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How Indie Games Are Expanding Beyond Pixel Art

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Pixel art is a common reoccurrence when it comes to graphics in indie game titles, but indie developers are increasingly exploring other options.

For quite some time, it seemed as though the concept of pixel art – 2D, sprite-based graphics that emulated the feeling and style of 8-bit and 16-bit PCs and consoles – was almost synonymous with indie games. Increasingly, however, it feels like smaller titles are becoming more diverse when it comes to their visual design choices. Pixel art is often chosen due to its low production costs compared to lifelike 3D models, but the success of more and more prominent indie titles has seemingly opened new doors in this regard.

Indie games are usually developed by small teams that may not have the amount of funding that an AAA studio would be able to procure, which often limits their ability to work with advanced features and visual elements. When a game project is backed by a large studio, funding is typically provided with the expectation that the game will make back its development costs, in part due to its association with well-known studios and publishers. For example, Cyberpunk 2077‘s profits exceeded its development costs by the first day of its launch despite its prior production difficulties.

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Games that are produced by small teams without a major publisher behind them tend to lack this kind of assurance. Fortunately, more alternative funding methods have become popular in recent years. Crowdfunding campaigns are common, as is the “early access” concept, which allows developers to publish their games in a partially-complete state in order to receive feedback and additional funding from their target audience. The popularity of this method is evidenced by this year’s E3 Expo being full of early access games. This could be why some more unique (and potentially costly or time-consuming) art styles are becoming more common in indie releases.

What Other Art Styles Have Become Common In Indie Games?


Why So Many Indie Games Use Pixel Art

One notable trend in recent indie games is using 3D art, though in smaller releases it’s often stylized or low-poly in order to cut down on costs and modeling time. Highly-anticipated mail delivery pseudo-simulator Lake, spotlighted at E3 2021, utilizes a 3D style mixed with a cel-shaded quality for its unique look. Death’s Door, an isometric action-adventure game which releases soon, has a simple-but-stylized look that makes up its delightful visuals. Although these are a far cry from the almost humanlike models sometimes featured in AAA releases, these styles both highlight visual detail and accentuate the visual design of the games.

Pixel art is also still a common staple in the world of indie releases, but it isn’t the only form of 2D art that’s common. More hand-drawn 2D games have appeared over the last few years, perhaps due in part to the success of Cuphead, which used its 1930s-esque art design and production as a selling point. Hollow Knight is a similarly popular hand-drawn indie game, arguably one of the most influential indie titles released over the last several years. It’s likely that these projects have helped pave the way for more exploration when it comes to artistic direction within indie games as a whole. Moving forward, the industry will hopefully see even more unique visual styles as a result.

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