How to make your indie game look alright

One thing I’ve learned from working on So7 for the past year is that when it comes to making an environment it seldom looks the way you want on first attempt. By that I mean most games looking the way they do is thanks to iteration upon iteration upon iteration. Take Jon Blow’s The Witness for example, a game with a similar art style to ours.

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It’s not like they just hired some artist to come clean everything up in a week or so. Because games are an interactive medium that take forever to develop, mechanics and gameplay change week to week. It takes constant adjustment to create a flowing and coherent sense of visual appeal, and the addition of mechanics or aspects of the environment can potentially muddy that up if you’re not paying attention.

So what about when you do have all the mechanics in place? It still takes time to make an environment make sense. Environments in games are made up of tiny pieces that come together to form a cohesive whole. Normally I’d use some sort of puzzle analogy but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate in this case. When a puzzle isn’t finished it is very obvious that parts are missing and creating scenes is much more nebulous; when something looks off it can be difficult to pinpoint what is needed. Sure if you add a rock there or a tree here it’s no big deal and most people will never notice the difference. But it’s these changes that constantly add up over the course of development that make them a difference. I swear for the past 6 months I’ve not made more than a total of ten small, insignificant changes every time I opened up Kami Village and look at how much it’s changed in that time.

I remember one day a family member of mine was visiting and sat down to watch me work. I was placing grass and editing the terrain in the Forest scene. She said to me, “That’s it, you just paint it on there? Well I could do that!” I have no doubt that she could, once you get used to the tools in Unity they are very simple to use. You can teach someone to build an environment in a modern game engine in a day. But it takes time to train your eye to focus on what seems like insignificant detail. Here’s an example of a super insignificant change.

These rocks. I used the same exact stone models in both screens and spent 1 minute placing one set, and 5 minutes placing the other. 90% of people will never notice the difference but one is more visually appealing, if only on a subconscious level. In the bottom screenshot I just haphazardly dragged them out and slapped them into the scene, rotated them a bit, did a tiny bit of resizing, and went on my merry way. It doesn’t look terrible but it looks a little disjointed. In the top screenshot I focused on visual variety (in size and shape) while still maintaining a consistent looking aesthetic (showing the more geometric and worn down sides of each stone, making sure each one has a proportional amount of shadow on one side, and silhouette, silhouette, silhouette). Like I said, insignificant, but apply this approach to every aspect of your scene and that can make the difference between a professional or amateur look. If every single object in your shot is placed like the rocks on the bottom even people with untrained eyes are going to see that things are looking muddled.

Another big/small thing is post-FX. Eric might even be the better one to talk about this (he is the master color and effects tweaker). But he’s busy doing real work so you have to settle for me. In most of our scenes the post-FX we use are SSAO (Screen Space Ambient Occlusion), Depth of Field, Antialiasing, Color Correction, Vignetting, Amplify Color, and Bloom. After a scene is finished, these are the things that get tweaked the most, and they do vary GREATLY with each scene depending on the mood we’re going for.

So I guess the whole point to this post is that the little changes do matter and when you’re an artist it does make a difference to go a little crazy and hyper-focus on detail (sometimes, other times it's better to focus on the big picture). You can’t learn to be an environment artist in a short space of time; it requires intuition that becomes clear over years of studying what makes things look pretty. The thing is that I’m no industry vet and I’m still figuring this out too so if you disagree with anything I’ve said leave a comment and I’d be interested to hear your opinion. Thanks for getting to the bottom of this rant and I hope you guys enjoy the game when it's released on May 17th :D