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Artman2004

Why are so many indie games retro-styled?

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I've noticed that the retro art style is a really popular aesthetic choice among indie titles. It's usually either pixel art or low-poly 3D similar to the PS1/N64. It really makes me wonder why. Is it more efficient to make games like that, or is it because it simply looks cool?

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I personally think it's because it's more efficient to draw low-resolution pictures for people who aren't good at art, or at least that's how it started.

 

It's probably similar with low-poly 3D models, too, though they're not as easy as low-resolution 2D art.

 

Of course, there are skilled low-res artists in this day and age, and they do get jobs drawing for indie games, but I still think programmer art started the trend in the 1st place.

 

Spoiler

If you're going to make a SNES-style game at least use 8:7 pixels. Gosh.

 

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It's cheap, it's easy and nostalgia sells, am I ratting on people who do retro styled games? absolutely not, one may not have the knowledge, capabilities or budget to make graphically impressive game or maybe it's simply an choice for the game's art style, take for example Dusk or Hrot, a game that wants the player to think it's just a Quake Clone wouldn't work the same with ulta hd 4k textures.

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16 hours ago, Artman2004 said:

I've noticed that the retro art style is a really popular aesthetic choice among indie titles. It's usually either pixel art or low-poly 3D similar to the PS1/N64. It really makes me wonder why. Is it more efficient to make games like that, or is it because it simply looks cool?

Both :-)

It's a charming art style and it's more efficient for low budget or one-man projects. And for that reason you can say it's a matter of scale, not "difficulty". Pixel art can be as hard to create as any AAA graphic if you are the only one making it (in contrast to a multimillionaire company who can hire how many professionals they want).

Edited by Noiser

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Most older games were made by teams of 5 to 10 people, and the games themselves took between a few months to a year or so. That's a lot more manageable, games with huge worlds, something like GTA 5 or etc, etc simply requires thousands of hours of manpower. Creating an indie game that "feels triple A" is much, much harder than doing it in the same vein as other games that were made by smaller (but more tightly-knit and focused) groups of programmers and artists.

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It amuses me when they try to pretend it's like the old times, and they make the graphics worse than the old times. When there is an indie FPS which intentionally has very lowres textures for the weapon model and the world, even intentionally distort the textures to be like PS1 lack of perspective correction, then you realize that the original Doom or Quake looked better than the modern indies that try to mimic the classics (and even do it in a Unity or Unreal engine, unlike the original which had masterfuly coded software 3d engine).

 

But anyway, as I mostly care about how the game plays, I don't complain much.

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8 minutes ago, Optimus said:

It amuses me when they try to pretend it's like the old times, and they make the graphics worse than the old times. When there is an indie FPS which intentionally has very lowres textures for the weapon model and the world, even intentionally distort the textures to be like PS1 lack of perspective correction, then you realize that the original Doom or Quake looked better than the modern indies that try to mimic the classics (and even do it in a Unity or Unreal engine, unlike the original which had masterfuly coded software 3d engine).

 

It is here where some developers fail. Doing a retro-style game is perfectly fine, because it is inherently cheaper and easier to manage, but once people start to intentionally degrade the visual fidelity of what they produce it is taking "retro" a step too far.

 

As much as I like the older games, it was the Q3 engine that hit the sweet spot for me for visual presentation. It wasn't as rough as most older titles but it also didn't suffer from excess quasi-photorealistic detail of more recent games. So when doing an indie game, the least I expect is to try to make it looking as good as possible, but not compulsively attempt to replicate some imperfections of older hardware. And here is an engine that both has still that retro feel but is also modern enough to not look too dated.

 

Oh, PS1 in particular still ranks as the crappiest looking 3D I ever encountered, so trying to mimic its deficiencies is failure by design.

 

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One consideration would be the age/demographic of the developers in question making a lot of these games. Outliers granted, I would wager that most of these people grew up in that low-poly or pixel graphic generation of videogames and as a result are particularly inspired by those sorts of games.

Additionally, there may be some who believe the art styles they are 'mimicking' are aesthetic approaches in themselves, and as a result are starting to create entirely new visual approaches, or refine existing ones.

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8 minutes ago, Graf Zahl said:

So when doing an indie game, the least I expect is to try to make it looking as good as possible, but not compulsively attempt to replicate some imperfections of older hardware. And here is an engine that both has still that retro feel but is also modern enough to not look too dated.

