I love the distinctive 2D look shared by 5th Cell’s Drawn to Life and Lock’s Quest — two games for which art is an important aspect (especially Drawn to Life, which requires players to create some of the objects and sprites). There’s just something about the sprite work and the color palettes that make their DS games look better than just about anything else on the system. Scribblenauts looks to carry on the signature 5th Cell look.
Jeff Luke, who does game design and art management for the company, kindly answered some questions about the process of creating art for a 2D DS game. This first portion deals with some of the technical details of art production and conversion. Check back tomorrow for the second part of the interview, which is more stylistic in focus.
Tiny Cartridge: Is the character art drawn on paper and scanned or drawn on the computer? How is it colored?
Jeff Luke: Well, it all starts out as an idea on paper, which we then send to our partner studio in Malaysia, Sherman3D. We give them a description for how we want the art to be along with some examples and the original art which we scanned in.
After they are finished, they usually send us a few different examples. We give them some feedback on what we like and don’t like and then they make the necessary changes. After a few rounds of that, we settle on a design and move forward with it.
This process actually sets the basis for the rest of the game as well. Once we have a few main pieces of art, we have a standard that has to be followed for every piece of art we make.
When it comes to color, our Art Director Edison Yan, will color the original concepts and sends those to Malaysia. This gives them a color palette to work off of. Malaysia replicates those colors and creates a 16 color sprite, which is converted, optimized and put into the game .
What kinds of programs are used to create the in-game sprites and environments?
We actually use a few different programs. We use Pro Motion by Cosmigo, Adobe Photoshop and Jasc Paint Shop Pro. Certain programs we use for different reasons. Backgrounds and detailed environments are usually done in Photoshop by our Art Director, but we also do some sprite work in Photoshop as well. More recently, we’ve been doing animations and tile sets in Pro Motion, simply because the program is designed for that purpose in mind. Paint Shop Pro is used mostly for the conversion process which I will get into later.
Does any software for art production come from Nintendo? Do they provide any tools for DS art production?
Nintendo actually does provide their toolset for art conversion, where we take the raw art and convert it for use in the actual game. Their toolset could also be used for doing sprite work, animations and palette work. Basically, the tool is made for converting the raw art into a file that can be read by the Nintendo libraries for DS development.
Other than the resolution, what else do you have to keep in mind when working for the DS screen?
Well, one of the biggest things to keep in mind is the different brightness settings. You need to make sure your game looks good on all brightness levels which can sometimes be quite a hassle, but in the end, it’s the attention to detail that can make or break the experience for gamers. In conjunction with the resolution, screen real estate is a really big issue. You need to always be aware of exactly how much space you have on that screen at all times. Make a GUI sprite too big and you just end up having to redo it. As an example, in Drawn to Life our character was a bit larger than the average platformer character so we had to be aware of his size at all times when creating levels and enemy placement. One last thing would be layer blending. Blending between 2D and 3D layers can sometimes be a bit tricky.
Approximately how many frames of animation are created for each character?
We try to limit each animation to 6 frames or less. This provides us with additional memory to work with, and challenges us to create animations that still manage to look smooth with as little frames as possible. 6 frames doesn’t sound like much, but when you think about all the different animations a character might have, it adds up quickly. The average character in one of our games has anywhere between 6-10 unique animations. So, we’re looking at anywhere between 36-60 actual frames of animation per character, which takes up a lot of space when you have a lot of unique characters. So, ways around that are using palette swaps on generic characters (swapping the colors) so we don’t need to keep making unique animations for each one.
Do you have machinery in place to convert to other sizes/resolutions for other hardware formats— just in case?
Our machinery is called Adobe Photoshop. Haha! But seriously, we really don’t ever have to worry about size conversion too much. Anything that could ever need to be higher resolution, we just make sure we create the original assets in high res and then scale down from there for in game art if needed. All of the portraits in Lock’s Quest started out as massive, multi-thousand pixel, full-body images of the characters that we then scaled down and took just the upper body portion of for the portraits. Perhaps one day, if we move to consoles, we will need to initiate a process for scaling art to different resolutions more efficiently, but for now, working on one system, we’ve got a process that works perfectly for it.