No Pixel Small Enough
May 12, 2015 2:55 PM   Subscribe

Dinofarm Games explain why the demand for higher definition graphics have led them to abandon pixel art... over the course of a wonderfully explained, beautifully illustrated, and clearly demonstrated love letter to pixel art.
posted by gilrain (32 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
 
Ah, I'm glad someone posted this, because I'm Internet Friends with Keith Burgun (the other half of Dinofarm -- this one's Blake Reynolds) now and could not. It's interesting! I disagree about needing to abandon pixel art, but I can see where he's coming from. They've been very anxious about how Auro's been doing. I've heard they got a game-of-the-month award for it some time ago, from Touch Arcade or some such?
posted by JHarris at 3:34 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


Great article. I like pixel art because I'm getting old and that's the only kind of computer art there was when I was a kid. For me, playing new games with pixel art in them definitely brings on the nostalgia. He's totally right, though, that all the restrictions are self-imposed. It can be confusing, probably, for people who have never had to deal with crazy small memory and graphics restrictions. I like his Yoshi!
posted by Roger Dodger at 3:43 PM on May 12, 2015


Always like breakdowns like this. It's pretty hard to explain to others, just as the author points out right away with the comparisons between Link's Awakening and that muddy 16-bit platformer (can't remember its name).

One of the reasons I back retro-style games on Kickstarter (A.N.N.E., Hyper Light Drifter, etc) is because I can see really quickly whether they're taking care with their art direction or not, and that's a good start at least for learning whether or not a game is going to be worth your time. The pixel-placing detail-oriented stuff isn't easy, so I appreciate it when people take care to do it right.

Of course we can always go back and play Final Fantasy VI, Raiden Fighters, Metal Slug and all the rest — they're pretty much as good today as they were 10-20 years ago.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 3:55 PM on May 12, 2015


As art, obviously pixel art should and will stick around- many forms of art work are subject to technique limitations, and whether or not they're self-imposed doesn't matter as much as long as the artist/art is good.

But art as service to game design is a different story, because in games today, there's the competing interests of getting a mass audience (making money), having the game be fun, telling a story (sometimes)-- and that's not to mention some of the technical hurdles he talks about. When you put all those things together, using pixel art only seems to make sense when that's the specific aesthetic that you're going for. And in a lot of ways, I think going for that aesthetic is a bit like saying "the main demographic we're aiming for in this game is nostalgic 30-50 year olds."

I guess all I'm rehashing in the end is that the niche art and mainstream art are forever at odds.
posted by thewumpusisdead at 4:10 PM on May 12, 2015 [4 favorites]


I haven't played the game, but from looking at the screenshots, I think their problem is that their art is too high res, so the pixels aren't prominent enough to read as a style, but are visible enough to distract. And their style doesn't suggest there's more detail for your imagination to fill in.

I think one other problem is their game looks like a game that you're still waiting for them to update for the retina display, because they're running at the same DPI of an iPhone 3G. I guess what I'm saying is if you want to embrace limitations, freaking embrace them all the way.
posted by aubilenon at 4:25 PM on May 12, 2015 [11 favorites]


I liked the article, but am a bit confused. One of the best iOS game series out there is Kingdom Rush. All sprites. What am I missing...
posted by Brocktoon at 4:34 PM on May 12, 2015


I've been thinking for a while that the natural successor to pixel art on HiDPI displays is probably 2D (and 2.5D) structured graphics. They're sharp, they look good, and they lend themselves to the same level of stylization (in a different way, of course) as pixel art. What I've seen of it in games and such hasn't been too amazing (yet), though.

It's been almost 25 years since Another World, though, so get to it.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 4:38 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've gotta say, that's a much more mature conclusion than I was expecting! Sometimes, people that like aspects of games that are no longer popular get really bitter. It's made me quite wary of reading game design opinion blogs.

At the same time, I think they could have made the pixel art work by making their "pixels" much larger, so as to communicate that it is not an accident of jaggies.

Still, like he says, there's other sets of rules and boundaries you can come up with yourself, and maybe it'll end up even better!
posted by ignignokt at 4:51 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


Is structured graphics another term for vector graphics? I'm only guessing this because you mention Another World; I'd never heard that term before.
posted by aubilenon at 4:51 PM on May 12, 2015


I liked the article, but am a bit confused. One of the best iOS game series out there is Kingdom Rush. All sprites. What am I missing...

Not all sprites are pixel-art sprites. There's no hard line, but the theory is that a pixel artist should do most of their work with the pencil tool, choosing the colors of pixels individually, and not using brushes that autofill nearby pixels to fit.

I've been thinking for a while that the natural successor to pixel art on HiDPI displays is probably 2D (and 2.5D) structured graphics.

