Wednesday, September 5, 2012

How Indie Games Can Be Cheap and Awesome




I got to go to PAX over the weekend and be on a panel and see cool gaming stuff and meet lots of cool people and fans of my games. One of the things I learned is that a lot of people actually read my blog. This is very gratifying. Although it terrifies me that anyone thinks my opinion is in any way significant.

PAX is great, of course. Though it is in the unenviable position of being permanently unable to satisfy the massive demand for tickets.

(Sure, its success will probably invite others to copy it with their own gaming cons, but those dopplegangers won't be the same without the presence of all the big companies showing off their stuff. And big companies won't go to a lot of cons, as they need to set aside at least a little time to make games. So, from now on, if you manage to score a PAX badge, just cherish it, knowing that your attendance the following year is unlikely. Just think of PAX as a hot but extremely unstable boy/girlfriend.)

I had a lot of little epiphanies while looking at the many, many highly promising indie games on display at PAX. (The PAX 10 looked cool as always, but the much flashier Indie Megabooth next door seemed to be sucking up its oxygen.) And here is the biggest one:

16-bit graphics are an awesome thing, and more indies should use them.

If you don't know what 16-bit graphics are, think early Nintendo/Super Nintendo. If that still doesn't ring a bell, look here. Or here. Or here. Or especially here.

If you are a small game developer, you have a big problem. You want your game to look great. But graphics can be expensive. Or very expensive. 16-bit graphics solve the great mystery of writing a game with a small team and no budget: making decent production values cheaply in a short amount of time.



Here is what 16-bit Nintendo-style graphics have going for them:

1. They work. Heck, people wrote awesome games using them for years.

2. They look good. It's amazing how evocative an icon you can make with a few well-chosen pixels.

3. They're cheap and quick to make. One talented artist can produce a game's worth in an entirely reasonable amount of time.

4. You have the power of nostalgia working for you. To a whole generation of gamers, those icons are as warm and comforting as a Snuggie.

5. Because of #4, anyone who takes cheap shots at your graphics looks like a jerk.

6. Versatility. With care, they can blend with much more detailed and 3-D effects. Fez is a fantastic example of this. You don't have to be pure when you use this style.

Right now, this style of graphics is seen as a pure nostalgia play, a way of saying, "Look! We look like a Nintendo game! We're silly! Tee hee!" But I think 16-bit graphics are better than that. They've been used in a million great games, and they can be used in a million more. The more people use them, the more they will be seen as an entirely legitimate art style, which in turn will make them available to more generations of poor, promising designers.

Indie devs, don't be afraid to be cheap! It is your sacred right and responsibility as an Indie!

77 comments:

  1. For awhile, I've found 16bit graphics, as well as graphics that imitate those styles, to be absolutely charming and just very pretty. It baffles me when people complain about how "bad" or "ugly" they are. We are using a "pixel art" style reminiscent of the 16bit era in our game. :)

    (Maybe I'm a victim of factor #4...)

    ReplyDelete
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  2. I've read some articles complaining about retro(/whatever) graphics being overused in the indie world, blah blah. But really it's a matter of context: If it plays sort of like an older game, why shouldn't it sort of look like one? You hit both nostalgia buttons at once, and it instantly seems like an appropriate stylistic choice, regardless of every other reason.

    Contrasting example: Some of the attempts I've seen to resurrect old classics (especially early arcade games) with modern graphics yet nothing more than their traditional unupdated mechanics just feel completely wrong to me.

    ReplyDelete
  3. For me most of 16 bit graphic games say: kiddie-indie-silly game. Not my genre at all.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I enjoy fiddling with Game Maker software and have always found that 16-bit graphics work just fine for me. Of course I enjoy games with top-end production values as well, but I have also enjoyed more than my share of games with 'throwback' graphics - you can still do a lot with your artistic direction and make a game visually appealing. Of course, like anything else, they can be done wrong as well, but I definitely find myself agreeing with the majority of your points.

    ReplyDelete
  5. This is how I feel about 8-bit to 16-bit graphics: http://secretartsgames.blogspot.com/

    I am, at this very moment, making sprites.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Of course indies should use 16-bit style graphics. How do you think we kept team sizes and budgets so small (relatively speaking, they felt huge at the time) back then?

    ReplyDelete
  7. I finally decided to go this route with Telepath Tactics after hearing constant griping about the graphics in Telepath RPG: Servants of God. The result? People see screenshots of Telepath Tactics and are immediately charmed. That's the word I heard constantly: "charming."

    This is actually costing me more to make than the vector animations of TRPG:SoG did, but not nearly as much as 3D art would--and it has the extremely valuable effect of not making people dismiss the game based on screenshots. My verdict: totally worth it.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Have you played Sword & Sworcery? The way its characters animate is amazing, and the environments are completely gorgeous. Even if the nebulous nostalgia-factor eventually bites the dust along with the generation who experienced the 16-bit 'golden age', pixel art is going to be around for a *long* time as long as there are artists able to do impressive things with it.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Nice shout out to Community, a fine example of the US sitcom genre.

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  10. I don't get it. 16-bit graphics are just an inferior version of 24-bit graphics that can't do colour gradients. (Sure, you can compress them a bit more, but not enough to matter.) If you want to limit the colours you are using, use 8-bit or lower.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 16-bit computers did use 8-bit graphics

      Delete
    2. Personally I don't like the term "16-bit graphics". To clear up your confusion, they don't mean graphics using 16-bit colour (which would not really be distinguishable from 24 bit colour at the small resolutions we are talking about), what they mean is graphics similar to those from the 16 bit era, e.g. snes and sega megadrive.

      I would prefer to just call them "blocky graphics" or "pixel art" or "low res" or something.

      Delete
  11. Good pixel art is actually expensive, though. You actually need a lot of art to complete different environments, characters, animations, etc.

    ReplyDelete
  12. There's a theory that today's du jour pixel art is going to be replaced by low poly 3d models. That today's indie game developers grew up on Nintendo but that the next generation will fondly remember the first Sony PlayStation.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A crucial difference is that while a lot of people like the 2d graphics of the SNES/Genesis era, even people who grew up with the PS/N64 regard the games made then ugly as sin.

      Delete
  13. Well said, some of my favourite games were of the 16 bit flavor and what a great taste that flavor has. Also means that the developers can focus more on core mechanics, dynamics and storyline to make something great!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Hm. I don't get the appeal personally. I never played old Nintendo games (hell, I haven't played any modern Nintendo games) and the first console I ever owned was a PS3. I understand that they're cheap and relatively easy, but they do look cheap to me. The fact is that you can do good 2D art that shouldn't cost an arm and a leg. Look at this screenshot of the 14-year-old Baldur's Gate: http://www.thenoobnews.com/uploads/2011/10/Baldurs-Gate-screenshot-300x225.jpg. This is great artwork and is completely 2D. Why are there not more isometric, 2D tactical RPGs on the market? I don't know. I assume it's because somewhere along the way people got obsessed with the idea that every game genre needed to be made with 3D graphics. However the overuse (and that's how I'd characterize it today) of pixel art seems to be just as bad. Yes it works for some people but I find it to be a turnoff. For what it's worth, I'm sure it's perfectly fine, as Karzon said above, if all you're making is 2012's Super Mario Brothers.

    ReplyDelete
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