The Neo-Retro Art Style: Savior of the game industry?

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Defining a cheap, sexy, and practical art style for next generation games

(image courtesy of WIP here)

Everyone knows Retro game art. It invades our culture and manages to be cool despite its primitive nature. But the world has changed and realistic is in. If you aren’t Unreal 3, you are nothing. I’ve got a problem with this and it isn’t my typical artistic / flamboyant / whiney one. This is an economic rant: I can’t afford to make realistic art.

The more cold hearted players might say “tough”. If my wallet doesn’t pack the punch of a Rockstar, maybe I shouldn’t be playing the development game. And to be honest, my plight is worse than just my inability to pay for realistic art. I’m looking rather pitiful.

  • I suck at creating next generation 3D models. At best, I’m a level 2 box modeler and normal mapping scares me.
  • I don’t really care if my games look state-of-the-art or not. If I have limited resources, I’d rather put them into making cool game play that will sell more copies. Bang for the buck rules my world.

I’d like to say my plight is unique, but everyone who isn’t EA is pretty much facing the same situation. Both publishers and developers have tight budgets and a projected 100% increase in art costs. Their existing artists aren’t trained in creating next generation content and ramping up skillsets takes time. If push came to shove, they would kill for a few Katamari Damacys to boost their bottom line. Even if the graphics suck.

Next generation machines will increase the risk of game development for publishers. From the chats I’ve had, major publishers will be putting more eggs in the same few baskets. If one or two of these Quadruple A titles doesn’t reach the mega-blockbuster status (*cough* God of War *cough*), the whole company suffers dramatically. If it sucks to be me doing next generation titles, it sucks to be them even more so. And those cold-hearted gamers who said ‘tough’…you aren’t going to like the limited choices you have once the Consolidation begins. (Did I hear someone say ‘NFL?’ Shh…they’ll hear you.)

It is time to combat the economic evils of next generation excess with a powerful secret weapon. Style. Retro style.

Neo-Retro: A definition
Neo-Retro art has its roots back to the 8-bit glory days. It borrows from the simplicity of boardgames of yore and mixes it with the shiny plastic minimalist aesthetic of the iPod design cult. It can use the latest pixel shaders, polygon pipelines and technical doodads, but it doesn’t rely on them to make it’s impact.

Neo-retro art is:

  • Symbolic, not realistic
  • Efficient, not laboriously ornate
  • Stylish, not visceral

Neo-retro already exists and has been saving major companies money for this entire generation. Next generations will continue to refine this practical and appealing art-style. Many examples tend towards the whimsical and child-like, but there is not reason why this cannot be used for serious games as well. Some examples from around the web include:

Naturally, SpaceCrack will use this style of art. I’m too cheap to do anything else.

take care


  1. I really like that image of the bombs dropping- very simple but yet a cool style.So is there a rule for one consistent style through the game? Cannot the style set the mood? 3D graphics are so boring when compared to art. I\’m really looking forward to some mind-blowing games. I don\’t want realistic graphics, I want to be pulled into someone else\’s dreams.


  2. Hi Pete! Someone actually posted this site on Who would have thunk it? 🙂 I think is a great example of a consistent style that manages to set the mood quite nicely with each scene. He is using some nice rendering techniques, but nothing that can\’t be faked with next generation hardware. The current process creating 3D models is very labor intensive- Concept- Model high res- Model low res- Apply shaders (normal mapping, textures, etc) – Create animation With Neo-retro art, you can cheat a lot. The relatively expensive texturing phase can be reduced to a few standard shaders that are dragged and dropped on. Give me a shader with nice sub-surface scattering, a default HDRI lighting map and some specularity and you can cut out the whole texturing and lighting step. With simpler designs, animation can become easier. I guarantee that the animation for a Bomb in Mario 64 was a lot less expensive to create than the animation for a character in Unreal. I hate to admit it, but my models in SpaceCrack are taking less than an hour. If you can spend less than an hour and get 80% of the functionality of graphics that take 2 weeks to build, there is an obvious benefit. A real modeler could do even better. I\’m waiting for some nice blob modeling techniques that let artists be more expressive with their modeling. If you had a game that looked like, I think you would be in for a very evocative experience. -Danc.


  3. A coworker and I were talking about Katamari the other day, and how they had chosen to view simpler art as a stylistic choice rather than a concession to the cost of production. It worked for me, I found the game completely charming partly because of its style. Puzzle games are delightfully free from the constraint of having to represent reality, part of the reason I like them.How are developers going to differentiate their game from every other game on the shelf when they all look realistic? It\’s going to take artists who are talented at doing something ~besides~ making realistic looking models. It\’s going to take artists who can envision a style and then properly communicate and execute that style. Whether the \’hardcore\’ gaming contingent likes to admit it or not, this industry is partly about the aesthetics involved, whether we\’re rendering crates or bombs or plumbers on dinosaurs. And I sometimes like to see games that show me something produced purely out of someone\’s imagination, rather than from a photographic reference.In other words, rock on, give me something different, something memorable to see, rather than just better lit brick walls.


