down to market limitations, to what people don’t like because they’re quick to judge. I wouldn’t wanna appeal to that kind of person. I’d love to be in your position to see what I would’ve have learned instead of this.
Also, for some reason the chat box is all the way in the middle of the comment section, to the right of a comment, instead of below the Name/Email/Site fields.
Alex 07/03/2019 - 7:24 pm
It doesn’t feel like this was the right lesson to learn.
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BB 12/30/2019 - 2:21 am
bought the game because of this post
Jerry 12/30/2019 - 2:08 pm
I wanted to buy your game. It looks like it is not available in the German App Store. Could that be? Is there a way to get the game somehow for me?
APKun 04/22/2020 - 5:05 am
was an homage to my favorite game art, I never intended for it to be “retro.” I just wanted to make great pixel art, yet it inexorably gets lumped in with the retro aesthetic.
summonfish 03/22/2021 - 5:49 pm
Thank you for writing this.
As an artist borderline obsessed with fighting games and the culture/aesthetics associated with them, your writing scratched an itch that I’ve had in the back of my head for quite a while.
I’ve always felt that around the PS3/360 era, the industry standards for art and animation in games sort of matured too fast? If that makes sense. I don’t think street fighter specifically was ready for the jump from 2D to 3D, third strike was incredible but I can only imagine a different world, where Capcom allowed their pixel art to be refined even further and street fighter IV was comparable to KOFXIII.
Lord knows SNK wasn’t ready for that jump to 3D either.
It’s not until this year, 13 years after SFIV that we’re getting a competent looking KoF game in three dimensions.
Pixel art as a whole has been kind of commodified, outside of indie games. I hate that every title that utilizes the style is slapped with the label of “Retro”. Bigger publishers would only ever risk using pixel graphics if they had a nostalgia factor backing it up, and reviewers only perpetuate the idea that pixel graphics can only be used if your game exists within a variety of stereotypes.
I don’t really have a larger point to make, but thank you. Even a couple of years later, I still point to this article from time to time during certain discussions.
Michael 06/06/2021 - 5:33 pm
If the majority of people will take bad 3d art over good 2d or pixel art, that tells me “speaking their language” isn’t worth it. There’s a minority of people who aren’t idiots and they also deserve being catered to.
Holly Hooper 11/14/2021 - 6:43 am
I played almost all of these games. except the ones with low graphic art like f-zero, mario kart, castlevania, metroid etc. contra had low graphic but very enjoyable with co-op.
earthbound, ff should be top5. idk how many times i’ve replayed crono trigger and earthworm jim. others mostly 75%.
Domarius 02/28/2022 - 8:01 am
Well, it’s 2022, and all you have to do is look at the Nintendo Switch indie games to see just how popular pixel art is. It’s an art style, and I think it’s quite safe to say, 7 years after this article was written, it’s here to stay.