Do you think indie games that try to look retro care at all about looking too dated?

 

Actually, now that I think of it, some of them do for some reason.

 

Also how can you expect indie devs who don't have as much money to commission lots of art by themselves as giant AAA publishers do to make a game look as good as possible? 'Possible' means something very different depending on the dev's financial situation.

 

A lot of indie devs might also have different boundaries for what does and doesn't feel retro, ignoring that the line's usually blurry enough for you to question its existence.

12 minutes ago, Graf Zahl said:

Oh, PS1 in particular still ranks as the crappiest looking 3D I ever encountered, so trying to mimic its deficiencies is failure by design.

In that case, what do you think about the DS' 3D, which doesn't have texture warping?

 

Of course, it's even lower resolution (256x192) than the PS1's minimum resolution(256x240), so it won't look modern at all.

6 minutes ago, kwc said:

Outliers granted, I would wager that most of these people grew up in that low-poly or pixel graphic generation of videogames and as a result are particularly inspired by those sorts of games.

People can grow up with low-poly and/or low-res games regardless of age, so I wouldn't necessarily call those who are younger than a certain age outliers, especially those who had hand-me-downs and regularly checked their parents' (or parent's) archive.

 

Pretty sure even 13 year olds might have come across an old video game at least once in their life.
 

But yeah, I think a lot of indie devs grew up with some low-res/low-poly system, wall console or handheld, new back then or old even back then.

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4 minutes ago, Nikku4211 said:

People can grow up with low-poly and/or low-res games regardless of age, so I wouldn't necessarily call those who are younger than a certain age outliers, especially those who had hand-me-downs and regularly checked their parents' (or parent's) archive.

The outliers that I was referring to were those who may be older and didn't grow up in said generation, actually. 

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1. because most indie games are a low-effort trash.

2. because often people are making intentionally bad graphics, instead of making the best possible graphics within the set limits.

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6 minutes ago, ketmar said:

because often people are making intentionally bad graphics, instead of making the best possible graphics within the set limits.

 

Yes, i think some developers use retro as an excuse to be ugly. Not the same thing. Ion fury is very retro but still looks great for example. 

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1 hour ago, kwc said:

The outliers that I was referring to were those who may be older and didn't grow up in said generation, actually. 

Eh, we are always growing up no matter what age we are, I guess.

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Modern visual fidelity is extremely labour intensive. Indy developers don't have the resources to do it. I also don't consider it worth it as I feel this has ruined the AAA game industry because of the inflated budgets causing companies to lower the risks they take. If it crashes it's because of this. On top I feel this has led to AAA Games and Hollywood movies to basically be the same kind of product, going for spectacle above all else. Would you call it retro just to see a movie where someone got some actors and filmed them on a camera and told a fucking story without visual effects? Neither medium should be defined by technology alone. 

 

I find it fairly easy to tell if an indy developer cares about how their game looks. And to be honest I only think it should be referred to as "retro" if a game is deliberately trying to mimic the appearance of a specific older game. Even then it might allow for the option without making that the intended appearance. BallisticNG for example, has options that allow the game to better resemble a PS1 game, but it's nominal appearance is that of an ultra polished up version of Wipeout with perfect performance. To me that isn't retro, that's adopting an aesthetic style and using modern tech to get the most from it. Amid Evil is another example of this considering how gorgeous it is and that it does not actually really look like any older games. Ion Fury uses an older game engine but pushed said engine to it's modern limits because that engine has been modified over time. 

 

Of course there's a lot of low effort cash grabs on Steam. But it's very easy to glance at a game and tell if its a game with both effort and passion put into it. And those are the games that are going to stand the test of time at this point. 

 

 

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4 hours ago, Artman2004 said:

I've noticed that the retro art style is a really popular aesthetic choice among indie titles. It's usually either pixel art or low-poly 3D similar to the PS1/N64. It really makes me wonder why. Is it more efficient to make games like that, or is it because it simply looks cool?

In the nineties, a big game development team was maybe 50 people. Most game studios were much smaller. To take an example everyone here should be familiar with: id Software was a dozen people when Doom was developed, and that's including Donna Jackson and Jay Wilbur. Star Control was developed by six people: two programmers, two artists, two composers. Another World was developed by a single person (plus a little bit of music by another).

 

Now compare with a modern AAA game. The development team will be hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of people. It's kind of staggering to think about it.

 

So when you have a small team,you develop the kind of games that a small team can develop, and that's going to involve simple graphics.