  4. First of all I just want to make a note that this is probably one of the best and most original websites regarding video games I\’ve ever read (I think I found the link through kotaku). Not only is the material interesting to read, but it\’s also poses some very relevant game issues that many people haven\’t thought about. Re: Neo-Retro graphics. The game doesn\’t necessarily have to push technological boundaries, but sometimes it does in subtle ways. Katamari Damacy has a very simplistic art style that works very well for the feel of the game, but many people don\’t realize that there\’s a lot of individual objects that get rendered on screen. Cel shaded games like Jet Set Radio and Dark Cloud 2 (and the upcoming Dragon Quest VIII), simply ooze style that can\’t be found in tradional \”realistic\” 3D, having some of the benefits of 2D and 3D artwork. I\’m sure at the time Jet Set Radio was made people didn\’t even think about 3D emulating 2D, but not we have many people using this technology. Personally I never cared for the whole realistic 3D rush. Sure it can look pretty sometimes, but there\’s something artificial about 3D wanting to emulate real life. I remember when people used to say how awesome the graphics in Quake 1 and 2 were. But I never liked how other players looked on my screen. The models moved like robots (realistic human movement is a problem I still see in 3D FPS games) and it just… feels… artificial. I can see how 3D has helped games in many ways (being able to view the field from all angles helps the RTS genre for one), but this push towards trying to emulate reality just isn\’t going to work. Give me interesting art and GUIs anytime. Speaking of which I really like the design of the Space Crack objects so far.


  5. One thing to consider is that in a 3d world, making “cartoonish” graphics is considerably harder than it seems. Look at Rolie Polie Olie, Boring 3D or the Mario image and what do you see? Lots and lots of curves. In a world where dynamic level of detail is a great benefit (from a processor speed point of view), creating curved shapes isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do. Even if you have a 3d model with the curves defined, it can be extremely difficult to animate. I believe Lord of the Rings re-did a number of their 3d models for the last movie due to the unwieldiness of the previous models. Granted, the aim wouldn’t be these monstrously detailed models, but it can be something that’s unpleasant to work with even in small(er) numbers.Also, doing various Non-Photo Realistic (NPR) rendering is usually most costly (from a programming and a processor standpoint) than normal models. Finding the ‘edges’ of a model isn’t something that’s easy to do as there are never any set ‘edges.’ Since the model can be viewed from any aspect, where that edge line should occur can change rather rapidly (think of a 3d ball).NPR models don’t require the level of detail that a normal model would so the strain on the average artist can be greatly reduced. However, one must consider that more programming effects can go into NPR rendering and that can be a frustrating point when you have a artist with no understanding of programming and a programmer with no understanding of art attempting to work together to create something that the artist has envisioned but the programmer must make run quickly.However, this is all assuming that your game is not simply creating its style through a simple model and texture system. Something along the lines of Frequency for the PS2 would have none of these concerns. If you were attempting to do something like NPR Quake you’re looking at more programming/processor work.


  6. Hmm…Pile on enough technology and any art style can be made expensive and complex. On the flip side, given a strong vision, even the most primitive technology can act as a medium for effortless and inspiring artwork. If curves are expensive, use blocks. If 3D is expensive, use 2D. Ultimately, the artistic style should be a question of balance and elegant design, not a fight with technology. If you are fighting the technology, you are doing something wrong. One of my favorite sayings about game design is \”If the problem facing you is too difficult, redefine the problem so that it is easier\” Or as I like to say \”When the going gets tough, cheat.\” We are making a virtual abstracted world. We get to choose how much we simulate things and what we simulate. We all tend to say \”I must score a 10 in graphics (best graphics evah!), a 10 in gameplay (best gameplay evah!) and a 10 in the multiplayer shader glutamax category\” Instead, focus on the goal of making a fun game that fits a particular social need. Then cut away everything and minimize any effort that is unnecessary to that central goal. If it turns out that you don\’t need to toon shading, congratulations. That is one problem you no longer have to solve.


  7. Ian says

    Viewtiful Joe. Space Channel 5. Parappa the Rappa. Rez. People have been doing this for quite some time… and amazingly, reviewers and players PRAISE them for their art style, rather than dinging them for not having a high enough poly-count. Publishers take notice.Also note that the idea of a strong but simple visual style has been around for ages. (Didn\’t painting go through a similar phase of minimalism a few decades before video games existed?)


  8. Cool! For some reason I just thought it was an in-game screenshot. Great job. I\’ll put in the correct attribution into the article…thanks for catching that. take careDanc.


  9. Darwinia is probably the most extreme example of neo-retro you\’ll find today – heck, ever. ;-)I\’m quite suprised you didn\’t mention it…


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