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Brainroll Postmortem Part 2: Art & Assets
When I was young I was never good at a lot of different things. When it was time to choose what direction I wanted to take my life I decided to focus on one thing and try to become the best I can be at that one thing. Since I had already dabbled a lot with programming and felt like it is something I feel like I can do all day I decided to go for it. I still kinda live by that philosophy to do one thing and do it great. This makes making games in my perspective really hard because I kind of limit myself to not doing some of the most important parts of games, basically everything the player will see and hear. In this post I will go over how I solved this for Brainroll.
Right from the start of this project I knew I didn’t want to spend time doing graphics. The reason for this is what I previously mentioned and also that I knew that taking the time off developing the game to learn how to draw and make music would just take forever, especially if I want it to meet a certain standard. So instead, I wanted to use this time to further develop my engine as well as Brainroll itself.
For the first version that you saw a screenshot of in the first post I did actually draw the placeholder assets for. Since it doesn’t really matter what assets you use here it is a quick way of getting a prototype going. Moving forwards when I wanted to send the out my first test versions both to early access users and friends I had to upgrade the assets and here I got help from my wonderful girlfriend who drew the first versions of the character textures and the main tile set that I used almost until the final version of the game. For the assets that she didn’t have time to draw and for all the sound and music I used placeholders that I found in free art packs from itch.io.
The music that I originally found on itch.io I really liked. Many players felt like it didn’t fit the game that well because they sounded sad which I can agree with, originally the game was supposed to be a sad game but this is an idea that I scrapped half-way through development but I stuck with the music because I still felt like it fit the game well and wasn’t distracting for the player. Combining this with the tight budget and that I do not want to spend time making my own assets for this game it was a good enough fit for me however it is definitely a point that could be improved. Perhaps a good decision would be to have someone that has more knowledge in music than me to have a listen and give me some ideas.
There are so many great artists on itch.io releasing so much stuff for free that I am confident that you can as a programmer today finish full games relying only on free or very cheap art. I however didn’t want to move away from my original idea that we have a brain that slides on ice and for something that specific it is really hard or even impossible to find a complete asset pack to use and mixing art from different sources just doesn’t turns out well in my opinion. My solution for this was to actually hire an artist to draw a complete asset pack for me to use in the game. This proved to be a very difficult task, especially on a very tight budget.
Hiring an artist
To hire an artist was a completely new area for me, I have never hired someone to do work for me in any way similar to this before and I have a very limited experience working with other people where I am the client. This made the whole endeavor hard for me because I didn’t know where to find someone, how much is a reasonable price to pay and how to properly give instructions for them to save time, reduce costs and more importantly me to get what I want.
I knew beforehand that I wanted the art to be of pixel art style, in hindsight I shouldn’t have limited myself to this but I think as a programmer with no real insight into art in general I just defaulted into thinking that pixel art is the standard for this type of indie game. Turns out good pixel art is actually really hard to make and there is just loads of pixel artists that doesn’t meet the bar, this also means that the ones that do usually does have a price tag that can get uncomfortable for a new solo developer.
I started out with gathering all the pixel artists that I liked from different subreddits such as:
NOTE: This is not a comprehensive list and only some of the ones from the top of my mind.
Something to point out is that this is by no means an easy process and really should be treated with the same care if not more than the rest of the tasks you do when building your own game. The process of vetting people you’re about to hire is really difficult and I could easily have seen myself having to pay for something that I wouldn’t end up using in the end if I wasn’t carefull with explaining what I was after both with words and images.
First thing I did was to just reach out and start a dialogue, see how well of a match I was with the artist. Some of the people that you will talk with are more interested in running a business than making friends and you just have to respect that. If you’re into very brief communication and willing to trust the other person to deliver what you want then go ahead. I personally don’t work that way especially when I am very new to a subject so I found artists that have the time to work with me, learn about the project and potentially give their own ideas and input to what I was doing.
Once I found someone that I felt was a good match and I was willing to work with I created a “design document” where I listed a pretty formal specification of the game’s concept, rules and game elements. In this document I wrote the explanations with text and images to to try really show what the idea of Brainroll really was. I later sent this document together with a playable demo of the game to the artist.
