Exploring Archetypes

In the previous article we looked at the Three Act Structure which governs the overall flow of a story. Within the story there are several character types to be found. These character types are known as archetypes and they all exist to support the development of one particular archetype, the “Hero”. The Hero is the character the audience follows on a journey of change.

Monomyth is the term that describes the formula that a hero follows throughout the story. It is most commonly referred to as The Hero’s Journey, and it gives us solid ground to understand character development, as well as to develop our own characters. There is much to be said about archetypes and the Monomyth. In this post we’ll look at archetypes as a whole, and I’ll focus on the Hero in my next post.

/* If you want to read other posts from GDC 17, or see how this connects to game design, check the GDC 17 index post */


Archetypes represent the different personalities that will assist in developing the Hero’s change, and keep the story flowing. It is possible that not all stories will include all archetypes, and it is possible that archetype roles could be shared by a character; however, all stories will make use of most archetypes.

An important note about archetypes is that together they make up a whole person. In reality the human psyche is a complex mingling of thoughts and ideas that bring about a personality. An archetype is a single aspect of a person. In stories, the characters do not have complete human personalities. They are a single character that embodies one aspect of being human. All archetypes combined make up a whole person.

As we step through the different archetypes, notice that even oneself will occasionally resemble each. Sometimes we’re the good guy, sometimes we’re bad (intentionally or unintentionally). Sometimes we’re funny, and at others depressing. Sometimes we share wisdom, and sometimes one is some crazy concoction of all of these; however, in a story a character will typically only be one. All of the characters come together to create a singular relatable experience for the audience. In a well realized set of archetypes there will be moments when one can identify with every character, even the bad guys.


  • Resolves the Main Conflict.
  • Primary audience identifier.
  • Growth (shows the most change)
  • Person of action.
  • Displays an ability to take risks, has phobias that deter them, and sacrifice the most.
  • EXAMPLE: Luke Skywalker. (this will be expanded on in the next post)


  • Teaching.
  • Gift giving.
  • Motivation source.
  • Conscience.
  • Commonly older in age; has wisdom or knowledge of the situation; demonstrates faith in the hero; not around for the whole story (typically dies).
  • EXAMPLE: Obi Wan Kenobi, and Yoda. Both impart wisdom to the hero. Both believe in the hero. Both die before the Main Conflict is resolved.

Threshold Guardian (Henchmen)

  • Tests the hero.
  • Blocks the path.
  • Supports the conflict.
  • Can be either defeated or turned.
  • EXAMPLE: Darth Vader. Vader is never the source of the Main Conflict. He only supports it. He blocks Luke’s path in multiple way, from physical interaction to emotional (the whole “I am your father” thing). In the end (ROTJ) he was turned.


  • Delivers the information regarding the Main Conflict to the Hero. The Herald is not the conflict, or in support of it. This archetype is simply the messenger.
  • Sometimes offers motivation in addition to the Mentor.
  • Offers the Hero a challenge.
  • EXAMPLE: This droid introduces Luke to the conflict via Obi Wan’s hologram. This instructs Luke that there is something for him to do, and sends him on his journey. The role is later shared between the two droids.

Shape Shifter

  • Plants suspicion or doubt.
  • Keeps the audience guessing at the final outcome.
  • EXAMPLE: Lando Calrisian. He seems friendly, but we’re never quite sure what side he’s on. His loyalties aren’t cemented until Episode VI. Throughout Episode V, Lando keeps us unsure of the stories outcome.


  • Villain.
  • The source of the Main Conflict.
  • Will defend the Main Conflict.
  • AKA, the “Final Boss”.
  • EXAMPLE: In episode IV, this is Tarkin. He is the one calling the shots. Even Vader is taking his lead. This shadow ends with the destruction of the first Death Star. The role of the shadow is then handed to The Emperor in Episode V.


  • Comic relief. Think “Daxter”.
  • EXAMPLE: This role is shared, but it largely seems to revolve around R2D2. Consider that every time the action gets thick, and a lot shots are firing, R2 makes some beeping noise and takes some action that makes the audience chuckle. R2 breaks up the drama to give us moments of relief. This fulfils the comic relief.

Practice On Your Own

Soak in these archetypes and practice spotting them. Star Wars is the easy example, because it is beautifully formulaic; however, practice spotting them in less obvious stories. During the conference, Evan ran an exercise where we had to find these roles in movies such as “Aliens” and the newer “Mad Max: Fury Road”. Whenever you sit down to watch a film, TV show, or (*gasp) read a book. Make it an activity to identify these roles. Not only will it help you better understand storytelling, but you might find it raises your standard of media you choose to consume.

I for one, found that nearly half of my story intake is formulaic fluff. In the past few weeks I’ve found that I can guess outcomes to stories simply by identifying the archetypes early on. I’ve actually reduced my amount of movies and TV shows I’m willing to watch. I feel I’ve entered the realm of “story snob” and I am a better for it.

On that last statement, I should add that your mileage may vary.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned. The next post in this series will dive in the specifics of the Hero archetype and the journey associated with it.

#GDC17 Summary of Sessions, and Links to Articles

It’s that time of year again. Join me for video game (and board game) development insights at the 2017 Game Developer Conference in San Francisco!

As every year my strategy for maximizing benefit of the conference is to choose two topics I’m weak in, and gain some understanding and/or training. This year my topics are “storytelling” and “board game design”. As it turns out, the tutorial and boot camp sessions this year have day long programs on those two exact items. Check out the following descriptions and links to in-depth articles on insights I gained this time around.

More links will become live as I have time to complete posts. Check back frequently to see what’s new!

