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Pixels to Reality: The Evolution of Video Game Art

In 1958, Tennis for Two was created by Physicist William Higinbotham and is considered by historians to be the first visually-displayed video game ever made. Although video games would not become widespread for another four years, advancements such as Higinbotham’s slowly sparked the need for artists and designers to tackle this new demand. Eager creatives were soon creating video game art for early adopters of the medium such as Sega, Atari, and Nintendo. 

Let’s explore the history of video game art from the pixels of Pac-Man to the hyperrealism of games like The Last of Us Part I (2022) and Red Dead Redemption II (2018).

Early Years: Pixel Art and 8-Bit Nostalgia

During the early years of mainstream gaming, around 1980, games such as Pac-Man and Space Invaders dominated the global video game market. Pixel art, also known as 8-bit art,  was the main game art style of the time. Illustrators were tasked with creating designs on custom machines that were highly specialized, and expensive, for the task.

According to Medium’s Jamal_Aladdin, “They had to rely on their ingenuity to make the most of these limitations, often leading to the birth of innovative gameplay mechanics and collaborations.”

16-Bit Renaissance: Advancements in Detail and Color

Less than a decade later, advancements in technology allowed illustration specialists to make use of 16-bit, which displays over 65 thousand colors. In comparison, 8-bit produces a much more limited 256 colors. Along with these advancements, 16-bit empowered illustrators and designers to create higher detail in their game art, allowing for greater artistic expression.

Fast forward to today, the pixel art style is commonly used as a nostalgic blast to the past as displayed in hit games like Stardew Valley (2016) and Dead Cells (2018).

The 3D Revolution: Polygonal Worlds and Realism

Soon enough, the game art industry started to make use of 3D technology. Battlezone (1980), Tempest (1981), and Star Wars (1983) were some of the first hits that took advantage of 3D modeling and rendering. Artists were able to continually enhance the realism available to consumers through their expansive polygonal worlds.

“An enormous shift in video game visual styles was brought about by the switch to 3D graphics,” explains EJaw Studio. “It was a time of innovation as game designers investigated the use of realism and stylization to create realistic virtual worlds.” The rise of new graphical capabilities made way for a variety of genres illustrators and graphic designers could create, including adventure, role-playing, racing, and more.

Artistic Innovation in the HD Era

The shift from standard definition to high definition (HD) brought a new era of gaming to the industry. Artists and studios were now able to push their game engines further than ever. From the textures on walls to the grass characters walked on, it was as important as ever for artists to keep pushing the status quo.

Importance of Environmental Design

Without environmental designers working in game studios, the world game characters inhabit would feel disconnected from the story. It’s the job of an environment designer to blend the story and world together. This begins with communicating their vision to concept artists. According to Adobe, “Video game concept drawings help create the building blocks for the immersive, authentic, and unforgettable worlds that gamers explore.”

Technological Advancements

Although digital tools for animators, illustrators, and designers have been around since the inception of video games, the advancements of these pieces of technology are a true marvel. From tablets to styluses, creatives use them every day in game studios across the globe. Over time, these devices have gotten faster, smaller, and more efficient for artists.

Hardware Progress

The hardware available to game artists has grown exponentially over time. With the latest graphics cards and processors, there are virtually no programs artists can’t run. These hardware advancements have allowed pros and learners alike to use software such as Maya and Blender to grow their skills in the game art field.

Software Tools

From 3D modeling to character rigging, there are a variety of different software tools to learn before entering a professional game studio. Some of the most common tools art students at Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design (RMCAD) use are Maya, ZBrush, Blender, and the Adobe Suite.

VR, AR, and Beyond

Many gaming companies today are investing in the capabilities of virtual reality and augmented reality. It’s unclear how popular the medium will get for these studios, however, video game artists have proved time and time again that they are prepared to learn new art tools, technology, and adapt to change.

Artistic Styles that Define Video Games

  • Realism – Many artists and designers strive for realism in their game creations. It’s often one of the most-discussed aspects of modern AAA games today.
  • Stylized – Stylized games take a cartoonish approach which oftentimes takes a different creative approach compared to realism, since concept artists will be using fewer lifelike references.
  • Abstract – Abstract games challenge the status quo on what it means to be a game art professional. The most common abstract game art includes unique shapes, colors, and storylines.