I don’t know if it is normal for artists to be interested in trying the actual game out but I personally consider it a very good plus because it not only shows that they are interested but it will help them figure out what you’re after and potentially suggest new stuff that you didn’t think about. In addition it is also a new playtester which maybe can give you some comments on the gameplay.
The artist that I ended up hiring did playtest the game and did give me some very valuable player feedback but also artistic feedback. For example encouraging me to not stick so hard to the brain and ice idea because it is pretty hard to make the ice look good. This feedback went to deaf ears because I knew that Brainroll was about a brain on ice. I can’t say for sure if I in hindsight think this was ignorance on my part. I think I still stand by my original idea and think that your artist should honor that but its not wrong for them to point out, maybe it makes you see things in a different way.
Moving forwards we agreed for the artist to create a small mockup for a set price to show the idea that he had in mind. I think this is a pretty good starting point because you can get more information wether this artist is a good match and if you two think alike or if you’re too far apart.
I really liked what he put together, it looked simpler and easier to see what is what compared to the previous version where the ice and walls looked a bit too similar which confused players. I would not have been able to draw anything like that in a reasonable amount of time so I believe it was a good investment.
The second thing that I knew that I would have to hire someone to do was the Steam capsule art. I don’t know why it often is refered to as “capsule” but it is basically all the illustrations used around the Steam store to show your game. A great resource for this has been Chris Zukowski’s website: https://howtomarketagame.com/
It basically contains everything you initially need to know about marketing, much of the content is free as well in the form of blog posts which you can find just by spending some time browsing his site. But another great thing he offers are courses, one of which is the How to market a steam page which goes through all the steps of what you need to do when putting your game up on steam.
One of the important parts he mentions is to definitely hire someone to do the illustration art for your Steam page. The reason for this is that the people who makes these types of illustrations just knows so much more about little details that you don’t even think about as a normal developer. They can pick an illustration apart thinking about placement, fonts, colors and other details that is specific for your genre that can make a huge difference in terms of visibility for your game. Also the way I reasoned about it is that it is the first image that potential customers sees which makes it important to have it be of good quality to draw peoples eyes to it.
Reddit can be really good for finding these types of artists but the best site I found was https://www.artstation.com/ which is more oriented towards illustrations which is basically what you want. I opted to not restrict myself to an artist that have done Steam capsules previously and instead just went with someone I thought did great illustrations.
When talking to this person I didn’t send them a game design document but instead created a mood board as well as a couple of images of other illustrations on Steam that I found to be really good. This is something that I learned from the howtomarketagame website. I also sent him the entire folder that Steam gives you with PhotoShop files that includes measurements for the different assets, I didn’t exactly know which ones is which but he managed to figure that stuff out for me which was very appreciated.
I got to follow his work very closely with weekly updates on his progress and it was a really interesting experience on my part because what to me originally was a few hours in photoshop turned out to be a full on investigation with brainstorming ideas and exploring different styles to find the best way of expressing the idea. Another really amazing feeling was to see my game in a completely different light. To see my brain character in different shapes, forms and situations. I can say that this really helped me push through the final part of releasing the game because it really made the game look fun, almost like the illustrations followed me into the game when playing it and gave breath to a lot of more imagination.
Some stuff I learned
I think that I did make the right decision to pay people to make the assets for my game. I think currently the visuals of the game looks as good as it possibly can on this tight budget. I still today don’t have any interest in drawing my own assets or making music, maybe if I did the game would be cheaper and look and sound closer to what I originally had planned but still, I rather place my focus on getting better as a game designer and programmer. This might change in the future though depending on what the new project I decide upon is.
The way I ended up working with other people I think worked pretty well and I will most likely continue trying to be very personal and have a close relationship with the people I work with in the future. This time I only worked with people that didn’t touch “my area” of the project, it would be interesting to sometime bring on another developer into the project to learn how it is to work with more developers.
I should spent time investigating different art styles. There are tons of different styles to go for and working with indie games you are interesting in sticking out and trying new things. I think limiting myslef to pixel art was a bad decision, not because pixel art is bad in any way but rather that locking yourself to a single thing is bad when making games. The some goes for audio, In hindsight I should have listened earlier to people giving me hints about the music and sound of the game. I think this was almost the same problem as with the pixel art that I locked myself to one thing not even allowing myself to try anything different.
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I have also released my game Brainroll on Steam, be sure to check it out!