A Pixel Artist Renounces Pixel Art


Hey everyone! I'm the lead artist for Dinofarm Games, and I just spent the better part of 4 years making pains-taking pixel art for our new game, Auro. Needless to say, I love pixel art. This article explores the pitfalls and costs involved with making pixel art in the age of ultra HD. I hope you find it to be an interesting read.

Many thanks. Here's the link.


Posted by DinoFarmBlake @ 5/12/2015 12:57  |    21


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Randommonkies (Level 6 Manager) @ 5/31/2015 22:46

I think the problem is your pixels, while technically impressive, don't always clearly read as pixel art. In the article, the UI in your screenshot could easily be misinterpreted as de-ressed HD art. I've seen this style a lot on Pixeljoint, where since we know how it was made we can find it impressive, but making such high-res looking pixels puts it somewhere between pixel and HD which could easily confuse the uninitiated*.
I have to totally disagree that pixel art is under attack in the games industry- it's incredibly popular right now. (if anything it's given too much leeway and some really sloppy pixels get a lot of love just by claimign to be "retro-style") But since pixel art can be compared to other available mediums, it has to play to it's strengths and really push what makes it different. 

*( I don't think your characters in the screenshot have this problem)

Gecimen (Level 11 Master Assassin) @ 5/17/2015 17:35

It was a good read; I just have to mention something:

The internet game reviewers, even the ones of big sites such as IGN, are mostly idiots. What they say, particularly about art - is usually plain bull and doesn't reflect either public opinion or a trained eye.

PS: bought your game, the graphics are cool but the game itself I didn't like.

cure (Level 11 Godfather) @ 5/16/2015 08:23

Out of curiousity, have you read the responses to your article over at our sister community?

clefairykid (Level 9 Federal Agent) @ 5/16/2015 01:24

It's nice to see someone putting so much thought into a topic that I don't often see discussed much, but I have to say, as a designer and an artist, that although I see both sides of what's being argued here, I ultimately feel that it's moot to say it's not a language or thing people easily understand, so it's better not to do it. In fact, by not doing it, you further contribute to people's lack of understanding it. I only know about it because games were like that when I grew up, and when I got older, had the opportunity to go and learn about it specifically. It concerns me that people would stop making it altogether because people don't find it "easy" to enjoy, because that's the beginning of the actual end of it. No one will see it, therefore no one will know about it, or take an interest in it, and eventually continue it. 

It'd be like saying that not many people in my area can speak native Aborignal languages, so therefore it's not worth having them anymore, but I imagine it means a great deal to the people involved, and if more of us were exposed to it and able to engage with it, we'd find communities interacting more successfully than we ever have before (not a guarantee but not an impossible suggestion). I think it's almost certain there'd be much more empathy and understanding of people if they were connected by language like that. Or maybe you could argue we have plastic containers now so no one need make pottery anymore. I don't think I've made my point well but it's there :P

Also, I think to say that we've already reached a point where "most" people don't know what they're looking at is false, I couldn't say for certain but in my personal experience, the "average" people around me have never used phrases like "good for pixel art anyway" and most are able to understand the basic idea of mosaic on a tiny scale, because mosiacs are still a commonly taught subject in high schools and maybe even primary. They don't understand the ins and outs of placing AA, but they can certainly understand that it's not a simple matter of painting a broad smooth stroke out, because they know there's a gap in their own understanding of how placing many squares creates curves and shapes like what they can see being shown to them. 

adpdl (Level 1 Intern) @ 5/16/2015 01:16

You tell us that you are suffering from the frustration not being able to convey your vision to your audience through the means of pixel art. You could look at it from another angle and see that the problem might be that in fact you just haven't found your audience yet. I do not play on smartphone or tablet, but I do play on PC and I can assure you that there are a bunch of excellent games that have reached commercial success and/or artistic recognition, say Cave Story, Gunpoint, Dustforce, Hotline Miami, Sword and Sworcery, the upcoming Hyper Light Drifter etc. Really I think you would greatly benefit to spend some time pondering on what you think your audience is.

