digital art piece of a futuristic train moving through a snowy, acid green, wasteland with skeleton angels chasing

Devlog #4: An art director with 0 art skills

How do I be a good art director without being a good artist?

As a solo gamedev who can’t make art, how do I make sure my game ends up looking the way I need it to?

Today’s topics include:

  • How I got permanently banned from hiring artists on Reddit
  • How I leveraged my limitations to become a better art director
  • How being positive MAY lead you to being able to astral project with your artists

Good art sells a game

Bloodborne. 2015.

Think how many of your favorite games have stylistic art that sells the experience they are delivering. Bloodborne, Darkwood, Signalis, Metroid, Castlevania- there is an enormous spectrum of games that aren’t just pretty, but are DISTINCTLY pretty. Their own KIND of pretty.

But I’m a dev who can’t make good assets to save my life. So I’m going to share a few principles to explain how I approached being an art director for work on Cryohazard.

1. Design with limitation in mind

A realization from the start was that I shouldn’t be focused on making something focused on incredible visuals. And that’s perfectly okay- a lot of horror games I really like have kind of scuffed visuals. Think of SCP Containment Breach and Iron Lung. These are not remarkably pretty games, but they are distinctive as all hell.

When I initially conceived of making a game about travel in hazardous conditions, I realized 2 techniques I could get a lot of bang for my buck for- using a 2D sideview angle and utilizing parallax scrolling. With a limited number of assets, I could achieve the feeling of movement and turn my focus to maximizing the quality of the experience.

Logo for GameMaker Studio 2

I work in GameMaker because 2D is my preferred way to work on games. Adding that 3rd ‘D’ can make level design and bug fixing exponentially harder and more time intensive. So, the limitation makes sense for me.

The tone and style of Cryohazard was solidified by the art assets I had access to. The backgrounds and much of the UI art were made by artist/dev Penusbmic. The assets spoke to me of the post-apocalypse- a technological upheaval that with a sort of gripping dread that on the flip side, also doesn’t take itself too seriously. Playing with these assets was a big influence on coming up with the story of Cryohazard as well.

A screenshot of the cryohard game showing skeleton angels overhead attacking trains that are taking damage.

A collection of assets. 2D, pixel art, dark tone, simple/striking color palette. I started with a playable game loop, and now I had a style to pair it with.

2. Find people who can help you

A man wearing a hoodie, sitting on an empty train track.

Developing a game solo can be really isolating. There always seems to be a million reasons to just ‘do it yourself.’ I need to save money, I’m not good at explaining what I want, what if they don’t get it, what if they don’t like it, what if what I’m making isn’t actually good, what if I just dropped a lot of money on something that is going to flop… etc.

It’s hard to branch out, especially with something as vulnerable as making your dream game. But it was something I knew I had to do- to get what was in my head in game, I needed help, and that’s where the r/gameDevClassifieds subreddit came in.

I posted some rough gameplay footage and a blurb about the game and I got a lot of responses very quickly- maybe 30 within a day of posting.

the logo and title from the r/gameDevClassifieds subreddit

As an aside- I’ve only ever made 1 post on r/gameDevClassifieds and a few days after posting I somehow got permanently banned for it. I reviewed the rules again and the only reason I can think for the ban was that the post could be interpreted as promotional because I mentioned the date the game comes out?

But luckily BEFORE becoming permanently banned, I found an amazing pixel artist who would end up being a great match for this project. Enter… Salt&Pixel!

I wanted someone with experience working on horror games and pixel art and he had experience in both. And not only was he an artist, he had put out a number of games of his own accord- he was a full fledged game developer! I was going to be able to work with someone who knows the ins and outs and could understand my game from beyond just an aesthetic perspective.

3. Being a director means giving good direction

So now we get to what it means to actually be an art director- I’ll break down my understanding.

A video game art director conveys the necessary ideas and principles that determine the way the game should look and feel. They are directly conveying this to those artists working on the project, but their LARGER goal is to indirectly convey things to the game’s future players THROUGH the artists. An art director has to know what they want, what the game needs, and how to best disseminate ideas to their artists.

Director and Producer line up camera shot before action is called

Think of a director on the set of a movie. Very rarely is the director acting in the scenes- often times their not even holding a camera! None of their direct involvement is visible on screen, but no one questions how critically important their role is- without them, a movie couldn’t be made. Their fingerprints are on everything- they interpret a script and source material and translate that to a visual art form acting within the confines and constraints that the money, people, timelines, etc. available allow them to.

Being a good director means:

  • Having your games goals in mind at all times
  • Having strong interpersonal communication skills
  • Working in the constraints you have and turning those into opportunities when you can

While these are all the boiler plate ‘good director’ mantras, one I’ve learned through firsthand experience is that you need to be positive and excited about what you’re talking about. You’re getting to make YOUR VIDEO GAME. You want the people you’re working with to be on the same page as you, and excited about what you’re building together. Problems are going to come up, and if you can make the experience smooth and just let them do their job, they’re going to like working with you.

They’re going to want to work with you again. They’re maybe even going to want to leave freelance and join your gamedev studio permanently. And then they’ll want to get married to you and have your child. They’re going to want to do heavy drugs and psychedelics with you and experience ego destruction together. They’re going to want to astral project with you and search the universe for incredible new experiences beyond the corporeal form we inhabit on earth.

Your mileage may vary on the last few.

I’m very much in my art director headspace currently as I’m in the midst of commissioning promotional art for Cryohazard. Luckily, the indie scene is full of such talented and dedicated people who are really investing in doing a great job and helping you bring your vision to life. Even when your vision is… make in Microsoft paint, and is made of blocks, and… requires a lot of text to explain.

a poorly drawn stick figure like concept of a train moving through a desolate wasteland towards a massive cyclone

My last week has been full of me wearing the hat of art director and I was really excited to get to share some of my experiences!

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