Why Do Indie Games Use Pixel Art
Updated: Jun 13, 2021
There are 10 reasons why indie game developers use pixel art, and why you should consider using it too.
Critics often comment that game developers use it because of budget constraints, nostalgia and cash grabs.
And those reasons may actually be contributing to the question, Why is Pixel Art Dying?
But, there are other reasons why an indie developer chooses pixelated game designs over other styles.
1. Pixel Art Has a Low Barrier to Entry
The truth is, video game pixel art is readily accessible.
A plethora of tutorials are available from learning how to design specific assets to how to use a particular program.
And, the best pixel art software programs are free or under $20.
Pixel Art Software
And if game developers feel that they need something more specialized or with a more intuitive layout...
There’s the paid option.
And, there isn’t a pixel program out there that costs more than $20, excluding photoshop.
Minimal Game Dev Team and Equipment
Unlike some other art styles, pixel based graphics don’t require a powerful computer, drawing tablet or stylus.
It also doesn’t need a specialized team of people to perform specific tasks like
Some of these tasks can be consolidated with the use of a sprite sheet or eliminated altogether depending on the game.
2. Pixel Art Designs Save Time
Whether or not pixel design saves time is up to the individual indie dev.
There are some that claim typical graphics used for 3D games are faster to make overall.
Some have found that other 2D graphic styles are more efficient.
But, those that argue pixel graphics are quicker to make claim it’s because of the following.
Faster to Learn the Software
It generally takes a person less time up front to learn how to use pixel art programs.
This is because of the limitations set in place for pixel art compared to the free range other mediums have.
There aren't as many tools needed to make the art and thus the developer doesn’t have to invest the time into learning.
Time which can be invested into other aspects of the game.
Faster to Test Asset Designs
Some indie developers find pixel graphics to be a quicker way to test designs and animations.
An absolute minimum of two frames is required to make sprite animations.
Although, twelve frames is recommended for a smoother look.
2D animations, on the other hand, tend to need about 24 frames per animation in order to look good.
3D animations demand a lot of little tweaking to ensure that it looks just right.
If the 3D animation is a little bit off, it’s very noticeable to the player.
Which means that it can be time consuming to fix if the goal is to make the movement appear smooth or natural.
Faster to Make Level Designs
Some pixel games are made using a compact sprite sheet.
All the basic assets for the game are made ahead of time and can be used to draw unique level designs quickly.
Rather than going in and drawing each unique detail.
And since everything is made of squares, and thus boxy, it tends to be easier to make collisions in game developing programs like Unity.
Collisions are the things that ensure you can’t run through walls and things of that nature.
3. Pixel Art is an Easier Art Style to Work With
Once again I’m going to put in the disclaimer that not all game devs find the medium easier to work with than others.
However, those that do say that the following reasons are what make pixel graphics easier to work with.
Easy to Stylize
It’s easy to make a base for a character or asset and uniquely stylize it.
Just look at the image above.
Notice how all the characters have the same base design?
Yet, they all look distinctly different from one another.
In fact, there are some indie game developers that buy bases and style over them.
Bases can be cheap to come by...
And buying bases can save time and allow the developer to work on other aspects of the game.
No Facial Expressions Required
Basic pixel art doesn’t require the use of facial expressions in order to connect players to the character and the world.
This means that indie game developers don’t need to learn how to make them or spend the time doing it.
Less Problems to Optimize
It’s much easier to calculate pixels rather than polygons.
Why do some developers think this?
A pixel, an abbreviation of the term pixel element, is the smallest unit of visual data that can be represented on a screen.
For the rest of us non-techies, a pixel is a two-dimensional, tiny square that can express only one color
Polygons, however, are shapes made up of at least three lines.
And all the lines make up a three-dimensional space.
So, basically, developers can choose either to calculate simple two dimensional squares or three dimensional shapes when designing their games.
I personally would find it easier, and make less mistakes, calculating pixels vs polygons.
