Is 2D or 3D right for my video game? Pixel art, High res art or Vector art?

A short guide for the overwhelmed game developer.

Whether you are looking to hire a professional artist or you want to learn how to create art yourself, choosing the right art direction for your game can be very overwhelming, especially because a mistake in the early stages can cost a lot of money and time down the line. I have heard countless stories of people getting trapped by an "easy" solution they chose a year ago which inevitably caused them to toss a lot of art in the bin and start over. Sadly there just isn't one efficient and effective route for every game out there because every tool has its advantages and disadvantages.

Pixel art

The most popular recommendation for new game developers is pixel art because it is supposed to be cheap and/or easy to learn. In my opinion pixel art isn't the one-fits-all solution it is said to be. It's true that creating half decent pixel art is easier for a beginner than high resolution 2D art and the reason is the it puts restrictions onto the artist. Forcing them to work on a grid with a specific amount of pixels and colors will be less overwhelming than the ultimate freedom of a huge white canvas. Furthermore, making animations for a 16x16 pixel character will be way easier for a non-animator, but the advantages kind of end there. For example games that require 8 directions, multiple unique animations and character customization can make the game a hell to animate! Imagine having to animate 10 different actions for a player with 100 possible outfit combinations and 100 possible weapons. That is a lot of work! There are ways to get over that hurdle, but it is still something to think about before you start creating stuff. That is why I recommend to my clients to first think very hard of what their game will actually do and then actually write a GDD.

Making high quality pixel art and animations is actually a very hard and laborious task which takes a lot of skill just like every other art form. In my opinion pixel art should be chosen for its beautiful aesthetic and not a seemingly lower price.

High resolution 2D art

High res hand drawn art is a popular option especially when you plan to have a dedicated artist in your team. You have the ultimate freedom to do whatever you like, but it does have it's draw backs. For example, just like with pixel art, moving around in multiple directions will take a lot of time to do. Also making stuff in the wrong resolution early on can mean a lot of time redrawing stuff, even with AI up-scaling in your toolbox. Furthermore, lets not forget that actually picking an art style can be extremely overwhelming because of all the countless options. It is very easy to fall in the trap of just doing the same thing your favorite game did and ending up with a clone of something else without the soul of it. Picking something "just-because!" without any reason or intent behind it can make a game uninteresting to new players.

Vector art

Unlike raster art which is made of a grid of colored pixels, vector graphics are made of geometrical shapes, lines and points. This essentially means we can zoom in as much as we want and the image will always be crisp. Vector graphics are faster to make in the long term because they are not only easier to alter in order to make different versions of the same item, but they also make the collaboration of multiple artists smoother and faster. Furthermore they are future-proof; if in a year from now you decide a close up cut-scene of the player's face would be cool, it will be possible to do without the need of redrawing. If in 5 years from now 8K is the standard you can create an update to your game easily, vector graphics have you covered! You can read more about them in this article I wrote called "What are vector graphics and why we use them in game development"

3D art

This is the most versatile option available and very often can require the most amount of work. You can have ultra realistic graphics and lighting, or you can opt for a shell shaded look with outlines to mimic comics or anime. If you are into a more retro look there is also the possibility of a low-poly art style with minimal textures. Another interesting approach would be to go with voxel graphics which is essentially 3D pixels, but instead of being squares on a 2D plane they are cubes in a 3D space. You could even "fake" actual pixel art using post processing filters. Another approach that I personally love is mixing stuff together, 3D and 2D! A lot of retro games did it out of necessity in the past but it can add a very interesting flare to a game.

The best thing about 3D environments is that they can be interactable, reusable and multi functional. The advantages are endless, but 3D tends to be the most laborious and expensive option available because it often requires many different skills and a lot of time. If you desire ultra realistic graphics you might even need multiple artists because of the sheer amount of work and skill needed to complete a project. Simpler art styles with little amount of detail can actually be faster to implement than 2D art and animations, but in the end it really depends on the skill of the artist and the needs of each project.

Conclusion and opinion

As a professional 2D game artist that does pixel art, high res 2D art and vector art, creating high res or vector art with skeletal animations very often is the most efficient route for me. I can have some of the advantages of 3D skeletons without the hassle of 3D, and the games that interest me the most tend to be a great use case for 2D art. If your game idea needs 3D to function then my opinion is invalid. If you already have some foundational knowledge of 3D then of course 3D might be the easiest route for you! Nobody can tell you what format is the best for your project unless you know exactly what you want your game to do! So please, before you post an ad to find an artist, think what your game is about! Think how the mechanics will work, how many art assets you need, what you want to do with them etc. Create a game design document. It is a lot of work, but in the long term you will save a lot of time both for yourself and your future artists.

Everything depends on what you want to achieve, the look you desire, the audience you want to reach and what skills you already have. There isn't one perfect tool for everything, so if you are still undecided my suggestion would be to think really hard about what you want your game to actually do gameplay wise and then ask a few people for their opinion.

If you are looking for a professional 2D game artist for your video game project take a look at my portfolio You can email me ator add me on discord (username: astroneli) to request a quote for 2D Game art, Animations, Game UI design and Capsule art.