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12 minutes ago, hybridial said:

Modern visual fidelity is extremely labour intensive.

and it's not even required at all. i daresay it makes the games less apealing, at least for me. good lowres/lowpoly graphics leaves a lot of room for imagination, and sets the style. yet "almost photorealistic" graphics often falls into uncanny valley (even with today advanced engines), and ruins any kind of immerse. especially when the game has realistic and great-looking views… filled with plastic dolls.

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It is pretty simple, reason for it is usually a mix of nostalgia and retro style being easier making it something that almost everybody can do with minimal learning. These are also reasons why Doom modding is so much more popular than modding later id games like the quake 1-3.

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5 minutes ago, ketmar said:

and it's not even required at all. i daresay it makes the games less apealing, at least for me. good lowres/lowpoly graphics leaves a lot of room for imagination, and sets the style. yet "almost photorealistic" graphics often falls into uncanny valley (even with today advanced engines), and ruins any kind of immerse. especially when the game has realistic and great-looking views… filled with plastic dolls.

 

I feel exactly the same way, because modern game graphics place emphasis on the wrong things if immersion is the goal. Consistency is the key point of immersion but the more realistic they go for, the more the limitations become glaring because the human eye is excellent at discerning inconsistency, whether that be unnatural light forms, horizon popup etc. Also performance issues don't help either. 

 

That bothers me, but the extravagance of it is the worst thing, because like you said, it just isn't necessary. A game made by 1 person can be as interesting as anything made by hundreds of people with a 100 million dollar budget. We need to scale back. I am glad this seems to be happening now and the grass roots of game development seems to be coming back alive. 

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3 hours ago, Nikku4211 said:

Do you think indie games that try to look retro care at all about looking too dated?

 

Actually, now that I think of it, some of them do for some reason.

 

Also how can you expect indie devs who don't have as much money to commission lots of art by themselves as giant AAA publishers do to make a game look as good as possible? 'Possible' means something very different depending on the dev's financial situation.

 

In any case I'd expect to let the game show some semblance of professionality. These days, creating graphics at higher resolutions may actually be easier, as the extreme pixel pushing is no longer required to make stuff at Doom texel sizes appealing.

 

It is simply not true that making lower res or lower fidelity assets is more economic, so everybody doing it is doing it by design.

 

 

3 hours ago, Nikku4211 said:

A lot of indie devs might also have different boundaries for what does and doesn't feel retro, ignoring that the line's usually blurry enough for you to question its existence.

In that case, what do you think about the DS' 3D, which doesn't have texture warping?

 

IMO 'retro' can mean two things:

 

1) 'We cannot afford to make a game using today's techniques, so we settle on something simpler but use the available tech to its fullest extent.'

2) 'We want to replicate the look of our most beloved game XYZ including all the warts and bumps that entails.'

 

Products in the 1) category have a chance of a good end result, while products in the 2) category will mostly fail because once developers start to indulge in technicalities and prioritize those over the actual game the final product will inevitably suffer.

 

See it this way: Even if you used GZDoom as your engine of choice, you can get a lot of more modern looking mileage out of it by using hires/true color textures, dynamic lights and the occasional texture with PBR effects - plus even some nice sound design. Or you can go all retro with Doom and restrict yourself to a single 8 bit palette, software shading and low res textures like in vanilla.

So the question will be, who do you want to cater to? The people that may actually buy your game or the hard core fanboys who'd drool over your strict adherence to the 1993 specs? If you think the latter, you may realize when looking at the bottom line that the potential buyers may not agree with your views.

 

 

3 hours ago, Nikku4211 said:

Of course, it's even lower resolution (256x192) than the PS1's minimum resolution(256x240), so it won't look modern at all.

People can grow up with low-poly and/or low-res games regardless of age, so I wouldn't necessarily call those who are younger than a certain age outliers, especially those who had hand-me-downs and regularly checked their parents' (or parent's) archive.

 

Playing an old game or playing a new game that was artificially restricted to look like an old game are two very different things. This is solely the fanboy audience that may be attracted here.

 

 

 

 

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Without stunning graphics & options, games used to be much simpler. Ergo, they had to have good basic mechanics to be fun. Going back on those simple principles is always nice because these indie games can always be made better. A lot of 70's & 80's games fall into this. Adding savegames & kool stuff to them gives those legendary games a second life. There's always the problem of having a planet full of people that can afford to buy a computer every 5 or 10 years. So, most of the gamers out there aren't going to play on the most powerful or modern equipment...not to mention the weak CPUs of cellphones. 

