Every artist has work they’re ashamed of. The shoddy work pokes at your frailties, your failings, and your own sense of vulnerability. YOUR SHAME. Well, this is my shame. My art from my first game went through very dramatic changes, most of which were wrong turns and bad moves, all directly my fault. But I learned a TON from those mistakes. So i’ll show you those embarrassing visual turns through my first published game, in the hopes that after your eyes stop burning, you’ll have some perspective on what you can expect from making your first game.
1) You’re going to throw a lot away.
The game was pretty simple — A 2d puzzle platformer where you (an intrepid squirrel) use bombs to traverse the environment and solve puzzles. And die. A lot.
What is abundantly clear looking back is we didn’t know what we wanted. When defining our style we kept throwing around terms like “dark” or “cartoony” or “retro” without actually drilling into what those things meant. They didn’t help us unify our different styles or abilities…they were just buzzwords we used to convince ourselves we had a solid direction. (here’s a hint: we were fooling ourselves)
Additionally damning is the fact that most of the artists on the team had never really used photoshop and had no drawing experience. It was also my first time working with other people, so I was a bit bewildered when faced with the task of putting jarringly different (and often awful) assets together on screen at once (upper left, 90’s clipart, no bueno). Needless to say, most of the work was thrown away as we struggled to make something that just worked on a basic level.
2) Your work will (justifiably) be torn to shreds.
Thankfully, I had an industry contact at ArenaNet who I had just gotten to know that was willing to give me feedback. I was pretty hopeful about my arrangement of buzzwords and careful reworking of the other artists’ assets (to try and make things look somewhat cohesive).
What feedback I got was crushing. I sat there dumbfounded as one of my biggest art idols ripped my work to shreds. And there was no way to hide from it, most of it WAS my work. The exact phrase she used was “It looks like cocoa pebbles in mac n’ cheese…” This was devastating in every way…months of work was essentially all for nothing, and we were about halfway through our dev cycle.
3) You’ll be shifting/adjusting things the entire dev cycle.
So, we had to make a change. She asked what style I had and I pulled out the buzzwords. Let’s just say I didn’t get away with that for one second. Cohesive styles have visual rules that can be listed. In the middle of my dev cycle, I had to grapple with the fact that I didn’t HAVE a style I could actually pin down. Additionally, management shifts needed to happen. There’s a bit of drama that goes down with many video game development teams. There’s a lot of pressure, and you have to make production as water tight as possible. So as production proceeds, you have to shift your role to match the needs of the game. This often requires taking your ego and gently setting it on fire.
With a bit of work, I became the art lead for the project and began reworking the style a bit with more freedom. But it still wasn’t good enough. My game was on the chopping block from our producers AND my industry contact told me again and again that I was missing crucial problems.
4) Style Guides Matter.
Our style was in a state of crisis. I still wasn’t getting it, after months of reworking. And I was the most qualified designer on the team. My ArenaNet contact told me to drop everything, take 2 weeks, and look at a select number of references. Do nothing but look and take notes. So, I whittled the list of influences down to Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, and Wiley and Coyote cartoons. I’d never thought I’d look at that stuff to study it! Well, even though there was a LOT of pressure from the team to produce (we were only 2 months from release), I took the time and looked. And looked. And finally, things started to click. It took a LONG time, but I started to see the patterns between shows and boil the common style elements down to a simple list.
My team thought I was crazy, and I kinda was, but after I finally knew what we needed, I decided to redo all assets in the game (saving over original files without changing their image sizes, so the game would update these assets instantly). The redesign was a huge change.
[month 8.5 / 9]
I don’t blame them for not thinking I could do what I did. It was a month before release when I changed every asset on screen.
That shouldn’t happen. Style confusion is my single biggest mistake on that game, but by staring the visual problems in the face and doggedly pursuing solutions to them…as well as burning a TON of artwork in the process…I learned more from that dev cycle than the rest of my college experience. I’m really glad I made the mistakes I did and engaged them on my first game rather than padding my own ego and taking the easy way out.
5) This Stuff Doesn’t End
Yuuuuup. I’ve got a handful of games under my belt, and while the problems that this project had weren’t nearly as dramatic on other titles I’ve released, some small variations of them have existed on every dev cycle. So it’s important to know about the stresses you’ll be facing, because they seem to pop up every time, in some form, and they have serious consequences. Stuff like preproduction, getting a style down, delegating artwork effectively, communicating effectively as a team, working with people who will enable production more than delay it, and on and on. The list of things to balance is rather dizzying.
The best way to be prepared for it? Stop waiting, start doing. Go ahead and make your game now. This stuff gets messy and takes raw experience. Your first game won’t be your best and that’s okay. What’s important is that you make it and finish it, and move on to the next awesome thing.