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Why All of Our Games Look Like Crap (jeff-vogel.blogspot.com)
762 points by Fr0styMatt88 on Aug 22, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 540 comments

Oh man. This thread is really something else.

Like...for miles in every direction, all I can see are pitchforks, and here I am standing alone on a small hill thinking to myself "Holy shit. That's the Spiderweb software guy. I've played every single one of his games, EVERY SINGLE ONE, and loved all of them."

The graphics in the games are exactly as good as they need to be to make wonderful story-driven RPGs.

You and me both! I thought this thread would have a bit more praise for Jeff's work after all of these years, but it's just a bunch of Debbie Downers taking a collective dump on it just because they don't like the look.

While the style may not be modern, the gameplay and stories tend to be quite good. I would also argue that a game that looks great doesn't necessarily imply that the game is any good. Battlefront 2 is a great looking game that is ultimately a soulless, lootbox filled shitshow with painfully bland gameplay.

Anyone saying that he needs to hire an art director have completely missed the point of his article: his business can only support his family. He has also been able to maintain this business for 20 years, which is a lot more than can be said about any other indies.

Ultimately, this is a style that Jeff likes, and it makes him money. If people don't like it, then they can go play something else. He still has his fan base that keeps him afloat.

EDIT: grammar

I'm with you on the games being excellent examples of a super niche style done well but he's basically writing an article attacking the very concept of art direction as a waste of resources. That comes off a little disrespectful towards people who care.

I think there's no point in making their games looking any different than they do (because it's part of their brand, now) but the correct response to a question of why they don't make a "better" looking game is that they don't care. Or, maybe, it's a taste issue. Flailing your hands about how people totally did not appreciate you going through the trouble of making the graphics isometric or hiring underpaid artists is not the way to go. It's maybe "honest" but it's IMO at best a misunderstanding of and at worst a severe lack of respect for art direction and visual design.

I think I interpreted the article differently from you. I saw this as a cold hard look at what works and the dangers of changing your brand (or rather, the fact that "better X" doesn't always mean more success when you're Forte is Y), not some general argument against the idea of artistic integrity. Doing what Vogel can now do after 20 years and an established audience would lead to ruin for 99.9% of devs today aiming for financial success because the market is very different. And I'm sure he knows that.

This was what I took away from the post as well. The realism was refreshing and to me very positive. It shows there actually can be a middle-ground in indie development and not just the two extremes of “Have a viral hit and earn millions!” and “Spend more than your life savings and go broke!”.

All too often I think people are happy to throw their hands in the air and presume that indie success is just ‘impossible’. This article, for me, added some much-needed nuance to the discussion.

Yes the business reasons were perfectly fine, and he didn't explicitly argue against artistic integrity, it's just that he didn't display any, while making arguments about artistic choices.

There's an interesting unstated major premise here, that "art" exclusively means pictures.

Spiderweb tends to focus on different aspects of game making that are admittedly a lot less visual, but are arguably no less artistic. This is a wildly hyperbolic analogy, but it seems to me that suggesting that Jeff Vogel doesn't care much about art because his games are weak on the visuals is a bit like suggesting that Led Zeppelin didn't care so much about art because their shows didn't offer the same visual spectacle as a GWAR performance.

> but the correct response to a question of why they don't make a "better" looking game is that they don't care. Or, maybe, it's a taste issue.

No, he plainly states it is a cost issue. He can't afford to hire the people who could create truly "good" art for his games.

Steamspy lists their games as having sold [in the millions](https://steamspy.com/dev/Spiderweb+Software). If they wanted to, they absolutely could afford a B+ tier art guy going through the basic steps of making their backgrounds not look like programmer art, for a few months.

You can actually see some decent concept art and character design in their current games but they're drowned out by a stubborn refusal to actually change the overall balance of detail, suffocating those decent artworks in a sea of blurry/noisy backgrounds. It's a colossal waste, really, only explainable by a stubborn refusal to "learn art", which I can respect by itself, but the post comes off as utter denial of that even happening.

It's okay to dismiss art direction and make that some kind of design philosophy, it works for their games. But blaming it on everything but dismissal feels wrong.

Using Steamspy to just declare how much money he has made and that it is enough to support his family, continue development and hire someone for more art direction when the entire article is about he doesn't have enough money to hire someone is exactly why he wrote this article.

People keep posting in the thread that games with "bad art" still look good with "good art direction" but art direction also costs money, which he still doesn't have.

You say they, but it's only one guy as explained. It's not that he sees art direction as a waste of resources, he sees it as a risk to his future. To expend resources in the art direction he would have to hire more people, and try and ensure the same art style. Which would mean he would need more sales. Plus he would have to upfront these expenses and he might not make it back.

It's an extra risk he doesn't want to his lifestyle that has worked for him for 25 years.

Disrespectful ? The dude says his games look like crap. He doesn’t say everyone else’s should. He’s explaining why it makes business sense for him to do so! This is business 101 from a sucessful indie game dev

He also says his games look like crap because that's how old games look to him. Yes he has business sense, he also has no taste.

Now this seems disrespectful.

> he's basically writing an article attacking the very concept of art direction as a waste of resources. That comes off a little disrespectful towards people who care.

Sounds like "people who care" are people that have spent a lot of money on art and need to respond to this post to justify it. Or are artists themselves and need to prove their worth.

Money talks.

If he only was talking about his own art, then fewer people would be rubbed the wrong way. However, at regular intervals throughout this article, he feels the need to accuse his critics of also disliking other games with simple art. I think it's these quotes in particular that are the most pitchfork-worthy of the lot:

- (Screenshot of Ultima V) - "This is what looks normal to me"

- "Queen's Wish has a very retro square-tile top-down view, reminiscent of old Ultima games, old Pokemon games..."

- (Screenshot of Baba is You) - "If a game that looks like this can be a hit, maybe there can be room for me?"

- (Screenshot of Atari Adventure) - "If you don't like it, maybe the problem is you."

Apart from maybe(!) Atari Adventure, all of those games look far better than Queen's Wish. Even Ultima V shades one side of its walls, something none of his games have accomplished based on these screenshots.

It's an insulting strawman to say that the people criticizing his art would also reject these other games with simple art. It's also insulting to the artists who worked on those games, producing better results in a similar budget. Maybe the insult is unintentional, because he genuinely can't tell the difference himself. But if that's the case, he should just admit that, rather than hiding behind his choice to use a top-down perspective.

> Even Ultima V shades one side of its walls, something none of his games have accomplished based on these screenshots.

It's the hundreds of tiny details like this, that make for great design and good art, regardless of how retro the medium is. That's what this guy seems to be utterly blind to, and it really rubs against people who DO like to spend the effort and time on such tiny details to get the design just right ... only for this guy to call it "looks good enough for me" and then imitate it badly.