Story Telling Fundamentals

Speaker: Evan Skolnick

This was a day long boot camp complete with group exercises. I’m going to break down the day into several posts. Around 90 percent of the talk was about narrative structure in general, with the remaining 10 percent connecting the narrative structure to game design practices. For these articles, I’ll save the game connection for my final post so that we can focus on understanding the narrative structure first.

• Story Telling 1: The Heart of It All, Conflict
• Story Telling 2: Get Our Acts Together, 3 Act Structure
• Story Telling 3: Exploring Archetypes
• Story Telling 4: Uncovering the Monomyth, Hero’s Journey
• Story Telling 5: Tips and Tools for Pacing and Tone
• Story Telling 6: Connecting It all to Game Narrative and Game Play

Board Game Design

This is the inaugural year for board game sessions at GDC. The day of talks began with a focus on the psychology involved with play, and lead into some more inspirational talks from designers. Just about every board game presentation came from developers who published a board game, but are rooted in the video game industry. During discussions of player psychology and game mechanics, the line between video and physical games blurred. That’s a good thing.

• Board Games 1: Creating the Legacy Experience (by developers of Pandemic Legacy)
• Board Games 2: The Psychology of Loss Aversion (by Geoff Engelstein of Ludology)
• Board Game 3: Mech vs. Minions (an inspirational post mortem by Chris Cantrell of Riot Games)

Getting Our Acts Together

The Three Act Structure is probably the only term I remembered from past English courses I’ve taken; though I didn’t remember specifics about it. This was a great refresher, and more than that it was eye opening. “How could it be so insightful?” you might ask. Well, in the last article of this series we’ll look at how the Three Act structure is used to balance gameplay. This came to light not only in the story design sessions, but nearly every other design lecture I went to at one point or another used this structure to describe the flow of user experience in their games. I feel that understanding this, or at least bringing it back to my front-of-mind knowledge has helped me to better plan designs, and communicate with professional designers.

As mentioned in the last article, the insights and illustrations from Star Wars are coming from Evan Skolnick. The exception is the other movie examples I give in this article. That’s me applying these concepts to other stories. The concepts presented here end up in about every story we have in the west; though in some stories (Pulp Fiction) they’re harder to spot that others.

With all of that said, let’s dive in.

Who Came Up with This Anyway?

Let’s first give credit to the originator of this idea. The Three Act Structure was first envisioned by Aristotle, and published in his work titled ‘Poetics’. Aristotle and this particular work of his is considered to be the birth of western story telling. Its influence is very much alive today, even in video games. If you’d like to check out Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’, the entire classic work can be found for free online. Here is a link to the text, hosted by MIT.


The three acts are used to divide up the main plot points into bits of information digestible by the audience. The naming convention can vary. Here are the names the three acts go by. It is possible I will use them interchangeably throughout this and my following posts.

• Act 1 – Act 2 – Act 3
• Beginning – Middle – End
• Setup (of conflict) – Conflict – Resolution (of conflict)

Act 1

In the first act several things are accomplished to setup the story and usher the audience into the world of the Main Conflict. It is this act that introduces the hero of a story, the world the story will take place in, and the conflict that will ultimately resolve at the close of the story.

Introducing “The World”

When introducing the world of our Main Conflict, we need to communicate the following critical points. First, will we be fighting the world or attempting to save it. By “world” we are referring to the environment in which the Main Conflict takes place. This doesn’t always have to be a physical location.

The World of Independence Day

In some stories, such as Independence Day, it is literally our world. In ID4 we don’t have to spend time explaining the world, because it is the “real world”. The audience goes in understanding it.

The World of Middle Earth (Lord of the Rings)

In cases where it is a fictional world, more time is needed establishing the setting. For example, in “Lord of the Rings” one cannot assume the audience understands the ins and outs of Middle Earth. Time is needed to show what Middle Earth is all about. Once the audience has a reasonable understanding of it, they can see that the world of Middle Earth is one worth fighting to save.

The World as a Metaphor

In other stories the “world” could be metaphorical for such things as relationship(s), or the environment created by a relationship(s) (*cough, “50 Shades of Cliché”, *cough). It doesn’t have to be a world in the literal sense, but the immediate environment of the character(s).

Say Hello to Our Hero

Somewhere in the introduction to the world, the hero of the story will be introduced. While a story may have a number of characters that can be called heroic, there is one that will ultimately be “the Hero”. What defines the Hero of the story, is that it will be the character who is most (or entirely) responsible for bringing about resolution to the Main Conflict. The Hero of any given story is also the one who shows the most character growth. The components of a hero is a deep subject of its own, and we will look at The Hero’s Journey (aka the Monomyth) in the next post. For now, let’s just acknowledge that the Hero of a story is introduced in Act 1.

Inciting Incident

The inciting incident is the element of a story that introduces the Hero to the Main Conflict. This incident will always happen to the Hero. It is what pulls them in, and sends them on The Hero’s Journey.

Once again leaning on Star Wars IV as an example, the inciting incident is when Luke receives the message for Obi Wan Kenobi hidden in R2-D2. It is this message that calls him to action. The action is to seek out old Ben Kenobi, which puts everything in motion.

Plot Point 1

The first plot point is when the Hero has been introduced to the Main Conflict, and receives understanding as to how the Main Conflict should be resolved. The close of Act 1 will conclude this first plot point.

Act 2

This Act is largely characterized as confrontation. The Hero, now understanding what must be done to resolve the conflict attempts resolution. During the confrontation, the stakes escalate. This is where the rising action comes in to play.

It is also here that we experience the midpoint which sends the story in a new direction. Upon Luke encountering Ben Kenobi, we are sent on a journey of escalation. The midpoint is encountered when the Princess is saved and Luke joins the Rebel pilots. Up until this point the Hero, Luke, understood resolution to be bringing the droid to the Rebels, then saving the Princess, finally he realizes it’s not over until he joins the effort to destroy the Space Station. We go from getting the plans to the Rebels, to a new direction of attacking the Death Star.

