Share and share alike

Share and share alike

By Mike Bithell

March 12th 2013 at 11:22AM

Thomas Was Alone creator Mike Bithell ponders the impact of developer-made - and sold - assets for the benefit of peers and rivals

“In animation, you have to create everything from scratch. You don’t have the luxury of shooting on location or making a set. So you have to look for every opportunity to tell a story.”

So said Austin Madison, Lead Animator at Pixar, speaking to Daily Cal.

The above quote has been the accepted reality of computer generated art since the beginning. Pixar themselves often hold it up as the reason their worlds are so rich, so deeply art directed. They’re right. Freeze frame any of their movies and marvel at the creativity with which they’ve confronted the gargantuan task of asset creation.

Check out your favourite games too; take a look at a chair in Dishonored, or the subtle differences between two games’ versions of the same car. The need to make everything bespoke has led to an insane depth of art direction, unheard of in mediums based on capturing the real world.

Expensive though, isn’t it?

Huge teams spend years generating the sheer volume of content required to make something approaching a populated and varied world for the accepted eight hours of gameplay. That’s a lot of chairs, a lot of generic faces to shoot. Many companies use outsourcing, but that’s still the same solution; throwing more people at an ever expanding pile of Wacom tablets.

Indies, teams of one to five people, cannot hope to do this. We can’t afford a mega team of artists. This shows in the games we make. We generally use smartly limited content, or art styles which are cheaper and faster to produce – pixel art being a great example, or even my block colour rectangles. In the code, we avoid polish jobs that’d improve the game, but would take too much time.

An example would be the classic ‘if character is behind a wall, show a glowing silhouette to mark where they are’. I’ve been on at least two projects with large teams where we decided not to implement this as it’s a bit fiddly and a time sink. I found myself needing such a feature on my current project, and was ready to immediately dismiss it as impossible polish.

I bought said code for $10 on the Unity Asset Store.

For those who use other engines, the asset store is a shop built into Unity where users can sell each other code and art. The prices vary, from $5 for a decent texture to $300 for a Steam integration kit. I think it might be the most important thing to happen to game development in years.

I hope it goes without saying that buying art or code cannot even begin to get close to hiring someone to do it bespoke. Hiring artists for your project specifically will always be the ideal (I know I’ll be doing so myself in a lot of areas). An onsite coder will always produce better and more consistent work. But up until now, if you couldn’t afford staff, you couldn’t get anything. I see this as similar to the indie film maker who uses an existing location, or the indie musician who samples the work of others to boost her track.

The guy who made that silhouette system I now use would have charged me a few hundred pounds as a freelancer. I’d obviously be out of pocket, but I suspect he might be too. I’d own the code, and wouldn’t be happy for him to sell it on. But with this model, he can sell that same code repeatedly to different people. Same with art. If I had the skills, I’d be throwing together as many gun and furniture packs as I could right now. The business of downloadable games is leaking over into the development side. And right now, it looks like it might be win-win.

The challenge now becomes one of using these resources effectively. Where do you spend your time to make something personal? Which areas do you go fully bespoke with, and which do you lean more heavily on the stock assets? I’m looking forward to finding some answers to those questions.