Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Why All Of Our Games Look Like Crap

We spent years working on this game. We're betting our family's future on it. So. Why does it look so bad?
We've been writing indie games for a living for 25 years. My wife and I run a humble little mom-and-pop business. We make retro low-budget role-playing games that have great stories and design and are a lot of fun.

Also, they look like crap.

The first game I released, in January of 1995, looked like crap. It achieved financial success (among the blind, apparently), which funded many more games that looked like crap, enabling me to build a solid reputation.

Based on this reputation, we had a successful Kickstarter for Queen's Wish: The Conqueror, an exciting upcoming RPG that will look like crap. We hope it will be a gateway to us making games that look like crap for many years to come.

We have no complaints. We are in the middle of a long, successful career, and everything is rosy. However, sometimes I like to write about the indie game business and help people understand how it works and give advice to younger developers. This article is about why our games look the way they do, whether you like them or not (probably not).

Most importantly, I want to advocate for the right of indie developers to be weird. If an indie dev has a wild, creative idea and is scared of trying it and thinks, "I might as well do it, at least I'm not being as crazy as Jeff Vogel," I've done my job.

So if you are interested in why we write games that look like crap and will ALWAYS look like crap, read on.


This is what I grew up playing. A true classic. This is what looks normal to me.

First, Let's Just Get One Thing Clear ...

I think my games look good, and they contain a lot of really good art.

All of the art in Queen's Wish was made by extremely talented freelancers doing really solid work to my specifications. I feel very lucky to be working with them. If you think my games look bad, any blame for that rests with me entirely.

Second, again, I think Queen’s Wish looks really nice and comfy. Maybe it's a generational thing. People who grew up with Nintendo and Sega really like pixel art. I grew up with Atari and Intellivision, and I am very used to having art that leaves a lot to the imagination.

My art is the sort of game art I grew up with, just with more modern color and detail, designed to give the feel of a tabletop Dungeons & Dragons game. That is my goal.

So when I say my games look like crap, I am maybe being a little clickbaity. Video games are art, art is hugely subjective, and there are lots of people who genuinely like how my games look. I certainly do.

This article is an explanation for those who disagree.

Exile: Escape From the Pit, the first game we ever released. Queen's Wish is meant to evoke this old style, which, yes, I like.

What Brought This Post On

People have criticized the art in our games for decades. I have had indie developers, normally a mild and supportive lot, make fun of my games TO MY FACE.

We have a pretty thick skin about it. Still, when we announced Queen's Wish: The Conqueror, I got this message on Reddit:

Jeff, I really like what you do and Geneforge 2 is one of my favorite games ever, but why not get a better artist? It's not even about technically impressive art, just about something that is pleasant to look at and doesn't alienate people. So many of my friends have told me they'd love to try your games but just can't get over the sloppy and cheap art style.

Ouch.

What fascinates me here is that the guy seems to think he is telling me news. Like, I'm smart enough to keep a software company running for 25 years, but I am unable to notice qualities in my games that are instantly obvious to Joe Q. Rando. Apparently, my games are so ugly that looking directly at them without protective gear will turn you into this guy ...


So yeah, this message bummed me out a bit, but it shouldn't have. I have seen COUNTLESS variants of this criticism over the last 25 years. At least he didn't threaten my life or call me slurs or wish horrible fates on my children (which happens).

What Is Wrong With Our Art?

If you think my art is fine and don't understand what the problem is, bless you. I'll tell you what some think is wrong, as best I understand it.

1. Queen's Wish has a very retro square-tile top-down view, reminiscent of old Ultima games, old Pokemon games, Spiderweb's first games, tabletop D&D, that sort of thing. For some, that old style is really unfamiliar and/or alienating.

2. Queen's Wish uses art made by a lot of different artists. That means that the style is not quite consistent. We've done our best to make it blend well, but it's a little off.

3. All the characters only look in diagonal directions. I made this choice because I once thought all the art would be hand-drawn, and I desperately needed to reduce the number of icons I needed. This was a mistake, and I'll probably try to fix it in Queen's Wish 2.

4. It's not in 3-D. Some people will only ever be happy with 3-D.

I'm sure there are lots of other problems. These are just the most common complaints. All these problems can be fixed. All they need is money. Lots of money.

Our previous game, Avernum 3: Ruined World. Why didn't I just write another game that looks like this? Because I didn't want to. Nyeah!
So. Why Do My Games Look Like Crap?

Or, more accurately, why do my games look the way they do, when other more fancy, more expensive art styles are available? Style that would, I freely admit, increase my sales.

These are the reasons I don't change. If you want to make a living in the games business, or run ANY business, these ideas might be useful to you. This isn't just me whining. There are a lot of key basic principles here, and ignoring them is very dangerous for a small entrepreneur.

1. I Can Never Be Good Enough

Remember we're a tiny company, like most indie developers.

Suppose I want to change how I write games and run my business. Fine. Maybe I should. the first thing I have to ask is: What is my goal? It's to convert non-customers into customers.

