Is Pixel Art Practical For Game Development?

I’m spending time on learning doing pixel art. I actually have no plans to be a hardcore pixel artist and I’m willing to skip certain rules or guidelines if it helps make my stuff look nicer. For example, some guy said that image shouldn’t be scaled or that colors shouldn’t be changed using some program or automatic system.

Without taking stance on what is “real pixel art”, it is my plan to do stuff that looks good. The reason why I like pixel art is that it is helping me improve my own strengths. I have always liked drawing, but never got into painting or coloring stuff (especially with computer). I simply couldn’t get things to look how I wanted them to look when I tried smudging and whatnot.

With pixel art, it’s simpler… there’s only a few colors to work with.

Okay, that’s all cool and so on, but what about the practical aspect?
Yesterday I got so into doing this pixel stuff that I didn’t write a blog post. I did this arctic explorer instead:

Now, this is far from perfect and it didn’t quite turn out how I wanted (the snow on top was accidental, also the colors ended up being slightly different from what I planned and so on) but it’s one more piece of art done – and by doing pixel art one learns to do pixel art. And here’s the (quite) important part: how much time it took?

I suppose I could try count how much the actual time of drawing take time and come up with 1 or 2 hours or something like that, but in reality I think a more accurate estimate would be “yesterday evening”. Since that what it took. Okay, there was learning involved and things probably will get easier after I have more experience (bearing in mind this is like my 4th of 5th piece of pixel art), but it’s good to note that doing this art takes time.

So, if doing one frame takes like hour or two, and then 6 frames for one animation (that’s like half a day to day), 4-5 animations (week). And that’s one character. Add 50 objects, backgrounds, other characters… stuff. And you get the picture.

Point is: pixel art (like any art) takes time. If you are interested reading more about this aspect, check out Adam Saltsman’s excellent article on pixel art. It has several very good things.

So, what’s my opinion about this?
I like the retro (indie?) feeling pixel art gives you. I see it kind of like the very much opposite of nowadays AAA shader-whatnot screens. And I feel that’s a good thing. It’s like… totally opposite. I would expect some people to love it, and I somehow also feel that doing pixel art makes people think and expect something different.

For my personal situation, I’ve decided to try & learn this stuff. After I get to do some animation, some background stuff, and some objects… I will see if I’ve picked a too big cake to eat (bearing in mind that I want to submit something to IGF, which has deadline in October).

Pros & Cons
Advantages over pixel art, when I’m doing this myself:

  • No money needed for art, I’m using my time instead
  • I have 100% control over things and can communicate with the team artist now in pretty well (since I’m now the coder and the artist in my team)
  • Retro (indie) feel in art, that’s a cool bonus
  • It takes time to do, but with proper planning, not necessarily too much time

And the disadvantages (for me right now):

  • My own time needed for art, instead of using money
  • Might delay the project (not necessarily)
  • Still need to learn quite a bit: animating, lights

I’m sure that pixel art works excellent for mobile devices. I’m sure it can work fine for indie games. Adam Saltsman mentions in his article that scaling pixel art is tricky – you gotta stick to a resolution. I feel this to be very true, although of course you can try scaling the art so that you have 4 pixel dots instead of 1 pixel dots (true scaling, simply making things bigger without losing any details). It makes art more blocky, but I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily a bad thing. It depends.

Is this now too blocky? Imagine this animated…

I very much recommend checking out Adam’s article – it has tons of pros & cons explained in much greater detail on a general level. I’m focusing quite a bit on my current situation.

So, how to make the decision?

Or: what helped me decide

One most important thing is that I’m doing pixel art because it feels fun to do. In fact, I’ve “waited” years to get to draw something but I never quite got (took) the time to draw anything. Now I have purpose (my game project) so I’ve got my drawing pens back and sketching things now, and they come for a purpose. And it’s fun. Cool.

I’m very much keen to see some donuts after I get this game thing done, and right now I’m focusing on what is fun to do? With Dead Wake I was doing the project perhaps relying more on the rational side of my mind, but with my current project I’m perhaps trying to relax a bit more and go with the irrational side of things.

For example, when I’m thinking “should I do this pixel art for my game? What if it delays the project a lot?”

I have a simple answer: “So what? It’s fun to do”

I mean, the outcome of the project isn’t necessarily so important. It’s also the journey. And if I enjoy the journey, won’t the outcome also be enjoyable?

If I don’t enjoy the journey, won’t that mean that the results will most likely too be somewhat unpleasant?

Famous bottom line
So, I’m learning coloring and doing pixel art. I can see that this has impact on time needed for the project, but since this is fun – I’m fine with it. And of course I can always seek middle ground: I might outsource some art (just gotta make sure the artist can make stuff that fits in). And for IGF, it’s not important to have all the art assets done.

I would say many indie games can do just fine with pixel art. Also, doing the art on my own is cool since I do have some artistic skills and enjoy doing the stuff. Since it’s fun, there’s no really no reason not to do this.