Just stick to the business explanation, because there's nothing wrong with running a business on shitty art.

There are two problems: 1) the poor art actually causes one significant design fault and 2) I think the problem is actually that his art is too good in places.

1) If you look at Avernum 3 and Queen's Wish, the characters you are supposed to control don't "stick out" visually. I must have looked at the Avernum picture half a dozen times and actually missed the 3 other characters in the picture other than the cloak and the dragon. That's a huge mistake in visual design--and that is the fault of the designer not the artist. QW has similar issues in that the character design isn't very distinctive: without those horrible colored circles you can't tell friend from foe. And the visual design of the characters makes distinguishing classes difficult. Again, that's designer failure--not art failure.

2) If you look at QW, there are 4 different levels of art. The bottom icons are gorgeous and would fit in a AAA game. The portraits look like potato cam from 1999. The characters look like bad pseudo 2.5D from 1993. And the background sprites look like they are from "My First RPG Maker". You can choose any of those, be consistent, and people won't feel too bad. Look at Exile and Avernum--they have a consistent art level across everything and don't strike me as ugly. What you cannot do is mix and match the levels--that's very jarring and people will complain.

> The graphics in the games are exactly as good as they need to be

I feel like "exactly as good as they need to be" would actually be quite a bit simpler and, through lack of clutter, easier to use. See, for example, the Caves of Qud art style - https://i.imgur.com/Tul3mn3.png - which is substantially less visually complex than any of the Spiderweb Software games but, IMO, much easier to interpret.

Could not agree more about simplicity, although I don't think he's using "good" to mean "complicated." Simple, minimalist art can be nearly as difficult as rich, complex art, and these games are neither of those.

"Exactly as good as they need to be" means "graphics and interface are of a sufficient quality to not significantly hamper interaction with the game, but just barely."

For example, a chess board drawn freestyle in crayon with a bunch of black and white poker chips that have "pawn", "knight", etc written on them in sharpie is "exactly as good as it needs to be," but it sure as heck isn't the same thing as an elegantly minimalist chess board.

Looking at the screenshots in the article, I actually liked the graphics in Avernum 3 and even Escape from the Pit, they seemed consistent and actually pretty well done if a bit simple. I understand the complaints about Queen's Wish. They're not necessarily bad, I don't mind a lot of the tiles, but something does seem off with it. That being said, I've seen far worse and if the gameplay's good then it doesn't seem like that big of a deal.

I've actually been tempted to buy Avadon the black fortress a few times. It keeps showing up on steam(after reading this I had to double check, for some reason I had a feeling it was one of his games), again i find the graphics to be appealing. I'm just not sure if i want to invest the time into an RPG right now.

It seems like an easy solution would be to allow the tiles in the game to be editable and let people make new ones if they're unhappy with the ones that ship with the game.

> They're not necessarily bad, I don't mind a lot of the tiles, but something does seem off with it.

The problem I have with it is that it all looks really generic -- like default "RPG Maker" tiles or stock art. The old-school Exile art was simple, but it was unique and had its own distinctive style.

I never managed to play any games in the Avadon series, because they don't have as good keyboard shortcuts as the Avernum series. One of the Avadon games even has a Linux port, which wasn't done by Jeff himself

Way back in the day (like, around 2000), there was a Linux port of Exile 3: https://www.spiderwebsoftware.com/exile3/linuxexile3.html

I don't think it'll run on a modern Linux system without a lot of hacking, though.

It's easier to run the Windows version in wine.

The Linux port is what I've been looking at. I didn't realize it was ported by someone else, it would also explain why that's the only one of his games that comes up.

I haven't played these games, but I've put hundreds of hours into NetHack with pure ASCII graphics, so I totally get it. I briefly tried using some of the graphical versions but didn't end up liking them so much, so back to the ASCII it was.

My first exposure to roguelikes was an Amiga graphical version of Hack in the 80s, so I always felt like they were "supposed to" have something more than ascii. But when I tried Diablo, I was really disappointed. It's not that the polished graphics detracted from anything, but that the depth of interaction was lacking.

I remember seeing a first person shooter after years of ignoring games, and being really impressed by the advances in graphics, but in seconds, I could see it was still a world made of indestructible cardboard, which was very disappointing. I suppose things have improved somewhat, depending on genre, but anyway, the issue is that people are easily distracted by graphics, not that they detract from anything per se.

It's not my understanding that having a fond nostalgia for somebody's works excuses the article's salty tone that basically tells people they're wrong for thinking the games are ugly, coming up with all manner of excuses but never once embracing that the problem is entirely the developer's own and nobody else's; yes, that point is laid out there but it's given as an excuse, not as a justification. There's a fine line.

He is not saying that everyone is wrong. He is saying that some people like it, most people don't, and the ones that do like it are enough to keep his business afloat.

> unprompted

The guy's been getting criticisms for 25 years. I think he's justified in writing a single blog post in defense of his art style. If you don't like it, you don't have to read it.

What does the 25 years have to do with it? There are developers who've been in the industry for far less time who are much more reactive and responsive to criticism. If anything, that mention of 25 years is an indictment, not anything worse praising.

Also, 'art style' is a stretch.

Finally, yes, if I don't like it, I don't have to read it. Yet, I did, and I'm free to express my dissatisfaction and disagreement with the article's message: if you don't like it, you don't have to read it.

>What does the 25 years have to do with it?

It means it's not unprompted. It's a reply.

> I think he's justified in writing a single blog post in defense of his art style. If you don't like it, you don't have to read it.

I think he's justified in writing a blog post about his business decision and should have kept it at that.

But defending this as an "art style" is like making really shitty cheap knockoff "vintage style" furniture and claiming part of the reason is because you love the artistic style of historic wood working. No you do it for the money, and people who actually like vintage historic wood work might get annoyed that you are pushing your work as the same.

> that basically tells people they're wrong for thinking the games are ugly

Uh, no, he freely concedes his games are ugly. The title of the article is "Why All of Our Games Look Like Crap".

I didn't get salty from the article at all. Just an explanation about why their games look the way they do and why they haven't tried to improve it(money and risk).

He's not saying people are wrong for thinking the games are ugly. Quite the opposite, he's very open to the validity of that opinion while also believing they're okay as-is. No, the whole point he's making is simply that, to his judgment, it doesn't make good business sense to invest more in art, and when he did so the results were no different.

I only played one of his game (avalon), but I finished it. As a casual / very hard to please player, finishing a game is a rare event. Congrats to him.

And the graphism are good enough imo.

This, for me, is the thing that really distinguishes Spiderweb's games: it seems that nobody else out there is still making CRPGs that I actually finish.

Other games look beautiful, yes, but they also somehow always end up getting kind of boring several hours in.

Same here, very few games hold my attention long enough to finish, and his games do. Jeff's been a very good citizen of the indie game scene for a long time. I have a great deal of admiration for him and what he's accomplished.

