After receiving the latest batch of new graphics for Star Corsairs I posted on Google+ that I wish I was a graphic artist instead of a coder assuming it would make some parts of game development less frustrating. Of course a graphic artist might think the opposite and the following conversation went that way.

So do coders have an easier time than artists when creating games or is it the other way around? Note that I’m saying coder here and not “game designer”. Let’s see what I can come up with.

Learning how to draw is easy

That’s what I hear when I say that learning how to code is not a big deal. I guess it’s true as I did learned a bit how to deal with graphic stuff. The problem? Well you can learn but it still doesn’t mean that you’re good at it and if you’re not then others can easily see it. If you’re a bad coder as long as you manage to not have the game crash every 5 minutes people won’t know about it. Maybe it’s a mess behind but who can tell beside another coder who might help you later. If your graphics are a mess then everyone can tell even those with no graphic skills at all.

Mr. Artist wants to know how to create a game? No problem he just google for a tutorial, find some source code (like the Shootorial I used myself to start to learn Flash a bit) and get a clone running. He might still be clueless about what happened exactly but he sees a game. From here he uses his graphic skills and give a new skin to the game. Done.

Mr. Coder has found the very same tutorial. He understands everything about it and manage to add new interesting mechanics. It’s now time to change how the game looks and … well he just look for a tutorial on how to draw. He’s lucky and found what he was looking for. He just can’t copy/paste the graphics he found so he starts from scratch following what he just learned. For some reason the end result is not as nice as expected even if he understand the theory behind drawing.

So Mr. Artist and Mr. Coder release their games (and make sure to specify they are Shootorial clones) on Kongregate. Mr. Artist managed to create a nice icon that draws some attention while the game of Mr. Coder is buried deep down the huge list of games. Nobody sees the nice features he added to his Shootorial clone. So much for innovation.

Sticking to what you can handle

An advice we sometimes read is that coders should go for maybe a retro look as the graphics requirements are lower than other game. Sure there’s a lot less to do but retro still doesn’t mean “bad graphics”. Take a game like VVVVVV. It can’t get any simpler when it come to graphics. But that’s not bad graphics just simple graphics. It still work as a whole. Sure it’s probably closer to a coder’s reach but you can still mess it up. Do the colors match together? Can you think about that little touch that makes it pleasing? Does the font you chose fits? Sometimes you can find some tools to help (like I’m using an Adobe online tool to create color palettes) but it’s not always the case.

So it’s not about good/bad graphics. It’s about “does the whole thing makes sense”. As a coder I can usually tell when it doesn’t quite feel right but it still doesn’t mean I have a clue on how to fix it. Again when an artist is stuck on a bug the answer to his problem is as easy as googling the error message (I do it all the time and it’s amazing how it seems that every single bug in the world has been experienced by others). When you need to fix something that doesn’t look good what is the error message you need to type in Google?

You don’t always understand why it doesn’t look good

Here’s a funny anecdote. When I decided how the logo of Golemizer would look like I wanted to have something cartoony that felt family-friendly. For the font I picked Comic Sans which I thought was perfect. Well apparently some people hate this font very much … I’m not quite sure why. Seems okay to me? Now even a graphic artist could create something that looks awful to others but I can’t help to wonder what kind of basic graphic knowledge I’m missing here.

Practice make perfect

With time an artist can get better at coding and with time a coder can get better at graphic stuff. So I guess that the unique requirement to be as good as say Michael Heald is only time? Right … Just like anyone with enough time on their hands can become as good as Aretha Franklin when it comes to singing. How good at coding do you need to become to create games? Like I said as long as the thing doesn’t crash every 5 minutes you can be a crappy coder and still get away with it. I feel an artist will have an easier time than me to reach the “okay” level.

Sometimes you just don’t have what it takes. You don’t have that artistic ability that unlocks a world of possibilities. I may know how to write but it still doesn’t mean I’m able to write an interesting novel.

Working with others

Let’s skip the part about how incredibly difficult it can be to find a reliable person to work with (artist or coder). Here it might be easier for the coder who is looking for an artist than an artist looking for a coder. An artist usually doesn’t have to fix the previous artist’s work. As a coder you often curse at the previous developer for cornering you with his stuff. I’m currently in this position at my day job and when there’s no proper documentation or even comments in the code it can be like hell.

Switching artist? Well you need to make sure he can remain in the same style as the previous one. I did struggle with that for Golemizer as there were so many artists collaborating to the game that I often had to past on some offers. For things like clothing it wasn’t much of a problem but for new monsters it was often a problem.

Another problem with switching artist is that sometimes it means you change everything or nothing. That’s the case with Star Corsairs. I received a generous offer to improve the graphics but had to make it clear that it meant a lot of work. If I change how 1 spaceship look I need to change them all to make sure everything fits together. The previous graphics were not of professional quality for sure but at least is was consistent. For once it seems this person was truly serious about committing to this work so it will happen. I received similar offers in the past for Golemizer and after a few weeks without hearing about an artist I knew it wasn’t going to happen in the end.

If they don’t see it they won’t play it

It’s not always about graphics but it do help to get attention. A nice screenshot or trailer is more effective than a list of features. So when I was sending my screenshots of Star Corsairs to blogs and websites some probably thought “well it’s something like DarkOrbit but with worse graphics”. If I can’t even get my foot in the door I won’t be able to tell them about all the other cool stuff that you can’t necessarily see.

What if you’re an artist that released a buggy game? Well you might get lucky and get a bad review. That’s still better than not getting any review at all. MMOs are always full of bugs at launch (well most are) and people still play them anyway. Bugs can be fixed. Graphics can be upgraded too but even when it’s for the best it doesn’t necessarily make players happy. I already received a few complaints about the graphic upgrade for Star Corsairs but I never received a complaint for fixing a bug …

I’m a coder so of course I wish I was a graphic artist

But we’re in 2011 and you don’t even have to know how to code to create games these days. Take a look at Game Maker, RPG Maker or do like many coders and create your own tower defense game from a tutorial (no imagination required!). If you’re feeling adventurous build your own MMO with Realm Crafter (coding will come handy at some point but it’s facinating how far you can get).

For coders what do we have? Well the same free graphic libraries used in many games. Golemizer was built with these but I wasn’t able to find everything I needed from the same set so things doesn’t always look good together. I did look around for Star Corsairs. I easily found plenty of step by step tutorials to create planets and nebulas (so that’s why they look good) but wasn’t able to find what I needed for spaceships. I did found some 3D models but nothing that was enough for my needs.

The one person you can easily do without is an audio artist. It’s easy to find cheap sounds and music to match pretty much all your needs (there’s also a free utility to create retro-game sounds that I don’t remember the name). It never crossed my mind once to get something custom-made for Star Corsairs when it comes to sounds.

A tip to artists

You might be doing it wrong if you just bought a C++ book to learn how to create games. In that case yes coding is awfully difficult for someone with no programming experience. I gave some solutions above to avoid getting in stuff that might be over your head and all I did was some Google searches. Often being a coder is just knowing how to look for stuff on the Interwebz. Cut my Internet access and I might have a hard time to code too … Knowledge is good but knowing how to look for such knowledge is better.

So I gave you some advice I think might be useful. Any artist can return the favor? :)