Each new game release features even more realistic graphics and incredible detail, but there’s also a resurgence of low-poly art and flat design: a basic visual style that gets rid of fine details and textures. What are the advantages and disadvantages of using this style? Let’s dive right in!
The low-poly visual style has recently grown popular among indie developers. This style gives games a certain look and even saves on resources. In the past, this wasn’t considered a style or a choice, but a limitation of the hardware.
Early 3D games had to be rendered on PCs and consoles that offered low performance compared to today's standards. They could only display a handful of polygons while keeping a stable framerate; Just enough for a few basic models without any unnecessary detail. There wasn’t enough performance to render detailed foliage or large environments, and many objects had to be converted to 2D sprites that would always face the camera.
The graphics of these games were considered impressive and certainly not low-poly at the time. Games like
Alone in the Dark,
Virtua Fighter, and
Interstate ‘76 were state of the art showcases for 3D graphics. Now, they all share the distinct low-poly art style.
Gamers have nostalgic feelings for the time where hardware limitations resulted in basic graphics like low-poly models and pixel art. This may account for the recent resurgence for crude graphics.
Advantages of low-poly art
There is a whole range of advantages for indie developers when using the low-poly art style. Models require fewer polygons and are small in filesize. This means they can run on low-end hardware and load quickly.
Collection of public domain low-poly assets
The time it costs to produce low-poly models is considerably lower than realistic models. There are fewer details to sculpt and often textures aren’t necessary. This means more time can be spent on other aspects of the game, like varied environments and deeper storytelling.
Hardware evolves at an incredible rate and graphics that are considered highly realistic now might look outdated in a few years, unlike highly stylized games.
Disadvantages of low-poly art
There are a several different disadvantages to low-poly art.
First, the simplicity of low-poly art can be distracting, and hard to overcome. Players used to highly detailed textures and features can be turned off by the lack of visual detail provided by low-poly art. This feeling can be overwhelming to players who desire this type of immersion when playing a game. Other players, with a desire for a cleaner, more retro experience, may actually find low-poly art quite enjoyable!
Not only can the simplicity of the artwork be a negative experience for some players, it can also be difficult for players to differentiate elements in games, based on their lower level of detail and depth. It is very important that a proper palette be used so players can easily identify different elements within the game, with ease, and understand what the objects represent.
Finally, achieving cohesive design elements with visually identifiable characteristics and reproducing these elements across multiple objects within the game can be difficult. It’s important to keep the same style and direction when designing levels as a whole, so returning to different elements, and keeping other elements in mind, is a very important aspect of achieving positive results in low-poly art.
Sample low-poly styles
If we take a look at a few recently released games that are considered low-poly, we can see a lot of variation. Some go for nostalgic graphics while others put a lot of detail in the environments, but not in the models.
Racing Apex go for the nostalgic look of low-poly art, directly mimicking early first-person shooters and arcade racing games. Games like
The Witness and
Ooblets choose for a more modern adaptation of low-poly design with loads of details in environments, but basic models. In the case of
Kingdoms and Castles and
Parkitect, the art style means huge towns and parks can be rendered quite easily.
Getting started with low-poly art
Are you feeling inspired? There are a few tools available that help you get started with low-poly art for models. SketchUp offers a free online editor which is easy to pick up. Still having trouble with that? The commercial tool Asset Forge allows for easier creation using pre-made blocks, trading in a bit of flexibility.
Check out my previous article for a bit of help creating your first models.
Flat design takes various elements from low-poly, and expands to more usage of textures to create unique and creative scenes. Flat design revolves around a simplified color palate and smart usage of textures, and is a great area for showing off bright colors and simple, but effective, styles.
This art focuses on simplifying elements to create a full scene, making it a bit simpler to achieve than fully detailed art pieces.
Advantages of flat design art
The style is often used in casual mobile games. The simplicity of the graphics avoid visual clutter which make it easier to quickly understand the gameplay of the game. Using a limited color palette also allows for giving distinct colors to hazards and power-ups, making them easier to see for players.
Flat design also works well for UI elements and promotional material like a logo. Keeping the style similar for all these elements make the game feel coherent and polished.
Usage of white space (less is more) can lead to some great experiences and strong visual effects. Some scenes provide way too much noise for the primary details of a piece to present themselves properly - something that flat design rarely suffers from.
Disadvantages of flat design art
There isn’t much room for a distinct style and games using a flat art style offer less diversity. You're working with a limited palette, both in color and in shapes for detail. With a small toolbox to draw from, there is a high chance of your creation looking very like someone else's. Until you develop a style of your own, you risk looking like you're copying others.
Getting started with flat design art
More often than not, flat design art is created using vector editing software. Vector graphics can be scaled without losing any quality, unlike bitmap graphics. Inkscape is free software that’ll allow you get started. Read my previous article for guidance using the software.
Going for a simple style, like low-poly and flat design, can save a lot of resources and create a game that is visually unique. Always stay the lookout for the pitfalls though, styles like these can still be easily made or broken by small details.
Kenney Vleugels is an artist from the Netherlands who shares game assets (sprites, models, audio, fonts and more) with game developers. Recently, he founded Pixeland which is a physical community hub where every game developer in the world is welcome to learn, teach, meet, work, and play.