New Art Style

Let's talk a bit about the new art style we've been trying out.  The biggest weakness we have right now is that the team doesn't have a dedicated artist.  I (Lars) consider myself a half-decent artist, but I've been so busy programming, blogging, running around putting out fires, etc, that I have very little time to dedicate to art at this stage of the project.  

We initially assumed that we could just get away with using me for both jobs, but that's something we won't be doing again.  Next project - dedicated artist for sure.  

So, a few weeks ago we took a good look at our art style and decided to make some changes.  Our goals:

1. Make something we're happy with
2. Create backgrounds that don't look like barf
3. Make the characters more expressive

Nothing good needs to be said about the old backgrounds. They're hideous, and they're all being replaced:

The old art style just clashed and was honestly something really thrown together while we focused on other parts of the game. The new style is simple, clean, and works well with the new character style.

As for the characters, the old art style was a collaboration between myself and our writer, James - he designed the characters and then I did some cleanup work, shading, etc. In the end, this not only took too much time, but had mediocre results (which I'll take the blame for).  Although I'm partial to the comic-book style with outlines and shading, it takes way too long, and is prone to errors when I'm rushing (if you look closesly, you'll find places where shadows are going in two different directions).  With a dedicated artist this wouldn't be a problem, but given our situation we decided a style without outlines and hard shading would be faster, mesh better with backgrounds, and easier to revise.

NOTE: We're not looking for an artist right now (at least not for this version of the game).  We've already had people offer to work for free - we appreciate the sentiment, but we won't hire someone without compensation, and right now we can't afford more team members.  If the game is successful, and we plan on a sequel or porting it to a new platform - then, definitely, send us your portfolios :)

For now, James is doing all the new art, with only a little bit of help from me, freeing me up to do a lot more programming and systems work.  So, let's take a look at some of the new stuff:

I wasn't really happy with Azra's proportions, hair-style, and expressions.  She also looked like a cross between an 8-year old and Kim Possible. We want good expressions to really sell the story, and the new art style frees us to do that.  The lack of outlines and hard shadows makes it easier to just get in there and change things in a few minutes without getting caught up in detail.  The previous style was very difficult to revise - so if we had a mediocre pose, we were more likely to stick with it rather than throw it away and start over.  That, and we can crank out a lot more unique poses for specific lines of dialogue, rather than just re-using the same three or four over and over again. 

Here's another cutscene from early in the game - I like the new background and characters a lot better. The textured paper makes it feel more like a story-book and meshes better with the character art than the old style.

All the characters have way more poses now, and the expressions are really great, the story feels like it's coming to life in a way that it didn't before.  

For those who complained about the scene with Ketta from before - that was the first scene we did in the new style, so we'll definitely be giving it another pass before shipping :)  Also, Ketta's new character design was inevitable regardless of art style, because a disturbingly large amount of testers didn't realize she was a woman, and in battle players had a hard time distinguishing her head icon from Slak's because they both had big red afro's. We'll post an updated version of that cutscene as soon as we polish it up, and hopefully it will address people's concerns that it wasn't expressive enough.  If not, oh well - we can't please everyone :)

We've also updated in-game dialogue, which looks way better and conveys a lot more emotion:

Anytime you change an art style this drastically, it comes with risk. I've already gotten a few negative comments by people who preferred the old style, for instance.  All I can really say about that is that I do appreciate any feedback we get, negative or positive, and I hope you guys understand that we'll do our best to address everyone's concerns, but ultimately we have to go with what we think is best for the game.  Also, the little snap-shots I put out aren't always going to be indicative of what you see in the final version of the game, so we'll keep changing/polishing right up to the end.

We WILL be releasing a new version of the demo to coincide with our "Beta" launch, so you'll be able to see how it looks AND plays before deciding to buy.

We hope you like it! And if not, we hope you at least still like the game :)  I'll be posting shortly about all the super cool amazing awesome stuff we've been up to.

I think you're really going to like Acts III-VII, and if I may say so myself, the final battle is pretty cool. We've been giving it a lot of special attention.


Chrisian Kriech said...

I guess when it comes down to it, the art may be high up there, but game-play comes first, and what I tasted of the demo was excellent. No matter how the art looks, I'm going to be purchasing this on release day.

Keep up the awesome work!