4. Pixel Art is Quantifiable
Seriously, can art be quantified?
All 2D art can be broken down into data and measured.
In fact, there’s a machine that’s been created by a group at the Fitchburg State University (FSU) that’s proving art is quantifiable.
Can you guess what the machine does in order to help make art easier to quantify?
It converts paintings into pixels.
The pixelated versions make it easier to compare designs and to learn how to make specific details.
So, if a developer isn’t sure how to make a particular shape, shading effect, the size of a sprite, etc, they can browse through pixel images.
When they find one that matches, or is close to what they’re looking for, they can zoom in to see exactly where to put the pixels to reproduce the same effect.
5. Pixel Art Allows Developers to Emphasize Their Strengths
Being that it’s an easier art to style and saves time, it allows game devs to focus on their strengths.
But, it also gives them time to focus on one of the most important steps of game development.
Polish is the final touch on a game that helps to make it memorable, look spiffy and feel good.
It’s the last step and a very important part of the game making process.
That often gets thrown out the window due to time crunches.
This is the time when game devs go in to make flashier animations, more accessible user interfaces and smoother combat.
And some indie game devs find that it’s easier to make a pixel art game appear polished as compared to some other art forms.
6. Pixel Art Has an Established Market
There is an established, niche market of pixel art fans.
And it’s not going away any time soon.
Just Google it and see what I mean.
There’s a dedicated community discussing pixel art games in forums.
And, there’s a whole other community that loves to draw and appreciates pixel art as a design style.
So, when developers publish their games, they know that there are people out there that want to buy their style of game and talk about it.
There’s an expectation for pixel art to be included in certain genres.
Peruse roguelikes, rogue lites, point and click, platformers and metroidvania games.
A large number of these games are pixelated.
This ensures that they are targeting the right, specific audience when making their games.
And, can help them decide what kind of game to make if they’re committed to using pixel art.
Part of the reason it's trendy is because it’s considered retro gaming and hipster.
Partly it’s because of the rousing success of certain pixelated indie games like Minecraft, Undertale and Shovel Knight.
And, who wouldn’t want to try to ride the popular game train?
7. Pixel Art Allows for More User Accessibility
User accessibility refers to how many people can get their hands on the game and actually play it.
Let’s examine Fortnite’s user accessibility.
True the game is free.
But, how many people can actually download and smoothly play the game?
Fortnite can be a whopping 7.4 GB on mobile.
And the PC version used to be about 90 GB!
Although, they recently shrunk the game to about 30 GB.
But, how many of us have that much room on our phones and computers?
On the other hand, pixel art games have the ability to be much smaller.
In fact Terra Nil, a beautiful pixel art city builder, is only 72 MB.
A teeny tiny file size.
But, the developing game has had over 300 reviews and all of them have been 5 stars!
Indie pixel games also don’t require a high performing graphics card, ram, cpu or any of that techy stuff.
There’s a lot of pixel art games that could practically run on a potato.
But, they can still be super fun, engaging and memorable.
Casual Gamer Accessibility
A lot of modern games require high reflexes, technique and adrenaline to play.
But, not every body has the ability to play those kinds of games.
There’s an audience that seeks out pixel art games because they know a lot of them don’t require hardcore gaming abilities to enjoy.
They are accessible to casual players or those with more limited motor controls.
8. Pixel Art Helps with World Building and Immersion
The beauty of pixel art is how it remains unfinished to be finished in the observer's mind.
It invokes the power of player imagination and the ability to be immersed.
It offers the creator more control over the placement and setting of the world.
Remember how I mentioned that players notice if the animations of a 3D object is a little off?
This breaks immersion and thus the ability to keep players sucked into their games.
And ruins the ability for the game developer to guide players through the rest of the gaming experience.
This can happen with other 2D games too.
If the animations are off, it’s easier to see than in pixel graphics because the other 2D designs have more clearly defined details.
