Welcome

Hello, and welcome to The Pixelatedtale! My name is Drew and I have a love for video games and art alike. This influences me to be passionate about the craft of video game development. A large part of developing a great game comes down to the core visuals and what art style the game is going to use. Deciding this is crucial to the game’s first impressions on the player, aiding the overall affect of the narrative, and providing a unique experience. This blog will focus on this aspect of game development. Each week I will talk about a different type of technique or art style used in video game development that are used by both Triple A companies and indie studios.

These topics will vary each week and I will go over best practices and usages of the styles as well as examples to help aid understanding of each of the topics. I will not be going over step by step on how to make any of the assets in my examples, though. For those looking for in-depth guides on how to make assets for your own games using the techniques I talk about, I will provide resources to the best guides I can find so you may accomplish that! For those that are just interested in learning more about the many art styles used in the games you love to play then you’ll also feel right at home!

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Living the Virtual Reality

As a kid, I always wanted to be able to be able to live a video game. To this day, I still think this would be a really cool experience. Although, this is not something that is completely fictional anymore. We are now starting to see the true dawn of virtual reality technology and it will continue to be improved on as the years go by. There are endless applications for this technology but one of the coolest things, in my opinion, will be all of the incredible video game experiences you will be able to play. Being able to experience video games from a true first person perspective is something that you can’t really comprehend until you’ve tried it out yourself. If you haven’t had the opportunity to try out a VR headset in these past couple years, there are mainly three well known headsets that are getting all of the recognition. These include the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and the PS VR. All of these are very neat headsets and each play very similar games but they do have their differences. When it comes to making these games, Unity3D is a great way to go about that. Unity not only supports the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive but already has quick sample code you can use to implement into your games. Although just making your game work with VR is the first step to making a quality VR experience.

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A game’s art and assets are a very important component to what makes a VR game a bad VR game. If the resolution is not high enough or textures are not detailed enough it will ruin the immersion and the game will become less enjoyable. This is not too difficult to avoid by making sure to upgrade the quality of all your art assets by using higher poly models and higher resolution textures but it is more time and effort. In a game studio this may be too much additional time and money to put into a game that already plays fine on a console or PC. This results in the only VR games that come out are either through experimentation or games that were specifically built with VR in mind. There are games that exist already that fit into each of the categories. One such game that is honestly insane to play is EVE: Valkyrie. It is a game where you man a spacecraft and take part in some crazy space battles. It’s easily an experience that you can get a little sick during because you’re spinning around and going upside down in all sorts of directions. All of this happens while you are sitting in the cockpit of your spaceship. You can even look around the cockpit as you are flying around. It feels incredibly immersive and is a great example of how to create a good experience for virtual reality. You can check out a gameplay video below.

While art assets do need to be higher resolution to work well in virtual reality, this does not mean they have to be photo realistic. It is true, a photo realistic game will seem more immersive and real to a player but a highly stylized cartoon world can also have a similar feeling. Just because it’s in VR doesn’t mean it has to reflect reality. In fact, that’s quite the opposite way of thinking when it comes to games in VR. We want to be taken to a world we have never seen before. This is where cel shaded worlds and other different creative styles will truly come to life because we will be able to experience them as if we were there. Unlike regular video games, virtual reality is still a very new medium for video games to be played in so there is still a lot to be done. If you are into virtual reality and are wanting to make games, there is no better time to get involved in the industry than now. Many of the current games are more like demos and are nothing too impactful. So get out there and experience virtual reality!

If you are wanting to get involved in making VR games I am going to post a link to some of Untiy3d’s VR API and also a video on how to implement a basic virtual reality camera into your game.

Here is a page where you can have access to different SDK’s depending upon the headset you want to support.

And below is the first video of video series to get you started with using virtual reality into your Unity projects. It is made by Unity3D themselves so it is definitely the most a good method of implementation. Have fun creating your own VR games!