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While there are some out there that look decent, I always felt like it was a crutch. These games don’t feel retro usually, they don’t even really look like it either. They feel and look like what someone feels a retro game should feel like, and it often doesn’t deliver. For example, why waste all the time and energy making 16 bit or higher sprites if you’re going to ruin it with not using period correct sound effects and music? There’s so many games that try to look one way but make the music sound like it’s coming out of an 8 bit machine. It just feels like no thought other than “make it feel old” is on their minds. 
 

All of these remasters of classic Apogee titles fall victim to this as well. You’ve got CGA/EGA/VGA art, and most of these games did not have music. So you pay someone to add the music for the remaster and what do you do? You make them create 8-bit music to feel retro instead of being intelligent and making the music sound period correct. 8 bit NES style music doesn’t really mesh well with 90s DOS games with PC speaker/adlib  sound effects. 
 

To be honest, I think this retro stuff is all mostly a fad. It will eventually be phased out with something else. All these retro FPS games for example will only be popular for so long before people get sick of them, and right now everyone and their grandma is making one, so it may be more short lived than I’m assuming it will be.

 

Also, most of the ones that have been well received I honestly never understood the appeal of any of them. They all look like they’re trying desperately to rip off the success of Doom, Quake, or Duke 3D. I want innovators, not imitators.

Edited by TelicAx7

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1 hour ago, Graf Zahl said:

It is simply not true that making lower res or lower fidelity assets is more economic, so everybody doing it is doing it by design.

 

It matters based on scale, you can't sit and act like one person could make GTA6 economically. And well, I understand that you are not saying that, but I am close to a layman, and it comes across like that to a layman. It's best to assume someone reading your post, which clearly is from a point of understanding in working on games that they lack an understanding of the specifics, examples might be helpful to give to understand your meaning better. 

 

14 minutes ago, TelicAx7 said:

Also, most of the ones that have been well received I honestly never understood the appeal of any of them. They all look like they’re trying desperately to rip off the success of Doom, Quake, or Duke 3D. I want innovators, not imitators.

 

Maybe try playing them? 

 

But I'll tell you for me, it's a goddamn breath of fresh air because I much prefer what the old games did compared to the way the genre went. I think this has happened because a lot of people who have the skill and talent to work on games feel an approximation of what I feel, which is, I want a game to cut to the chase. I hate Half Life and everything it did, I did not feel I got a better experience from it, not really at the time, certainly not now, because of its creative choices. It did lead the genre down one very restrictive path, and you're seeing people remember "Hey, why don't we do stuff like the games were remember finding really fun as kids.

 

It's a mistake to label events like these as nostalgia. I don't believe this is, I think this is a necessary step to redress a misbalance. 

 

And Amid Evil looks better to me than most things that have been made in a lot of years. As far as visuals go that game is no imitator. As far as gameplay goes, yes, but my argument is this. Simple is timeless. Simple is very hard to mess up. 

 

 

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2 hours ago, Graf Zahl said:

Playing an old game or playing a new game that was artificially restricted to look like an old game are two very different things. This is solely the fanboy audience that may be attracted here.

 

Apologies for the double post I wasn't sure how to add a quote to my previous post.

 

Putting it like this is insulting and definitely shallow. A person is capable of seeing a game adopting an older style of visuals and that the style of visuals could appeal to them artistically. I really get the sense in your post that old = bad and that only "fanboys" which is really derogetary could possibly see the appeal of playing an intentionally retro game. Saying it isn't common is  true but saying people who are that way must be fanboys, come on now. 

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@hybridial I have played most of them. Uninspired enemy designs, certainly uninspired level design (especially when it’s auto-generated crap), uninspired weapons, and boring protagonists and storylines that are little more than Quake or Duke Lite. There’s a few here and there that stand out, but there’s far too many that are easily forgettable yet are still being latched onto because of what you described; people unsatisfied with the current route the FPS genre has taken wanting games that reflect what they want out of FPS’s more. If these games cut it for you then that’s great, but they feel absolutely soulless to me. I am not saying the developers are incapable, but many could do far better. An example would be the new Project Warlock. While I think the art looks sort of silly, it is definitely a far more fleshed out game than the first one, and seems like far more effort was put into the sequel to make it feel somewhat unique and not just a Wolfenstein 3D/dungeon crawler clone. 

