How Do Games Create Graphics
Graphics are the “video” part of video games. That is to say that graphics are as essential to games as bread is to a sandwich. With a few exceptions like text-based adventures, the concept of video games without graphics does not exist.
Even the first popular game, Pong had rudimentary graphics consisting of two rectangles, dotted lines, and a ball.
Since then, game graphics have evolved to the point of realism. Modern games like Red Dead Redemption 2 can fool your brain into thinking that you’re looking at live-action footage. But in reality, the visuals of these games are just a computer-generated mesh of polygons, textures, bump maps, and baked lighting.
Join us as we dive beneath the rendered world of video games to understand how these graphics are created. In this article, we’ll look at the different types of game graphics and learn about the tools & techniques that are used in their making.
Let’s get started.
Overview of game graphics
Everything you see on the screen when playing a game is part of its graphics. This includes the playable character, the world around them, and even the buttons & sliders on a menu screen.
On a macroscopic scale, these graphics bring game worlds to life and allow the players to immerse themselves in the experience. On a deeper level, different graphic elements play different roles in games.
For instance, the polygons and textures in a game are used to build the world and its characters. Simultaneously, the graphic elements in the Heads Up Display (HUD) make it easy for the player to track their health, weapons, location in the world, etc.
Different types of graphics
While there is a staggering variety in graphical styles between games, most of them can be grouped into a few broad categories. The most popular of these include:
2D or two-dimensional graphics consist of flat images without any depth to them. Games with this graphics system are restricted to two planes of movement and often have a fixed camera angle.
From the earliest games like Spacewar! & Pong to later genre-defining hits like Super Mario Bros & Street Fighter, 2D graphics have been a key part of video game history. While most of the industry has moved on to the third dimension, 2D games are still being developed thanks to the thriving Indie dev scene.
Pixel art graphics are a subset of 2D graphics where the image consists of low-resolution pixels. This pixelated approach was a necessary step in game development back when hardware wasn’t powerful enough for high-res rendering. A few great examples of pixel art graphics are the original Super Mario Bros games on Nintendo consoles.
As video game hardware became more powerful, developers were able to take their games into the third dimension with the help of interconnected triangles (polygons).
These graphics involve fully three-dimensional characters in a virtual environment where they can usually move in all six directions (up/down, back/forth, left/right). Some noteworthy 3D games throughout history include Super Mario 64, Half-Life 2, and Grand Theft Auto 5.
Games with this 2.5D graphic style use an isometric camera or clever perspective lines to give the illusion of 3D while having a 2D world and characters. Online pokies and other online casino games fall into this category.
This graphical style was born out of necessity when developers wanted a 3D environment but the hardware tech wasn’t there yet. Arguably, the most popular example of this graphical style is the original 1993 Doom which also spawned the first-person shooter genre.
Difference between raster and vector graphics
The terms raster and vector refer to two different approaches to rendering graphics in games. Here’s how they differ:
Raster graphics are made up of pixels, which are minute squares of color that make up an image. These pixels are organized in a grid-like pattern, and the resolution of the image is determined by the number of pixels that are used. In video games, raster graphics are commonly used for rendering 3D models and environments, as well as 2D sprites and backgrounds.
Vector graphics, on the other hand, are made up of shapes and lines that are defined mathematically. These shapes and lines can be scaled up or down without losing quality, as the math behind them adjusts to maintain their sharpness and detail.
In games, vector graphics are commonly used for UI elements, such as menus and HUDs so they can have a sharp and crisp look. Some very early arcade games like Asteroids and Tempest were also created fully with vector graphics.
Creating 2D graphics
The process of creating 2D graphics typically involves several stages, starting with concept art and ending with the final art.
In the concept art phase, the artist creates sketches and rough drafts to flesh out ideas and develop the overall look and feel of the project. This often involves experimentation with different styles and color schemes, as well as feedback from the client or the development team.
Once the concept art is approved, the artist moves on to creating the final art. This involves creating more detailed and polished versions of the concept art that will be used in the game. Do note that the final art is not definitive. Minor details — like the color of the cloak a character is wearing — can still change.
The role of modern programs and tools
This process of creating art for 2D games was mostly done on paper by hand. But, digital art programs have evolved alongside video game graphics. Most modern-day artists use popular tools like Photoshop and Illustrator to bring their visions to life.
Photoshop is a pixel-based image editor that allows designers to create detailed and realistic textures, shading, and lighting effects. It is often used to create character sprites, level backgrounds, and other game art assets. For example, a game designer might use Photoshop to create a sprite sheet for a character. This sheet consists of images that show the character's different animations, such as walking, jumping, and attacking.
Illustrator, on the other hand, is a vector-based design software that allows designers to create scalable graphics using mathematical equations rather than pixels. It is often used to create game logos, icons, and user interface elements such as buttons and menus.
Additionally, both programs offer features that are specifically useful for game graphics development. A great example of this is the ability to save designs as separate layers, which can be useful when animating game assets.
Importance of color and resolution
Color palettes and resolution are some of the most crucial elements in creating 2D video game graphics. They can make or break the visual appeal of a game and also influence how players perceive and engage with the game. Here’s how:
Color palettes determine the mood and atmosphere of the game. They can range from monochromatic to vibrant and can also convey different emotions such as calmness, excitement, and danger.
For example, the color palette used in the game Limbo is predominantly black and white with shades of gray. This creates a sense of darkness and foreboding, perfectly capturing the game's eerie atmosphere. In contrast, the color palette of the game Undertale is bright and colorful, adding to the game's whimsical and lighthearted tone.