Dazzling Up Those Pixels

This week I am going to talk more about pixel games and ways you can make pixel graphics look a little cooler than just a 2-D world. There are a lot of different ways to go with this and it also depends upon the type of view your game has. Like any other game, you can have a bird’s eye view of your character, isometric, fully to the side of the character (i.e. platformer games like Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario) and, in some games, first person. In most cases, if you want to go with anything that is not bird’s eye or platformer you will need to implement some degree of 3-D graphics into the game to make it work. This in itself is a method in making a pixel art game more interesting to look at because integrating 2-D sprites in 3-D space is really cool done right. There is a game coming out for the Nintendo Switch from Square Enix named Octopath Traveler which uses an isometric view for the game. It is a great example of incorporating 2-D pixel art with 3-D graphics in a very interesting and cool way. I have posted the trailer for the game below in case you are interested in checking it out.

There is not much behind why it works, it simply is more interesting to look at then a flat image. However, there are lots of pixel games that don’t go quite as far as Octopath Traveler to bridge 2-D with 3-D. Some developers use higher resolution sprites so they can work with more pixels. While others add a lot of polish to make the overall experience feel more like a modern game with a retro look instead of a retro game with a dated look. A single developer made a game named Stardew Valley which is a farming game but it has a very retro style to it that looks great but it doesn’t have any 3-D elements besides detailed sprites.

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As you can see, the sprites are a lot smaller and higher resolution but they still retain a visibly retro look. Games like these are also some of the most manageable to make due to the graphics just requiring basic drawing at low resolutions. It still takes time to make good graphics with animations but it is a fraction of the time it would take to do the same in 3-D. Usually, the higher the resolution graphics are, the more time it takes to make quality animations. Redrawing is tough and if you plan to finish a game it is a good idea to be realistic on the resolution you choose to work with. I generally make sprites for pixel art graphics in 64×64 resolution tiles. It gives you room to work with to add detail but it isn’t too ambitious for a single person to redraw animations for. 32×32 looks good too but it is entirely up to the artist. I recommend to play around before deciding. Also, like with any other type of image, don’t scale a sprite up or down if you change resolution. Redraw it. It will look poor quality otherwise and even though it’s a retro game, it looks pretty bad and it will stand out!

The last type of pixel games I am going to talk about is the first person pixel art games. These are 3-D games where they texture the 3-D models with very low resolution textures. Another common practice these days is to make 3-D models and then to apply a “retro shader” to the camera in Unity to achieve a retro look. This way you can make anything look retro by simply applying a shader. It’s a really cool way to make a game have a unique look to it without having to do anything to all of your art assets. This is a major time saver. An example of this in action can be seen in the video below from Josh O’Caoimh. You can get a retro shader off the Unity Asset Store or you can script one yourself if you have the expertise. I have found one available here that is a more updated version of the one being used in the video.

There is more and more cool ways being created to use pixel art in new and inventive ways, you just have to start making it and see what cool games you can come up with!

The Art of Horror

Horror games are personally one of my favorite types of games to play. Not only is a good horror game usually an immersive, unique experience but the visuals in them truly help drive the tension and sense of panic that one of these games might give the player. Today, I am not going to be focusing on a single type of art style found in gaming but rather a genre and how art is used to build the experience. Some of my favorite horror games are Dead Space, Resident Evil, and Outlast. Most commonly we encounter realistic visuals in horror games. Like I talked about in my previous blog post, realistic visuals are best for when you want the player to be immersed in the experience. You want the player to believe they are in the shoes of the protagonist and that every decision they make will decide their fate. Using realistic visuals is the easiest way to create that immersion for the player. This doesn’t mean horror games don’t work without realism but they generally don’t have the same effect on the player.

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Screenshot of “The Groom” from Outlast (2013)

Without getting too far into game design theory, a first-person view is the best way to immerse a player into the experience and make them feel like they are there. The most common form of horror games we see nowadays is the first-person horror game. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s a lot of popular 3rd-person horror games came out like Silent Hill and Resident Evil. We don’t see too many 3rd-person horror games coming out these days because it creates a division between the player and the experience. Even though they are in control, the player still feels like they are observing the events from the sidelines. Although, Dead Space is a great example of a somewhat more recent game that still used 3rd-person and successfully created an immersive experience. Sound design is a large key on why it was so successful but the art direction was another irreplaceable key. The environments are claustrophobic and isolating and the enemy designs are horrifying. Every corner of the spaceship you are on is dark with flickering lights and you never know when a Necromorph (the name of the enemies in Dead Space) might come down through one of the ceiling vents and sprint at you with murderous intent. It’s a great experience if you love horror games, like I do, but nonetheless a truly frightening one.

