Why are we seeing so much pixel art these days?
I was recently asked for my opinions on why we’re seeing such an influx of pixel art in modern games. Where I had intended to write a quick paragraph, it turned out I had a lot of rambling thoughts on the topic brewing in my subconscious, which unfurled into an unwieldy rambling essay, which is likely of little use the the person initially seeking my thoughts on the matter. Instead of dumping these ramblings in the trash, I thought I’d leave them here on the blog, in case someone finds them interesting.
Here are my ramblings:
The popularity of pixel art among modern game designers (and the backlash from players who don’t like that look) highlights an interesting dynamic that I think we see regularly repeated through all corners of the creative industries. I think it’s evidence of a very positive change in the game development landscape, and one that benefits pixel art lovers and haters alike.
Games on a Tiny Budget:
At the core of this change, is the tools to create games becoming cheaper and more accessible, and the paths to sell those games to players opening right up. There have never been fewer barriers blocking some kid with a game idea from building it into a product and selling it. With basic tools finally accessible and cheap enough to give the masses their chance to create, gamers are seeing games made on vastly lower budgets than they’ve seen from traditional games companies.
Unsurprisingly, a common response from gamers has been “I hate this, it looks cheap”. These games are being made on the tiniest fraction of AAA budgets, and in many cases it shows. It takes some real magic to make a $60,000 game or a $200,000 game not look cheap compared to a $12,000,000 game, and not every budget developer is equipped to make that magic happen. The fact that many small developers have actually pulled it off is a wonderful thing, but also inflates expectations.
It’s not just the accessibility and power of development tools enabling small developers, it’s the viability of selling games digitally opening up the floodgates. Digital downloads have enabled everyone to sell their games, and by doing away with much of the unnecessary costs, have inadvertently freed them to be more creative and experimental with design, and allowed them to specialize in unique tastes, rather than watering it all down for the masses.
The old model where physical games were bought on discs came with massive overheads that shaped every aspect down the development pipeline, all the way back to the designer. Printing hundreds of thousands of physical discs, shipping them around the world, and competing for shelf space in stores, is all incredibly expensive and a huge gamble. The minimum spend to get your game on shelves begins in the millions, with no guarantee you’ll sell a copy, especially if you’re trying an original IP or experimental new idea.
Understandably, companies gambling these millions are risk-averse, and the best way to mitigate risk is to make something just like the things that are already proven sellers on the market. Or better yet, a licensed game which already has brand recognition! So something a little left-field like Dead Space tends to gravitate out of the “horror” niche, towards the more widely selling “space marine shooter” territory, as the budget grows and that gamble becomes bigger.
With those overheads lifted, and powerful tools at their fingertips, small-team designers can try all kinds of experimental ideas without gambling their livelihood on it. If we can operate to a minimal budget, we don’t require massive sales for success, and because the internet allows us to connect to such a wide and diverse pool of players, we are finally free to design specifically for our chosen niche and give them exactly what they want. Rather than sanding off any potential sticking points out of fear it won’t appeal to a broad enough audience, we can double down on the quirks and interests that really inspire us, and still reach enough players to make a living. Horror enthusiasts can focus 100% on horror, and still get paid enough to keep doing it, and people who love pixel art don’t have to give it up for something more broadly favored.
In order to stick to these tiny budgets, small developers need to trim the unnecessary fat that has accumulated on AAA games over the graphical-fidelity arms-race of the past few decades. We don’t have the luxury of huge environment-art teams to fill the background of every scene with meticulously modeled and textured foliage with no impact on gameplay. We have to make the absolute most of every man-hour, which means things need to be simple and elegant where possible. Style and atmosphere take precedence over photorealism and abundance of detail.
In many cases, 2D is the simpler more elegant way to realize a design both artistically and mechanically, and within 2D art styles, pixel art is often chosen as the cleanest, most efficient way to set the intended visual tone with the least unnecessary work.
Focusing on a cleaner graphical style to minimize development pipeline and man-hours required is not just to save money on creating final assets. Because game development is iterative, and because these small developers are generally targeting unproven, experimental mechanics, having a shorter turnaround for asset creation is often vital to allow fast prototyping and experimentation. Imagine trying to compose a song, where every time you played a note you had a three day turnaround for the art team to build, texture and polish it up, just so you can hear it back to decide if you like the sound or not. The quicker that turnaround, the more fluently you can experiment.
Cutting the fat from 3D to 2D is not only about having a faster, less wasteful art pipeline, it’s often about mechanical elegance. 3D platformers for example, are still saddled with any number of clumsy mechanical add-ons in the attempt to cover up our inability to precisely map 3D movement and rotation onto gamepad controls, and for all that information to be clearly communicated back to the player. This has improved over the years, with less frequent instances of wonky cameras and problems judging jump distances, but in no way is it solved. Compare that to a 2D platformer, where movement maps intuitively to face buttons, d-pads and 2D joysticks, where cameras are far more straightforward, and it’s easy to see why 2D is such an appealing choice for many designers, especially when they want to throw experimental mechanics into the mix.
Limitation as Fuel:
In the beginning, pixelation was a limitation, a shortcoming in the attempt to achieve realism or to recreate traditional art styles. Now that realism is achievable and we are no longer chasing that holy grail, we are able to stop and objectively survey the strengths and weaknesses of pixel art, and keep it as just another tool in our tool belt, to be used if and when those strengths and weaknesses are a good match for our goals, rather than blindly seeking the highest possible graphical fidelity in an attempt to wow gamers with that element alone. We’ve seen those amazing graphics achieved now, so they are no longer selling-point enough, and as designers we know well the gameplay compromises often required to achieve them.
