Background thinking on distributed free culture projects
- For one thing, the idea that you just throw open a project and everyone shows up and just builds their piece of the universe and bam, your world is created! … is wrong. In fact, it’s even wrong for software: most free software projects that go far might have a lot of contributors with a large and varied set of interests, but there tends to be one or just a few people setting out a very specific set of “project vision” for the software. If you don’t have this, the software heads in all sorts of conflicting directions and falls apart under its own weight and lack of cohesion.
- This is even more so a problem for free culture. When you develop an animated film, a game, or whatever, you need clear stylistic direction. If you don’t have that, you end up with a ton of pieces that you can try to mash together but don’t really look like they belong together at all. Everyone has a different idea of where the project should go and a different preference in look, and eventually you hit creative difficulties, and the piece falls apart. But is there a way to get past this?
- There are probably two ways to get past this. One is to have a strong “artistic director” of the project who coordinates the entire style of the project from start to finish. And another is to borrow an idea from programming and set up a “style guide”. Bassam pointed out that python programmers are more than happy to conform to PEP-8, the style guide that dictates the general look and feel of code. And of course, there are plenty of other conventions in python code imposed by the language’s design itself. Could the same system work for artists?
Why we did what we did.
- We wanted it to be adaptable to a wide variety of types of gameplay. In the “16-bit era” of game consoles, there were a wide variety of games that used this perspective: adventure games, RPGs, real-time strategy games, farming simulations, civilization simulations, and so on. We knew that it was flexible, and flexibility was critical to a design that could be useful for a variety of games for a long time to come.
- We wanted it to be extendable to a variety of thematic genres. Even though the base assets that we commissioned for Liberated Pixel Cup had some specific thematic elements to them (vaguely victorianesque interiors, some traditional fantasy game tropes), there was nothing specific about the elements described in the style guide towards one thematic genre or another. (This was proven true in the art phase of the competition; we got some nice looking science fiction themed submissions.)
- We wanted the style to be easy to collaborate on without a persistent “art director”. The style we were going for was fairly well understood by having a lot history of games with similar (though not exactly the same) styling. The orthographic style and the abstracted and highly stylized proportions of the characters we had commissioned were done with clear intentions; for example, we had considered a character style that had more realistic proportions, but such a character style would require either a much more intensive set of art direction (which we could not handle such a resource with the kind of contest we wanted to run) or much longer and more specific descriptions and layouts around the characters. Similarly, there are ways to do tiled games that have a more “faked” but high definition sense of perspective (even though on a flat grid you can’t have real perspective lines by definition) but this would again require a lot more hand-holding than just “keep it in an orthographic projection.”
- We wanted artwork that looked beautiful but could have a low barrier to entry for a variety of artists. The art style we chose was intended to have specific but easy to understand rules, but ones where fairly new artists could still accomplish nice things that seemed to match, and advanced artists could use their full skills. This affected decisions like “just what kind of texturing/shading are we going to push for?”
- Despite the above, we wanted something that looked nice and, even though borrowing from a long history of games with similar and well understood styling, had distinctive elements. To this end, we laid out the base directions of the art style first, then commissioned a base set of artwork, then developed a clear style guide based on the existing set of work we had. Decisions like the general “camera angle” we wanted, finalized shading directions, how to handle outlines (which are colored instead of black and white in our style), were made based on the artwork produced by our commissioned work. And we do feel that the result was something that was easy to build things off of but had a clear and distinct “Liberated Pixel Cup look” to it.