Juuso Hietalahti


  1. Haha, sorry about that. I must have been dozing off when I wrote that. And thanks lonestarr, that’s the correct URL :)

  2. Ray: problem with your link… would have wanted to check out your site/art

  3. I’m a producer that does my own pixel art. I think one thing about pixel art is that you don’t need something to look realistic for it to be believable. In fact for the most time, things looks more like icon, which really is for the better, and really fun to design.

    Oh, and sonny2 is definitely vector art, drawn and animated in flash. Whole different ball game.

  4. I love pixel art, reminds me that awesome Deluxe Paint IV on Amiga (spent *weeks* on this software).

    But I’m afraid this is not very sellable, even with the nostalgia we all feel. At least, this seems to be the position of Steam: how much pixel-art games on Steam (except oldies and Capcom 8-bits remakes, look in the “independent” category…)? See this current thread where Cas explains that Steam rejected his games:
    His games are not exactly pixel-art, I’d say it’s zoomed pixels with cool retro gfx effects, but you got the point…

    Whatever, go for it!

  5. I’ve been playing for a few days Sonny 2, which has pretty enjoyable graphics too. I believe you can call it still pixel arts, although they use more colors than 256.

    In addition you don’t need to make flat 2D shapes with 2D sprites, but like 20 years ago on C64 you can have a slight rotation of the objects to make them look a bit 3D.

    When you do that, it doesn’t really matter if it’s a 2D or 3D engine anymore, as the graphics completely drowns behind the gameplay and fun.

    The 3D tilting also allows you to place sprites in the tilted Z direction, so you can do more than just flat 2D side scrollers.


  6. it looks great to me… and when you play a retro game, you expect it will be blocky, that’s not an issue

  7. As a matter of fact, pixel art is sub form of pointilism, and as such it relies on the perception of coloured dots which are close one to another, thus playing with our senses.
    For the iPhoen game I am working on, the clarity and sharpness of pixel art is unmatched.
    Of course with higher resolutions, things get more out of hand, I wouldnt use pixel art above 1024×768.
    I would suggest doing a research about the gfx of GODS, Metal Slug, Alien Breed 92, Lionheart, The Misadventures of Flink, and generally everything from Mark Jones and Henk Hieborg and the Bitmap Brothers.What these guys made of the restricted palette is just incredible.The ability to put a green and a grey next to each other and thus form a THIRD colour that IS NOT IN THE PALETTE, is just heavy !

  8. @Lumooja: you can do that if you want. in fact, I was thinking of “animating” guy southpark style. first draw sketch on paper & color him. Then use scissors to cut his head, torso, arms etc. Then take photos of him in different positions… :)

    But… that’s indeed not pixel art.

    Also, with pixel stuff, you certainly don’t need many colors.

    @Brian: I posted some here: http://www.gameproducer.net/2010/07/12/doing-pixel-art-is-fun-you-like-it-too/ in the comments.

    @Brian: posted here: http://www.gameproducer.net/2010/07/12/doing-pixel-art-is-fun-you-like-it-too/

  9. I also like the feel of pixel art. Of course, I’ve preferred a lot of games in 2D rather than 3D (like the Zelda, Mario, and Castlevania games).

    Juuso, I’d be interested in seeing a post about what resources you used to create your art. You posted that animation tutorial link. What other sources have you used? What tools do you use? I’m sure some aspiring artists I know would love to learn more.

  10. @Lumooja: that is not pixel art. It’s just a resized picture. The challenge is matching pixels and colors so that you get the wanted effect in a very low resolution. If you resize a real-image to 32×32 and don’t use alpha blending, the results would be awful.
    Compare to this: http://tech2.in.com/media/images/2007/Jun/img_9053_pop1_450x360.gif where you can see everything you need because the artist spent time optimizing the image.

  11. I was thinking it would be much easier to take photos with a camera and then resize them as 32×32 or similar small sprites. For animations I would just take few more pictures (or rotate/move a lasso selection), usually 8 is enough for smooth animations.

  12. @Lumooja: The color reduction was a restriction from old/weak hardware as well as data storage. These circumstances moulded the pixel art style as we know it today.

    Using more colors won’t make a different graphics style but makes coloring sprites more complicated. More options = more headache. IMHO pixel art is well suited for simple yet stylish visuals. Why try harder? That just would lead into the old arms race of game visuals.

  13. What is the reason that pixel art uses only 16 or 256 colors? Isn’t it kinda pixel art too when you use 16 million colors and paint photorealistic pixel arts?

  14. Doing my own pixel art is something I wish I was able to do. I did try but the result was terrible and I have no patience for this.

    One thing I’ve noticed is that it seems that pixel art can cost a bit more to get when you’re not doing it yourself. On the other hand I’ve been able to switch artists frequently and never had any trouble with styles not matching. There are even some players that are able to easily create new pixel art for the game and you could say it looks like it was done by the previous artists that worked for me.

  15. I’m really looking forward for your progress in learning pixel art as well as the resulting graphics style. Keep going!

Comments are closed.