Vogel's using the level of graphic quality that work for him, but that doesn't excuse the inconsistent art direction and mixed art styles.

The art style is mixed because he reuses most of his graphics. I think his pot sprite is almost 20 years old now. He just doesn't want to commission new art for every game. New objects and skills need new art, and I'd doubt Philip Foglio is still available to draw them.

Lol seriously the dude runs with sprites from 20 years ago? That’s seriously amazing

I agree, it's seriously awesome that he was able to get that much value out of that Sprite.

I suspect he knew exactly what the reaction would be when he wrote the article.

Yeah, when you write such an abrasive post, literally ending with "haters gonna hate" and basically implying that anyone who doesn't like the art is stupid, I'm not sure what kind of reaction you expect to get.

Don’t know what article you read. He said the art being shit makes business sense to him

I've been reading this article, which one have you been reading?


I don’t understand how that implies people who dislike his art style to be stupid. I’d see the expression more as a reflection of “find your niche, ignore everyone else”

Saying that you're glad people have attacked your art, and hoping that they continue is needlessly combative and reeks of an holier than thou attitude, as does the rest of the article.

It's not. It's not an art style, it's the lack of one. And then he compares it to retro games with an actual art style and says this is "good enough for him". Calling it an art style is an affront to people who DO spend the time and effort on these things. So he explains it makes business sense for him to not care about art direction. Okay fine. But then don't drag other games into it.

Yeah in the second half, and that would have made a fine blog post. He also said a lot of other things, which didn't.

I have fond memories of playing Exile II as a 10 or 11 year old. My dad worked at Boeing at the time, and there was some sort of store where the company sold surplus supplies where he bought used Macs for me and my brothers. These were not fast computers so it was thanks to Exile II "looking like crap" that we were able to play it at all!

> There were not fast computers so it was thanks to Exile II "looking like crap" that we were able to play it at all

You're making the mistake of thinking that a game that looks good must use more resources. That doesn't make sense.

If one took the exact same resources and gave them a more consistent art style, keeping the same file sizes or even lowering them, the games could look just fine and yet still fine on a low-end machine.

Better looking graphics or art != larger file sizes.

I havent played any of his games but now would love to do it. I like dwarf fortress and generally am bummed with the gameplay in current games.

Try Cogmind.

Cogmind is really cool and really pushes (to a screaming breaking point) what you can do with "ASCII art". It also helps that the developer is a very chill person, for sure.

But to the GP, you should go play his games! Try "Avernum: Escape from the Pit", his remake of his remake of his original game (he's got a system down pat). It's the best game he's made, IMO, and the iPad version is really good if you've got one lying around. PC/Mac version is good too, of course, but I found the touch interface really nice and a refreshing way to play a game I'd already exhaustively completed twice, so I'd hope it'd meet more modern sensibilities pretty well.

Also in that vein, Caves of Qud is worth a try.

Ever tried Factorio?

It has been a long time since I played his games but I always really enjoyed the original exile games. I haven't gotten into the newer Avalon remakes as much, but that is mostly a time constraint issue as there are many games and so little time. My memories as a kid are that they were great games if you liked rpgs.

I still occasionally play Nethack. In a terminal. I've seen graphical frontends for the game but IMO that stuff just gets in the way.

The first version of Nethack I played had graphics for the walls and empty space only.

I remember playing Exile: Escape from the Pit. Great game, the graphics didn't matter because the story was what was important.

Me too! If it wasn't for the Avernum series, I probably wouldn't be speaking english that well or posting here right now!

Yes. I’m looking forward to that n-gate’s webshit weekly take on this.

On the plus side, this is the top comment, so the silent majority seems to agree with you.

Art just isn't critical to making amazing games... some old BBS games like Tradewars 2002 will always be among my favorites, and their ASCII images barely qualified as art.

Sometimes 'better-but-not-good-enough' is a trap. That's basically what Jeff Vogel is saying about moving up from his poor inconsistent art to slightly better art, but it's also how I feel about moving up from ascii characters to his style of "crappy" art.

AdoM is a fantastic roguelike created by Thomas Biskup, which originally had you as an '@' battling other ascii characters. Later he wanted a nicer interface and went for this kind of pixely tiles, and to be honest, I don't like it (edit: I just checked again, and the art looks far better than I remember. I still prefer the ascii version, though). If you go for bad art, just go all the way, and make it look consistent.

By the way, Baba is You, referenced at the end, is an absolutely brilliant game, and while the art looks cheap like a toddler drew it, it's all animated; they have three versions of every sprite and keep rotating them. That crappy animation arguably makes it look even cheaper, but it also brings the game more alive, and it's certainly more expensive. Most importantly, though: it's a striking and consistent look.

In the end, though: Jeff had been successfully making games he loves for 25 years. Whatever he's doing is clearly working.

Baba is You came to mind for me as well, as a game with incredibly simple graphics that still looks _really_ good. I think a big part of that is the consistency of the design.

The high-contrast simple design also facilitates the gameplay. There's no visual noise, so it's very easy to 'read' the levels and focus on the solutions.

With that said, I think the art is also deceptively good. I don't think I could replicate it quite as well (from memory) even having played the game a fair bit, and I certainly don't think a toddler (or lesser hyperbole) could capture the charm of some of the sprites.

Baba is You is I think a great example of something that looks really simple but is actually really challenging to pull off. It's also probably not something you could reasonably maintain across 25 years using freelance artists. It also helps that the total number of unique objects in Baba is You is rather limited.

"Better could be worse" resonates well with what I was thinking reading the article:

Ever since punk, and possibly longer, recorded music has a growing number of niches where lack of polish is a feature, not a bug. Liking stuff that others find unlikable makes the consumer feel special. All kinds of guitar noise, the absolute undanceability of IDM, cheesy pop music from an country far away. They all have their qualities, but if you infer from some people enthusiastically defying the superficial shortcomings of those styles that their redeeming qualities must be exceptionally high, you are missing the entire niche identity appeal mechanism: they are liked, in a large part, for being disliked by most others, nothing more. Try to move closer to mainstream (here: add better graphics) and you might alienate your acquired taste connoisseurs long before you start appealing to others.

Dwarf Fortress having mod packs is a pretty good idea. It has the text interface by default then people can make their own sprites. Then again most places don’t have the sort of community support Dwarf Fortress has.

Jeff could make his games moddable and then incorporate the most popular mods into the future versions of his games. Free work from fans who understand that they could get credit in the game but not necessarily paid. Or Jeff could just hire them after having already seen their work in his games.

Jeff tried "moddable" twice, with Blades of Exile and Blades of Avernum. He's said that sales of both games were terrible.

> By the way, Baba is You, referenced at the end, is an absolutely brilliant game, and while the art looks cheap like a toddler drew it

Actually it looks like an artist carefully imitating a child like style instead of saying "good enough". It's fine, good even. It looks simple, but it clearly actually is everything it needs to be.