I think you're referring to vector graphics?
posted by LogicalDash at 4:52 PM on May 12, 2015


If you love pixel art, do yourself a favor and go to pixel joint
posted by quirkyturky at 5:25 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


Pixel art can be really lovely and I really dislike the (frequently common) idea that it's lazy or always worse than art that looks smooth. I wish it wasn't the case, though I understand their decision to move away from it.
posted by flatluigi at 5:44 PM on May 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


Auro is lovely stuff, and very finely balanced - if you've not already grabbed it you should do so immediately.

The slightly rougher edged 100 Rogues still has my heart though.
posted by Artw at 5:49 PM on May 12, 2015 [5 favorites]


I do like pixel art, but on a case by case situation. It is not the be all end all of all gaming. But, with the right game, it can be pretty awesome. Although, I tend to enjoy some of the games that use it as the pixel art developers generally seem to concentrate more on gameplay/story than they do on graphics, which is a good thing in my book, so I am hating seeing them boarding the "shiny new thing" train.
posted by Samizdata at 6:02 PM on May 12, 2015


Comics have (mostly) gotten through their equivalent of this - with new printing techniques and photoshop it became technically possible to do much fancier art than the old processes would allow for, so everyone wanted painted and digital looks for their comics for a while to be "modern", most of which dated incredibly fast compared with old art with a solid black and white foundation.

Firtunatly that trend receeded once the novelty was gone... you still get the odd wrongo complaining about art that looks "cartoony" though, which I guess is the comics world equivalent of "pixelated".

Oh, and endless garbage re colours with extra gradients. Those really piss me off.
posted by Artw at 6:11 PM on May 12, 2015 [6 favorites]


From the comments there:

"You cannot stretch and pull a model around the same way you can draw a character being stretched and pulled. 3D is more stiff because that’s just how 3D works."

And, well, not necessarily; look at Guilty Gear Xrd, look at 3D feature films. It's doable. Video game animation is just basically super stiff and awkward right now; people basically make really cool sculptures, and then move them in simple, stiff ways. The world needs a 3D package that makes it easy to smear and distort stuff, and makes it easy to dump this stuff into a video game to make it run in real time.

(Hell, look at the original PS1 Spyro the Dragon or Crash Bandicoot - super-cartoony animation, built with systems that let the animators arbitrarily grab a handful of points from the model and move them around however they liked, instead of having a stiff puppet with a handful of bones to control. Run those via emulation and draw all the polygons at a modern resolution, and they still look pretty amazing.)
posted by egypturnash at 6:47 PM on May 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


Probably a little trickier in interactive stuff due to the need to look good from all angles, but not impossible and in fact I'm sure I've seen it done.
posted by Artw at 6:59 PM on May 12, 2015


aubilenon: "Is structured graphics another term for vector graphics? I'm only guessing this because you mention Another World; I'd never heard that term before."

Yeah. It used to be the term of choice back when I started doing them (very early 90s, Professional Draw on the Amiga), and it's stuck with me, but I guess vector graphics is much more common now.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 7:00 PM on May 12, 2015


Auro is a fun, beautiful game. Glad you posted this thread.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:43 PM on May 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


Funny- I bought Auro based on this article and the problems aren't with the art. The dashboard is clunky. I can't scroll freely. The controls don't feel right. The text log always takes up about 20% of the screen. This game has a UI from 1995. I say take all the great things from those old games, including the pixelart and bring the gameplay up to modern standards.
posted by Dmenet at 8:44 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


I haven't played Auro, but I do read with great interest anything that its designers write. They've changed how I look at (and design) games.
posted by Jpfed at 8:57 PM on May 12, 2015


This article bummed me out. Pixel art is cool and looks great.

Games might be the weirdest, most awkward intersection of Art and Product I can think of though. They're expensive, high end consumer software and electronics that contain the aesthetic choices of creative people. I can't think of any other medium where the audience's childish insistence that every work be "fun" is so indulged or encouraged. Yes, the venue I work at sells more tickets to the comedies and the musicals but if someone comes out of the grim piece we're running now to tell me that they didn't care for a costume or any given narrative beat, no one in the building would consider that, like, a failure of customer service. It's the start of a conversation about different visions of the play, hopefully leading to everyone gaining a larger understanding of the show (and theater) itself.

When you run up against something in a creative work that fails to match your expectations, yes, sometimes that is a sign of bad craftsmanship. Other times, it is a sign that you are trying to engage with the work from far too narrow a context, that your horizons are about to broaden. To put it in game terms: sometimes, art that you don't love and understand the very first second you engage with it is art that will ultimately prove to be LOADED WITH CULTURAL XP. It may even prove to be art that you come to love very much, art that will change and inform your life. Know how many times I had to try to start reading Dune? Three! Know how often I quote or quietly reference it to myself now? Very often!