Pyroj said...

Any chance we can get an option in the menu to turn on the old art? Just wondering, I actually like both styles.

Alex said...

previous style was really lovely. but if new one is better to do and more satisfying - it's allright than.
but new Arza looks ugly O_o like an alcoholic or main character of american mcgee's grimm...

Eric W said...

Not having a main character look like Xena - the warrior princess is a big faux pas in the rpg industry. Why must indies like yourself have to always attack the establishment and rigid stereotyping?

this is, of course, a fairly sarcastic post so I am putting this next line in its own paragraph.

I approve of this new art. Can I buy the game already :)

a227fe66-205a-11e1-a8d1-000bcdca4d7a said...

No! Just no... Please!
The old style is so great, rough and messy at places, but also special. It has soul. (and doesn't strive for that cheap and overused 8-bit pixely nostalgia) It's recognizable.

The new one is so bland, fungible. (so it would look rather inappropriate in your charming and heartful game) Flash-animation-like gradients... man! There's nothing more boring!

I don't want to be mean. I understand your pragmatic reasons, but I'm pretty sure the old style would sell your game better. And I would certainly rather preorder it and wait longer to have it with the old style...

Fingers crossed!

wired said...

I agree with that, old art style had something of a warm "in my garage" charm, there has effort been put in it, and you can see it, while the new one is just bland and interchangable. It looks lazy and uninspired.

But if you want to stick with the new style, its your game in the end, Id at least like an option to revert to the old graphics style. Id much appreciate it.

Karlos said...

It's sad, but new art style is ugly and looks like trollface comics =((
Old background was picturesque and took player to middleages, old characters had human proportions and looked more pleasant.
I hope that the final version will contain old art(or maybe an art option, as it was said in previous comment), images take not so much space on hard disk. And I wish good luck to Defender's Quest team in finishing this game.

Karlos said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
meganite said...

I hope the new art style will get some refining before the final product. In my opinion, with the outlines, it was easier to make out the shapes. I also liked the main character, she looked like my sister. Now she looks more like a witch...? (Intentional?) I agree that the poses are more interesting though. (No offense, James, but I think Lars's understanding of anatomy and musculature is better than yours...)

To hear you say the new flat backgrounds are better than the photographic backgrounds is just... uhh... are you serious?? I think there's some things you could have done to improve the photographic background, but I liked having that much detail and interest. It had a lot of pizzazz. Despite the photoshoppery, it wasn't nearly as cheesy as the new backgrounds, which are lame and flat. Of course, you know my art style leans towards using photographic texture heavily, so maybe I'm biased ;)

Anyway, looking forward to seeing the aforementioned finesse in the final graphics. Beginning stuff can and should be sketchy so it can change easily, but final work should be refined.

Sean Choate said...

Yeah, I know I'm late to the party here, but the old character design is much better. The line work is MUCH cleaner. The issue with the new art is twofold. First, the line work looks sloppy. Proportions of curves look unnatural or too sharp (Azra's hair), and positive/negative space is too uniform (again, Azra's hair is a good example of this. "Wild" hair would be better depicted with some large locks, and some smaller strands. Line weight variation is almost nonexistent, too. In the earlier art, it was masterfully employed.

The other issue is with the shading, which appears flat and uninteresting. Gradient shading is fine in the backgrounds, but much less so on characters.

The new background art is charming and simple, and solves the problem the old art had (which was looking like it was thrown together in photoshop). The new character design doesn't solve any of those problems.

One the time management front: Lars, do you still have time to clean up the line-work? That could dramatically improve things.

Lars Doucet said...

@Megan, Sean, Everybody:

I'm afraid this is simply an issue I'm not going to be able to please everyone with, so this is all I can say:

My focus has been on getting the game finished and focusing on gameplay, customization, tactics, balance, and story. I'm sorry if this disappoints some of you, but it's just an inherent limitation of being an indie studio with limited time and resources.

Freeing up my time from doing cutscene art is the only reason we are able to do the initial release now instead of months from now. I had also hoped people would like the new art style better (I certainly do), but not everyone agrees. Ce la vie.

