When I were a young ‘un, video games and pixel art were pretty much one and the same. Aside from some fairly primitive 3D, the comparatively miniscule resolution, memory and processing power of the 8- and 16-bit machines left developers with little alternative in terms of visuals. Happily though, restriction drives creativity, and when done well, the visuals of these early games were frequently (and still are) beautiful and evocative, producing countless iconic characters and spiriting you and your imagination off to all sorts of weird and wonderful places.
Nowadays pixel art is purely a stylistic choice and very much en vogue within the indie and mobile game scenes. It’s a great option for developers with limited resources or experience, or those just wanting a different look and feel for their game. And obviously it’s a must for anyone developing remakes and tributes or retro and homebrew titles.
Moreover, with modern technology, pixel art can go well beyond the limitations imposed upon it by vintage computers. We’re talking vastly greater colour depth and detail, lighting and other post-processing effects, as many layers as you can muster and complex parallax scrolling – the kind of features that would have had the original generation of digital artists drooling. It can even be applied to 3D models and environments to great effect; just look at Minecraft or something like Bitsturbed. The result is some truly varied, imaginative and stunning artwork.
Yet it’s not just confined to gaming, pixel art is growing to be a popular art movement in its own right and enjoys a thriving online community. It’s gracing music videos, web art, books, magazines, posters, t-shirts, cartoons, and comics, etc., the world over. And long may it continue!
So then, how does an aspiring pixel artist go about learning the craft? Well, there are number of online resources and some books that you can refer to, but there’s not much in the way of more formal instruction. That is, until the Pixel Art Academy opens its doors to the public in the very near future.
However, the Pixel Art Academy isn’t a place, at least not in the physical sense, it’s a browser game. The intention is for it to be a virtual institution where artists can work and improve together, learning the fundamentals of pixel art and building the habits needed to become better. Basically an educational MMORPG (though hopefully without the grinding and griefing), Pixel Art Academy is played like a graphical adventure, using both text and point-and-click interfaces. And you guessed it, it’s all rendered in friendly and deliciously splendid pixel art.
The game begins with you as a freshman attending the Retropolis Academy of Art, where you’ll be given your own dorm and art studio. By exploring the sprawling campus, you’ll encounter NPCs who’ll give you quests (i.e. assignments). You’ll watch a video, read an article, then create a quick drawing that demonstrates applied knowledge. Different societies will teach you new concepts and techniques, such as sprites and tiles. As you practice, your character levels up and your real-life skills and understanding improve as well, allowing you to move on to tougher quests.
Within the game apps and custom pixel art tools are accessed through the PixelBoy 2000. The journal records your progress, the calendar helps you keep track of daily and weekly challenges, and the virtual library provides a reference to the articles you collect from playing through the various storylines.
Social interaction will be a large and crucial part of the experience. You can upload artwork to your public gallery, where you’ll be encouraged to create snapshots of the process for others to learn from or provide feedback on. Other players can even offer a paint over for instructional or collaborative purposes. And there’ll eventually be bars and clubs for chilling out and meeting other students – though I’m not sure if that extends to messy pub crawls and trashy house parties!
Pixel Art Academy is the brainchild of Matej “Retro” Jan, an artist, blogger, gamer, and pixel art aficionado. Inspired by all the overwhelmingly positive feedback he got from a video tutorial he posted back in 2012 and his shared learning experience from joining the Giveit100 community, Retro launched a Kickstarter campaign for his online academy in the summer of 2015. He asked for a mere $1,000, unsure he’d even get that. He ended up with an incredible $62,635 from 2,728 backers, which has since allowed him to begin working full-time on it.
The success of the campaign is hardly surprising though, given what a fascinating, innovative and ambitious project it promises to be. Gamification as an educational tool is not exactly new, but Pixel Art Academy cleverly taps into the positive feedback loops that can make RPGs (and P2W games) so addictive, as well as the benefits and encouragements of collaborative learning and the motivation gained from signing up to challenges. It’s hard not to see such an approach becoming more mainstream in the coming years.
Pixel Art Academy itself is aimed at all levels and absolutely anyone can enrol. There are different entry packages, including alpha access, and pre-ordering earns you a discount. But, being such a bloody nice bloke, Retro will make all educational content and assignments available for free outside of the game once they’re ready. The first tutorial was even included on the Kickstarter page.
Retro told me he’s hoping to continue developing Pixel Art Academy for at least four years, with Freshman through to Senior seasons planned and around two to three episodes each. He’s currently working on episode 0, which features the basic interface and first few locations – the progress of which can already be seen on the website. Episode 1, which will actually start to teach you drawing, will arrive a little later in the year.
Hopefully, Pixel Art Academy will be a roaring success, and in the next few years we’ll see an exciting new generation of talented pixel artists coming through.