The process of opening oneself to art not understood or appreciated at first can be one of the most rewarding journeys a person can undertake. Taking a second to remember that hardly anyone sets out to create bad work on purpose, stopping to at least wonder "well, what were they going for with that choice? What were they trying to achieve? What perspectives informed those choices?" This tends to be the start of a more productive line of inquiry than: "is this a 9 or an 8.75?"

They don’t owe us the time to look at our work in the first place. They certainly don’t owe us the time to squint their eyes and try to make sense of our work.

Arg, yes, fine, that's all and true but it's still worth their time to try, to be open to that process on a baseline level. Art's ability to enlarge one's perspective, to add to a person's capacity to perceive things as beautiful or worthy, is one the single best things about it. But you have to, you know, look at it for a second. You might see something you weren't expecting to be fascinated by. Just ask a Dwarf Fortress player how much is possible to imagine in a very simple image.

... similar to the remnants of the Jazz music scene.

Sigh, but this is a fair point too. I'm a couple years out of the target demo and as such, I've been listening to more old songs than new for awhile now. At some point I lost track and interest in staying on the cutting edge of music. Gah, who has the energy? My age no doubt has something to do with how good pixel art looks to me but nonetheless, I love that gaming is in this cool place where the old aesthetic sometimes collides with modern design. Teleglitch, for example: the survival horror game the Atari 2600 never knew it needed. Here, the "pixelation" adds to the game's sense of bleak, desperate dread and oppression. Ever played it? You stop seeing pixels and start seeing fear after about three minutes.

Mr. Reynolds' has a compelling professional reason to leave pixel art behind. It still sucks that complaining gamers have persuaded a creative person to abandon his preferred medium to (maybe) please them. For a group that contains so many prepared to boast of being hardcore, a lot of them sure seem to hate being challenged.

TL;DR: Death to Nerd Culture.
posted by EatTheWeak at 9:14 PM on May 12, 2015 [5 favorites]


So kind of by happenstance I ran into this in-browser drawing app for pixelated art tonight. Just a little hack but there's something really appealing but also mind-blowing about it.
posted by R343L at 10:13 PM on May 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


The text log always takes up about 20% of the screen

That is one of the best things about high resolution graphics is you can draw readable text at small sizes.
posted by aubilenon at 11:13 PM on May 12, 2015


Obligatory what retro games actually looked like image. The artificial CRT Effects in "Super Win the Game" are pretty cool, though.

Between Auro, 868-HACK, Arcane Tower, Cardinal Quest 2 and MicRogue we're kind of spoiled for mobile roguelikes(likelites) at the moment.
posted by Gary at 12:50 AM on May 13, 2015 [4 favorites]


EatTheWeak: "TL;DR: Death to Nerd Culture."

No one who's not deeply and intrinsically a part of "Nerd Culture" appreciates pixel art at all.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 1:53 AM on May 13, 2015


For a group that contains so many prepared to boast of being hardcore, a lot of them sure seem to hate being challenged.

Gamers who self-describe as "hardcore" rarely admit to playing phone games at all.
posted by LogicalDash at 3:34 AM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


Gamers who self-describe as "hardcore" rarely admit to playing phone games at all.

Cuz they suck bad at Flappy Bird.
posted by EatTheWeak at 4:55 AM on May 13, 2015


Someone in the comments linked to this presentation about moving Guilty Gear into 3D while keeping the look 2D, which is an answer to what Street Fighter lost in its own transition. There's lots of great stuff in there about intention being more important than correctness. What curious is that they went through all that trouble to achieve a particular style, whereas the point of the article is that you have to fit your style to the medium and players' expectations. Why is it still okay to animate at about 10 or 15 frames a second? What makes that expectation endure after the medium has transcended that particular limitation?
posted by WCWedin at 9:05 AM on May 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


Brocktoon: "One of the best iOS game series out there is Kingdom Rush. All sprites. What am I missing..."

I'm looking at a Kingdom Rush screencapture, comparing it to this linked from the article. What I would draw your attention to compare is the line edges. Kingdom Rush uses the extra colours of a modern system to make the line edges slightly smoother, where someone using a pixel-art style would restrict themselves from doing that.

Kingdom Rush uses mostly flat colours, which I can see might appear to be the same restriction at first glance.
posted by RobotHero at 10:02 AM on May 13, 2015


Why is it still okay to animate at about 10 or 15 frames a second? What makes that expectation endure after the medium has transcended that particular limitation?

I suspect this is actually something particular to fighting games, where competitive players routinely describe the passage of time in terms of how many frames of animation have gone past.
posted by LogicalDash at 3:31 PM on May 13, 2015


Why is it still okay to animate at about 10 or 15 frames a second?

That decision is discussed around the 30 minute mark of the video you linked. They want the game to look like 2d hand-drawn animation, and they said they tried it with 60 fps, but that made it look more 3d than they liked.
posted by aubilenon at 4:07 PM on May 13, 2015


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