Plot Point 2

The close of Act 2 will conclude the second plot point. The second plot point is where the Hero understands the resolution. For Luke, this is when he lets go and uses the force instead of his targeting computer. He now understands how to take the shot that will resolve the Main Conflict. This will be the climax of our story, and usher in Act 3.

Act 3

The third act brings resolution to the Main Conflict through a series of events. Rewards and punishments are doled out to characters. The Hero receives confirmation of their growth; which cements them as the story’s Hero. This act is an epilogue that walks us down from the climax and brings closure to the story.

Upon the destruction of the Death Star, everything else is falling action. We see the characters celebrating, and are literally dealt medals (except for Chewie). Everyone on the Death Star is dead. This is just punishment dealt to Tarkin, and Darth Vader is left spinning through space. Everything feels fair and just. This is how western audiences like their stories to end. The entire third act of Star Wars IV is an epilogue to the story that was just concluded, and provides closure to the audience.

Star Wars has a way of following narrative structures with very literal examples. In most stories the hero characters won’t actually be given medals, but there will be some equivalent moment or action that validates the journey they have taken.

See You Next Time

Alright, that’s a lot to chew on. I’m guessing that for many this is a refresher. As I walk through this information high school is all coming back to me. In or next session we will look at the more detailed story structure of the Monomyth, or “The Hero’s Journey”.

Stick around, and thanks for reading.

Mech vs. Minions, an inspirational post mortem by Chris Cantrell of Riot Games

This was a particularly interesting session. Not because it offered any insight to game mechanics, workflow, or narrative, but because Chris Cantrell shared a highly personal journey he embarked on to see this game realized. This session seemed to fall into the category of a game “post mortem” while offering some highly inspirational thoughts that resonate with my current stage of life. With that in mind, this is the easiest post for me to write on the board game sessions and so it is the one I will begin with.

According to Chris the story of ‘Mechs vs. Minions’ begins with Stone Librande. While Stone’s (and Riot’s) professional pursuits are in the realm of video games, most notable of which is the infamous “League of Legends” (but I probably didn’t need to say it), he hobbies around with making board games for his family to play. Before coming to Riot he created a board game called ‘Weapons of Zombie Destruction’. Upon arriving at Riot He was asked if he wanted to develop his board game into an actual product. His role and experience is in video game design. He wasn’t going to put job security on the line by gambling his career on a product for a market he hasn’t experience with. As Chris tells the story, Stone felt the idea of him making a board game as a real commercial product would be absurd. He wondered what poor fool it would fall to as lead.

Enter Chris Cantrell, the Poor Fool.

Chris was happy to be the lead on anything. He felt he was “living the dream” to lead a game’s development, even if it wasn’t a video game. All seemed well and good, but what’s a story without conflict? Chris was handed Stone’s game ‘Weapons of Zombie Destruction’ and tasked with play testing it, getting to know it, and developing it into a complete product. After much play testing Chris realized something critical, he didn’t get it. He understood the rules, he just wasn’t having any fun. The people he played with seemed to have fun, but he couldn’t see the appeal.

The game became a chore. He talked with his superiors about this, and the advice he was given is that he shouldn’t make a game he doesn’t care about. There was a real chance admitting this would be the end of his time with Riot. It would be better for him personally and for the game to leave in favor of a project he does like, than to drudge through developing a game that he doesn’t. One does their best work when they believe in the game.

Pulling It Together

The game was in development for a few years, and after a while the stakeholders were getting restless. Chris reached out to two different individuals that the team felt would offer good insight to the status of their gameplay. The first was Tom Vasel of Dice Tower, and the second was Quinton Smith of Shut Up & Sit Down.

After play sessions with Tom, Chris’s team was feeling very motivated. Tom mentioned that they seem to have a complete game that works on their hands. He mentioned that he not sure what they have to be worried about. With that inspiration they weren’t sure if they needed Quinton to come out. Ultimately they did bring Quinton out, because the travel plans were already in place and they wanted to meet him.

Quinton had a very different view. He felt the gameplay was shallow. He said that with everything League has built, this board game feels like it should be a core. To be successful it needs to expand with missions and narrative that build on that core mechanic. He would also expect that sort of depth from the board game, given their other pursuits and source material.

In this moment Chris came to realize that he needed to design ten games instead of one. He still struggled with the idea that he was working on a game he didn’t really care about, and that his mentor(s) recommended he not lead the game if those are his feelings. At the same time he had stakeholders who were getting anxious for the game’s release. He discovered that he does care about the game when he considers everything he could do to expand on the core gameplay; so, in order to care about the game and lead it as a successful product he would need to reboot the design. This is close to starting fresh, and to do that he would have to convince his stakeholders.

He was again ready to hear that his project would be canned or taken from him, but that didn’t happen. Now that he had personal buy-in, the stakeholders felt it worthwhile to give him the opportunity to rebuild the game. Had Chris not proposed this, his only other option would be to release a bad game. To a good designer, that is a fate worse than being let go.

Once the vision was in place, they began daily tests. They optimized their process by “failing faster” (a concept I teach my students, and I’ll expand on shortly) and having targeted playtests. At this point the rest is a ride to success for the board game and for Chris. He had a few more points to make, but I’ll discuss those in my personal take-a-ways.

Image from surrenderat20.net
Image from surrenderat20.net

Hodge’s Take-a-Ways

I got some practical advice on how to care for your game out of this. Let’s break it all down.

