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Real Talk About SaGa's Art

  • bob_esc
  • 01/27/2016 05:49 AM
Hey guys! bob_esc here to talk about the art in SaGa some more. A couple weeks ago week, psy_wombats talked a little bit about handling screen size, and he got into a little bit about color pallets and whatnot. As the guy responsible for just about all of the original art in SaGa 4: Masters of the Demon World, I felt like I could provide a little more detail about the process.

First of all, one of the things things people notice rather quickly about the game is that the sprites are a slightly different color than the rest of the tiles.

Its like when they switched grey colors in LEGO sets

I'm told this is a feature of how both how the original GameBoy rendered things and how we make things look not silly on a computer. The SECOND thing people tend to notice about the art is that there are 4 colors in each pallet. In the case of the sprites, the fourth color is "transparent." The THIRD thing people tend to notice is that we shamelessly stole all of the walking and battle sprites. I'll talk about that in a bit.

In deference to my RM2K days, those are the "lower chip" and "upper chip" files

So that's them; all of my hard work. Speaking as someone who has absolutely zero art in their background (I'm a trained engineer), these took forever. So I'm sure you artsy-types have an idea of how to go about doing this sort of thing, but for those of you who don't--or for those of you who are just curious how I got the job done--here's my process:

1: Look Up a Picture of What You're Making
I can't stress how important this ended up being. If you're just guessing what something looks like, when you try to recreate it, its gonna look bad, right? Take the chip modeled after the Japanese Torii gate. The one you see up there in the middle or so of the upper chip looks pretty good right? Looks a little something like this...

How Zen is this gate?/It is mostly red and black/Refrigerator

Well I probably should have done a quick google search for that before my original attempt:

What's that? A hotdog on sticks?

2: Setting Up the Environment
For those of us who have strange moral qualms about torrenting Photoshop, there aren't a lot of alternatives that do a good job for graphical work. One exception is the GIMP. It's an open source image manipulator, and its great! As much as I love MSPaint, the GIMP is great. Transparency handling, layers, an array of great filters, gradients, and a plethora of other artistic tools. When I work in color, one of my favorite tricks is to import a picture of, say, a piece of wood and then index the image such that it only has four colors (my palette size of choice), and then use those four colors in my rendition of, say, a wooden table. Indexing purely means that instead of the colors existing in the 64-bit range (that is, 2^64 possible colors), they exist in a space of say, 256 colors, which is what the RM2K used. For all of y'all out there still using that software, proper indexing is the reason your custom chipsets look like someone puked on them. You can take your chipsets from the 64 realm you made them in, import it into the GIMP, and index it to 256 colors! Export as a PNG and you're done. The GIMP picks the 256 most common colors in your image, and if you've used more than that, it "rounds" all of the other hues until they match one of the 256 most common colors. One of my favorite features!

As for MSPaint, boy am I a fan. So-called professionals may laugh when I say I do most of my work in MSPaint, but its really quite a good tool. Namely, its free with a copy of Windows. Back in my old recoloring days with the RM2K, I would painstakingly change one pixel at a time with the pencil tool. But I am much wiser now. If you take your eyedropper and select the target color as your background color (right-click using the eyedropper) and select the color to be changed as your foreground color, you can replace the original color with the target color by right-clicking with your eraser tool. Neat, huh? I use this feature a lot more when I'm working in color. When you have FFFFFF, AAAAAA, 555555, and 000000, its less important.

3: Outlines
This one is pretty self explanatory. If I don't have a clear outline, things tend to look like blobs. When things look like blobs, you don't know what they're gonna look like when you're done. Sort of in the same vein as that, if I make a bad outline, I generally figure out really fast that it looks bad. It won't be a huge amount of effort before I realize "Holy crap that looks bad and I should feel bad."

This is what happens when I ignore my own advice. WTF even is this?

4: Mid Tones and Texture
This one is much harder than the outline. Unless the intent is to make the object look like plastic, this is a tricky stage. Take this oversized mountain that never made it into the game.

This is an example of poor texturing

The second one is a little better than the first one. The astute among you will notice that it looks similar to the RM2K RTP mountain. There is a reason for this. This shows that when you need to make something bigger than one tile, you need to actually have something to put there. When you're the scale is really small, like the 16x16 pixels that this game uses for tiles, I'm always making sure that every pixel has a purpose. One pixel can be the difference between making a female sprite and a female sprite with knockers the size of her head. That's just another reason I don't make sprites. Human proportions are hard, yo.

