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Art for programmers

Recently I talked to a couple of fellow programmers who mentioned that they were having difficulty getting traction on their game projects going for one reason - They're not artists.

I'm not either, but I have a few simple shortcuts that you may find helpful.

1. What you lack in artistic ability, make up for in programming ability.

In other words, instead of creating meshes in a 3D modeller, write an algorithm to create it.

For instance, in an experimental space shooter I was working on, I wanted to create a long twisted cylinder object (Approximately the shape of a gun barrel). While almost any 3D artist could make this in a few minutes, I found it much easier to write out the shape in code - and by generating it in the code I could deform it any way I wished at will.

Also, all of the wall, door and window meshes in Derelict are generated in real time by the engine.

2. Consistency is more important then quality.

As an indie game designer, you're not expected to produce earth-shatteringly fantastic graphics or audio. Simply having media that fits together and with the game is sufficient.

I think there is no better example then the widely loved games by Cactus. Everything in them is highly bizarre - the storylines, the gameplay, the art, and the audio - yet it all works because everything gels together.

If you're wanting to attempt pixel art, pick a small number of colours that you like (Low saturation is better) and make sure all of the art in the game uses only those colours.

3. Investigate purchasing model packs for 3D games.

There is a lot of free 3D art out there on the Internet, but attempting to collect enough to make a game can be a chore. The models that you find will have varying quality (some of it too high Polygon for games) formats and scales.

By contrast, model pack such as the DarkMatter ones offer sets of characters, vehicles and objects that are consistent in format, quality and scale.

4. Assemble a toolkit

Find tools that work for you. A good place to start looking is the BlitzBasic website, it offers links to tools for almost everything you could wish to create.

I use a lot of tools for creating my games, such as the Retro Sound Effects Generator for creating Atari 2600 type sound effects, Exgen for creating particle effects, Tattoo for painting directly on to 3D surfaces, Milkshape for creating and editing basic 3D meshes, Cartography shop for creating basic levels and furniture, and Audacity for basic audio engineering.

5. Look around for tutorials

Okay, so that was probably pretty obvious. But there are great tutorials out there for doing almost anything, like Derek Yu's tutorial on pixel art.  And even if you don't have the time or patience to actually do them, just having a read through them is very worthwhile.

Also, as I have mentioned repeatedly on my blog, Cactus's GDC presentation has some must-see advice on creating abstract art for games.

6. Practice and experiment

Just give it a go! What's the worst that could happen?

Prior to making Heart of Ice, I had no prior experience with creating animated human characters with pixelart, and certainly not within the tight time limit of the Game Jam. I struggled a bit at first, but then after playing around for a bit I found approximating human shapes with circles to start with, and then filling out the details worked well for me.

7. Ask for help on forums

Another one that seems obvious, but there are web communities for almost every artistic endeavour, so don't be afraid to join these communities and ask.

Example, Commander Stab (My partner in crime on the aborted Traffic Department 2192 project) managed to get some high quality speech samples for the game from a Voice acting forum. It's a shame that it fell through in the end. Also, very late in the development of Derelict, I got some fantastic furniture models from someone I met through the BlitzBasic forums (and, some music was volunteered for the project after I had posted about the game on the System Shock 2 forums).

8. Trade talent

For every Programmer who can't draw, there is an Artist who can't code. See if you can negotiate a deal to swap code for art assets.

Unfortunately I don't really have an example to share yet, but I am maintaining contact with someone who I may swap code for art with soon.

9. Get commissions

Sometimes, the best thing to do is just pay someone to make stuff for you. Most of the sound effects and some of the music in Derelict I bought, which saved me a lot of time and effort in the long run. Also, I tend to have mixed success with getting volunteer work, but paid work has consistently been high quality and on time. If you're after anime style art, there seem to be a lot of people on Deviantart who offer to do commissions for ridiculously low prices.

Commissions can be a two way thing as well - a coding project I did early in the year more or less covered the cost of buying sound and music for Derelict.


Special thanks to everyone who has commented on this post.



Greg Thomas (not verified)

 You could commission artists to do the job, but they're mainly lazy communists.

Philip Truax (not verified)

Is the darkmatter link supposed to go to cactus too?


Joined: 05/05/2009

Translates to me:

1. Procedual generation.

2. Use a theme.

3. Use free material

4. Reuse portfolio

5. Learn

6. Play


There is a light layer of conflict, and overlapping. Ie 2 and 3 can conflict. So can 2 and 4, 1 and 3. Overlap, 5 and 6

Joined: 05/05/2009

I think commissions fall under 3, really. Which is changes to, don't do it all yourself?


Also a lot of people freak out at procedual generation as there aren't any good places to learn about it.. Well you discover that you have done PG rather than aiming to learn it for the first time. ;P

Earok's picture
Joined: 02/06/2009

@Greg Thomas I still haven't seen any of your recent artworks, do you have them online somewhere?

@PhilipTruax Thanks for that, don't know how I messed that up.

@Arran4 I guess that's a pretty good summary. Some PG stuff still freaks me out (..krieger) but the underlying concepts are simple enough.

JoshuaSmyth (not verified)

Good article.

I've decided good old commerce (paying people) is the most effective way :)

Although I'm going to be doing most of the art for my flash experiments myself.

Earok's picture
Joined: 02/06/2009

Updated the article to include tips on how to get resources from others. Thanks to Josh and Greg for reminding me to do this!

Joined: 05/05/2009

Who has commissioned. How do you ask for a 3d frame?

Earok's picture
Joined: 02/06/2009

Hmm.. that's a good question. For me options I'd consider are:

  1. Looking for a forum specifically on 3D modelling or 3D game design that may be interesting in doing free or paid work.
  2. Tertiary institutes that teach 3D modelling may have students who are willing to produce 3D models for a fee. (Though I've never personally tested that theory)
Greg Thomas (not verified)

I'll be uploading my artwork soon enough. I have to get a portfolio together so once that is done and submitted I'll probably post some of it up somewhere (we're talking October here)