1. Over the course of a life one will work on a finite amount of projects with a finite amount of time. Keeping that in mind, it is best to work on something you want to make, even if the process is terrifying. The project you are on might be the only one you ever do. Make sure it’s something that you personally want to give to your audience.
2. Self publishing has many perks. The largest seems to be that the costs spent on marketing and publishing can be redirected into the quality of the product’s physical presentation. I feel this is good advice, but probably works best if one has a built-in audience. Riot already has a legion of fans. This might be a harder point to work in if one is an unknown.
3. If you have the means (typically money saved by self publishing) put care into the box for your game. Nearly every product on the market is designed to have its packaging thrown away. With board games the packaging is part of the experience every time it is played. Make every game begin as a well crafted experience by making it a joy to unbox every time it is played, and put away. Chris referenced the experience he (and others, including myself) have when first unboxing an iPhone. Apple puts attention to detail in every aspect of their product experience, right down to the packaging. The goal is for players to have that feeling every time they play.
4. Make a game you think your players will like. “I would rather make a show 100 people need to see, than a show 1000 people want to see” – Joss Whedon. Don’t get to caught up in all of the ways to monetize your game. It needs to be a game you and others want to make first. Starting with “what’s the current trend in profiting from games” is a sure way of starting a project one loses personal attachment to, and doesn’t realize it’s full creative vision. (that last part was me expanding Chris’s comments)
5. Targeted play testing is a great way to fail faster. Instead of focusing on the whole game every play session, choose an aspect of the game to focus on during each play session. It streamlines the ability to find problems within individual components of the experience.

Concluding Thoughts

I don’t play League of Legends. It’s not that I don’t like to or would never play, it’s the matter of “finite time” mentioned earlier in the post. I’m a newly minted mid-thirty year old with lots of “adult obligations”. When I have free time, I choose to spend it working on my game. If my wife and daughter become LoL players one day, then I’ll likely get into it with them.

That said, I love Riot Games. This is not the first time I’ve heard a member of Riot speak. I’ve heard session from Stone Librande and others. One thing they all have in common is passion for the games the make, and the people they make them for. That is very noble and I believe that they would put player experience before profit, a quality I hope to emulate in my own pursuits.

Alright folks, be sure to check out my other posts from #GDC17 and thanks for reading!

Story Telling 1: The Heart of It All, Conflict

This is the first of five posts discussing narrative design and its relation to game development. This information was gleaned from Evan Skolnick at his 2017 GDC narrative boot camp. Unless otherwise noted, it’s safe to assume all insights in this article come from Skolnick.

The Heart of it All

At the heart of every story is conflict. It is the one essential ingredient that turns a situation from ordinary into a series of attention grabbing events that can be concluded to an audience’s satisfaction (emphasis on can be, because not every story does this well).

Conflict is fuel for story. Without it the narrative has nothing to push it forward. The underlying conflict of any story, or even sub story can be found by asking a question in the form of the formula X wants Y but Z. X, Y, and Z are variables that any conflict will fill in. For example, at the beginning of Star Wars IV when the Rebels are fleeing the Star Destroyer, nearly any moment contains this equation.
• Rebels want to escape, but they are being shot.
• Storm troopers want to shoot the rebels, but miss.
• Vader wants the plans, but he can’t find them.
• C3P0 wants to go one direction, but R2D2 wants to go another.

These are just four example in the opening of the film. The work groups at the session found around 2 to 3 times as much.

The Main Conflict

With all the conflicts that can be found in a story one is chosen as the overall conflict, or the Main Conflict. It is this conflict that either directly, or indirectly creates reason for all other conflicts to exist. The resolution of this conflict will signal the conclusion of the story. For example, in Star Wars IV the Main Conflict is the Rebels attempt to destroy the Death Star. While this may not seem most important when compared to Luke’s embrace of The Force, it is the conflict that causes all other conflicts to come into play. Upon the destruction of the Death Star the conclusion begins. All other conflicts or story points that don’t have a conclusion (i.e. What now for Luke? Or, what about the relationship between Luke, Han, and Leia? How about Vader, he’s still out there, what’s his deal?) Are left for sequel stories; however, the film ends on a satisfying note, because the Main Conflict introduced in the beginning and running throughout the film has been resolved.

Sub Conflicts

To push forward towards a conclusion of the Main Conflict, a series of sub conflicts are needed. These sub conflicts may be short, or they may span nearly the same amount of story as the Main Conflict; however, the resolution of sub conflicts does not signal the conclusion of the story. As sub conflicts resolve they begin triggering the resolution of the Main Conflict.

One of the most notable sub conflicts in Star Wars IV is Luke’s attempt to understand and “use The Force”. This sub conflict concludes when he turns off his targeting computer and takes that fateful shot. At this moment Luke is tuned in with The Force and his conflict is resolved, which immediately signals the conclusion of the Main Conflict. Luke’s sub conflict resolution directly triggers the Main Conflict resolution.

Other sub conflicts include the character changes within Han Solo. When we meet him, he cares only for himself. Throughout the film he struggles with emotions of beginning to care for Luke and the gang. He denies these emotions and leaves before the final attack. Han’s character sub plot is resolved when he gives himself over to caring for others and makes his timely return to the battle. He knocks Darth Vader off Luke’s tail, leaving Luke free to concentrate. The conclusion of Han’s sub plot, allows for the conclusion of Luke’s sub plot, which brings about the conclusion of the Main Conflict.

Micro Conflicts

In contrast to sub conflicts, micro conflicts are sub conflicts that are quickly presented and resolved. Sometimes they happen so fast that the audience may not have realized there was a conflict; however, the micro conflict’s presence pushes forward the story in a natural way that fits with the overall pacing. Micro conflicts connect the story from moment to moment.

