'Unpacking' the pixel artist
From Brisbane, Australia, he has been making pixel art and games as a hobby since 2006. After receiving a degree in animation from the Queensland College of Art in 2014 he has been freelancing ever since. Angus has found success most recently working on Unpacking, the outstanding zen puzzle game from Witch Beam.
Your first memory of Pixel Art?
The first console I played was the Sega Master System when I was young. My first memory would definitely be Alex Kidd in What’s Miracle World which was built into the system we owned.
When and how did you end up making Pixel Art?
When I was in high school, around 2006 or so, some classmates had found Gamemaker and the accessibility of that software at the time really interested me so I started playing with it. At the time pixel art was definitely the easiest option for Gamemaker so when I started to design my own games it was naturally something I had to learn how to do. Eventually I got more interested in the pixel art than the game making so that became my focus for a long time after that.
How would you describe your Pixel Art style?
I wouldn't say I stick too strictly to a particular style, definitely as a commercial artist you need to be able to work with other people's ideas and styles so I try to keep myself flexible. If there is a through line in my personal work though I think it is heavily saturated and bold colours.
What software/s do you use?
These days I am using Aseprite pretty much exclusively for my pixel art. It's a very feature complete software and the ability to use scripts has made exporting work a breeze which has been a real game changer for me. I also use Blender and Clip Studio Paint regularly when I need those capabilities.
‘Unpacking’ is an amazing game and the pixel art is just beautiful. How long have you been working on the game?
I worked on Unpacking for about two and a half years. I came onto the project around a year after it had started.
"Doing the art itself was very relaxing even though drawing in isometric has plenty of challenges."
Can you give some insight into the creative process behind the art of ‘Unpacking’—from conception through to the final version?
For Unpacking I was working under the guidance of Wren Brier (The creative director) and Tim Dawson (The technical director). The art style for the game was established by Wren and she walked me through her process and the requirements for the style early on.
To keep it brief, the items for each room were decided on by Wren and Tim. They would then implement their item list into the unity project as little blank boxes the size of those objects into early pass rooms that were created by Wren. After they'd confirmed everything was appropriate I would take that item list and create somewhat complicated folder/image hierarchies in Aseprite to contain each item.
All of the items for a given room are contained in a single Aseprite file placed within their own level art so we can work on everything in context. We also did this so we could use an export script written by Tim that popped out all of the art correctly named and placed in the project so it was easy to make incremental changes without having a huge export/import task ahead of us.
After that it is a case of going through each item and looking at the requirements, researching for reference images and then manually drawing that item from every required angle and pose. We would first draw everything out as line-art with flat colours and implement those into the project.
Later after playtesting we would go back and do the final pass to make everything pretty. After each stage of that process Wren would go through all of the artwork on call with the relevant artist and give detailed feedback to make sure everything was looking right and staying consistent with the game's style and direction. While I did the majority of the item work myself, a significant portion of these tasks were done by Wren for certain parts of the game. For the second half of the game a lot of that second pass cleanup work was done by one of our other artists, mmishee.
What was the biggest challenge in creating the assets for ‘Unpacking’?
Definitely asset management. With nearly 4000 images to handle for the items alone there was a huge amount of time spent meticulously naming layers according to conventions and double checking that the right files were hooked up to the right places and had the correct properties in Unity. Tim put in a lot of work building tools to make those tasks much easier but every single image still needed some busy work to get into the project. Doing the art itself was very relaxing even though drawing in isometric has plenty of challenges.
Do you use a particular color palette? Which one?
Usually I prefer to manually select colours for each piece I make depending on what I'm trying to achieve. I did spend a fair amount of time using a particular restrictive colour space (RGB with only 5 steps per colour) and I still gravitate toward those values when they make sense.
"If you're trying to make your first game, start really, really, really small."
How do you feel about the Pixel Art industry and where do you see it in the future?
I feel really good about it! There was definitely a time about 10 years ago when it felt like pixel art might disappear as a useful way to make games once all gaming hardware had surpassed the need for it. But I think it has since proven to have real strengths as an artform outside of just nostalgia. Younger people are picking up pixel art games and pixel art as a practice even without those formative memories and still loving it.
In the near term future I think there is going to continue to be a boom of high spec pixel art games as all of the artists that grew up in that earlier generation find themselves with more established careers. Long term I think pixel art will always have its place in the indie scene, new game developers will always need assets and pixel art is such an accessible way to create them for people new to the field.
What advice would you give to other artists who are starting in the world of Pixel Art?
Practice other kinds of art. Everything will come back to inform your pixel art and there are things that are much harder to practice in pixels than they are with other mediums. And if you're trying to make your first game, start really, really, really small. One screen, one button, one animation. Work multiplies exponentially when you add new things and you don't need that for your first project!
What’s your favourite Pixel Art game and why?
Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap. It was one of the first games I ever played and I still play it every now and then. I just think it is so beautiful and such an excellent example of game design.
The way it keeps it fresh through the whole game by changing your player character is super cool.
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