DinoFarmBlake (Level 1 Rookie) @ 5/15/2015 21:48

It's nicely written, but I don't exactly see it as a counter. Even if my art is bad and I'm just "not doing pixel art right," the point was that a lot of the audience can't even GET to the point where they can assess whether or not they like my work on its merits. They have to first come into conflict with the lack of special knowledge preventing them from understanding something isn't like wrong with the iphone, or that our app has some technical glitch. All the other article's points are fine, but they don't undermine that principle. Even if I was literally the only one criticized for being "pixelated," I would still have failed my audience. I would still have communicated with them in a language they don't speak. I think people are getting hung up in the details. I don't blame them. I'm not the best writer. But the core of my message, I believe, still stands.

his examples were gorgeous.

StoneStephenT (Level 8 Guerrilla) @ 5/15/2015 15:39

Here’s another counter-argument for this article: http://gamasutra.com/blogs/BrandonSheffield/20150514/243457/Why_Necrosoft_Games_will_not_renounce_pixel_art.php

MrBailey (Level 2 Flatfoot) @ 5/15/2015 01:38

  While I respect the artist's decision here, I do think that a number of points in this argument rely on assumptions that aren't necessarily true.  The idea that people do not speak the language of "pixel art" is belied by its continuing popularity in a number of arenas, both in that of artwork as a whole and in that of successful games in recent years.  Take Shovel Knight, for instance. 

  There is the question of whether people understand the art here, of whether it has to be explained (and the statement that it shouldn't need to be).  It's important to recognize this, especially in the field of illustration and game animation - if your viewer can't tell what's happening, you are indeed doing something wrong, no ifs, ands, or buts.  You'll get no disagreement from me here.

   The assumption, however, that people do not understand the medium is, in my opinion, flawed.  Admittedly, there are HD purists out there, and there always have been, and for my dollar probably always will be. There is, after all, something that speaks to people about having the newest and flashiest of effects. But purists are hardly in the majority.  Most people who play games are looking for solid content first and foremost. And from what I was seeing of the "pixellated" posts, not all of them were disparaging - merely misusing the pejorative and accidental "pixelated" for the intentional and crafted "pixel art" - a matter for the soldiers of usage and grammar to question, certainly, but not an insult.

  But I think the key issue here is not whether people "speak" pixel art, but whether it is presented clearly.  Looking at the arguments further down in that post, it doesn't sound like the problem is the art (which, by the way, is fantastic) but with the fact that it didn't resize properly on different platforms.  It was the presentation, and not the content, that needed fine-tuning; the resolution change, and not the artwork, is to blame.  There are ways around this - ways through coding, testing, and compatibility measures, to ensure the resize works with minimal disruption.  Time-consuming, I grant you; not easy, sure - but possible.  So deciding that pixel art is no longer a clear language of communication for games while the medium still lives and breathes sounds a whole lot to me like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  It's not the medium that's to blame.

  As I said above, I respect the artist's decision.  Excellent work, congrats on getting it out there, and I wish you success in all your future endeavors.  But I do not agree with it, or with the reasoning behind it.


Hipshot (Level 1 Rookie) @ 5/15/2015 00:55

@ CELS: The pixel art quality of Homm2 is why I can never decide if I like Homm3 more than Homm2, even if Homm3 really is the supperior game. Homm2 is also a great insipration for me, the colors and how all the themes work so well together.

Zizka (Level 10 Operative) @ 5/14/2015 08:34

Unrelated rant:

(the “you” here is a general “you” and doesn’t target anyone in particular).

I’m also very uncomfortable with bastardizing pixel art with filters and other (fucking) gimmicks. Pixel Purism forever, no matter what. I say, be a pixel nazi and be proud of it. It annoys me to no end how we always want to make things easier by cutting corners by using automatic tools and so on. Just do the damn work goddamn it. If you find it too hard to do it than use another medium instead of trying to dilute pixel art by having a computer to do it for you.

Sometimes you’ll see a piece and it looks great and impressive and you have much respect for the artist. Then, you’ll find it’s, once again, some smart dude who found a way to turn a photograph into pixel art by using some kind of filter travesty. It’s like people would rather be computer programmers than artists. Why? Why not enjoy learning how to create it on your own, by practice and observing and studying? And if you don’t want to do learn, what’s the need to be an impostor as try to peddle your “stuff” as pixel art? Just say: “It’s a filter experiment”. Don’t be a charlatan and try to peddle for things you are not entitled to.

“Oh I can’t do observing drawing, I’ll just trace instead.” Roll up your sleeves and practice you lazy bastard. Sometimes I feel artists will be replaced by machines in the future with this type of mentality.

Rant over. 

Zizka (Level 10 Operative) @ 5/14/2015 08:32

I’ll admit I didn’t read everything but I did read all the comments posted here.