A good example of this is when R2D2 and C3P0 have their conflict over which direction to go on Tatooine. This conflict happens very quickly and results in the two droids going their separate directions. Moments later R2 is alone and stalked by Jawas. The micro conflict becomes “R2 doesn’t want to be captured, but the Jawas are too overwhelming”.

These conflicts go by very quickly, but without them the story cannot progress. Let’s stop to consider what would happen without them. Had the two droids stuck together they may not have been overwhelmed, or found a safer path. Had the droids evaded capture, they would not have been purchased by Luke’s Uncle. Without being purchased, Luke would never connect with the droids, and R2 would have never presented our hero Luke with the story’s Main Conflict. In short the story would have ended, or gone on without ever introducing Luke’s character (or the writers would have factored him in some other way). As it is, the writer’s chose this progression of micro conflicts to further character introductions for those that would eventually resolve their sub conflicts (Luke and The Force, Han and caring) and bring about resolution to the Main Conflict (Destruction of the Death Star).

To conclude, let’s over-simplify this into a couple of equations. Game developers like equations.
• Multiple micro conflict resolutions = resolution of a sub conflict.
• Multiple sub conflict resolutions = resolution of the Main Conflict.

There you have it, conflict(s) are the reason stories exist. As a rule, there is no story without conflict. Now as with any rule, it can be broken; however, one should not attempt to break the rules before they have a solid understanding of what they are, and why they exist.

Catch me for the next post where we’ll break down the Three Act Structure.

8bit-ish | The Fair, Not the Renaissance

“With retro game art, players want a renaissance fair, not the actual Renaissance” – Mark Ferrari, #GDC16

Jump Strait to Resource Links

First, a Little Backstory

After 10 years of graphics and code, I’ve finally found a “professional hero”. Mark Ferrari is a veteran of the digital arts. He started at Lucas Arts where one of his larger contributions was “inventing” the concept of dithering in digital imagery. That’s right, there was a time when dithering wasn’t actually a thing. Mark is the guy who’s stroke of genius brought so much more life and perceived quality to the limited color pallets of early games. At the 2016 Game Developer’s Conference (#GDC16) I attended the session “8 Bit & ‘8 Bitish’ Graphics-Outside the Box”. Pixel art is something that I’ve never really tried, and so I am not very good at it; however, it is a style I’ve been wanting to experiment with for a while. Additionally, many of my students like this style. I chose this session in the hope that I would gain insight and tips to bring back to my class.

When I entered the session, I didn’t pay attention to who the speaker was. I was expecting a hot-shot young indie, and what I got instead was an industry veteran who helped pioneer quality game art in an era where “pixel art” wasn’t a style, but a technical limitation. In his talk, Mark details the process used “back in the day”, and his process for creating retro pixel art now. There is a lot of value in understanding how and why art was created in the fashion it was. That knowledge helps to understand what we’re trying to emulate, and what is worth emulating for modern pixel art. In this post I’ll highlight a couple interesting points on the history of game art, then I’ll move on to a couple of modern techniques/programs that Mark demonstrated the use of. The tidbits I gathered from this talk already have me creating better pixel art than any previous attempt I’ve made. I hope you’ll find some use for this information as well.

At the bottom of this article, I have compiled a list of links that should help to branch out and find more information on the topic.

EGA Graphics, EA Deluxe Paint, Palette Swapping | a.k.a “The Good ‘ol Days”

Enhanced Graphics Adapter (EGA)

EGA graphics in all of it's glory!
EGA graphics in all of it’s glory!

EGA was once the standard for color display on computer monitors. It offered 16 beautiful hardly palatable colors for display. Why were a particular 16 colors chosen for EGA? It turns out that the reason is because it was the job of programmers to select colors. At that time, colors had to be referenced by a numerical value. Programmers tend to like keeping things as simple as possible. The colors were chosen because they could be represented by integers, as appose to floats or doubles (decimal values).

The limited and “fuggly” color pallet is part of what helped Mark get started in game art design. Mr. Ferrari said that when Lucas Arts first approached him he felt he wasn’t right for the job, because he didn’t know much about computers. Lucas Arts said that was okay, because it’s much easier to teach an artist to work with a computer, than to teach a programmer to become an artist. Hiring Mark was a long term investment in improving the quality of visuals within the current technical limitations.

Deluxe Paint

One of Mark's old projects in Deluxe Paint, loaded inside of DosBox
One of Mark’s old projects in Deluxe Paint, loaded inside of DosBox

Once upon a time, Adobe was not the industry standard for digital imaging. In the prime days of DOS (early 90’s) it was Electronic Arts that offered the best tools for game art creation. The software they published was Deluxe Paint and Deluxe Paint Animation. In many ways the features of Deluxe Paint would still be better for creating low color/pixel graphics than Photoshop. Deluxe Paint paint is of course long dead. There are a number of reasons why DP isn’t a good choice for modern workflows, but there are specialized alternatives to Photoshop available. More on that later.

During Mark’s talk he used DosBox to run a copy of Deluxe Paint. Some of his original work that he used for illustration was only available in DP.

Palette Swapping

In addition to low color pallets, another technical limitation that once existed was the lack of transparency. There were no alpha channels. Graphics were all some form of a bitmap. In the time of EGA, Mark brought about higher quality visuals by introducing dithering to simulate the look of shadow, and depth-of-field. Eventually EGA graphics gave way to VGA, and there was now 256 colors to work with. This is where the dithering technique really began to shine, and it’s where Mark once again stretched the technical limitations with a technique to fake transparency called palette swapping.

