Monday, October 10, 2011

Game Art for the Artistically Challenged (Part 1)

My name is Ken Vadella. By way of introduction I can tell you, with reasonable confidence, that my development skills are better than average. But I have a confession to make: I am artistically challenged. There, I've said it. At this point you may be thinking to yourself "Ken, when you say 'artistically challenged', what exactly do you mean"?

Allow me to explain. If there were a gameshow called "Is Your Artwork Better than a Fifth Grader", and I were a contestant, I have serious doubts that I could win.

Yet, despite my artistic deficiencies, I often play the role of "artist" for the software that we produce at Five Lakes Studios (FLS) - in addition to my coding duties of course. Necessity dictates that someone must fill this role and, apparently, I lost the dice roll. Our lack of art genes, as you might imagine, creates an interesting challenge for the FLS team:
  1. We create games for Apple mobile devices.
  2. Games, for such devices, are expected to exhibit artwork that is "Better than a Fifth Grader".
Maybe you know a group or an individual with similar issues? It's OK, get it off your chest, admit it: you may also be artistically challenged. Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery. Now that we are being honest with each other, how do we go about treating the problem?

Although I seriously doubt that we can cure the artistic deficiencies on the FLS team, we have developed a strategy to cope with our lack of talent. Our strategy did not come to us overnight. If you will indulge me for a moment I'd like to tell you where we started from and where we are today. The intent of this indulgence is to allow others to learn from our mistakes. The hope is that a retelling of the events will save others from walking the same perilous path. Let's begin.

In the beginning there was a strong-willed, experienced group of long-time developers with an idea to create great games for Apple mobile devices. The developers were veterans of the software wars with many languages and platforms trailing in the wake of their keystrokes. Objective-C and the Xcode environment were merely new hills to climb and conquer; and conquest did come quickly. But then came a revelation: The team had cool ideas and great coders, but lacked the aforementioned "artistic talents".

So they sought artists to aid in their campaign. And artists they did find. But they found something else as well. The artists they found lacked something inherent in the FLS development staff: motivation to work on an idea that might not produce a single dime of revenue. Essentially, they lacked faith in the idea - despite its greatness. To overcome this lack of faith, the team at FLS offered "cash for art" and an agreement was forged.

But, an evil even greater than lack of faith consumed our artists: lack of time. The agreement did not provide our artists with hordes of riches and so their ability to find motivation to complete FLS artwork was, shall we say, lacking. Deadlines came, dealines went. Lots of code was written, and lots of art was left uncrafted. And as time passed the development crew found it difficult to continue to make progress.

Knowing that artists are not inherently lazy, but understanding the evil which is "lack of time", we could very much relate to their lack of motivation. As a side note, if you are lucky enough to have dedicated artists on your team with faith in your ideas then we hate you as we are not so fortunate. (hehe)  Back to our story...

So, the crew of Five Lakes Studio learned some valuable lessons from this engagement that I will summarize briefly below:
  1. Time is valuable to everyone, even artists. Don't get offended, that's a joke. Lighten up art guys.
  2. Creation of artwork is time-consuming, hence valuable.
  3. Motivating moonlighting artists is not easy on a small budget. The value of their art is certainly greater than a budget capable of feeding a goldfish once or twice a week.
  4. Lack of artwork can kill an otherwise interesting, graphics-oriented game.
  5. Without faith or adequate motivation, our out-sourced art was doomed to remain in the ether, our of reach of our yearning projects.
So, how do you we about getting the artwork we needed to complete our gaming projects on a tiny budget?

The answer is really quite simple: we find it on the web. Panning for artwork on the internet is a hit and miss prospect. It's very likely that you will not find exactly what you were originally looking for. But, if you search with an open-mind and allow for changes to your original design then you may be pleasantly surprised with your findings.

The team at FLS has used this technique to successfully launch and monetize a number of games that we would call "successful". With success being measured as producing more income then we thought they might at this point in time. Nothing to write home about mind you, and no reason to quit the day job, but the proceeds and fun certainly keep us motivated to continue enhancing our current applications and producing additional applications as well.

So where do we search for quality artwork on the web? Follow the links below and start panning for artistic gold.
  1. Dreamstime - Our goto site. Most artistic panning starts here. The number of images available (photography and illustrations) is truly impressive. The images are not always cheap, but they aren't really expensive either.  We have noticed that prices here seem to be going up.
  2. morgueFile - A huge collection of public images.
  3. - A great collection of public domain clip art.
  4. - Kid friendly, public domain artwork and photos.
  5. - No-frills public domain clipart.
  6. 25 Free Stock Photo Sites (article by Digital Image Magazine)
Not all of the images on these sites are free, in fact many are not, but the purchase terms for images are usually very reasonable - much more reasonable then having custom artwork rendered specifically for you. And the selection is really quite large: videos, photos, rendered images, sprite sheets, icons, etc. Dive in and see what you can find. Like I said, you might be pleasantly surprised.

We have used images from these sites for many FLS games including: Picross HD, Kento, Lost, Zombie Rush, and Juxtaprose. We would like to think that these applications do exhibit artwork that is "Better than a Fifth Grader".

I hope you enjoyed this article. In a future BLOG entry I will discuss the editing tools we use to turn our findings into usable game components. I'd also be interested in game art sites that you have found valuable.

I know that your time is valuable, thanks for using some of it to read this BLOG entry.  We would love to hear how you handle the artwork on your projects.

Note from Tod:  I love artists.


  1. Hi Ken,

    Just wanted to point out that the Objective-C code in your blog header graphic is not valid. :-)

    I presume you meant: [label setText:@"Dev Blog"];

    With my heavy C++ background, I make similar mistakes all the time. :-)


  2. Header is fixed. Thanks :)

    - Tod

  3. Great post! Finding a willing and talented artist to do even menus is costly, especially for part-time studios.

    Thanks much,

  4. Glad you enjoyed the post Dan, thanks for reading. I totally agree with you that acquiring art from a talented artist is very costly.

  5. Nice post.

    My experience is that is easier to hire some professional than to find images that fit our needs.

    I usually hire them here:

    It's cheap and images are exactly what I want for my games.

  6. Thanks for the info plicatibu. We'll check it out.