You Don’t Need to Be Good at Drawing to Make a Good Looking Game
An art director’s job is not to draw good looking art but to know and communicate what looks good. In other words, they need to “have the eye for it.” The “eye” comes through experience, studying others and ripping them off – to an extent.
Especially in small casual games you rarely have to have anatomically correct characters or realistic environments. Once you throw those into the trash, the art creation becomes much simpler.
All you need to know well are the tools you are using. In games those tools are often some 3D software and Photoshop, and a tool for animating (Unity’s animation tools are enough.)
Once you’re technically capable with your chosen software, you’re ready to create high-quality-looking graphics – though the process I describe may not follow the same methods than professionals use. Put simply, to my understanding, the “professional” way is to first think and possibly write about the piece in hand, e.g. a character, to outline it’s attributes. Then you’d do multiple different types of sketches following the attributes, and finally draw the final result. Often the final result doesn’t even appear in the game, and is only used as reference by the artists who create the implementable versions.
In smaller games however, where you have a small team or perhaps just you, the process can be made much simpler and faster. I’ll use my game Breakout Ninja as an example.
Breakout Ninja – Art
After prototyping the core mechanics (tapping when the character is inside a circle), I figured that I want a fast-paced game, and figured that Ninjas fit the design well. So the “artistical decision” was hand-in-hand with what I programmed (i.e. no artistic brainstorming required). The game is casual, so I wanted the protogee to be somewhat cute. I opened Google and typed in “ninja cute cartoon”. After 1 minute of browsing I had a good idea in mind what it could look like, and started ripping off bits and pieces from here and there, and put them together to form the final version of the character. The whole process took perhaps 30 minutes, no sketching or narrative required.
Because of the prototype I made, I already knew from which perspective the Ninja should be seen and drew it straight up like that. So at this point I already had all art assets required to implement it in the game; arms and legs separated for animation and all that. However I did go one step further and used Puppet2D from the asset store to be able to animate with bones.
TIP: A good and a fast way to create final-looking graphics is to use vector graphics. The outlines will be sharp and the asset is easily scaleable if need be. Photoshop’s vector tools are very powerful once you get the hang of it.
The same process applied to the background art as well. Many of the landscapes were first drawn on top of some silhouette photos from Google, and then edited to my liking.
Blast from the Past – Angry Birds
I had the opportunity to be the only designated artist on Angry Birds. The character and environment art are based on Jaakko Iisalo’s original mockup:
All that was really required of me was to go through a few versions of the characters with the team and finalize it – which also happened to be done with Photoshop’s vector tools. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any of the original sketches, but believe me, I really wasn’t a good art artist (and still aren’t). All I knew was how to make them look final from the “production point of view.” (Side note: this is also the reason why I haven’t tried to get the credit for all of Angry Birds art, since I believe it was much more of a team effort than a one man show.)
Eventually the team got bigger and was joined by Markus Tuppurainen, who really took the visuals of the Angry Birds world to the next level. With Markus tutoring and helping me on the art for the next ~two years from that point on, I got to learn so much more about designing characters and environments – which I believe showed in our games at Boomlagoon.
I put the same principles together in Monsu, our runner-game from Boomlagoon. You can see the visual similarities to Angry Birds in this image:
The sketches I made for some of the characters were also very shitty, but unfortunately I couldn’t access those original sketches either. The end result however turned out pretty good after using the methods described previously.
To summarize, to create good looking games you don’t have to have any extraordinary talent, you just need experience to know what looks good (= what sells), and need to know your tools to create something along those lines. Your technical skills are far more valuable than your artistical skills, and even more so when going indie. That technical mindset can be put into good use with art as well.