Palette swapping is one of the most brilliant technical tricks I’ve seen an artist pull off. Here is how it works. When the color limitation increased from 16 to 256, certain amounts of color could be divided out for different uses. I don’t remember Mark’s exact numbers, so I’m just making them up for the purpose of illustration. An artist could choose work an image within less than 256 colors, such as 128, or 196, or whatever. The remaining color allotment is reserved for creating very subtle color changes in the image. These changes are so subtle that at a casual glance they won’t be noticed; however, when the color pallet in use with the image is swapped out for another, the new pallet has one or more of the subtle values changed to something much stronger. This is best seen to be understood.

Mark’s image that best shows this effect is his snow falling in the woods scene.trails If you look very closely at the image, you will notice vertical trails. The pixels in these trails are a slightly different color, but when the pallet shifts, they become white. When the pallet shift is in action, it looks like snow is falling, and one would believe there is transparency here, but it’s an illusion.

Some of Mark’s best palette shifting work has been preserved online by a developer who wrote an HTML5/JavaScript solution to perform the pallet swap. I highly recommend checking it out. There are amazing images where pallet shifting is used to simulate everything from waterfalls, to smoke and rain.

Flash Forward… How Do We Flash Backward?

Mark Ferrari has been contracted to create the artwork for the upcoming game “Thimbleweed Park”. The aesthetic goal of this game is to feel like an old school Lucas Arts point and click adventure. The key point here is that it should “feel” like the old games, not actually be an old game. That is an important distinction. The team believes that their players want to relive the feeling of those games; however, if one were to actually load one in something like DosBox, most individuals would be disgusted. What people love is the memory, or nostalgia of the old games, but when faced with the actual product, it’s typically a visual turn-off. This is especially true on modern high definition screens. When these old games were made the average computer monitor was a CRT Tube technology with 640 x 480 (VGA) resolution. Not only are the pixels big, but they bleed together. In that time, artists actually used the lower quality of displays to help convey visual effects in their artwork, and obscure necessary defects.

Mark eloquently put it like this, when people go to a renaissance fair they’re looking to have an enjoyable time. They want the costumes, the events, and the food. No one actually wants be in the Renaissance where crap flowed through the streets, death and disease were all around, the smell would have been unbearable to modern man. Folks just want to experience what they perceive to be enjoyable about the time period. It’s the same with modern retro games. People want a renaissance fair, not the actual Renaissance.

Here are some of the ideas Mr. Ferrari presented from his current workflow that help to inspire nostalgia, without the reality of old graphics.


Dither and banding example one
Dither and banding example one

Let’s quickly define dithering, just in case we’re unfamiliar. Dither is the blending of colors through the application of noise between 2 or more colors. In a smooth transition, an image displays any number of colors creating a gradient. With dither, the colored pixels of two or more colors become intermingled. This intermingling of pixels is done through the application of noise patterns.

It is recommend to find or create ones own dithering patterns. This can be done in a number of ways, but the most precise is to create it oneself, pixel by pixel. It’s a lot of work up front, but once you’ve established your library of dithering patterns, future workflows will be fast and smooth.

You can visit this link to find out more about dithering patterns.

Color Banding

Dithering and banding example 2.
Dithering and banding example 2.

Color banding occurs one 2 colors have a hard transition, or no transition. A good example is a skyline. The sky may be light blue near the ground, and a deep blue higher up. if one only has 3 shades of blue to work with, the sky will have three bands going from light to dark. Dithering is used to intermingle the pixels along the edge, softening the transition. In older games that had limited color pallets, there was typically some amount of banding that could be noticed. While dithering eases the banding, too much dithering can result in a speckled mess of pixels.

Getting the best quality graphics in old games came down to balancing out color banding and dithering. Knowing that both would be noticeable, it wasn’t so much about eliminating them, as it was finding the balance that looked most ascetically appealing. This is where the eye of an artist was most needed.

Template Gradients

Create reusable dithering gradient patterns that can be applied quickly. As an example, Photoshop allows selections to be saved as fill patterns; so, create low index color gradients that will be used often, such as tree trunks (gradient going from the lit to the unlit side), and save as a pattern by selecting the low color gradient and choosing “edit > define pattern”, then use the pattern to fill areas that will become trees.

Understand Light in the Real World

Objects are not only lit by direct light sources, they are also lit by indirect sources. As an example, A tree is lit by the sun on one side; however, the opposite shadow casting side isn’t lit by the sun, nor is it black. It is illuminated by other objects that bounce light back. In this scenario, that would most commonly be the sky. When shading non directly lit portions of imagery, sample color values from other elements that would bounce light back. The background, or sky is typically a good source.

To assist in understanding where the indirect light is coming from, it is best to create backgrounds first. In doing this, one will have a better understanding of what colors to sample when highlighting and blending with foreground objects. This is the same concept as used in any painting art form. A few years ago I took some oil painting lessons. This was the first time I was introduced to the idea of blending foreground colors with the background. In traditional painting,  subjects one paints on top of the background will take on color properties of the background. This all assists in making an image look natural and appealing.

Limited (but not really) Color Pallets

At one time artists could only use 16 colors. Then they could only use 256. When creating retro art, enjoy the freedom of using how ever many colors are necessary to create something that is visually appealing; however, if creating something that is suppose feel nostalgic remember that a limited color pallet, or a at least the illusion of limitation is a needed component. In Mark’s session he mentioned that he wasn’t exactly sure how many colors were being used in each of the new “Thimbleweed Park” images,. One was around 60 and another was over 500.

My take away here is that a retro pixel artist can enjoy the freedom of using as many colors as necessary, with a mindset towards less. If one feels more colors are needed that is fine, but perhaps one should think about using more pronounced color banding and dithering to create the feel that there are less.

Decide for yourself what the limitation should be, and use that as your guide, not so much a hard and fast rule. Whether it’s modern or retro video game art, at the end of the day the goal is to create something that the players will want to look at. Again, make a renaissance fair, not the actual Renaissance .