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Screenshot of a Necromorph from Dead Space 3 (2013)

When making a horror game it is important to make the player feel hopeless and alone through the visuals. Claustrophobic hallways, hanging lights that are flickering, blood splatters in places that tell a story on their own, and creepy environments that keep the tension high even when there isn’t danger; these are all important things to have in a horror game. Lighting effects also have a large role in horror games too because you want the games to have a creepy aura to them with a single glance. This screenshot below, from an upcoming game named Visage from SadSquare, really shows how a dark and claustrophobic space with the right lighting and something unknown at the end of it is all it takes to give the player a sense of fear and tension. How would you like to walk down that hallway?

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Screenshot from Visage (2018)

Overall, visuals are a necessary component of horror games to scare the player. They add a lot to the games and I personally love to play them. If you’re not into scary games that is okay but it’s always good to observe why certain visuals work for certain types of games and what about them works better than others. This same type of thinking can be applied to other genres of games like war games and role playing games each with their own set of art styles that work best for them. Next week I will dive back into pixel graphics to show you all some cool things you can do with them. Hopefully you enjoyed our little detour into the scarier side of gaming!

Realism in Games

This week we are going to talk about realistic graphics. This is the most common way video game graphics are made nowadays but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any drawbacks to using realism. The goal of this style is to recreate reality so the game is more believable and relatable. Everything is made to look like it does in real life and to have as much detail as possible (or as needed) in each object to succeed at giving the eye that perception. Although it is the most common, it is one of the hardest styles to do well because if the detail isn’t up to par with what players expect from today’s video games, it will generally bring the reputation of the game down as a result. This is unfair in most cases if a game is actually quite good but it important to keep in mind when making a game with realistic visuals.

Unlike other types of game art styles, there’s no specific way to go about making a game with realistic graphics. If it looks highly detailed, has realistic lighting effects, and the sound effects are very well done then you have yourself a quality example. Now that doesn’t mean certain aspects of a game don’t have a larger role in making it look more believably realistic. Let’s say you have a 3-D model of a tree that has a high poly count and has a very detailed texture applied to it but it is completely still. It doesn’t move at all. Even having one tree like this in a game stands out. The trees outside in the real world move even when it’s not windy. Animation is one of the largest keys to realism. Without it, everything looks like a scary world where nothing moves. That can work for a horror game, maybe, but not in every game. The immersion breaks and the player then realizes they’re playing a game that isn’t necessarily a believable experience. That’s when most people put the game down and find another one to commit time to. Although too much movement can also cause the same thing. A great example is breathing animations. People and animals all breathe. Our chests compress and decompress which moves our shoulders and arms. Most games include this animation or some other idle animation but it can be overdone to a very comedic level. This can get annoying in some cases but generally will also take away all credibility to a game unless it’s an on purpose comedic experience.

Sound effects also play a large role in making a realistic game seem real. You would expect to hear a different sound when putting your foot down on some dead leaves compared to sand or snow. To make a truly immersive experience you would want to make the same thing happen in a game. Sound engineering is a whole different topic that is out of scope for this blog but Unity3D has some cool tools you can use for realistic sounds. 3-D sounds are very helpful because they are relative to a location in your game. This means a sound would be quieter if you were 100 feet away from the source than if you were right next to it. This allows for very realistic sound effects without having to do all of the programming behind it.

The last topic I am going to talk about with realistic graphics is lighting effects. I have talked about lighting before and how it truly makes a game look good. With realistic graphics it is one of the most important parts to making a scene look realistic. A lot of what makes something look real is how light refracts off things. Light can sometimes be visible and it is important to replicate that in a game. A very cool blog post from Unity3D on the best practices of lighting for realistic visuals can be found here. It goes over a lot of cool techniques you can use in Unity to make lighting in your games look very real.

If you have all of these things in your game, you will have a believably realistic game and people are going to want to try it out. Now you just have to make sure you have a good story to tell so your players will be able to be fully immersed in it every step of the way!

