Game sprites creation

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In 2020 2D game sprites are still good. To make a profitable game you don’t need a next-gen graphics 3D graphics. You don’t even need 3D — the bigger half of top 100 App Store games are made in 2D with sprites.

Sprites in games from 90s

It’s cheaper and faster to produce the high-quality sprites than the 3D-models. You can use saved money on game mechanics development, storytelling or marketing to improve the overall quality of the game.

In this article we will tell you what are sprites and what secrets do we use to draw and animate game sprites.

What are 2D sprites

A sprite is a raster image which player will see only from one angle. Yes, sprite is a simple image. In the 90s the sprites were everywhere: in 2D platformers, strategies, first 3D shooters, racing games and sports.

Nowadays game devs use sprites to add crowds of people on a stadium, to display distant vegetation and objects in places which player can’t reach in game. Also, special effects specialists use 2D sprites to create explosions, fire, smoke, particles and other special effects. Sprite effects don’t need much computing power compared to 3D objects. All the things in the air on screenshot below are 2D sprites.

2d game sprites in Battlefield 1

And of course game developers use sprite animation:

  • frame-by-frame animation with sprite sheets;
  • 2D sprite animation with layers and special software.

Secret #1 — to start from a color palette creation

A color palette is a set of 3 or more colors. The artists create palettes to draw everything: characters, objects, in-game menus and surroundings. The secret is that everything looks better with a harmonious set of colors. That’s why professional photographers and movies directors spend so much time with color corrections.

Color palette for game sprites

To make a color palette artists do not choose random colors from available 65 millions. At first, they search for the references — the photos which colors convey the necessary mood. Then they use special graphics services to make a palette out of photo. They can use raw palette or modify it with color filters to make palette look more “flat”. By doing this they can be sure that colors will combine with each other and the colored sprite will look good.

Secret #2 — to draw game sprites in high resolution

The sprites for mobile games are relatively small: 256×256 pixels as usual. In PC or console game development we need bigger sprites with Full HD resolution or higher.

But to create 2D sprites the artists use higher resolution than will be used in game. This way is easier to make proper details and proportions, which will look good even in small resolution.

Creating game sprites in high res

Secret #3 — to draw sharp outlines

The Photoshop and other drawing instruments have built-in anti aliasing function. It will automatically blend the colors of nearby pixels when saving an image. It is good for photos, but very bad for sprites. The game engines cut out background color from sprite atlas and if the sprite was saved without proper preparation it will get strange colored outlines in the game.

To avoid this the artists draw thick outlines before saving the sprite and then edit the outlines manually. By doing this they preserve pixels from background and sprite to blend. Sometimes the artist can leave the outline as it is, if the final image suits the visual style. And if it’s not, the artist can delete the outline in few clicks and get a nice looking sprite ready to be integrated in the game.

Game sprites with outlines

Secret #4 — to draw as many sketches as possible

The perfect 2D character sprites must have rememberable and readable silhouettes. The artists draw dozens of sketches to get the perfect result. For 2D character creation they can produce 100 sketches with minor differences: clothing, hairstyle, pose, proportions.

2D character sprite creation starts from the primitive structure. The artist tries to portray the character as a combination of few triangles, squares and circles to find a good shape. Then he draws black and white sketches based on that shape to work out the pose and details.

2D game sprites sketches

In the end the artist uses a color palette to color the sketch. As a bonus there are plenty of sketches left which can be used too.

Secret #5 — to draw skeletal structure

Novice artists try to draw a character at one go: to create pose, hairstyle and clothing from scratch. If the character is more complex than a Pikachu, the novice will have a bad time.

Skilled artists start with a skeleton. They draw the main parts with big dots: head, torso, hands and legs. Then they connect dots with lines to get a stick-figure. The artist then can change a pose of a character by moving the dots and connecting them with the same length lines.

Skeletal structure in sprites

It’s a useful trick for frame-by-frame animation, because artists can keep track on proportions. And drawing the skeletal structure first helps to animate fantastic creatures, mechanisms and other objects with no real references.

Secret #6 — to color the game sprites with layers

When it’s time to color the artists have choice:

  • to color the sprite as is and then darken and lighten its parts to make volume;
  • to color the sprite with shades of gray and then impose colored layer in top of it.

Most of the artists choose the second way because it allows changing colors and palette with ease. To change the colors the artists needs only to create new layer with vivid colors and play with its transparency. And the artists don’t need to shade the sprite from beginning because it’s already done in black and white.

Coloring the sprite with layers

Secret #7 — to draw keyframes for game sprites

For 2D sprite animation we often use frame-by-frame animations and sprite sheets. The animator tells the game engine when to change sprite from idle pose to jump pose. This works perfectly fine with pixel art games like Metal Slug, Shovel Knight and Blasphemous.

To make a good animation the artist starts from keyframes. Keyframe is the sprite which portrays the character in the climax of movement. For example, for punch animation the climax will be at the moment when the fist hits the target.

Animation sheet

The artist can use the skeletal structure he created before to keep the proportions of character. After drawing the keyframes the artist and the game designer count how many frames do they need for specific animations. And after counting the artist will draw additional frames to make a smooth transition from idle to climax to idle.

Secret #8 — to rotoscope the hardest animations

The rotoscoping is the process of redrawing a real photo into the sprite. We can use photos, videos, 3D rendered models and pencil sketches for rotoscoping. The skeletons and references are good, but they will never give the smoothness of rotoscope animation.

The rotoscoping were used to animate such games as Flashback, Mortal Kombat and Prince of Persia. The animation team filmed real people doing things and then redrawn every frame into the sprites.

Rotoscoping in Mortal Kombat

Also we can use rotoscoping to draw various props and assets like bonus coins, stars and stuff. It’s the easiest way to animate simple object from scratch.

The rotoscoping is useful in drawing backgrounds. The artist can make a careless photo collage from the real photos and then draw beautiful background in a layer above. It’s way cheaper than process of drawing a fantasy castle the traditional way.

Hire us to create game sprites

We have the best 2D artists and animators which are familiar with the most used drawing instruments. We can handle big projects and create unique art style for the game of any genre.

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