Wow, burned so many hours on AdoM. Was a very unique rogeulike. Agreed, when the update came out, I just stopped playing it (mainly because I was running Adom-Sage which improved UX considerably).

Arrrgh, there are a lot of interesting and good points in the article but for the most part they miss the wood for the trees. The actual answer is that care isn't being taken to develop a style that looks good and meets his constraints. Jeff needs a good art director.

The Ultima V and Baba is You examples are excellent counter-points because they show how great games with simple styles can look.

> Jeff needs a good art director.

Did you miss the part where adding an employee would double his required budget for the game? Which means he needs at least double the sales? Which means more risk? And there's no guarantee he'll hit that even if the graphics look better?

He spells out that he's working with freelancers, who often flake out for (understandable) various reasons.

You would think after 25 years of making games he'd have enough sense to direct art himself in some way. Seems like he's rationalizing his choices instead of taking it upon himself to learn from his customer's criticisms and his own experience.

If I had made that many games over 3 decades I would have at least learned how to talk to freelance artists in a way that would get better over time. It seems Jeff has put no effort into it, or gave up too early because he's protected his choices with rationalizations.

Yes I agree. I almost feel bad for disagreeing with someone who obviously put so much love in his games and rightfully stands behind them, but I cannot shake off the feeling that there is a huge potential for improvement there that does not involve hiring additional people, more expensive artists, etc.

Just investing some of his own time reading up on the fundamentals of art, visual language, perception, color theory, could vastly improve his judgement. I try to build games for fun and learning, and I consciously avoid anything that goes beyond my (non-existing) knowledge about creating 'professional' game art. In my case I resort to abstract graphics or introduce very strict voluntary contraints (like: only 8x8 sprites), ie: similar to what games like Baba is You or boxboxboy are doing. If I were to ever shoot for a game that required 'professional game art' I would definitely invest time to get better at it before even considering to start the project.

It's a bit like the programming side of things. Don't try to build your own engine for your game if you barely know any programming, for example.

I suppose, but all of that takes time, and he is only one person, and he only has so much time. If he directs some of it toward all the things you're suggesting, he'll necessarily be directing it away from the things that make a Spiderweb game a Spiderweb game.

I don't think he ever came out and said this directly, but he dances around it throughout the article: As a very small indie developer, that's a huge risk to take. He could end up alienating his current fan base, while at the same time failing to satisfy the tastes of others.

That's a really good point that I think a lot of folks are overlooking. Spiderweb games has been around for a long time and has a dedicated following. I actually felt pretty alienated when things like Geneforge came out -- It seemed like a huge step away from the simple sprite-based graphics I loved in his earlier games. (Not that Geneforge was bad, mind you! Just a big change.) Spiderweb has always had a very distinct brand of artwork. Call it crappy if you want, but I've always quite liked it.

Don't underestimate the risk of changing your style, particularly when it's a defining part of the experience. You will lose at least some customers. It may be worth it, but it's a significant risk.

I'm also thinking here of Telltale games. The original Telltale wasn't ever going to take over the world. But they had figured out a niche where some people (largely, admittedly, a nostalgia crowd) liked what they were doing enough to send a little beer money their way every time they put out a new episode. It was sustainable.

And then at some point they had a moderate mainstream success, and that got them thinking that maybe they could grow into a much bigger game company, and so they started pushing hard at trying to grow. That was the point where me and a lot of other fairly loyal Telltale fans stopped buying their games. The effort they put into other things meant that they were no longer putting as much care into the things that earned them their original fan base. And, at the same time, they found out that breaking into the mainstream market is a lot harder than it looks.

And now there's no more Telltale Games.

As mentioned in the article though, he did take steps to improve the art once, only to again hear complaints about it looking bad. How much effort should he be expected to expend chasing those consumers? Will the cost make up for it? His own reasoning is no, it won't, and it is difficult to disagree when people complain that 720p resolution is "unplayable".

> I try to build games for fun and learning

So you're a dilettante? That's fine. So am I. But I don't wonder about my future if my game doesn't sell (or doesn't even ship). He does.

Perhaps you should consider being a little more generous in your thinking.

I was just giving my perspective, not trying to draw any comparisons between my for-fun side projects, and game development for a living. That said, I don’t see any context were either investing time getting better at things you know are a weakness, or recognizing and avoiding them, would be considered bad advice. 25 years is a long time.

>I try to build games for fun and learning

so basically you aren't selling your games? Are you even posting them on itch.io? Your constraint set is WILDLY different

> If I had made that many games over 3 decades I would have at least

Yeah, but you have not.

Maybe Jeff having a single minded focus – maybe even bordering ignorance – is a huge part of the reason why he, in fact, has done it and keeps on going after 3 decades.

Considering different choices, could he be more successful? He probably could, but considering the immense improbability of the level of success he enjoyed over a couple of decades in this particular profession (indie game maker), it seems far more likely that any big change could have made it all crash and burn somewhere along the way a long time ago.

>Seems like he's rationalizing his choices instead of taking it upon himself to learn from his customer's criticisms and his own experience.

The thing about Jeff is that he very much accepts "good enough". Could he make more or do better? Maybe. But that entails risk. Why bring on risk when you're already doing what you love doing and living off it? To make more money? Jeff's not motivated by money except insofar as it's necessary. He just wants to do what he loves and enjoy his life and family, and the "good enough" pace he's set delivers on that.

His art does nothing for me, either, but I do admire his willingness to settle for "good enough" in order to focus on what really matters to him.

Seems like you're rationalizing your assumptions instead of taking it upon yourself to understand the experience he's trying to convey.

> It seems Jeff has put no effort into it

From the article: "I have had games where I worked very hard to improve the graphics, spending a lot of time and money"

> he'd have enough sense to direct art himself in some way

He does direct art himself in some way: "That is why all of my games have a more generic fantasy style. I have to work with a lot of different artists. It's the nature of the business. Thus I have to write games in a way that the artists can be replaced. The generic style this requires is not ideal, but it is necessary."

>If I had made that many games over 3 decades I would have at least learned how to talk to freelance artists in a way that would get better over time.

The definition of armchair criticism, if I ever show one.

From someone with no experience on that front whatsoever, and who doesn't even get the financial constraints clearly spelt in the article...

Some people just have no aptitude for aesthetics. It's one thing to know what you like personally, another thing entirely to understand what other people may or may not like.

Besides which, it feels like you're missing the larger point that he really doesn't care what other people like, which he can afford to do because he's making a comfortable living. I think it's great that he's making a living doing things that he enjoys without having to add stress by adding extra layers of complexity in the process - which would help how? More money? He clearly feels that he doesn't need more.