Edited by TelicAx7

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@TelicAx7

 

That is all fair enough. There's been a lot of games, a lot of outliers. I myself don't go out my way to play every one, I mean I did try Nightmare Reaper which I could see being fun to others but I dunno, I might give it another look when its finished because I didn't hate it, but I think the roguelike aspect really hurts my long term interest.

 

Also Project Warlock was made by one guy who was 19 at the time. It's a bit rough to me and not one of my favourites but I think expectation wise its impressive and making games is how these creators learn and get better. 

 

If I were to suggest one to you that you maybe haven't tried, I would suggest Hedon. I am about halfway through the first episode. Zan has put his heart and soul into the game, it's more ambitious than being a Doom/Quake clone, it's really fun to play and if I were to single out a game that was a surprise to me, and at the same time a demonstration of the potential of taking gaming back to the time of small teams and passion projects being like the best sign of the future for games, its that one.

 

Level design is a strong part of the game, and the story it has is well told. And yeah, Zan is kinda known for being a hentai artist but that element isn't even in the game from what I've seen bar buxom character design, which frankly is fine by me, Zan (as in the game's protagonist) is one of my favourite videogame character designs. The personality of his art shines through. 

 

 

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@hybridial

 

That's precisely the attitude that makes "retro" games fail.

 

The thing many people love about these older games is that their gameplay is not mired in all those modern and "realistic" trappings.

So from that standpoint there is a lot of appeal to go back to "simpler" times and build upon the strengths of these older engines.

 

But once "artistic" gets into the play and compromises the product by not letting it show its full potential, many potential buyers will take a hike.

Like, you can pass something off as "Quake-inspired" but then be prepared that you get a beating for shipping some "cheap low-poly models". Yes, it may match your "artistic" vision but it won't sell. It'd simply come across as uninspired and going for the cheap route. Even if you love Quake and want to replicate some of its atmosphere you have to show at lease a little effort to do better than 24 year old tech allowed.

 

Let's be realistic here: I love old games, it's virtually all I play, and I really want more of this stuff so any new retro shooter is definitely welcome. But I'd like to see some serious effort being poured into it. It is not fun to pay for some promising title and then see all the negatives of old games being replicated to the letter.

And negatives there definitely were, that goes from Doom over Build and Quake, because all these engines had to make do with very limited resources.

 

Today we do not have to deal with these limited resources anymore, we can do Quake clones with higher visual fidelity but without sacrificing the core gameplay properties of the game which are what attracts people to it, so any new game that replicates "all brown" or cheap, wobbly low-poly models for "artistic" reasons will definitely not cut it for making me spend some money.

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@Graf Zahl

 

That's fine as an argument for yourself, and as a commercial argument. I also am not saying I want every game to be a quake clone, I tried the demo for Aske say and yeah, that game really needs a bit more imagination put into it, it feels like a demo slice of a student seeing if they could replicate Quake. It's also very early in its development so I'll reserve judgement in fairness but hope there's more to it in the long run.

 

I still say tech and visual art choices should be seperated, I think you do actively see them as one thing and I just do not. 

 

But gameplay is what matters, I brought up BallisticNG earlier and I consistently see the fanbase of the antigrav racer cite it as the best game on the market of that style. Based on what I've played of it and Redout which is probably the most successful one that is more modern, I think BallisticNG is a better game. It's better designed and more accessible. I'm actually somewhat surprised by the way some genres are going, like the CRPG genre. I only really liked Pillars of Eternity much of the new crop. I haven't been able to enjoy any of the others and I think all of them are actually worse designed than Baldur's Gate 2 was in many ways which has nothing to do with tech. BG2's limitations are apparent in the somewhat lacking by todays standards UI, and the D&D ruleset it used is not the most intuitive, but it works very well when you understand the guts of it and it comes together.

 

Pathfinder Kingmaker on the other hand was an absolute mess that was poorly designed, poorly implemented and damn near inpenetrable. And its strange to me because it feels like no one understood the IE era games and what made them genuinely very popular at the time. I would genuinely direct someone new to the genre to those games, maybe Pillars of Eternity at first but I wouldn't recommend Larian or Owlcat's games to anyone. They're just frustrating to me and not a good argument for newer being better. I even think Kingmaker is a much uglier game than BG2 because its so boxy and bland. 

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