Shop Talk: RPG Maker Art Assets


As game-players, we often take for granted exactly how much work goes into games. So, I’m introducing Shop Talk, where I talk about the ins and outs of game design for those who want to know more about what it takes to make a game and so fans of video games can have more meaningful conversations as well. The first thing I want to talk about involves the standard RPG Maker assets.

I’m sure we’ve all seen them by now, the obviously-made-in-RPG-Maker games. Whether on a forum or even on Steam, the games look exactly the same, even if the story and controls might be different. We take one glance at these RPG Maker games and often times just move on. Why do we feel this way? I believe it’s the overuse of RPG Maker’s assets. While it’s certainly helpful for newcomers to use the sprites and environments given to them when they purchase the engine, it ends up being a problem when they don’t end up using custom-made graphics.

It’s a especially true for games that first impressions matter. This is why story and dialogue are often left in the dust in favor of flashy graphics. People are more likely to buy a really nice-looking game than a nice-sounding game. This poses a particular problem for anyone who wants to make a game with a great story but has no art skills and lacks the cash to get custom graphics. RPG Maker is particularly abused this way because RPG’s are meant to be very story-driven, but because developers choose to forgo getting specialized graphics altogether in favor of working on the story and being as cheap as possible, their games get glossed over. This can be just as bad as glossing over the story. Graphics have a significant part in creating the atmosphere of the game. When every game looks the same, that atmosphere can get lost very easily, even if the story is fantastic.

So, how do you go about making your game stand out if you have no art skills? Well, if you plan on making games by yourself you should definitely start working on gaining art skills anyway, but in the meantime, I suggest going the way of old, 8-bit pixel graphics. Why? Well, a lot of people still love the look and pixel graphics are a great way to start. You can get really fancy or really simple with pixel graphics, which is awesome since you want to be able to branch out. Keeping everything 8-bit also helps with color matching. It’s always awkward when character sprites don’t look like they belong in their environment.

Credit Enterbrain/Kadokawa for the original parallax, but I changed to indexed color mode on the left and it made a nice, but subtle difference.
Credit Enterbrain/Kadokawa for the original parallax, but I changed to indexed color mode on the left and it made a nice, but subtle difference.

The tutorial I found here teaches you how to make an 8-bit sprite in Adobe Illustrator. You can go about it that way, or if you have more detailed images in mind, you can convert them into 8-bit graphics, shown in this tutorial. You could even combine the two by making an 8-bit pixel sprite and making slightly more detailed environments to be converted into 8-bit imagery.

I’d say the easiest thing to do while you level up your art skills would be to use the generator present in most of the recent versions of RPG Maker and then edit them. You’ll still have to credit Enterbrain/Kadokawa, but at least it’ll look different. For example, you could turn all your graphics to 8-bit style and then mess with the color and lighting of the tiles or use the tiles to create a parallax image and edit it in a photo-editing program to create your own lighting and atmosphere.

While this edit of a sprite made in RPG Maker looks nice with indexed color, that doesn't mean I'll use it if it hurts the overall atmosphere or look of my game.
While this edit of a sprite made in RPG Maker looks nice in 8-bit, that doesn’t mean I’ll use it if it hurts the overall atmosphere or look of my game.

Of course, if 8-bit graphics don’t fit your game’s atmosphere, it might not be the best way to go. Really, the most important thing is that you stay aware of what is over-saturating the market. If you’re making an RPG game to be put on Steam, then you should know about the overuse of things like RPG Maker assets, and I don’t only mean graphics even though that’s what I’ve discussed. You hear a lot of the same music too, which I’ll talk about another time. Basically, if you want your game to sell, you’ll need to stand out and sometimes going ‘vintage’ can do that if it works with your game.

Some great examples of recent games with pixel and/or 8-bit graphics are Pony Island, the new cult classic Undertale, as well as the Steam ports of the classic Binding of Isaac series. While none of the mentioned were made in RPG Maker, I wanted to point out how popular (but not over-saturated) the graphics from the days of the NES are becoming. On that note, don’t think RPG Maker games can’t be popular too. There are loads of great RPG Maker games. Two of the most well-received on Steam are Doom & Destiny and World’s Dawn and largely due to the ease of creation and large community, there are always more games coming out. So, go ahead and use the assets from the engine and others in the community as placeholders, but make sure if you plan to publish your game, it doesn’t look like everyone else’s.

Have any questions or simple tips about making your graphics stand-out? Let me know in the comments!