I agree that 4 years of development is an unusually long time and there might have been a problem management wise, unless your game is Baldur’s Gate III or some massive project like this one.

You mentioned in the article that IGN gave 8.5 for the graphics of Street Fighters and 8 for King of Fighters. I don’t think that’s a relevant argument. For one thing, the difference between the two scores is minor (we’re talking 0.5 here). Also, was that rating given by the same person? If not, the comparison is even harder to make as people have different standards as to what an 8 represents in reality.

I didn’t check this but I think it’s safe to assume that IGN (if one considers their opinion as fundamental) has rated pixel art games higher than other games using other mediums in the past. If so, the previous argument doesn’t really hold water. Maybe I should check Scott Pilgrim vs the World and what they got for graphics.

As I said, I didn’t read everything but what I got from reading the comments was that pixel art wasn’t a good alternative for video game medium.

I don’t know, there are so many examples of successful games using pixel art (especially in indie games). Isn’t that relevant enough to assume that pixel art is still something people want in their games?

I agree with HZoltan (although I thought Mercenary Kings was below average). I grew up with Pixel Art and I have money to invest. If I have the choice of buying a game using pixel art, I’d pick it over even the most realistic looking games. It’s a style and it ages well (as opposed to 3D). If you compared Breath of Fire IV to games of its generation using 3D, you’d find it looks spectacular (and it still does).


HZoltan (Level 6 Major) @ 5/14/2015 03:05

Maybe this article was about mobile games, but talking about pixels and HD, when I purchased a Playstation 4, the second game I bought was Mercenary Kings from the store. That's an old school 2d sidescroller game with fresh pixel graphics and features for the modern gamer needs. I play it on a relatively huge tv and I really love it.
Ok, my first videogame was Super Mario Bros for the NES, but this is where we talk about aiming for the target audiencie. My generation is 30+, we have money and we have nostalgic feelings about these type of games, and that's a factor you can count on. Kids don't feel this way, they want to play what seems to be cool and polished (e.g. Defender II, wich gameplay value is a solid 0 for me on every scale).
On the other side there is the media. Why the f*ck care about what IGN says? They say a lot of shit about games. The people who might play these games most likely watch gameplay videos on YouTube, or some screenshots. For this audiencie words like "retro-style", "pixel graphics" are good advertisement. Why whine about the cats don't like the banana? There's a lot of apes, just reach them.
Anyway, this was a good article, and below this there were some good response.

kolkurtz (Level 1 Rookie) @ 5/14/2015 00:38

As a pixel artist working on his own game and as a jazz guitarist this article really resonates with me. I understand how if you want to be more profitable you might want to change style but for me profit just isn't that important. I am a starving artist and I know that it is my lot in life. Even so, all power to the artist no matter what medium they eventually choose.   

I have only one further comment, a quote from Peep Show. In the article it said that people dont get pixelart and prefer HD...

"Who says that? People? You dont want to listen to people. People listen to Coldplay and vote for the Nazi party."

EDIT: Oh, and one more thing. Screw mobile.

DinoFarmBlake (Level 1 Rookie) @ 5/13/2015 23:33

Of course! you're amazing! I tried to credit everyone. I hope I bring more people to pixeljoint.

Adarias (Level 11 Special Agent) @ 5/13/2015 09:38

There are a few things here that I think are important to keep in mind for any non-AAA project :

- any project which spends 4 years in development has a problem with management, not asset creation.  don't take this as an insult, as good project management is a rare skill that most studios pay lots of money for -- but don't expect a change of medium to be a magic bullet with future projects, either.  It's just as easy to get bogged down in 3d and vector art, and it will be effective leadership, not tools or automation, which correct that.

- failing to validate the basic value proposition early-on will sink a game every time, and a value proposition which relies on a specialized knowledge or interest must take this into account when establishing its target audience.  It does not take long to find out that the average gamer does not have a positive value association with pixel art, in the same way they don't have a positive value association with low-poly models or 2d gameplay.  Games featuring lo-spec work are taking a big gamble, and it is absolutely essential to engage in user testing early and often, to avoid these types of nasty surprises.  Again, this is more about project management than art production, and will also be a challenge for anything that doesn't look like a AAA brownfest.