I know some people would prefer to wait several months and have their favorite art style, but we simply can't afford to wait that long. For those of you still holding out, your best chance of getting a different art style is to buy the game in initial release, and if it does well enough we'll be able to afford bringing in a professional artist to redo all the character art for the final full release, which all pre-release buyers can upgrade to for for free.

How does that sound? :)

Here's the full explanation for those interested in knowing why we made this decision:

The full version of the game has 7 acts but the demo only has 2. The final version now has about 4 times as many poses and emotes for each character than the demo, so at the time the demo was released we only had about 7% of the total cutscene art the game would require.

If I had stuck with the old art style, I'd have had to do one of the following:
-Ignore core gameplay, balance, features, etc.
-Delay the game's release by at least 3 months

For our next project we will definitely just hire an artist from the start, and this won't be a problem ever again. For now though, I (Lars) am up to my ears in programming, bugfixing, testing, answering emails, and everything else.

For those asking if we'd include an option to keep the old art, that sounds like a great idea and definitely jives with the philosophy of maximum player choice, but we just don't have a complete set of art in the old art style to enable - we had little more than what was seen in the demo, so there's no magic switch we can flip to just make it go back to the old way.

Hope this clears things up. I absolutely can't commit to re-doing the art in the old style, but if the initial release does well, you can rest easy in knowing that we've heard you loud and clear and if we can afford it we certainly won't rule out giving the game a visual makeover. No promises though, but it's obviously important to some of you and we get that.

Rick Griffin said...

Just a note after I bought and played the game obsessively: The art style works. Looking at the old art style, I'm glad you decided to change, and here is why.

I have a background in cartooning. I know from having done it myself that no matter how crappy the art USED to be, sudden changes/improvements to it make large swaths of people unhappy. This is because art is not generally perceived by itself, but the color and shape which one associates with the rest of the product. Change to the outer facing generally instills fear that nothing will ever be the same again, and people will make all sorts of ridiculous rationalizations as to why.

As to the above: people saying that the photographic backgrounds were not improved upon by simplifying them to the paper cutout style art. Well sure, when you take the backgrounds as themselves, it's almost bland in comparison, but people VERY rarely give the background more than a second glance. The role of the background, while setting the scene is very important, is to subsequently NOT get in the way. And it does that best when it matches the style of the rest of the art. Since you do not have photographic characters, it risks clashing.

Some people acknowledged this. They LIKED that it clashed because it was more homebrew. That's the exact same kind of reasoning that people who supported folk music said. It was less refined, and therefore didn't give into the MAN--although when the MAN ended up copying the unrefined musical style, mainstream people listened to it anyway, and then suddenly it wasn't cool anymore. Is the goal to BE indie, or is it to have a cohesive art style?

I imagine a lot of the people were here supporting an indie game in development because they liked BEING indie, and therefore a move toward what they call a 'bland style' was an affront because of this. In reality, the papercut and the heavy outlines have roughly equal amounts of style in them. (In fact, the papercut characters clearly have more emotion, but that's a matter of execution and not design elements).

In the end, the problem that I have with the old style is that when you have multiple elements of a picture that clash with each other, most people who have not already formed their impressions on it will assume little to no thought was put into it. When you stick a CGI monkey into a live-action film, it looks stupid and cheap and fake. When you stick a cartoon monkey into a cartoon, it looks just fine.

"Good" is not dependent on how real something looks, it's dependent on how well it does its job based on its surroundings, without drawing negative attention to itself and therefore detracting from the whole.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I have to agree with Rick, gameplay-wise. Looking at the screenshots above, I feel that the old character-art was better, though I appreciate the new backgrouns. Playing the game is a different (and better) experience.

This may come from my personal bias, but I really don't think so. I didn't buy Defender's Quest because I wanted a graphics demo to show off my computer's processing power. I bought it because I wanted 1) a fun story told in the RPG format with quirky characters, 2) an engaging and thoughtful tower-defense game. The characters fit with the new art; I found myself disappearing into the story, and their more varied expressiveness only helps to underscore the comedy. The art, in other words, does what I want it to do--from a gaming perspective.

On the other hand, from a marketing perspective, it doesn't give as good of a first impression. Still, if you ever do go to a more complicated art design, I'm going to want the option to go back to the original animations, the ones that I've associated with the characters' personalities.

viki said...

Hey guys, I am still waiting for the update to extra/new/premium version. How is it going?

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