The graphical fidelity competition is fuelled by magnitude of man-hours, so to compete on pure fidelity with companies on twenty times your budget is really not playing to your strengths. The big companies are still beholden to the risk-aversion of those high costs, so focusing more on our ability to experiment gives us a much needed advantage.
The development of low-resolution from a limitation to a stylistic choice is something we see repeated all over the art landscape, along with the complaints from those who don’t see the art, and just want higher fidelity.
The thickness, texture, splatter and overt brush-strokes of oil paint were initially just limitation, back when painting was chasing that holy grail of pure realism and fidelity. Painting techniques were developed to hide these limitations, just as antialiasing techniques developed to minimize the blocky look of early digital art. As the art of painting developed (and especially with the achievement of photography for capturing realism), artists teased out the unique value and expression inherent in those limiting properties of paint, and now texture, splatter and visible brush-work can be among the most celebrated elements in a master painter’s work.
Even modern digital painters, one hundred percent free from the limitations of physical paint, will routinely simulate the splatter and imperfections of paint upon their digital works. They have found more room for expression within those imperfections than they get from perfect fidelity.
Early synthesizers put the power to compose and perform full scores in the hands of people without the privilege to command a real-life orchestra. Many of the synthesizers attempting to recreate string, brass and wind instruments sounded garish and clumsy, but instead of being thrown away as technology eventually enabled us to more plausibly mimic orchestral sounds, those old synths were embraced for the unique properties they did offer, and have become just another tool in the musician’s belt, to be used if and when appropriate.
Pixel art likewise enables a single artist to draw whole worlds without the art team required to create them in realistic 3D, and though the trademark “blockiness” makes it garish and clumsy in terms of representing photoreal images, this unique property is exactly what many artists have come to value about it.
Our imperfect attempts at realism tend to breed much more interesting and expressive results than our perfect attempts. The Roland TB-303 started as a poor-man’s replacement for a bass-guitarist, and wound up one of the defining forces in the evolution of modern electronic music. This happened because people were fascinated by the unique properties it did offer, rather than just seeing it as an imperfect bass-guitar emulator.
Pixel artists are no longer trying to achieve realism through the limitation of blockiness, we are welcoming the unique range of styles enabled by the blocks.
Even Haters Win:
Of course seeing beauty in chunky pixels, or thick paint, or retro synthesizers is entirely subjective, and with the infinite variety of tastes from person to person, it’s inevitable to find large groups who don’t click with any specific stylistic quirk. Pixel art is a decidedly niche taste, and it’s fine for many gamers to not like it. Why I think they should still be happy to see it flourish, is that pixel art is only one of a million niche tastes becoming more viable for creators, and so flourishing pixel art is great evidence that all niches are being better catered for.
Nobody is taking away 3D games and turning them into pixel art games, this change in development is purely additive, and most of the pixel art games where you might think “I’d rather they made that in 3D to suit my tastes” simply would not have been possible if that developer was lumped with the hurdles and expenses associated with 3D. Once the speed and affordability of pixel art has aided that creator in realizing their designs, those concepts become part of the shared lexicon, for 2D and 3D enthusiasts alike to harvest, and build upon in subsequent games.
Maybe you don’t like pixel art, but you like horror, or adventure games, or a certain type of offbeat comedy. You might be into realistic war simulations, or farming games, or incredibly deep and arcane RPG mechanics. Whatever niche taste speaks to you, it is the same opening up of development tools and online stores that allows pixel art to flourish, which is allowing someone out there to say “fuck the masses, I love this niche and I’ll make this game just for those who love it too”. Not appealing to the broadest possible audience is simply breeding better games for everyone.
Even if the only games you like are the most mainstream AAA games, this environment of free experimentation allows AAA developers to cherry pick the experimental mechanics which did work in smaller games, and give them the full AAA treatment, keeping your shooters fresh and exciting at very low risk.
Abundance Has a Caveat:
Cheap and accessible development means that one genius kid out there, with tastes just like yours, has a better opportunity than ever to make his masterpiece and drop it in your lap. Of course the other side of the coin is all the people who aren’t geniuses (or who are but just not to your specific tastes) also have access to these tools, and they’re creating their asses off too! So as well as getting more of everything we love, we get a lot more of everything we hate and everything we’re indifferent to.
Pixel art is a medium which I believe can be used to create great art, but of course it can be used to create boring art too, and is being used to that end on a daily basis just like any other medium. I see a lot of bad art drawn with pencils, but it doesn’t turn me against pencil art, it just drives me to seek out talented pencil artists who create things which match my tastes. Pixels do not prescribe any specific art style. They are a medium, and as with any medium we’re going to find many creations which bore us. To many people’s tastes (including many who love pixel art) Crawl falls on that boring side and doesn’t match their tastes, but lucky for me we also have people who love the style! So we gain games we like and we gain games we don’t like, but I’d never want to miss out on the amazing ones just so I don’t have to click past a few boring ones to find them!
The problem now is navigating and curating the sheer quantity of new games, to connect players up with the games that fit their tastes. This is a big challenge. Navigating abundance of content seems to be one of the universal problems of the modern age, and I look forward to seeing us try to solve it!
End brain dump! I know I’m preaching to the choir here, which is why I generally don’t go on about things like this, but once I started writing it was good to let it out 🙂