Going Back to Pixel Art

Video game art has evolved over time from 8-bit sprites (an image) to 3-D, low poly visuals and to the high definition graphics we see nowadays. And while those amazing HD graphics are a spectacle to look at, there are developers out there who are finding old-school graphics to be the new ‘classy’ in video games. Pixel graphics are more than often used by independent studios rather than Triple A corporations (EA, Activision Blizzard, Nintendo, etc…) because it is considerably less time consuming and thereby not as costly to make. This allows studios that are smaller or one-man to create games faster and within their budget. Not only this, but it allows the focus of the development time to go more into making a flawless and smooth player experience rather than adding that extra detail to your grass texture. But of course, pixel art can look very cool and done in the right way, it can look stunning.

Before we dive into best practices with pixel art, let’s talk about why pixel art works and is still enjoyed by people when there are near photo realistic graphics being made in today’s game development industry. Usually, if a player had played a lot of games during their childhood that were made in the 90’s, like Sonic the Hedgehog, Final Fantasy, Zelda, and Mario, they will often times enjoy games made with pixel art.

This is because most of these games are inspired by those same old games. They often have very similar controls but the pixel art gives the game a look that creates a sense of nostalgia for the player. This nostalgia is really what makes these games so enjoyable. It provides the player with the younger mindset that they had when playing the games of their childhood and allows them to enjoy the game in a similar manner. This is why if your target audience is a younger age group, you don’t want to make your game look like it was made in the 90’s because it will look dated to them. They never played those games. This is why younger kids love games like Call of Duty because they always keep making super flashy, gritty, HD experiences on the best available game engines year after year. Games with pixel graphics have a niche audience that enjoy the feelings of nostalgia the graphics bring but if the player lacks the experiences of 90’s games, the game will look dated and the magic will be gone.

Although it is easier to make pixel art, pixel art can be tricky to master. You have less space to work with when making it because you are often working with a smaller resolution sprite sheet. A sprite sheet is a simple image with a series of sprites on them that the game can use to easily put together animations. Here is an example of Sonic’s sprite sheet from a game named Sonic CD released in 1993.

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As you can see it’s a lot of the same thing over and over again with slight alterations. That’s how hand drawn animation is made and that is no different for sprite animation. This is one of the only aspects to pixel artwork that technically is a little more tedious than 3-D animation. Once you have a rigged up 3-D model, you can animate it freely without having to remodel it each frame. You can get creative with pixel art but it’s only going to look quality and smooth if things are drawn over and over again. There are many tools to do this, though. Photoshop and Gimp are your friends when it comes to pixel art. You could even use Microsoft Paint. But it is easy to draw sprites that don’t look anything like what you were intending to make so definitely be sure to practice!

One great thing about sprite sheets is how easy they make level building. Once you have all of your sprites done you can use these as tiles to put together your world in a very rapid manner. This is great for prototyping and it makes creating larger game worlds a faster process. The best games with pixel artwork have a wide variety of scenery to make the game come to life. Just because the graphics are less detailed does not mean you can skimp on the amount of animations, weather effects, variety of characters and enemies or even the parallax sky boxes you use in your game. In fact it is the opposite. It is the best art style to do all of these because they will truly stand out when done well. In Unity, you can implement the Tilemap which allows you to turn the level editor into a grid. Then you can just click a square on the grid while having a sprite from your sprite sheet selected and it will be painted into the square. There is no need to worry about spending time spacing out your sprites on your own this way. Just start drawing out your levels!

There is a lot more to talk about with pixel art games and I may go over additional aspects of pixel artwork in the coming weeks, such as parallax sky boxes which are used to give a 2-D game a 3-D effect. For those wanting to look into setting up a project in Unity with a Tilemap go ahead and watch the tutorial by Brackeys below which is a good introduction to that topic. Have fun creating your pixel art games!