It seems Jeff has put no effort into it

While I agree with your assessment, his argument from experience seems to be that none of that will affect his sales, so why bother. I'm sure he knows more about that than I do.

He says at the outset that he’s responsible for the art and everything is done to his specifications.

Maybe art just isn’t where his talent lies.

I actually wonder if he couldn’t make 2x or more by investing in the art. His previous efforts went from terrible to merely bad. It would be interesting to see what could happen if he crossed the threshold into acceptable.

Then again, I don’t know the total market size for this genre. Maybe even fantastic looking games don’t make enough to support two full timers?

After 25 years of making games, he is directing the art. The art style hasn’t changed - that doesn’t happen over a span of decades without direction.

His art direction just doesn’t match the tastes of a large number of folks. Neither did H.R. Geiger’s. Nothing wrong with that.

The art style hasn’t changed

But it has, that's what many people are commenting on. His last two games looked much better than his current game. It could just be the luck of the draw with regards to which artists showed up rather than a conscious choice, but his new game clearly has a different look than his previous game.

Yes, I hadn't seen any pictures of his new game, so I thought he was talking about Avadon, the Avernum re-remakes, and so on, all of which look fine despite having a decent amount of re-used art and being iso 2D. The screenshots for the new game look worse than any game he's previously released.

Maybe, maybe not. You'd think after spending over 12 years or so trying to read through untranslated Japanese games that I'd get some sense of reading the language. I can't point out some kanji and even read some common sentences by myself but the fact of the matter is I'm not gonna be native anytime soon without focused study.

I imagine it's the same case here. There may be some passive knowledge gained over the years but not enough to be a competent art director compared to if he even spent 6 months dedicating himself to learning.

> You would think after 25 years of making games he'd have enough sense to direct art himself in some way.

It might simply be that he isn't particularly interested in learning it. If he isn't motivated by being an art director, then it would very likely lead to burnout.

For what it's worth, I clicked the comment thread here before looking at the article. And without recognizing the author's name, my first thought from what people were saying about it was "It sounds like we're talking about Avernum."

I played the demo of one of his games on a bondi blue iMac back in the early 2000's. The graphics then looked ok. But it's 2019 and new titles don't look better.

I've wondered before who the userbase is for these; is it just fans from back in the day when game development was a smaller thing and the competition didn't have great artists either? Because I can't see getting into them as a new player.

Being able to sell 2x by having a more consistent and up to date art style honestly sounds low to me. Even as someone who's played my share of RPGs, had a Mac back in the day, and know that Spiderweb Software exists, that's the main thing holding me back from checking it out seriously.

But if he's getting by with what he's doing and spending more to try and reach a broader market is a risk he doesn't want to take, that's his call.

Except his competition isn't other indie developers,it's fully staffed studios in india/china/europe that earn the same amount of money with 3 or 4 times the developers. He has to be the best in a certain metric(he seems to have chosen story for this according to the limited time i've played his latest game) and he certainly is head and shoulders above his competition there.

You miss the point: many games have used lots of freelancers, but come out looking good because the one in charge of placing and paying for art has a good aestetic sense for what will look good together. They have an art director.

Being that they don't have budget for a new position, they just have to train someone to get better at art directing.

>they just have to train someone to get better at art directing.

You're missing the point: the author is happy with the games and the success they've brought to him and his family, and he doesn't "need" random tips from anonymous message-board posters, most of whom have shipped precisely zero games.

I think Jeff is a treasure to the games industry but this discussion is nothing to do with giving him tips but critique of an article that was posted publically. It's fair to read it and disagree with it in a place specifically setup to comment on such things.

I read it more as an explanation of why it the suggestions does not work for him.

Sure, it's fair to disagree, but it's also very easy to disagree when giving the suggestions does not put at risk a business that has sustained his family for a quarter century in a business where very few even large game studios have survived that long.

Well of course but that doesn't make the critique wrong to make nor dismiss it as irrelevant. Different perspectives are worthwhile to voice.

Likewise I think you both make good pints and both perspectives are valid. Idk what the argument is about.

>Did you miss the part where adding an employee would double his required budget for the game? Which means he needs at least double the sales?

How does that mean he needs to double the sale? That's not how any of this works unless he wasn't making a profit before.

Assuming his budget was $50k, and he made $250k in sales. Now if he increases budget to $100k, he sure as hell doesn't need $500k in sales to justify the decision, in fact as long as his sale goes beyond $300k, or a 20% increase, then it pays for the increased budget.

According to one old article[0], Geneforge 4 was $3,000 in the hole three years after launch. The current article sounds like he's supporting his family, but not by any great margin. Certainly not by enough of a margin to pay for a second salary out of profit.

[0] http://jeff-vogel.blogspot.com/2009/03/so-heres-how-many-gam...

He actually addresses why he won't solve any of the "problems" with more manpower. He's found local maxima and is willing to stay there because there are risks associated with moving.

But it's not a question of adding more manpower. When I say Jeff needs an art director I mean that Jeff needs to care about art direction and that making a good looking game with his existing constraints is perfectly feasible.

> When I say Jeff needs an art director I mean that Jeff needs to care about art direction and that making a good looking game with his existing constraints is perfectly feasible.

Then say that instead of "Jeff needs an art director", which literally means that Jeff needs an art director. Which means another employee. It doesn't mean "Jeff needs to be an art director". Which he is, but results in the current situation where his games have the art they have, people complain, he writes an article explaining, and people like you criticize him for reasonable justification for why things are the way things are.

It is a circular problem:

When you care about art, you usually got some sense of aesthetics and feel more likely unable to bring yourself to ship anything that looks simply bad to yourself.

When you don't got the eyes to see bad art as what it is, you also won't see it as a problem that really needs fixing so you care less about it than is good for you.

You have to strike a balance there. Games are visual independend of the style. Yes you play them – but before you even decide to pick a game up, you see screenshots, trailers or game-play-videos. If that doesn't look interesting, you can have the most interesing gameplay in the universe and it wouldn't sell.

A bit like in films, where the best script can be destroyed by bad acting or the best acting can be destroyed by bad scripts as a passionate creator you have to realize that this is a serious issue.

Amateur filmmakers might figure out directing techniques to get top notch acting out of people who never stood in front of a camera before or they might search very patiently till somebody crosses their way who is a natural talent.

The thing is to precisely know your limitations and do the best you can do within them, sometimes even by not copying the best, but by finding glorious short cuts that sometimes create whole new genres.

> When you don't got the eyes to see bad art as what it is,

... then you will also be very bad at hiring a good art director. You could easily end up hiring somebody who is really bad and you wouldn't know.

Even with all the money that Microsoft had in the 90'ies, they couldn't make Windows look good.

I agree that Microsoft's visual design usually leaves a lot to be desired, but I think at one point in the 90s they did succeed for a brief moment – with Windows 95. Compared to its contemporaries like Motif and OS/2 it looks really slick and elegant. (Of course, from the "design is how it works" angle, it's a pretty poor imitation of OS/2's Workplace Shell.)