There are players out there who look at my games and say, "I don't want to play a game that looks like that." That is totally their right. But suppose I want to win those people over. What is required?

The key problem here is that, when most people say, "Your art looks bad," what they mean is, "I want art that is good." They mean, "I want AAA-quality art." And I can't make that. Not even close.

I have had games where I worked very hard to improve the graphics, spending a lot of time and money, and they really did look better! But when I released those games, the vast majority of people who had said, "Your games look bad." STILL said, "Your games look bad."

Games like Pillars of Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin look infinitely better than my work. Those games also have huge teams, paid for by big budgets.

And let's be clear. If this is what you want, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! Hey, I like good graphics too. If you want really good graphics, my games will never be for you. I can't afford you.

Writing story-heavy RPGs like mine is still a total niche business. AAA gaming has moved away from what I write very fast. Yes, Divinity: Original Sin 2 was a big hit, but Pillars of Eternity 2 very much was not.

I will never run a big game company. I have to stay small, both because of business realities and because of what my wife and I want from our lives. So our games will never be fancy. They will always be humble.

LESSON: Before trying for a goal, make sure that goal is possible to reach. It might not be. Know your limits!

Nethergate, released in 1997. A huge improvement over Exile. Before I released it, everyone said my games look bad. After I released it, everyone said my games look bad.

"BUT ... Just because we can't shoot for the moon doesn't mean that we can't make some improvements! Hire a full-time artist. Hire another programmer who knows Unity. Why not do that?"

2. We Want To Run a Profitable Business

When you want to run a small business, managing your budget is vitally important. Right now, our games only need to earn enough to support one family. When you have a solid product and a decent reputation, that is a very realistic goal. We've been doing it for 25 years.

Suppose I want to hire a second employee. That will double the budget for our game. That means we have to double our sales to make up for it. When you are in business, especially one as competitive as video games, doubling sales is HARD.

Would a second or third employee increase sales? Absolutely. Would it do so enough to justify the expense? Far more dubious. And bear in mind I need to come up with the money to hire those employees in the first place. That probably means a bank loan. Even if I get that loan, if the extra sales from the new employees isn't enough to pay the loan, that means the whole business can die.

Can increasing headcount and making better games be a good idea? Of course! Businesses do it all the time! It's how great games are made. It is also a good way to lose everything.

I already have a long-term profitable business, and that is not unrelated to my risk-averse personality. I don't want to blow it.

LESSON: When you spend more money, you need to increase sales to match those expenses. Make sure you have a good chance of doing this, and make sure you can stomach the risk.

Darkest Dungeon has really good art that a small team can afford to do. However, the style is really distinctive. Finding artists to reproduce this exact look is hard.

"BUT ... Small companies make great-looking games all the time. The key is to get an artist to make a cool, distinctive art style (like hand-drawn or pixel art). My games have fairly standard, neutral icon art. Why not have more style?"

3. We Need To Maintain a Consistent Look

This is a very subtle but important point, and it's one that people don't think about enough when analyzing or planning indie games.

Suppose I want to make a game like Darkest Dungeon, that doesn't actually have a huge amount of art, but it has a really cool, distinctive style. A small developer could afford to write a game like Darkest Dungeon. I have to get a freelancer who will develop an individual art style for a reasonable price. (Because I can’t afford a full-time employee, see above.)

But.

There is a key problem with freelancers: They have free will. They will very rarely be able to work for you for a long time. They get better jobs, or they quit making art, or they make art but for someone else, or they just flake out.

Suppose I get half a game-worth of really neat, funky art, and then my freelancer gets a real job for big bucks. I then have to find a new artist who can match the style of that art and make a lot of it, which is very difficult.

And then suppose I write a sequel, and I want to reuse that art and need more art made in that style. Then it is even more likely that my freelancer (and any replacements) will have moved on, and then I either have to throw everything away and get it redone (expensive in time and money) or find a new artist who will try to match that art's style and probably not do a great job at it.

I can't stress this enough: Finding talented, reliable, reasonably priced freelancers is HARD. Cherish them when you find them.

That is why all of my games have a more generic fantasy style. I have to work with a lot of different artists. It's the nature of the business. Thus I have to write games in a way that the artists can be replaced. The generic style this requires is not ideal, but it is necessary.

LESSON: Always be aware of when you are relying on other people. Always be prepared to replace anyone. People move on. Life happens.

This is a really good, critically acclaimed, successful indie game. If a game that looks like this can be a hit, maybe there can be room for me?
"But you did games with a more 3-D look and I like those better. Your games looked kind of fine. Why didn't you stay with that?""

4. You Gotta' Follow Your Muse

Game makers are artists. Artists are dependent on their inspirations. Sometimes your brain just wants to make a certain thing. If you aren't going to do what you want and believe in, why are you writing indie games?

I've been writing games with that angled isometric look for twenty years. Twenty! I just wanted to write something that looks different. I have to change things sometimes to stay interested and keep from burning out. Period.

