Making your own game graphics can seem daunting at first, but with a little work you’ll be able to make the kind of pixel art that would’ve made Bob Ross proud. This guide will teach you the basics of graphic design for beginners, specifically for games.
What is pixel art for games
Before we get started, let’s define what pixel art actually is: it’s a digital image made up of individual pixels (square dots), and it’s used in games because it can be rendered at different resolutions to accommodate a wide range of devices – making it good for low-resolution mobile games, too.
The basic design of the image is made on a grid of squares, which you can leave as they are, or convert to non-square shapes for more of a retro look.
What you’ll need:
Pixel art drawing and painting tools – usually software like Photoshop or PaintTool SAI that comes with a paint bucket and selection tool (the icon with a dotted square around it). You can use the software you’re already familiar with, but there are resources for pixel-art specific programs like Aesprite if you prefer.
Color picker and swatches (iPad and iPhone) – this will let you copy and paste colors directly into your work when assembling tile maps or other assets, and it will make your life a whole lot easier.
Types of pixel art for games:
Designing the image – there’s no one way to make pixel art, but you’ll want to keep in mind that it’s made on a grid of squares (you can leave them as they are or convert them to non-square shapes for more of a retro look), and that you’ll need to account for different resolutions.
Shading colors – the most effective way to shade your art is by using two shades of color, one darker than the other. The lighter shading should go on the top, connecting with the dark shading on bottom to make it seem like there’s a light source in the distance.
Advancing your skills:
As you get more experienced, try adding additional colors and modifying your pixel art from something that’s relatively flat to something with depth. You can also try swapping out shapes for high-definition assets when you’re making a retro game in a modern engine like GameMaker Studio 2.More advanced pixel art design
Expanding on the basic idea of pixel art for games, here are some examples of the kinds of things you can do that will help take your game to the next level:
Experimenting with perspective – this is one of the most important elements in any kind of graphic design. It’s how 3D objects (like buildings and cars) can appear to be in the same 2D image as your characters, instead of having a flat design.
Adding additional colors – this will make your pixel art seem more detailed and interesting, but you’ll have to use lighter colors on top so they don’t blend together. This is even more important for HD graphics where there are more colors to work with.
Swapping out shapes for high-definition assets – this is something you can do when you’re making a retro game need pixel art in a modern engine, like GameMaker Studio 2. You’ll want to keep the 16 square resolution that’s common among older games (like NES games), but upscale it to higher resolutions for HD graphics.
Drawing and coloring basics
Drawing is the foundation of any kind of graphic design, which means it’s especially important for pixel art. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you start learning how to make your own game graphics:
Keep the colors simple – this will make your life a lot easier by making sure there aren’t too many bright colors on the screen at once. Use light shading for the top color to help it blend with whatever is beneath it, and dark shading for whatever is beneath that.
Draw one object at a time – this will make sure you don’t mix up your pixel art or leave parts undone by accident, which can be frustrating when you’re just starting out.
Pay attention to perspective – this is the only way that 3D objects can seem like they’re in a 2D environment, and it’s particularly important for pixel art for games where you’ll want to use perspective as much as possible to help connect your characters with their environments.
Don’t be afraid of imperfections – nobody’s going to see your pixel art mistakes unless you present it to them on a very large screen, so don’t stress too much about making it perfect.
You’ll want to use lighter colors for the top of your object or sprite and darker colors for what’s underneath, then connect both with smooth shading in between for more detail.Here are some of the most common ways to shade your pixel art for games:
Utilize four-directional shading – this is one of the easiest ways to make your pixel art look more realistic. You’ll want to use two shades of color, with lighter on top and darker on bottom, then connect them both smoothly on either side.
Perspective in Graphical game design
This is one of the best ways to make your game graphics seem like they’re part of a 3D environment, but it’s also important for any kind of graphic design. It will give you the appearance that something has height and width, even if it’s just 16×16 pixels in size.
Experiment with colors – try using different shades of the same color to create different levels of depth. This is particularly important for HD graphics where you’ll need more colors than just black and white to separate one object from another.
Pay attention to contrast – the difference between light and dark pixels in your game graphics will make it seem like there are more dimensions, while having everything be basically the same color will make it seem flat.
Create a focal point – people will often focus on whatever area of your game graphics is the brightest, so make sure you put the most detail over this to make it more interesting from a distance too.
If you want to take your pixel art beyond simple applications of shading and start getting into more advanced rendering, here are some tips to consider:
Add textures – this is one of the most common ways to give your pixel art depth in games. A gradient fills an area with colors fading from one shade to another, while adding bump or displacement maps gives it more detail by making it look like something 3D.
Achieve depth with highlights and shadows – when you add lighter pixels to the top of your object or darker pixels to what’s underneath it, it will give the illusion that there are multiple levels.
Consider light sources – this is one of the best ways to improve how realistic your pixel art looks in real-time graphics. Make sure the sprite points toward a light source and make everything around it darker and anything in its shadow brighter.
Experiment with color theory – certain color combinations will make your graphics look more realistic while others will give the impression that something isn’t quite right, like a fever dream. Make sure you’re familiar with all of these before you start working on any designs for games, otherwise you’ll just embarrass yourself.
Learn how to animate – many games will utilize animation, so even if you’re just planning on making 2D sprites for your game graphics, you should still learn how to animate them. Otherwise it won’t look like there’s any life in them!
A little extra help
The best way to make sure your game graphics look good is to simply get someone else to do it for you. Even if they’re not experienced graphic designers, there are plenty of programs out there that will help anyone create amazing things without the need for artistic talent.
These programs work by using vectorization to generate pixel art from high-resolution images or even 3D models so you don’t even need to worry about the complicated and time-consuming process of pixeling. There are several out there that will let you try them for free before you buy, so make sure you do your research and find one that’s perfect for what you need!
Summing it all up
Graphic design for games is a complicated thing, but the concepts behind it are simple enough that anyone can learn. By taking advantage of some of these tricks you can make your game graphics look more realistic and interesting without having to learn too much about how graphic designers work.
It’s important to realize that everybody has different tastes when it comes to pixel art, so if you want to stand out from the crowd and make something unique, experiment with your colors, shading, contrast, and techniques until you find a style that suits you. So don’t be afraid to try something different – nobody can tell you that’s wrong!