Software Used by Mark in This Session

Photoshop – Adobe is the current standard, but there are some particular things that need to be given attention. Photoshop’s default setup is for modern high quality art. In order to create retro pixel art, keep in mind the following:

  • In preferences, make sure resizing is set to “nearest neighbor”.
  • Turn off all options for anti aliasing (depending on the tool in use, this is often found as a checkbox in the current tools settings)
  • Do your own anti aliasing to soften jagged edges where appropriate.

Following these guidelines should prevent Photoshop from trying to do it’s own re-sizing, and re-sampling of pixels (which looks nasty when size skew or enlarge).

Pro Motion by Cosmigo – Pro Motion is a dedicated pixel art tool. It contains many options geared towards animation, shading, and reuse/tiling of indexed and low pixel art. It is probably the best solution currently available, and the evolution of what EA’s Deluxe Paint would have become. Pro Motion, while not widely known in digital art, is used by some professional studios. Mark used it to create art for games such as Spyro : Eternal Night for GBA. More recently it has been used to create art for games such as Shovel Knight.

I’m not personally skilled in it; so I’ll link to some tutorials I found. I purchased a license after this session, and I’ll be getting to know it in the near(ish) future.


What I gathered from the session largely boils down to this; leave out the old limitations, and create your own. If one’s goal is to create something that feels retro, then use limited color pallets. Strategically place color banding and noticeable dithering to create a retro vibe, but don’t try to make an EGA game. Decide what you want, design limitations that will keep you focused on your visual goal, and hold loosely to those artificial limitations.

There was a lot to digest in this session. I’ve spent some time using the techniques Mark demonstrated, and I’m much happier with my results. I’ll post some of my new images as I finish them. Right now my pixel art is more of an experiment to study. The majority of my development time is going in to finishing the game I’m currently working on; however, you can bet some of this experience will make its way into my final art. There was more information given in this session. I’m hoping it will be in the GDC archive soon, I’d like to revisit it a couple of times.

Thanks for reading, and as promised here is that handy list of resources.

My #GDC16 | Mentally Hit by a Bus

Have you ever felt like you’ve been blindsided by a bus, but that’s a good thing? In addition to some great sessions, this year’s GDC brought about a number of personal realizations about my life as a game developer. I’ll start this post with a brief recap of the best sessions I attended. If you’d like to read the personal info, read on past the summary.

My Augmented Reality, “Tactical Twitch” Prototype (in case you haven’t seen it)

Sessions Overview

The sessions I attended ranged between useful, and inspiring. This is just a brief summary. I took detailed notes, and over the next few days I will have a full write-up on each. This year my chosen topics delve into deeper technical waters, and I want to be sure I understand the material before I pass it along.

IMG_0302From a One Person Shop to Indie Dev to AAA: What it Really Takes to Grow (Presented by Amazon)

Mike Hines  |  Developer Evangelist, Amazon
Peter Heinrich  |  Developer Evangelist, Amazon

GDC Description: We’ve entered a golden age of creativity and experimentation. Today, anyone with an idea can build a game and publish it to a global audience. How does the gifted amateur become a pro game developer, and from there, a games industry success story? Hint: it requires more than just programming or artistic talent. In this session, we’ll show you how to approach game development as a business – even if business isn’t your “thing.” We’ll look at the single most-important skill you can develop, and show by example what happens if you neglect it. We’ll also offer practical insights on choosing a game genre, development environment, and target hardware as well as how to monetize your game.

IMG_0342The Power of Fanbase: Growing Your Audience with Twitch (Presented by Amazon)

Garnett Lee  |  Senior Business Development Manager, Amazon

GDC Description: In the future, the top games will have fully realized fan bases that will drive their user acquisition and engagement engines. Without it, high customer acquisition costs and low customer life-time value can sink any game. How can you turn your players into fans? Broadcasters need interesting content to show on their channels, and game developers need to get their games in front of players. Leveraging Twitch in your game development process helps build an audience and keep them interested. Come hear experienced broadcasters and developers discuss new content opportunities you can use to expand your broadcast and better engage viewers with Twitch.

IMG_0371The Design of Everyday Games

Christina Wodtke  |  Associate Professor, CCA

GDC Description: In 2013, Don Norman updated The Design Of Everyday Things. In 2015, references to “affodances” and “feedback” were everywhere at GDC. As games reacher broader audiences, it’s critical that game designers make games accessible to players who are more familiar with Amazon than Fallout 4. A positive user experience can create the next Monument Valley or Clash of Clans. Norman pointed out that a positive user experience begins with usability, but it doesn’t end there. Great user experiences anticipate the user’s needs and then go beyond that to delight. User experience designers have evolved a variety of approaches and tools to assure that the a product is “a joy to own, a joy to use.” In this talk, Christina will explore the core principles of user experience design, and how it can create games that are elegant and complete experiences that both serve and delight their players.

IMG_0385AAA Virtual Orchestration on an Indie Budget

Wilbert Roget  |  Composer, Music Supervisor, RogetMusic

GDC Description: While quality standards for orchestral music in games continue to rise, budgets for games at the indie and “AA” level do not. This session will use examples from my DICE-Award Nominated score to “Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris” to show how we achieved the best possible orchestral sound quality with less than a shoestring budget. This will cover effective use of samples, hall simulation and reverb, instrumental solos and overdubs, and final mastering.