LESSON: Not every artist can make every sort of art. Van Gogh couldn't paint a Renoir painting. If something inspires you, consider following that. If you're writing things you don't want to write, why not just get a real job? You'll get a regular paycheck and benefits.

Atari Adventure, one of my all-time favorite games. A true classic. I STILL love this game. If you don't like it, maybe the problem is you.

"BUT ... Surely you can do SOMETHING? Surely there is some hope! Can nothing be improved?"

5. Again, Some People Like Our Games

Remember, we've sold MANY copies of our games. We have fans. Our games have a scruffy, eccentric handmade look. Our indie games look, well, indie.

I like how our games look, more or less, and I get a vote too. Maybe I'm a big weirdo, but weirdos spend money too.

And, honestly, isn't one of the foundational ideas of indie games that there is room for all sorts of creative expression? That having more dollars doesn't give you a better claim on The Truth? That you don't have to be a billion dollar company to be good, to be right?

Seriously, if you think my games look bad, don't play them. Believe me, I understand. But I got into this business to make my weird toys in my weird way. If I ever can't convince people to buy them, I'll quit and sell shoes.

LESSON: If you are doing something that is working, keep doing it. If you are comfortable with your success, don't let anyone psych you out of it.

People have been hating on my art for 25 years. I am very lucky, and I hope they'll be doing it for 25 more.
We Run Our Own Businesses To Have Freedom

To me, one of the most saddening things about our current economy is that the number of small businesses and self-employed entrepreneurs has been dropping for quite some time.

We at Spiderweb love the freedom of being our own bosses, and we hope others get to enjoy it too. It's a scary way to live, but it has its rewards. We get to be weird. We get to make our own thing, and we OWN it. That is wonderful.

So, anonymous Reddit person, that is why we don't have art that is "pleasant to look at and doesn't alienate people". This was a lot of words, but it's actually a pretty big question.

If you've stuck with me this far, thank you, and I hope, in your life, you get to create things that make you content.

###

I am writing these blog posts to get attention to our newest game, Queen's Wish: The Conqueror. You can also follow me on Twitter.

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  7. I've bought and played most of your games over the last 20 years, and I completely understand where you're coming from, but I admit that I haven't been buying them lately and I'm uncertain about Queen's Wish and it isn't just the art, but that is part of it. You say you work towards the aesthetic of something like the Ultima series, but that's just it. The Ultima series reinvented itself with almost every proper title in the series starting with Ultima 3 into Ultima 4. They didn't just keep making Ultima 3 over and over. That isn't the problem I've had with Spiderweb games lately though. I bought Avadon and I felt like I had played the game already. The story and setting can be different, the names can change, but the fundamental gameplay has gone unchanged for almost a quarter of a century. I don't care if the art is something you want to keep consistent, but things like more world interaction in the tradition of Ultima 6 or 7, NPC's that have schedules, more meaningful choices in quests and conversations, some fully fleshed out companions, and so on. I'm definitely curious to see how Queen's Wish pans out and I love that you're finally changing something even if it isn't to my particular taste, but if the gameplay doesn't evolve a bit, I'm afraid you've kinda lost me. I'm not saying take out a loan and create the next Skyrim, but 25 years is a long time and I also grew up with the Atari and Intellivision, but then I moved on. The problem is that I'm guessing many of the people that buy your games are like me. Guys who came out of the womb with an Atari in front of them that love old school games and are in, or entering into middle age. Going forward we are going to be an ever decreasing consumer base. Age, family, death, other interests, etc will (hopefully) slowly dwindle our numbers and the person that wrote you that post was correct in that I know so many people that just aren't interested because of either the art or the simplistic gameplay. If this work for you and you don't have any interest in changing, I get it and you're right and I've always admired you for recognizing and filling a hole in the rpg market. I just really want you to continue to do this for another 25 years and I think that's going to be a task many orders of magnitude harder than the success you've had over the last 25. Maybe for the next iteration of your rpg's, try to hit a much bigger kickstarter goal and use that to bring in an artist and/or a coder. I'd support that in a heartbeat and no loans would be required. I wish you the best and continued success.

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  8. That was an interesting read, thanks for posting it. Different game type, but I started playing Minecraft when it was $5 or $10, and when you still punched sheep to get their wool instead of shearing them, so I obviously don't have AAA sensibilities. One of my all time favourite games was Pharaoh's Curse on the Atara 800.

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  10. I'm so word-oriented that pretty graphics are pretty much wasted on me. Also, my 60-year-old eyes don't see that well anymore. I guess both of those things are part of why I've enjoyed Spiderweb games. :-)

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  18. Hi Mr Jeff.

    I think your game look great this time and I'm having a blast with it. But I have a little problem with the bassinet: I really like the look of it and it have it own sprite sheet. But ingame it just show up like a steel helmet...Is it intentional or an oversight? If it's an oversignt how can I fix it?

    Also, an option to use your own custom portrait for player create characters would be nice. Please give it some thought when you create your next game.

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