Creates Unique Player Experiences
The way pixelated indie games are designed forces the observer to fill in the blanks of what they see and thus create their own interpretation of the image in their mind.
Or, entices the player to use their imagination.
See, pixel art isn’t a perfect representation of an object...
Think of anime, or cartoons, vs live action tv.
I personally tend to shy away from live action because I have a disconnection with the characters.
They are clearly their own person, despite our similarities, and I can observe all the visual cues that suggest that.
However, animation is a symbolic representation of the world.
Which means that it misses or warps things in reality that I then have to interpret for myself.
Interpreting what’s happening helps me to feel more connected with what’s going on in the scene.
One could argue that all 2D images have this effect, not just pixel art.
But, pixel art distorts images which suggests what an image should represent.
Where as a cartoon dictates exactly what it is supposed to look like.
This art style also allows for the player to be more immersed in the character, so long as the player likes the pixel design.
It Invokes Feeling
Pixel art conveys an idea of how somebody should feel when observing it rather than telling them what the object is.
Imagine a sunset.
Typically, thinking of a sunset can be magical.
Paintings of a sunset can be spectacular.
Now, look at a sunset without an Instagram filter.
Is the real thing as beautiful as the idea of it?
9. Pixel Art Ages Well
Pixel art has a better chance of aging well.
Think about some of the games you played as a kid, especially the 3D ones.
3D games tend to age like curdled milk because of how they try to replicate reality.
May have been groundbreaking for their time period, but not by today’s standards.
Even some 2D games are starting to show their age because their art style dates them.
But, pixel art has one of the best chances of being timeless.
Because pixel art suggests an image to the observer rather than tells the observer what the image is supposed to be.
10. Pixel Art Forces Design Ingenuity
The limitations pixel art brings can aid the creator in focusing on what’s truly important.
This helps to cut unnecessary details in order to create aesthetically pleasing, iconic designs.
Beauty can be important because it can be used to help support aspects of the game such as setting and establishing overall tone.
And being iconic is a key part of helping players remember their game.
Beautiful Pixel Art
Pixel graphics force the developer to think outside the box in order to create a beautiful game.
But, the art in these games are labor intensive.
And, generally speaking, indie game developers are working in small teams if not alone.
Which is what births design ingenuity like in the following two examples of beautiful pixel art games.
JORD uses a very limited color palette of greys and sometimes dull greens with pops of red to draw the player’s eye.
Pixelated imagery helps support the robotic assets in the game and the apocalyptic setting.
But, the combination of color palette, pixel graphics and minimal assets establishes a feeling of emptiness.
Like a bomb detonated that was so powerful it not only annihilated everything that wasn’t necessary, but distorted the very reality the world is set in.
Each scene illustrates an aesthetically pleasing picture of a desolate world worthy of framing.
Fidelity uses the pixel art design to emphasize the game mechanic, its story and playable character.
Just from observing the gifs on the game page, I deduced that the game would be about the playable character questioning reality.
Pixel art was the perfect art style for this.
Because pixels are the literal building blocks that make up a video game reality.
And the pixelated graphics support the glitchy effects found throughout the game.
Creating an iconic design is difficult.
And if it’s not iconic, the game will be buried in the ocean of pixel art games.
However, the demand to be iconic with the limitations pixel art brings can create absolutely unique designs.
One of the most well known examples of an iconic figure is Mickey Mouse.
But, there are plenty of articles about how and why Mickey Mouse is iconic.
So, I dug for a character design that I think could become iconic and found Dark Soil.
The reason I picked Dark Soil is because the character design embodies what the game is about.
From the design alone, I could deduce that there is going to be some serious watering mechanics in the game.
And, since the character is wearing a huge helmet, I can hypothesize that something dangerous is going to try to stop me.
The reasons why an indie game dev might choose to use pixel art over any other medium is up to the individual developer's preferences.
But, some have argued that pixel art is more efficient to use for some games, demands creativity and allows players the ability to access their games despite limited hardware or motor skills.
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