Low Poly Worlds

A unique but very simplistic art style that more and more people are playing around with in today’s current game development industry is “low poly”. The term “low poly” comes from the lower count of polygons in each of the 3-D models used in the game. Not only does this make a game run really fast because the game engine does not have to render so many polygons but it also can look really cool. If you are unsure of what this looks like, no worries! I have created a few examples using Unity3D:

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As you can see, nothing is nicely smoothed out. Everything has sharp edges and multiple faces make up an object. The color scheme I went with was just basic single colors to get the point across. You could easily use a more detailed texture to give more life to it but it would be going against the style to use realistic or overly detailed textures. The idea is to be simplistic but artistic. Lighting, like usual, is a very powerful tool that also needs to match the style. I went with a very basic directional light with a hint of orange to give it a sunset feel. On a smaller scale, this art style can look a little dull but in a grand scale it can be as beautiful as any other style. It is also a great way of putting a larger emphasis on creating an atmosphere for the game. With less of the player’s attention going towards the little details, low poly allows for more narrative focused games. One game that is a great example at using this art style for that purpose is Journey, a game developed by Thatgamecompany. (Yes, that’s their name. Look it up if you want to.)

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This is a game that entirely focuses on it’s environment as a plot tool to inform the player of what is happening and what to do next. There is very little dialog or direction to tell the player what is going on or what has already happened. The narrative slowly unrolls itself through the environment as the player journeys across the desert. Through this and its interesting art style the player becomes very curious on what is in this vast desert and what happens when you finally get to that mountain that is always in the distance. They also use a low poly art style while putting more detail in the textures along with a simpler shader to stay away from any aspect of realism. It’s a beautiful game and if you haven’t played it, check it out!

Low poly is also really easy to make and does not require a huge amount of 3D modelling experience. Since the objects just need to roughly look like what they are suppose to be there is a lot more wiggle room than if you were trying to model something high poly. So definitely do not fear trying to make your own assets if you are interested in trying this style out! It can be a really fun style to play around with and you can make something really cool if you go all out with it.

For those interested in modeling their own low poly objects, here is a neat video from Toxicity Game Dev to get you started with trees. This tutorial uses Blender which is a free 3-D modeling and animation software. If you do not have it, download it at https://www.blender.org/.

Lighting Effects with Unity3D

One of the most crucial parts to any game, no matter the style, is how the game is lit up. Now that may seem like an obvious statement. A game with no lighting would be very dull to play if not unplayable without some other twist. But lighting effects are a whole lot more than just simply allowing the player to see what is happening in the game they are playing. Lighting effects, along with how your game is being rendered, can drastically change how your game looks. You can do cool different things with lighting from making a game go from very dull to a photo realistic environment, assuming your assets match that style. Many AAA and indie games do this to enhance the realistic look to them on top of detailed models because it can enhance the look of the game without much additional development time and cost.

In the Unity engine, you have access to four main different types of lighting: spot light, directional light, area light and point light . The most natural looking light is the area light. This is great for lighting up environments that are outside in 3-D games. The other three types of light give you different amounts of concentrated light you can specify on a location. This can be great for indoor light fixtures. Although, most of the time you are wanting to use all of these in various combinations and orientations to get that perfect lighting. You can further customize these light objects to cause lens flares when looked at, have different color of light, and changing how objects appear in shadows. To show you what the Unity engine is capable of with lighting in realtime, here is the 2018 Unity demo:

Another example, albeit less visually stunning, is how you can also make things glow in darkness to get a cool neon look. Here is an example of what I mean from a demo I put together with some geometric shapes:

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Now let’s view how it looks in the editor without all of that fancy lighting magic:

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Pretty lame, right? The lighting effects alone make a really simple 2-D, geometric shapes level into a visually interesting, neon platformer. (The player is the white block, by the way) Now this is just another example of what you can do with lighting effects in Unity. The big takeaway from this is to realize that even though you may not have the ability or the time to make realistic assets for your game, you can still make a game look incredibly cool looking with lighting effects. In addition, there are hundreds of different ways you can go with lighting but the best way to discover those ways is just to start playing with the tools in Unity once you have yourself a game to apply those effects to.

If you are curious as to how you can get started with some 3-D lighting effects in your game, check out the from Brackeys. It’s a great tutorial on how to do some basic lighting in Unity as well as get some knowledge on what exactly goes on in the engine when it calculates where the light goes from your emitter.