Jeff needs an art director doesn't imply anything more than that. It could be him, it could be another full time employee or it could be something he has a freelancer develop at the start of the project.

Jeff has an art director. And he likes what that art director produces. You don't, but he does.

I don't disagree with that at all and of course Jeff will do what he wants and is welcome to that. I just think the art direction is the encompassing unaddressed point that follows through the article despite the enumerated constraints. Also where he does touch on art direction the things he chooses to highlight are not why his games look bad. Particularly when he highlights games he grew up with like Ultima V which IMO still looks great despite being made with the constraints that existed in 1988. I'm also well aware that it hasn't prevented him running a successful business.

I don't think his liking his games art is a reason not to comment with my take on his blog post about it though.

But what I think you're missing is that in order to have an art director who is capable of delivering on what you're talking about, Jeff would need another person. And he clearly explains why he does not want to risk hiring another person.

And it seems like he focused more on making sure that his artists were replaceable, even at the price of a hodge-podge style. The criticism is legitimate - it doesn't seem like Jeff has invested in his own ability to direct art.

Yeah and because art has vastly different constraints from coding, wanting to swap out artists is just counterproductive.

Then again, the older I get, the more I think the same should apply to developers. You should never lock knowledge inside one person's head, but the idea that you can take over a project without its original creators doing a years long hand off is naive, and leads to all the expected pathologies.

I remember a new $250k CTO saying he was amazed our code didn't have abandoned parts nobody wanted to touch ... this is how professionals are supposed to work, not something they discover "late" in their career.

> wanting to swap out artists is just counterproductive

You're saying this like this was one of his design goals from the very beginning when he started 25 years ago. No, it's become a requirement because of how unreliable freelancers can be and how difficult it is to find a replacement that is able or willing to stick to the previous style. Thus generic fantasy stuff has become his solution to this issue that is unavoidable, regardless of whether people agree with him or not.

Perhaps. Or maybe freelance artists are frustrated working with someone who doesn't seem to understand what they like to see in good work, and what gives them a sense of satisfaction in a product they have worked on.

I mean the guy seems incapable of comprehending style if this is what he's putting out 25 years in.

Maybe. Doesn't change the position he's in though. Let's say he is incapable of comprehending style. What do you suggest he's supposed to do now?

I see all this criticism here and I don't see any real solutions that would, on a realistic, concrete level, help him in any way improve his business.

I don't really see the problem. If you're not a visual person, and you don't want to be, you shouldn't make visual decisions. He's already hiring freelancers, so he obviously gets this point. The problem is, he should just give a freelancer a broader brief. Like, 'pick all the colours the game will use'. Or even, 'do the art'. I don't see what the difference is between hiring a freelancer to do direction, and hiring somebody to do a couple of sprites.

Direction is usually a continuous process. Freelancers, as he states, are rarely continuous as they move on to other project etc.

It's common in the advertising world for a company to be paid to produce a design document, that specifies stuff like writing style, colours, photograph guidelines, and so on. The idea is to create a guide for making media that fits the brand. Doesn't need to be complicated - from what I saw of his games, it would be a night-and-day improvement if he just had a decent palette.

I think everyone is missing the point. This was not a call for help. It was an explanation of why things are the way they are and why they will not change. Guy's found a way to make a living with the skillset he has and I say power to him.

> I mean the guy seems incapable of comprehending style if this is what he's putting out 25 years in.

It looks worse than his previous games, so he's gotten worse with time.

> Yeah and because art has vastly different constraints from coding, wanting to swap out artists is just counterproductive.

It's actually really common. Most games take years to make and in my experience at least it's very unusual to ship with the same team that started. Art is also the side of things that most readily gets outsourced, either through bought and modified assets or through freelancers and outsourcing companies. Maintaining consistency is something that has to be managed.

Well, he cares a lot about story. It takes time to care.

If he also cares about art more, then the other thing he cares about, namely; his one family, are denied that time.

Everything costs something.

...if he were a different person, perhaps.

You don't need increased manpower to over time develop a better sense for how well your game's screens are composed and if things fit together or not. This is a skill you can improve yourself by mostly paying attention. This kind of blindness to your own game's visual quality is a common problem that everyone making a game experiences and people generally work around it by relying on feedback from other developers or from the general public, which you don't need to pay for as you can do it online by just posting images or gifs from your games and seeing how well people react.

A small example of taste problems: in the top screenshot, everything is unnaturally square. It is completely unnecessary: the tiles have different edge types for transitions (e.g. "vertical edge with dark dirt in the low and middle portion and light dirt in the top portion"), there is (presumably) a tileset with all supported edge type combinations and it wouldn't cost more to use nicer shapes. This art has simply been approved as-is, without technical or budget constraints apart from bothering to try more variations.

Additionally it helps to have a unique, well thought out and recognizable style in a game when you want to convince your audience that you are making good games and you are not some guy who tried out a game editor for the first thime with that generic texture pack he found on the internet.

People are very visual and your game can be amazing in terms of story or programming, but you also need to sell them visually. That doesn't mean every game has to go for amazing graphics, but it must make sense and look interesting. E.g. nethack looks more interesting without generic sprite package, till somebody developes one with a consistent style.

It takes years to get good at this, unless you did it since you were born. You pay good artists exactly for these years.

Jeff has had 25 years to get good at it. Based on the reasoning in his article, it seems like he didn't try.

That would be my guess too. Another guess would be that for him visuals have simply never been a thing that was all that important – otherwise he would have tried to learn a thing or two about this important part of games on his journey.

The thing people need to realize is that in compound arts like games, films, theatre every part is important. You can do a film with poor lighting if every other aspect is great and there is a reason why the poor lighting adds to the film as a whole. But you can't make films for 25 years and decide sound isn't all that important – unless you want to look like a complete amateur.

Visuals are an important part of games and independent of the style (photo realism, toon, purely ascii, ...) a game is much more interesting to pick up and play when you feel somebody actually cared about what they put in front of your eyeballs.

If you see a trailer of a film, filmed on a shaky phone with bad light and indistinguishable dialoge, you might decide to never watch it, even if it would've been the most interesting and moving story of all times. But that would've been the fault of the film maker, because they failed to convince you why you need to watch this film despite the technical flaws.

That means you need to see the thing as a whole, only then you can decide which role each part ought to play.

> But you can't make films for 25 years and decide sound isn't all that important – unless you want to look like a complete amateur.

Given that he's making a living with his current strategy, and has been for twenty-five years, he is by definition not an amateur, let alone a complete one.

Indeed, the amateur is more likely the person who insists on making every aspect match their aesthetic ideal. They are not giving thought to what could make them profitable, instead focusing on building something that is precisely what they want.