Resolution refers to the number of pixels in an image and shapes the level of detail and clarity in the graphics. Higher resolutions can provide more detailed and intricate visuals, while lower resolutions can provide a more retro or nostalgic feel.
Take Stardew Valley for example. It uses a pixel art style with a resolution of 320x240 pixels, which creates a retro and nostalgic feel, reminiscent of classic games from the 1990s. On the other hand, Hollow Knight uses a higher resolution of 1920x1080 pixels — making the classic Metroidvania-style game feel modern and fresh.
Creating 3D graphics
3D graphics are the backbone of modern gaming, from casual mobile games to the latest AAA titles. Similar to 2D graphics, 3D workflow involves several smaller stages as well — including concept art, modeling, and texturing.
The first step is concept art where ideas and designs are either created on paper or digitally to guide the development of the 3D model. Once that’s finalized, the next stage involves creating the basic shapes and forms of the model in 3D modeling software, such as Blender or Maya.
Finally, the texturing process adds color, texture, and detail to the model's surfaces to give it a realistic or stylized look. This is typically done by projecting images onto the model or by creating a procedural texture.
3D modeling programs
Blender, Maya, 3ds Max, and Cinema 4D. These are but a few examples of 3D modeling programs used in the modern-day gaming industry. These programs provide tools for modeling, texturing, animating, and scripting 3D graphics — enabling artists and developers to create complex 3D models with ease. Here’s how these features help:
- Modeling tools: These tools allow developers to create 3D models from scratch or modify existing models. They enable users to sculpt, edit, and manipulate polygons to create complex shapes and objects.
- Texturing tools: Texturing refers to creating textures and materials that can be applied to 3D models. Developers use these tools to create realistic surfaces such as wood, metal, and even skin.
- Animation tools: Animation tools enable developers to add movement to their game characters and objects. They can create complex animations by manipulating the models in 3D space and setting keyframes for the initial and final positions.
- Scripting tools: Maya and Blender also offer scripting capabilities, which allow developers to automate repetitive tasks and customize the software to meet their specific needs. This scripting tool is also based on the Python programming language. So, devs can use it for things like custom physics engines or particle collision effects.
Lighting and shading in 3D graphics
Lighting & shading hold the same weight for 3D game graphics as color pallets & resolution do for 2D projects.
Lighting can be used to create the illusion of depth, shape, and texture. Game designers can also utilize lighting to set the mood and tone of a scene.
Shading, on the other hand, involves defining the appearance of the model's surfaces based on the properties of the materials they represent. This can include things like color, reflectivity, and roughness.
By carefully crafting these two attributes of a 3D model, artists can create stunning and immersive visuals that captivate their audience.
Once the creative aspect of making game graphics is done, the next step is implementing a render pipeline. This will determine how your final graphics are displayed on the player’s screen. But, unlike a computer-generated movie, in-game graphics need to be rendered in real-time so the player can interact with the world.
To achieve this, most modern game devs use game engines. These engines are game development programs that convert your game’s graphics (2D or 3D) into display instructions for the hardware. The most popular examples of these engines include Unity, Unreal, and Source.
As for how these engines render games involves graphical algorithms, APIs, ray-casting, and a whole lot of math. However, those topics are beyond the scope of this article.
That said, there is one crucial aspect of creating game graphics that you should know about:
The role of shaders
Shaders are post-processing effects that are applied to your graphics before they’re drawn on the screen. On a fundamental level, these shaders manipulate effects like lighting, shadows, highlights, and even environmental effects like bloom.
Early video games were severely limited by the processing power of game hardware. Real-time complex lighting wasn’t possible, so assets in those games were pre-rendered with powerful shaders. In other words, effects like shadows were baked into the textures of surfaces.
But, gaming hardware became a lot more powerful over time — allowing developers to implement advanced shaders into their games. This made games more realistic with things like real-time shadows which react to in-game light sources.
Modern shaders also make the game camera feel more realistic and similar to the human eye. They achieve this with techniques like adjusting the aperture according to the amount of light in the environment or simulating heat haze in games set in a hot climate.
Optimization - the most important step
In most cases, better graphics equal higher processing power requirements. While gaming hardware has taken huge leaps in recent decades, it still has its limits. So, when creating graphics for a game, the developers have to ensure that it renders smoothly on the intended hardware.
The term “smoothly” here refers to the number of frames that are rendered per second or FPS. For most modern games, the lowest acceptable FPS number is 30 while most players prefer 60 FPS or higher.
If your game is not optimized to render at least 30 frames every second, the gameplay would be choppy and unplayable. This will likely lead to most players dropping the game, regardless of how stunning its graphics look.
Fortunately, modern game engines provide several tools to speed up the optimization process. For example, the latest build of Unreal Engine 5 offers a feature called Temporal Super Resolution (TSR).
TSR utilizes clever algorithms to lower the polygon count of models that are far away from the player while keeping the closer models sharp. This enables developers to implement massive draw distances with minimal impact on game performance.
The world of video game graphics is vast with many branching fields like 2D, 3D, Pixel art, and Isometric. And, you need a different set of skills to master these different styles.
For example, you need to understand illustration, shading, color theory, and resolution management to create captivating 2D graphics. On the other hand, 3D graphics require knowledge of modeling, texturing, and shaders.
Regardless of what graphical style you’re interested in, the fact remains that graphics are a key part of games. Sure, story, dialogue, and gameplay matter as well. But — as we said earlier — graphics are the “video” part of video games and no game is complete without them.
The good news is, the future of video game graphics looks hopeful. Technologies like ray tracing — which allow extremely realistic lighting — are starting to become a norm. Not to mention the advancements in rendering technologies like Nvidia’s DLSS which enables games to upscale their graphics using AI, in real-time.