IMG_04208 Bit & ‘8 Bitish’ Graphics-Outside the Box

Mark Ferrari  |  Commercial Digital Illustrator, Terrible Toybox

GDC Description: Mark Ferrari will discuss and demonstrate some of his techniques for drawing 8 bit game graphics, including his celebrated methods for use of color cycling and pallet shifting to create complex and realistic background animation effects without frame-animation. He will also discuss his current work for Ron Gilbert’s retro adventure Game, Thimbleweed Park, and demonstrate techniques for using Photoshop to create what he calls ‘8 bitish’ graphics for retro games today.

IMG_0427Angry Birds 2 – Next Gen Audio in Only 10 Megabytes

Jonatan Crafoord  |  Co-founder, The Brain
Elvira Björkman  |  Music Composer, Two Feathers

GDC Description: Rovio’s new flagship game Angry Birds 2 had to stand out from its predecessor and still be downloadable by *everyone*. But how do you fit the expectation of console quality audio on a mobile platform, with only 10 megabytes of space? The audio team at Rovio looked at compression and trends in headphone usage to make the most of the platform limitations, and created the music and sound design to be varied and grand but with a bird-sized memory footprint. Jonatan Crafoord, Audio Director, will talk about best practices for sound design and file formats to save space without compromising quality. Elvira Björkman, Music Composer, will show how the music was composed and implemented to feel as refreshing as possible while staying within memory limits.

Now for the Personal Bit

I didn’t start learning about 3D Design and animation until I was about 23 years old, and I wouldn’t call myself good at it until I was about 27. I didn’t start learning to program until I was around 26 years old, and I wasn’t proficient enough to be employable until I was 29. Why did I start so late? The answer is because I wanted to make games. I don’t mean that the pursuit of making games put off learning, I’m saying that making games is the only reason I thought to try.

I never thought I had the ability to do any of the tasks required. I felt it was all permanently over my head; however, since I was a kid I’d been contemplating my own game ideas, writing short stories, and terrible comics. In the second grade I sketched out my ideas on binder paper, and mailed them to the corporate address for Nintendo that was listed on the back of the NES system packaging. Later in in life, after my first few attempts at education and career didn’t work out, I finally gave in to “the calling”.

The pursuit of making games has helped me develop skills across a wide range of technical fields, and whether I’m making motion graphics or building websites, I’ve never gone without a paycheck. At this point, all of the time and skills I’ve acquired have brought me into an awesome job where I teach game design at a high school. I can’t complain. The decision to professionally pursue the art of making games has had a net effect of improving my quality of life.

 Getting to the Point

Here’s where things start getting heavy. At the expo this year I’ve been impressed with a number of indie projects both at the IGF, and the Indie Megabooth. As I talked with, and listened to other developers, I’m starting to realize the age gap. The indie developers are talking about all of the time, years even, that went in to creating a game they’re willing to show, and/or release. If one does the math, it’s not hard to realize that they all started learning this stuff when they were in high school, or shortly after. I’ve never been one to view the age gap as a big deal, but I’m starting to see how life can turn it into one.

The change that began setting in is that I am now past 30, I have a great wife of over 10 years, and beautiful little girl. I need to provide stability for them, and possibly more important, I need to actually be around to spend time with them. Having to make this change isn’t so much the surprising part of growing up. The surprise to myself is that I’m okay with giving up other pursuits in order to meet all of the needs of my family.

I don’t want to leave the world of game development, but it falls behind my desire to actively be in the lives of the people I love. This is the big realization for me, and it breaks down into a few parts:

  1. At this time, it seems that the only way I get to have a long term involvement with the video game industry, is if it becomes my full time career.
  2. Embracing game development as a full time career is financially/emotionally risky.
  3. Due to life events (which I love) I’m out of time in my life for taking financial/emotional risks.

This is the metaphorical bus that ran me over at this year’s conference. It may sound like I’m building up toward a sad conclusion, but the emotional pounding provides an immense burst of passion, ambition, and inspiration towards one goal; to finish “Tactical Twitch”, and make it the best experience that I have the ability to create. After that, I can move on.

Move On to What?

Best case scenario, “Tactical Twitch” is a runaway hit that demands leaving my “day job” to pursue games as business. That would be a lot like winning the jackpot. Here is what I expect to happen. I cease to exist in mental anguish over releasing a product, and the pursuit of game design becomes something I “play” with. I’d love to keep experimenting with augmented reality, and gamification of that technology. I may even release something again. The difference is, I won’t torment myself if I don’t.

I’ll still poke my head in at the conference. There are always great sessions. Another thought I have is to embrace board game design. The technical skills required in that are almost entirely artistic, making it easier to do as a relaxing side project. It’s specifically the all consuming task of creating a complete, quality video game that I’ll likely have to leave behind; however, I just can’t do that until I’ve taken it as far as I can go, and I’m not quite there yet.

Follow Along this Summer as the Dream Comes to… Something

This Summer you’ll be able to follow my development in a number of ways such as, YouTube dev blogs, Twitch streaming, and play testing the game yourself. I’ll have more complete information on the game in the coming months. Those I’ve explained it to in person seem to think the idea works. The best thing I can say about the game so far, is that I know I will have fun playing it. It’s a game not just for second grade Hodge who wrote all of those letters to Nintendo, it’s for me right now. I can’t wait to share it with everyone. Development will resume as soon as my current class of students are out (late May).

Tactial Twitch AR Prototype Website is Go!

* Maintenance Update: The Argon browser is currently at ver 4, and ver 3 is likely not on the app store anymore. This demo is not yet compatible with ver4. I will update it soon. Thanks for looking!

Just in time for the 2016 Game Developer Conference, the “Tactical Twitch” AR website is up for you to check out. The image target is my new business card. If you don’t have one, the image is on the instruction page, so you can print your own. At this time the AR browser is only on iOS, but is soon coming to Android. For all of the details, check out the video below, or head over to the new “hello” page.