- always play to the strengths of the chosen medium.  stretching pixel-art to cover a phone is just...you can't do it.  and no, this does not mean designing separate comps for 35 different screen sizes, it means designing with *flexibility* in mind, using repeatable or sliding elements and clever anchors to fill the space, so you can adapt to different resolutions without interpolation.  This is the same reason you don't try to make vectors look photorealistic or try to do mocap or facial tracking on low-poly art.

I don't think any of the things I'm saying are revolutionary or even necessarily contrary to your post.  But I would question whether this is really about pixel-art, or if it's more about the troubles that small studios with limited resources and limited managerial experience face in general.

Calv (Level 7 Assassin) @ 5/13/2015 08:44

I'm mentioned

Mis-BUG (Level 9 Boss) @ 5/13/2015 08:43

Really good article. I loved how you tried to explain your point, but I don't understand if you're having issues selling your product because of pixel art or if you're just disappointed as an artist to see comments of people that are not pixelart-aware. The art in your game looks absolutely stunning but you'll receive this kind of comments only by artists and people that are actually into the style you're tackling. I don't think it's a matter of choosing the right language to speak to an audience because there's no language that is actually universal and there's no universal audience to speak to (unless you cross the lands of stereotypes of course). 
People will always see pixel art as "retro" and "pixelated" because that's how non-pixelartists see it. And so what? There's plenty of graphic designers that hear people saying that their illustrations are "naif" or "minimalistic" just because they use straight lines and simple vector shapes. Do they have to give up on their way of approaching to illustration just because they can't sell their products to everyone (not talking just of a monetary way)? It's impossible to educate all the users/gamers/artists in the world to understand everything and it is really hard for me to get artists giving up on a medium just because it's not for everyone. 

Pixel art as all other medium it's just that: a medium! And media are not exclusive elements, they are additive. They said that painting would have been replaced by photography and that photography would have been replaced by videos. But they're all still there and widely used. And there's people saying "this picture looks so retro" when it's just black and white, but there are still photographers taking pictures that way.

I do understand what you want to say and respect it when you write “
don’t let the medium come between you and your audience”, but I feel it’s the exact opposite: pick the right medium to say the right thing to the audience that you want to reach. If we all pick the a sole medium to address the audience we are not expressing anything, because as I said before there’s no universal audience. If you pick the medium that most of the people understand you’re just fostering just one view of the art. And that’s leveling out the message to a single language. 

Maybe that’s just me being naive and deluded, but I think you should reconsider your “Auro is likely to be the last Dinofarm Games title to feature pixel art”. We all need good pixel artists around here.

Sorry for the wall of text... :(

MrHai (Level 2 Flatfoot) @ 5/13/2015 08:37

Interesting article, thanks for the contribution.

I made a forum post about it hoping to spark some discussion: http://www.pixeljoint.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=23011

In it I posit that the audience is less likely to appreciate high-res pixel art. What are your thoughts?

DinoFarmBlake (Level 1 Rookie) @ 5/13/2015 07:30

Thanks! Yeah I agree. The art for Auro was my attempt at "uncompromised" but I started it 4 YEARS ago! So some assets show their age in terms of my abilities. I hope to touch it all up as we go but man it takes a long time. It's worth pointing out, though, that this article doesn't even touch on development costs/workflow. It assumes you have infinite time and money, just always communicate in a language people already speak. The cardinal sin here is feeling entitled to an audience taking extra time to learn special information in order to appreciate your work. The onus is on us to make people appreciate it as instantly as possible, no matter the style. Even if my game is the only one getting these complaints, I am still guilty of that failure in communication.

Glad you liked the read. Thanks for the comment!

CELS (Level 7 Sheriff) @ 5/13/2015 07:11

Great article! But I strongly believe that most developers fail with pixel art because they're forced to compromise. They either use some ugly techniques like auto-rotation to save time on animations, or mix different resolutions, or use NPA techniques that just look very much out of place. I think pixel art that looks deliberately retro and low spec (e.g. Sword and Sworcery-style) is a good choice for game developers with a limited budget. But a lot of them make the mistake of overextending themselves, like making a pixel art beat 'em up game in HD, and then they're forced to compromise.

Even as a kid, I remember lamenting the transition from pixel art games to pre-rendered games such as Diablo, Fallout, HoMM3 etc. I loved the games, but I missed the pixel art. So I don't think it's just a matter of pixel artists being biased. I think even the plebs appreciate pure pixel art when they see it.

The article does make some good points about technical limitations though. Smeared pixel art is just horrible to look at.

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