Design Process: From Sketch to Screen:

Before game environments, characters, and textures are viewed on screen, they must all go through a design process that can take years of work.  It all starts with concept art made by illustrators that is often used as reference work. This can include sketching, drawing, or painting a rough draft of how things might look in the game.

 “Creating concept art in games starts with raw sketches that help designers choose between different versions and settle upon the most promising piece during the pre-development stage,” explains game studio Stepico. Once concepts are approved, work then gets passed along to game modelers, texture artists, and rendering experts in the development stage.

By no means is the design process from sketch to screen fast-moving. In fact, the popular action-adventure game Metroid Dread (2021) took 16 years to complete.

Iconic Video Game Characters

It’s no secret that video game characters dominate pop culture today. From movie spin-offs to television series, it’s hard to escape their presence. Let’s take a look at some of the most iconic characters ever made as well as the artists behind their design.

Mario (Super Mario series)

Contrary to popular belief, Nintendo’s Mario did not debut in a game solely dedicated to the famous plumber. Instead, Mario made his first appearance in the 1981 arcade game Donkey Kong. The original design of Mario was created by artist Shigeru Miyamoto through the use of pixel art. “I think one of the appeals of Mario is that he’s such an easy character to understand,” Miyamoto stated when describing his character.

Link (The Legend of Zelda series)

Following the hit of Mario, The Legend of Zelda was another commercial success for Nintendo in 1986, selling over $6.5 million copies throughout its release. Fans fell in love with Link on his adventures as well as the illustration, animation, and graphical style of the game. Shigeru Miyamoto created Link with the design limitations of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in mind. 

“To distinguish Link from the weapons, Tezuka thought of giving Link a long hat and big ears, which led to the team receiving inspiration from an elf-like character called Peter Pan. Miyamoto felt green, Peter Pan’s color, was the perfect color for Link, so Link became green,” explains Nintendo Soup.

Master Chief (Halo series)

From fan art to game installments, the Master Chief character has made a significant impact in the world of art and design. Debuted in 2001, concept artist Shi Kai Wang designed Master Chief for Halo: Combat Evolved. The character has had many iterations over the years, causing even the most casual fan to critique his design.

Pikachu (Pokemon series)

The adorable creature we’ve all come to know and love continues to be drawn by illustrators around the world, and with good reason. “The process of designing not just Pikachu but Pokémon in general was complicated, with multiple people putting their ideas together and modifying the design to create a single character,” explains Pokémon art director Ken Sugimori.

Pikachu was created in 1996, just half a decade before the era of high-definition game consoles hit the market.

Skills Needed to Excel as a Video Game Artist:

  • Artistic Proficiency – Being an artist means practicing your craft every day, no matter how small of a project. The stronger your competency grows, the more it will show in your work. Many young artists find that taking courses or enrolling in a BFA program is beneficial to growing their consistency as a creative.
  • Digital Art Tools – There are many art tools that will help you develop your industry-standard skills. From fancy styluses to Wacom tablets, we recommend you read up on The Power of Art Tools.
  • Game Design Understanding – It’s essential to understand that game design can make up a variety of different ideas. From core game mechanics and level design to character development and dialogue, there’s a lot to think about when designing a game.
  • Animation Skills – Even if you don’t plan on becoming an animator, learning the fundamentals of animation will broaden your skill set and allow you to understand the larger production pipeline of game development.
  • Storytelling and Narrative Design – What’s a game without a good story? Narrative design and storytelling combine many factors that keep players invested including dialogue, plot, story structure, and turning script into gameplay.
  • Texture Mapping – In its simplest form, texture mapping adds texture, such as shading, reflection, and opacity, to objects in a game. Artists should consider the art direction and mood they’re attempting to convey in order to texture map successfully.

Ready to Take your Game Art to the Next Level?

Explore the online and on-campus game art degree programs at Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design (RMCAD) today. Whether you’re a beginner concept artist in ZBrush or are looking to further your skills in Maya, you will join a community of fellow artists and learn from experienced instructors who are passionate about helping you succeed.


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