Life-like graphics for PC and Console games were considered evolutionary and demanded high-polygon count before the iPhone entered the market. Getting close to reality was the central evolutionary trend in games as game creators stuffed more polygons to achieve life-like reality. This required huge processing power that PC and Console hardware gave it to them. Ironically, the whole evolution turned irrelevant for mobile games. Life-like character with high-polygon count did not turn out desirable for the mobile hardware at all. It needed something else but equally engaging.
The evolution of of Lara Croft. More polygons, more realism.
The touch screen swarm demanded altogether a different approach to game art. Game developing companies were forced to think on reducing polygons to optimize them for mobile.
But what about the realism? If you take away life-like art from users, they had to be compensated with something else.
As it turned out, the industry leaders started to rethink and dissolve their mental barriers that low poly art can only look bad and that real looking characters and environment are the sole markers of awesomeness. Infact, companies like EA and Ubisoft learned it the hard way with their early releases for the mobile.
The industry finally got the logic and low-poly art evolved. It was quickly termed synonymous to 8-bit pixel art which many analysts believe, would paralelly evolve with the mobile hardware .
These days, Low poly art with eye-candy lighting effects, bright and peppy colors has become a new hallmark of game art for mobile game development. A lot of brainstorming, ideas and approaches are being formulated. The industry is embracing the style and it also happens to be a trending art form over the web . So let us look at the importance and trends in low-poly art. We will also look into a few popular games that employed low-poly art intelligently and churned out great results.
How does low poly work and why it is preferred for mobile?
It is simple. During gameplay, 3D objects are rendered in real-time. These objects or 3D models are composed of numerous polygons. More polygons means more vertices and vice-versa. It is always best to keep the vertex count as low as possible for mobile games (without affecting the visual quality adversely of-course). If more vertices are rendered per second, it adversely affects the game-play by reducing the frame rate of the game.
At 0.25 you see least number of objects resulting in fewer vertices, draw calls and triangles. However, the graph shoots up at 0.29-0.30. This is resulting from rendering a lot of elements (trees and the houses) at once.
As a game maker your job is to keep this as low as possible. While LODs are a great thing, it cannot outdo a properly thought-out sequence.
Use fewer polygons/vertices while making the art as attractive as possible by any means–this is what every artist is trying to achieve right now. And in order to do this, game art experts are rethinking shapes of game objects meant for mobile games.
You might already know that curvier surfaces need more vertices to be realistic or, remain relevant by retaining the shape. Although, while recreating the same thing in low-poly, artists often tend to set up the mesh in such a way that the lack of curves are not explicitly apparent. The object looks convincing in shape despite being made of fewer vertices.
It is all about seeing the character composed of basic shapes while the basic geometry or shape of the character is not distorted. In other words, a whale must look like a whale and not like a slender fish. This is achieved while employing least possible number of polygons. Face portraits are great examples.
One of the apparent key trends in low poly game art is creating cartoon style art. While they follow the basic convention of modelling, the characters can be exaggerated. This holds especially true for human characters and faces.
Infact, designers at our studio say that low poly is best substantiated through cartoon style art. The reason is simple, putting realistic proportions aside, a lot of creative stuff can be churned out.
Enlarging a body part significant to the skills of the character, like head for intelligence or big shoulders for carrying massive guns, brings out the role of the character in a visual way. The runner in subway surfer with a big head but slender limbs is a great example. Hence, Low poly mixes naturally with cartoon style art for games.
In addition to that, cylindrical parts of the mesh, such as arms and legs, often tend to regulate the overall resolution. These parts will be given as few edges along the circumference as possible, while still achieving the desired silhouette.
If you are new to cartoon style/low-poly art you may start with absolute basics. You can start working with fundamental shapes and commonly used game assets.
You can create planets, trees, mountains and other things that demands basic shapes in the beginning. The core purpose of working with shapes is to get you started. You must compare and analyze your work with some of the best available over the web. Eventually you will get the shapes right using least number of polygons.
Trees and Mountains:
Trees and Mountains are very common in cartoon style low-poly art. Most of these models are direct derivations of paper art forms. Advanced shaders in modelling tools and game engines give those eye-candy effects you need to make it look great.
Water and Transparency:
You will have to create a lot of water bodies in cartoon style low poly art. However, Perception of depth, waves, and reflection are important that needs a good deal of knowledge in lighting.
Remember, creating water and transparency is not simple, but our team suggest that an artist must deal with them simultaneously as they begin learning.
Dissonance in art style might pop up. At times, artists misunderstand or tend to distract from following the conventions of low-poly art.
Here’s something created (right) by a summer trainee at our studio. While the rest of the art is fine, the lake(right picture) is simply out of the place as compared to the left one. This is a clear example of dissonance from merger of two non-uniform art styles.
Now, let us look at some leading games that employed low-poly art with a lot of intelligence blended with great aesthetics too.
I have already mentioned Subway Surfer and the big-headed runner. In addition to it Subway Surfer is stuffed mostly with boxy objects and a few circular ones that reduces the number of vertices/polygons. This complemented by a vibrant, lively and fresh color scheme that looks amazing.
This endless runner game is awesome. It is one of the few games in the store that is entirely based on pure cartoon-style art. Assets are made of fewer vertices that demands lesser CPU and gives a higher frame rate.
Gunship Battle does not have cartoon-style low poly assets but this game champions level art design.
The only thing that is observed by players closely is the helicopter while the enemies on the ground remain distant. The developers used this to their advantage and employed extremely low-poly objects on the ground. There is also a limit by which players can steer down their helicopters, preventing them to observe the assets on ground closely. Hence, the ground which is populated by numerous tanks, weapon laden trucks etc. do not inflate CPU usage which ultimately gives a glitch free experience.
The mobile game industry is churning out more than $10B in revenues. While the money is good, competition has forced developers to work hard on experience. And to do that, game creators are looking towards low-poly art with a whole new vision.
This is a progression for mobile games that would lead to something different altogether in the years to come. But at the same time, this progression is not about catchy, colorful or soothing art alone, it is about rethinking game creation from a whole new perspective.