One of my favorite tiles. Each an every pixel is important here to show curvature and detail

As I mentioned, depending on how you texture, an object or surface can be made to look like plastic, wood, stone, metal, ect. This is probably the biggest tool in my arsenal when you've got four colors. You can make something green and then, duh, its grass! Can't do that here. Take these stairs:

On the left are stone stairs and on the right are "other" stairs. They're narrow enough where it could be anything. But the point is, the stairs on the left are obviously a rougher material--they aren't polished or refined. Perfect for caves or shabby huts! Later on in fancier locations, smoother stairs are in evidence. Further note on this: The best way I found to give something a ragged edge or imply that something is really thin was to use the second darkest tone as a border.

Here you can see roughly the same sign: One on a piece of paper, one on a metal plate of some sort. With the tears and the lighter border, you can tell this is a threadbare sign.

5: Finishing
When I'm done I usually add that attractive pink background you've seen on so many of these images. That's just a placeholder for when I make things transparent, which is how our game engine handles sprites. What I usually do is import things into the GIMP and then just delete the pink. Simple, but you can't do it in mspaint, the premiere image manipulation program.

It really helps me to have someone else (eg, psy_wombats) taking a look at my work. It can be really easy to tunnel vision on these things when you've got them blown up 8x. "Yeah," I say, "That XYZ sure looks exactly like an XYZ," and then when I show it to psy_wombats, he'll say, "That's obviously a penis." And I'm like "Whaaaat, no," and he's like "Its totally a penis." And then I look at it again and I'm like "That's not--OH. Yeah. That's a penis."

Just be glad I lost the animated version

Once I make sure it looks the way its supposed to, then I put it into the chipset and push it to the master branch--we use Git with all of our MGNE games (ZSII, Blockbound, etc).

And that's it! That's how I made all of the art in SaGa.

I mentioned above walking sprites and battle portraits. Yeah, those look an awful lot like the ones you remember from Final Fantasy Legends 1 & 2. We didn't include those from FFL3 because, well, some of them look weirder than what I came up with.

Those SquareSoft devs....Someone was hiding sake under their desk

The monsters we ended up coming up with fit pretty well with a few exceptions into categories that we already had art for, and based on the fact that I don't have an art background, I seriously doubted I could come up with 27 battle portraits and 11 sprites in the time we wanted to develop the game. Since we have, ahaha, gone over the time we wanted to develop the game in, maybe I could have come up with something, but hey, I'm not a trained artist.

I learned how to design this quality gearbox instead!

Anyhow, I tried my hand at it and with a little bit a lot of effort, I actually came up with one or two things that worked. Sadly, though, humanoid things in general are really hard for me to capture. Our statue tile was just a base for about 3 months while I tried to make an angel ala the RM2K RTP statue, but I eventually gave up on it. I can't do people. Weird stuff, however...

This one, sadly, doesnt have a group of monsters to represent. I called him Mr. Slimey

This could be the battle portrait for the flame demon class of monsters instead of a burning wagon wheel (?)

These were made in two different parts of the development cycle: before we decided on final monster families and after. We dont have a floating eyeball class and we DO have a flaming demon class (that's the Djinni/Afrit/Helios class for people who have gotten a chance to play the game). This brings up a good point: if you're a slow worker, make sure you know what direction your game is going in before you make art. For example, I have a bunch of crap kicking around on my hard drive from when World 3 was going to look like feudal japan. That's why I had that lucky cat picture, actually. Be glad that never made it into the game. Anyhow, I wasn't about to put in a serious effort into making sprites that wouldnt get used. On the flip side of this, we had a rough lower chip sheet about a month before anything even got mapped!

Just a final bonus image for y'all just to prove again (as if I needed it) that I am not a trained artist.


This is bob_esc signing off for now. We should actually have a game somewhat soon for you, so hang tight!


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Well, the weirdness in FFL3's monsters have some charm for me. Those mechanical rodents for instance. The hags, even the fairies look a little on the weird side! But it's pretty unique, kind of appropriate for a game that diverges so much from its predecessors.

I like your art :^D. And that's some good advice :^D.
This is honest and good :) A fun read, too!
Well, the weirdness in FFL3's monsters have some charm for me. Those mechanical rodents for instance. The hags, even the fairies look a little on the weird side! But it's pretty unique, kind of appropriate for a game that diverges so much from its predecessors.

I've always had a soft spot for FFL3's monsters (well, some of them at least). For every deformed sphinx or bunny witch or mask thing, there's the roborat, the CACTUS robot family, the incredibly-specialized-but-still-cool families like the fossil dinosaurs, etc... They're a lot stranger and more fantastical than FFL1/2 that had a clear idea of families and what each family was supposed to do. We've taken that monster design philosophy for this game, which is probably why most of the monster graphics are from 1/2 as well.

But where FFL3 really shone was boss design. Pretty much every boss battle portrait in that game was vivid and striking, even the low level hag bosses. The Cthulu/Lovecraftian influence on the game's design really shines there as well. Take my favorite, AGRON:
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