Limited visuals just enhance your judgement of everything else in the game - as long as you're willing to move beyond the limited visuals. Some people are, despite the tone of the haters.

>it seems like he didn't try.

He got good at other things he cared more about it.

Maybe he should hang out on HackerNews more, so he can be an expert on everything.

Well if you make games, and visuals are a part of a game, then knowing when your visuals need improvement is a crucial skill.

Jeff doesn't needs to be an expert in everything, he needs to see what doesn't work and fix it, let others fix it or decide this is as good as it gets.

> decide this is as good as it gets.

He just wrote a very long article explaining just that.

And it reads like and excuse to himself, which is probably the reason for the reaction on HN. A bit like a film maker who says: "If only I had the budget, Hollywood has, I could totally do better films than them".

Don't get me wrong, good art doesn't necessarily need a lot of money or resources. It needs the right eyes that know when it works and when it doesn't. He seems to aknowledge he doesn't have them and explains why he can't hire someone, all perfectly fine. But also sad, because if he could he clearly would.

> good art doesn't necessarily need a lot of money or resources

Having spent at least as much money, out of pocket, on a game that never shipped as JV spends to ship something consistent that feeds his family, I can assure you that this is not the case. Art is far-and-away the most expensive part of any game that wants mass market appeal. It just is. It doesn't matter if you're using a bunch of freelancers from countries that lost all their vowels along the way, it's still expensive.

The solution, then, is to build a long-tail audience that'll buy your stuff because it scratches that itch, even if it doesn't to people who are just window shopping. You know--what JV has done.

I think you overread the "necessarily" part of my quote. Good art can cost a ton and it does so for a reason. I (among other things) worked as a freelance designer, so I know.

What I meant however is that depending on the genre you might find solutions that you can do yourself far easier with equally good (or better) results. You could work with one-color abstract shapes and give them a good feel by using the right deformation and stick some eyes on them. Minimal styles can work in your favour at times etc. Filmmakers also use similar ideas – can't afford to show thing A? Let the protagonist tell us about it in a internal monologue and use it to your advantage. That kind of stuff.

This approach obviously won't work for every game or genre, depending on the scope, but I didn't say it would.

I didn't miss that "necessarily", I disregarded it as stakes-free theorycrafting. I know how much art costs and I know from personal experience how quickly art people flake if you aren't paying enough money to keep them in line. (Which is something people here take for granted amongst developers, but for some reason nobody else.)

"Depending on the genre"--JV makes Ultima-alikes. So by this theorycrafting he should stop making the games that make him money because people like me will buy all of them so he can go make different games that might be more amenable to cheaper art and not have a built-in customer base that is highly consistent and predictable?

JV makes his games the way he does because people like me already follow him and will buy them. His entire business model is built on not taking risks. What is the obsession around here with disregarding that?

Ah okay, that's where our misunderstanding stems from: to me JV is some guy who wrote a blog post and my statement was not meant as a response specifically to him, but as general advice to not choose a art style that is hard to implement given your existing means of production (be it your own time, skill or the money you have for hiring people).

For you it was specifically about that one guy whose games you like as they are and I didn't mean to critizise them. The relativizations uttered by me like "depending on the genre" or "necessarily" were meant to act as hints, that I was talking in a more general sense here. Maybe what he wrote is great advice for other devs who create ultima-alikes, I can't really judge that.

How much does it cost to flip a sprite so the light in a scene is all coming from the same direction?

No he's not saying he could make better games than AAA if he had funding, he's outright stating that his games are top notch in his niche(as per his belief and shown by his customer's faith in his products)

I'm so glad somebody sane has shown up.

The guy is doing well, relative to his own aims and objectives, and has found a way to work within his limitations to hit a sweet spot that allows him to support his family in a happy life and provide games enjoyed by a loyal fanbase.

What do we discover from HN? He's a lazy bugger that hasn't put any real effort in to respond to his customer's complaints and has failed to learn key lessons regarding his own business (that he has successfully run for twenty-five years).

Sometimes this place is completely ridiculous.

This is what I said in a different comment: there are people like that in film too – they make films their whole life, found a certain level that they feel comfortable with and settle there. That is a perfectly fine choice and in no way should anybody talk bad about it.

The only thing that bugs me however is when they try to come up with excuses why their works don't live up to the standard of other artists judge themselves by. Jeff listed some quite compelling arguments for his decision, most of them economical, but it still feels like an excuse of somebody who knows they could do better, which is kinda sad.

Why is that sad? He seems to be perfectly content, maybe except for about the fact that some people criticize him.

You don't have to always strive to be among the world elite at everything. Often, mediocrity in some areas of life (professional or otherwise) is a perfectly valid choice that will lead to greater happiness in the end.

Why should he expend effort getting better at something he doesn't really care that much about when he can spend his time getting better at things he does? People like you always seem to miss the thing about time being a scarce resource.

"People like me" are uttering these things, because "people like me" are facing the same or similar questions themselves. You are right about time being a scarce resource. This is precisely the reason why one shouldn't skimp on $IMPORTANT_THING: because it can greatly reduce the value of all the time put into the thing already.

So you got me 180° wrong – if his motives were purely economical, I'd completely understand his arguments. But because it is not purely economical I see this as a vague sign that he might not value the time he put into it himself enough, which is never a good thing in the long term.

Why does the sum of the value of his time have to be expressed purely in profit? That's ridiculous. Way I see it, he's optimized for the amount of enjoyment he gets out of what he does while still being able to pay the bills with it. We could all hope to be so lucky.

I nowhere said that it did.

For me the actual message is that he doesn't have money to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks, and he's not going to risk going into debt.

Very much this. It's hard to find a middle ground in software. You either bootstrap mom & pop, in which case you have limited output and limited options for development, but with a bit of luck and skill you can keep a solid lifestyle business running.

Or you try and hop on the unicorn train and start looking for external funding - which will invariably start trying to run your business for you, in ways which you may not want.

The big money is in the latter, but not everyone wants to deal with the proto-corporate bullshit that goes with it.

Occasionally you can find niches - usually B2B, because high-worth bootstrap B2C is very hard - which bring in enough to allow solid growth without huge upfront spending on people and offices.

But they're very rare. And apart from the odd flash-in-the-pan one offs, small games are not usually one of those niches.

Yet some small developers have managed to build visually stunning games, like Brigadier. Enter The Gungeon, Stardew Valley, Dungeons Of The Endless, were all developed by very small teams.

At least one of those games--Brigadier--failed so hard that the team fell apart. The others don't take into account that for every one of those successes there are ten or twenty failures.

JV isn't trying to be a runaway success, he's trying to not be a failure. I don't quite get why that's so hard for folks here to parse.

It's hard to grok until you've gone into business for yourself.

