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I'm mostly a programmer, but I'd like to be able to do competent work on other parts of games I make when working on solo projects.

What I'm specifically asking here is what sort of techniques or styles for visual asset creation should I study and use to be able to work with the most efficiency? Basically, what would end up being the least work as a whole, taking into account possible changes late on in the development, reuse of assets created for other projects, etc.

What I mean by "technique or style" here is things like vector art, digital painting, pixel art, poly modeling, sculpting, etc.

I'm mostly interested in comparisons of the various techniques as a whole. It's hard to get a good big picture view of the situation not having a lot of experience with doing real work with each technique. Also, obviously if you're making a 3D game you'll need to make 3D assets, but for now, let's talk about techniques for creating assets for a 2D game, where the assets could be either 2D or 3D.

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This should be marked as Community Wiki, and your own suggestions should be posted as answers, not in the question. –  user744 Sep 16 '10 at 9:41
    
Really? I wasn't sure this would be that subjective. –  Pekuja Sep 16 '10 at 11:03
    
Also, I didn't mean my own points as an actual answer. More of a list of simpler points, when I'm asking for a bigger picture of the issue. If this was a community wiki though, it would of course make sense to have that as an answer. I'm not convinced that's right though. –  Pekuja Sep 16 '10 at 11:04
    
I wanted to note that I may be misusing the term "digital painting". I'm using it as a catch-all term for various forms of high-res art that you would do with a tool like Photoshop or Gimp. Bitmap images, not edited pixel by pixel. –  Pekuja Sep 16 '10 at 11:05
    
It's not subjective, but you are looking for a list of answers, not a single one. –  user744 Sep 16 '10 at 11:35

5 Answers 5

up vote 5 down vote accepted

So many indies go for the lo-fi pixel art look. While this is great for rapid prototyping and time-limited gamedev competitions, I think it's becoming an overused style, and you'll struggle to make a real stand-out game, unless the gameplay is something truly special.

Digital painting is currently somewhat underused in 2D games, and there's a lot of potential for interesting (and hi-def) 2D game backgrounds if you abandon tilemaps and go for the Braid/Aquaria approach (splatting arbitrary alpha-blended shapes around your level)

But animation is challenging - unless you can come up with a way to (pre-)render 3D characters in a style that fits the backgrounds?

Good quality 'traditional 3D' is always going to be extremely time-consuming, especially when you consider things like animation, or building and UV-mapping large scenes. You won't be able to come close to competing with the quality/scale of big commercail games. However, there are less traditional 3D styles that you could explore - maybe non-photorealistic styles (e.g. Love), or untextured 3D (e.g. Virtua Racing), an interesting style which is currently underused, and could still look impressive with good lighting/post effects/antialiasing.

This is a must-read for anyone starting out on a 2D game project:

http://www.davidhellman.net/blog/the-art-of-braid-index/

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I find it interesting that you mention animating digitally painted images would be challenging unless you can match the style in 3D, but then go to mention that animation in 3D is also time-consuming. Is it just that animation is hard and/or time-consuming in general? –  Pekuja Sep 16 '10 at 11:07
    
He said traditional 3D. Meaning everything in 3d. Creating a 3D animations for a character on the otherhand, can greatly reduce the cost of animation, as you only have to create the 3D character once, and then just animate the bones arround. While in 2D animation you have to redraw the character many times for each animation, and it becomes expensive with large amount of animations compared to a large amount of a 3d character. –  AttackingHobo Oct 17 '10 at 19:03

Here are some points I came up with myself:

Digital painting:

  • Flexible for lots of visual styles
  • Lots of resources available for learning
  • Scales decently

Vector art:

  • Easy to edit
  • Scales very well
  • Relatively easy to animate

Pixel art:

  • Classic "game look"
  • Relatively easy to work with at low resolutions
  • Very very laborious at higher resolutions
  • Does not scale at all. Better have that sprite size locked up by the time you draw it.

3D in general:

  • More work than 2D
  • After the model is created and rigged, making animations is easy in comparison. No redrawing.

Poly modeling:

  • Specifically suited for angular geometric looking objects

Sculpting:

  • Easier to create complex models than with poly modeling
  • Specifically well suited for smooth organic looking things
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I feel that small development teams do best when they go by this rule:

  1. Take a look at what all the big studios are doing.
  2. Head in exactly the opposite direction.

If EA, Sony, and Microsoft are all going for the hyper-realistic aesthetic, how about something hyper-unrealistic? Indies have, lately, had a lot of success with pixel art (though the resurgence in that style means that (perhaps) that's something to steer clear of as well!). Since you're a programmer, why not leverage that to create something unique? A corrolary to the above rules:

  • If everyone's using one tool, consider using or building a different one.

So, for aesthetic, we're in the process of developing a surreal, geometric-looking aesthetic for our upcoming title. And since, by and large, we're not artists, the approach is to do this procedurally, so we've been experimenting with math. For instance, we've built a node-based utility so that non-artists can create interesting 3d models.

You've covered a good range of styles, from vector art to pixel art. As you're a programmer first, you might look into creating your own style programmatically. Some examples of this:

  • Structure Synth uses context free grammar systems to generate visuals.
  • Genetica uses a graph interface to build textures.
  • Eskil Steenberg uses really simple 3D models and applies a full-screen shader for a painterly effect for a unique aesthetic in Love.

There's a lot of great stuff yet to be discovered, and I think programmers (or, better yet, a programmer and someone with an artistic eye to consult) are in a great place to find/create/develop it.

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Some suggestions:

You could try with minimalistic 2D vector graphics. Look to games like flow, eufloria and limbo for inspiration.

If you want to go for a hand-drawn look you can manage with minimalistic vector 2d + a hand-draw-look-shader which could apply a noise function to all your lines.

I prefer making vector graphics over painting due to the the ability to rescale as I see fit, and the ability to reuse graphics components between sprites.

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Not really an answer, so much as an extended note :

Digital painting requires a lot of learning time to get anything that looks hi-def. If you're already a competent drawer or painting in traditional mediums then it can be quite rewarding, but if you are looking for the easiest way for you to create art assets for yourself, it might not be the best way to go. Something like vectors or pixel art is probably best if you can't put in the needed time to really learn digital painting, since they are more easily manipulated and edited. If you make a mistake on a painting, you need to re-paint it, whereas with vector art you can just edit the shape/line to fix it.

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That's a very good point. Basically what I'm asking is not so much which medium I could excel in right away, but which medium would get me the most value for my investment in it. I suppose it also depends on the amount of investment, but I have to say the malleability of vector art is tempting. It does feel like it's a bit harder to get into though, because it's more dissimilar to drawing or painting on traditional mediums. Depends on the tools too, of course. –  Pekuja Oct 17 '10 at 14:25
    
Digital painting will definitely give you value, since a lot of the skills you'd learn to do it you can apply to any other kind of art, but it will definitely have the highest learning curve. Vector is a little weirder to wrap your head around but I don't think it's that hard, really, just time consuming. –  daestwen Oct 17 '10 at 16:18

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