Ever since the rise of easily accessible game engines like Unity there's been a demand for ready-made game assets.
Online storefronts are filled with great content which sell for low prices allowing everyone to create a proper looking game without a large team or a big budget. What are the pros and cons of this trend?
Ready-made game assets are commonly used by small teams and developers starting out. They provide a solid start for many games and help out with trivial parts of development. Ranging from visual effects to complete characters, many of these assets are used as placeholders during production or customized to a point where it's hard to recognize them in the final game. Enabling developers without artistic skills to create visually pleasing games is an absolutely positive given of asset stores.
The Unity Asset Store serves over 40,000 assets created by more than 10,000 different publishers. The most popular items in the store are tools that can be applied in a wide range of games (UI creation, visual shader editors and quick level mapping), although the more obscure assets also get hundreds of purchases. Most items have a fair price that can be afforded by most indie developers, ranging somewhere between $15 and $35.
Open source assets
More thriving than ever is the open source community, each day artists and programmers devote their work to the public domain. This allows other developers to use their content without worrying about EULA's and hard to understand restrictions. Websites like OpenGameArt.org and Kenney offer thousands upon thousands of free to use game assets with Creative Common licenses.
While there might be a ton of assets available, a lot of those don't match in style and never offer a complete package tailored to your game. Blending these ready-made game assets with custom scenery and other objects in the scene can be extremely hard to do, without any knowledge on design, texturing, level design and modeling this can be a daunting task which is often overlooked by developers. Three dimensional assets are usually a bit easier to blend thanks to global lighting, shaders and materials which can tie all objects together.
Here are some tips for developers when selecting assets;
Conceptualize the look of your game first
Before starting to look for ready-made assets first make a mental image of the look your game should have. Doing this will make sure there's a coherent style in your selection and makes sure the game will end up looking the way you imagined it would. It might also be a good idea to collect screenshots of similar games to see which assets are required and what style would fit best.
Learn basic sprite/model editing
Not all assets will be exactly the way you'd want them, it's a good idea to pick up free editing software (like Inkscape, or Blender) and learn a few of the absolute basics. This way you'll be able to edit the assets yourself if needed.
Settle with large collections
Using small packs of assets might not be ideal, especially in regard to blending the styles. Look for large packs, or smaller ones made by the same artist.
Select popular styles
Low poly, flat design and isometric renders are a few popular styles which you'll find many assets for. Selecting one of these styles make the chances of finding assets for your game higher.
Check if artist is open to custom work
There's nothing more annoying than almost collecting everything you need and missing that single sprite or model. Check if the artist is open for custom work beforehand, that'll ensure that you'll get your hands on that last piece of the puzzle. More often than not artists that publish their game assets are accepting offers for custom work!
The importance of sharing
While game assets may only seem important in the indie development scene, there's a reason why sharing assets between multiple projects might be good for the AAA industry too.
Graphics in AAA titles keep improving and are close to lifelike in their current state. This means that artists have to spend a great deal of time on creating trivial parts of a game, like stones and plants. While there's technology available to scan real life objects into games it's time consuming and requires expensive hardware. While striving for this kind of realism is great for players, it can hurt the development time of games. Next to this, games which feature realistic graphics tend to blend together in style and don't differentiate against each other.
This might seem negative at first, but there's a great advantage in this. Objects can be shared between projects without looking out of place. When sharing assets between these projects (either within the company structure, or opening up to the public domain) artists can spend time on less trivial things (like those stones and plants). The time saved when using a library of this kind can be spend on more content or higher quality assets in general.
The successful indie title '7 Days to Die' has taken an interesting approach with ready-made assets. To quicken game development during the funding stage they made use of ready-made models and objects.
When the goal was met and development began the ready-made models and objects were replaced with custom assets. Thanks to this approach players have been able to play a vast part of the game since the early crowdfunding stages, each update the game improves in looks and there's enough time to focus on new content.
Ready-made game assets enable programmers to create visually pleasing games, small indie teams to work head-to-head with AAA titles and artists can get paid for their assets by multiple developers instead of a single one. What do you think of this advent in the game development industry?