In the last article, I discussed a small slice of the more popular game engines available for the independent developer. A discussion on Reddit prompted by my last article made some great points about the technicalities of engine choices potentially being overwhelming to someone new to the development and coding scene; presenting too many options and not focusing on one in particular. While I don’t regret my approach to the Game Engines article, I do absolutely understand the point and agree that, at least for the time being, I am better off focusing on the tools I am using personally and then offering alternatives once the basics are pretty solidly hammered out. So big thanks to my readers in general, and those contributing their feedback on Reddit in particular. Today, we’re going to look at game assets: what are they, where to get them, and tools to create them. Lets get to it!
So What Exactly Does “Asset” Mean?
Asset is just an all-encompassing word that refers to any non-code that will be combined to create your game. Generally this includes all of your games visuals, from UI to sprites (or meshes and textures if your game is 3d not 2d) as well as sounds like sound effects and music. For those of you who, like me, are not terribly organized by nature, assets can present a serious issue that turns into a dog-chasing-tail spiral of needing assets to build game, but needing to build game to know what assets you need. Outlining and design documents can really help mitigate this issue, as can the use of placeholders while you are playing around with the game-play level experimentation. Ultimately, placeholders have been the only real way for me to get out of that tail-chasing mode and start getting things done. Again, this is a good use for RPG Maker if you happen to be creating a 2d RPG, since it comes with a pretty large number of nice assets you can use as placeholders (or in your finished game if you want to) and get right to the design stuff. For those who aren’t making an RPG or who don’t want to fork out $80, opengameart.org also has assets available in the Creative Commons License, though the requirements for each varies with the asset, so make sure you understand the license if you plan on including it in your finished project.
There are the DaVincis of game development out there who have the knowledge to be able to make all of their own assets as well as their own design and development and implementation and scripting. For most of us, this is simply not the case. Fear not though, because for every one of you out there who has a great idea for a game, and some awesome ideas for how to make it fun, engaging and unique, there is someone who is great at pixel art, or at musical composition and/or sound effects who are looking for a project to collaborate on. There are lots of forums out there for independent developers, and joining one is as easy as signing up and saying hi to everyone. Another option for those who are willing to do so is licensing asset packs from engine stores. This usually has a moderate price tag attached ($20 to $60 a pack), but the assets tend to be very high quality. The big downside of this is that asset packs made by two different artists (whether visual or audio) will not necessarily mesh well, and so you may have to tweak them to make them work together. Again, check the license carefully when doing this. Just because you paid for it doesn’t mean you own it.You only have the rights you paid for, so make sure you are getting the rights to do what you intend to with it.
Tools of the Trade
So now that you know what I mean when I say ‘asset’, let’s talk about the tools you may want to look into for the creating and manipulation of said assets. Note that these are the tools that I am currently using (in the case of audio that my friend is using) and comparable ones. There are lots out there, and if you have a favorite I would love to check it out too, so leave it in the comments!
RPG Maker MV (http://www.rpgmakerweb.com)
Paint.Net is my go-to editor for the vast majority of my visual assets. Like many of the tools I like to use, it is open-source software (and hence, free). Most professionals use Adobe Photoshop for textures and 2d art and if you have access to it already, then you should absolutely feel free to use that. Others also prefer the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP), which is a great piece of software (also open source and free, mind you). I don’t use it because it’s actually a little too feature-rich for my tastes. I pretty much exclusively use my image manipulation software for the making of sprites and such, so wading through all of the other things it can do to get to that is a bit cumbersome; your mileage may vary. The one thing you have to really watch with Paint.Net is that it doesn’t default to a transparent background, and I have yet to figure out how to make it erase to transparent nicely once I have put a pixel in place without simply using the undo function. This is way less of a big deal if the engine you are using can turn a specific color transparent in the sprite editor (Game Maker Studio can for sure); you just need to find a color that your sprite doesn’t use at all and make that the background and problem solved.
This only does one thing, but man does it do it well. I downloaded the local app rather than using the web-based one, though they are exactly the same, so it really doesn’t matter which you prefer. Piskel is by far the easiest to use and most intuitive sprite editor ever (in my experience,anyhow). The only downside of Piskel really is that saving is a little awkward (because its a web app and the local app still uses all the same scripting), so if its something you are going to need to save and come back to multiple times, the save/load can be clunky. Its focus on pixel art and sprites more than makes up for that though. Customizable palettes allow you to save sets for future characters or tiles you want to use the same color schemes and small spaces between each pixel with a grid on by default make creating the right shapes extremely easy. The background is a dark gray by default, which is not only less straining on the eyes than the traditional white, it also doesn’t wash colors out the way a white background can, so you will have a much better idea what your colors will look like when the finished product is mixed with your other assets. Piskel is also free, so there is really no reason not to use it.
I have zero (possibly less) talent or knowledge on the subject of sounds or music for games, aside from knowing that they are necessary and will make a huge impact on the end user experience. PulseBoy is another web-based application that is used to simulate chip-sounds (the kinds of sounds used in classic games from the NES and SNES/Genesis eras). It is very solid and I am told pretty easy to use. This is a secondhand review, so take it as you will, but the person that I am working with to create the sound assets for my game is using it exclusively (or so I am told).
I am not currently using Tiled, because the engine(s) I have been using don’t have an easy way to take the maps you create with it and import them. That said, if you can figure out how to do so, Tiled is the best map-making software I have ever seen. With just a little bit of time learning the interface and capabilities, Tiled can do a shocking amount of the work for you. From custom auto-tiling to named layers to a built-in collision editor, Tiled can do it all. I had a really hard time trying to get it to download and install the first time until I figured out that for some reason the 64 bit windows link actually gets you a mac OS version for some reason. The 32 bit Windows version downloads and installs fine and seems to have no issues working on my 64 bit system though, so no harm no foul. Seriously though, Tiled is hot to death.
So that’s a brief overview of assets the tools used to build and edit them. In the next article I will be taking an in-depth look at RPG Maker and it’s capabilities and limitations as a game engine. I realize that many of you are not planning on building an rpg, and so this will not be terribly relevant for you. I apologize for that, but I promise I will be jumping into some action/platform engines as well as I gain more experience with them; but since my current project is being prototyped in RPG Maker (and possibly entirely developed in it) it’s what I have to write about.
Until next time!