I think it is partially a skill set issue. I can appreciate good pixel art but I am at a total loss for how to create it, which has been a major reason I haven't making my own game (and pixel art packs are each too small and feel too distinct to be able to mix). Some people just go with the graphics they can do, don't care about looks, and focus on making the games good in other ways. It probably prevents them from being as massive a hit, but that is likely a better place to be than where I am, still too unsure to get off the ground level and actually make something.

> (and pixel art packs are each too small and feel too distinct to be able to mix).

Hard to disagree with that. I have a few from Humble bundles and can't even use them in prototypes. They're just a grab bag of junk.

They had such a bundle a week ago and I was kinda left wondering who would make use of such a pack. To have the skills to integrate such a pack would imply having enough skills to not have use for such a pack.

Maybe for slightly better placeholder art for a game before they are ready to invest in an art upgrade?

> Yet some small developers have managed to build visually stunning games,

That's Voegl's point 3. There, he admits he probably could develop a more impressive-looking single game, but doing so would make him dependent on the freelancer responsible for the art style (risky) or on paying much more for other art to match the style (expensive).

I forgot to mention Prison Architect which takes the cake. At a first glance it look like horrendous programmer-art, but soon it dawns that it is all fully animated and it is just a joy to watch a prison humming along, with every character doing their thing.

It is still horrendous. You are just getting positive associacions with it. Same way if you delve deep into Exile you think "OMG A Dragon! How huge!" not "damn, that's ugly bunch of pixels"

> all developed by very small teams.

Key here is "teams". It's really hard for one person to bring all of those skills to the table.

I meant Brigador there.

I just don't think he has good taste. You don't necessarily need a bunch of resources to make things look nice, but you need to know what you want.

Exactly: if you have constraints on your work, then recognise the constraints and work within them. Don't try to mix 3D realistic faces in with low-fidelity 2D art, because it just ends up sticking out like a sore thumb.

And at least choose a decent font (looking at the first screenshot on the blog post)

> Jeff needs a good art director.

He does address this in the article: Hiring more people means he directly needs to make more sales, which (I also know from experience) is very difficult to do. Hiring dead weight like an "art director" probably means hiring even more people to carry out the directions of the art director, since they're unlikely to be a can-do person themselves.

I think you have some odd preconceptions about what an art director role on a small indie team would be like. For the kind of thing Jeff is talking about I'd not even suggest it be an in-house role and would definitely expect them to be producing art.

> Jeff needs a good art director.

The article can be summed into two points:

1) I'm not a good art director 2) Having better art is on my "won't do" list

> Jeff needs a good art director.

Nah. I mean, I want Jeff to have a good art director because I find the visuals distracting and a bit unpleasant part of games I otherwise might enjoy, but it's pretty clear he doesn't need one.

Haha I love how 90% of the comments are from just exactly the same people who he wrote this blog post for, and they still make the same points again :D

I have an indie game myself (Skyturns on G Play) and if you are not an artist, making good art is simply really hard. Someone says ”this menu is ugly”, and the cognitive load of making it meet their expectations is massive.

I even have graphically skilled people critiquing my game, paying them, but then coming back with more ugly menus. A real skilled professional art director is hard to find, recruit and motivate.

On a small scale its a ton of freedom to just let your game be somewhat ugly and just focus on what you yourself is great at.

For all the 1000 opinions I’ve heard about my games menus, not one of these people have produced something better. That 1001st person who actually knows drawing, colors and UX is the professional art director, which is possible to find, but the energy required to find him/her and pay is also something that can go somewhere else!

> if you are not an artist, making good art is simply really hard

And if you are not a programmer, making a good game is really hard. But you can learn. If you are willing to put in the effort to develop your own sense of the aesthetic, even a small amount of time can result in huge improvements.

You don't need an "art director" and neither does this guy.

If you think your menus are ugly, find some menus that you don't think are ugly and ask yourself what it is about them that makes them not ugly. When you can answer that question with certainty and apply the answer to your own menus, that's a first step towards improvement.

PS: I spent 10 minutes on your game. It's fun.

Hey, believe me I'm working on it, those menus I have are like 10 iterations in! And I'm looking for art help too. Just saying its a cognitive load, both the learning, iteration, , finding people and paying them. I could instead say "fcuk it" and focus ONLY on the things I'm good at, it's an option that I can understand.

Happy to hear you tried and liked the game! Lots of things in the pipeline

I wonder what the sentiment would be if the situation was reversed.

Here we have a developer effectively looking to pay below market rates for artists, and then unsurprisingly not finding many good artists willing to do that long term. Not a judgment on my part, just saying that he's looking to keep the art budget to an absolute minimum.

Instead if it was an artist defending his choice to make relatively simple games because he just can't find good developers willing to work for cheap for long enough to complete a project.

The line that stood out me in this context:

I can't stress this enough: Finding talented, reliable, reasonably priced freelancers is HARD. Cherish them when you find them.

If the context of the discussion was about developers instead of artists, how would HackerNews feel about someone lamenting the fact that they can't get any "affordable" developers to work on their projects?

Also, as an aside:

The key problem here is that, when most people say, "Your art looks bad," what they mean is, "I want art that is good." They mean, "I want AAA-quality art." And I can't make that. Not even close.

That seems like a pretty big strawman to me. There is a large grey area between "crap" and "AAA-quality".

> If the context of the discussion was about developers instead of artists, how would HackerNews feel about someone lamenting the fact that they can't get any "affordable" developers to work on their projects?

I'm not sure the reaction would be all that negative, to be honest.

The problem to me isn't when someone says "we want cheap work and we understand it will not be particularly high-quality," but when they say "we want top-quality work but we're not willing to pay for it."

Voegl's expectations here are honest -- refreshingly so. He's openly paying for artists, but he's paying for art to a budget rather than budgeting to art.

> There is a large grey area between "crap" and "AAA-quality".

I think Voegl addresses that in the middle of the "1." section -- he has had games with "improved" art, but the improved art did not increase sales enough to justify the expense. If an epsilon improvement in art did not improve profits, then it suggests he's near a local optimum.

His problem, and you can see from his wording, is that he thinks about "graphics" not "art." Sure he made a 3d game. So what. He doesn't seem to have the same passion for art direction as he does for game design so its not surprising at all that you can throw money at the wrong problem and not get much out.

> He doesn't seem to have the same passion for art direction as he does for game design so its not surprising at all that you can throw money at the wrong problem and not get much out.

I think that's the most robust critical takeaway from this Hacker News thread. Vogel feels as if marginal spending on art assets is unprofitable, but if a root problem is instead artistic consistency then more expensive art is not necessarily (much) more effective art.

That said, this also doesn't negate Vogel's business point, that it's always worth examining what's "good enough" to optimize return. Suppose Vogel doesn't have and can't easily develop a good artistic eye for consistency; it's still probably not worth it to hire someone else to do it for him.

it's more of a taste problem than a budget problem, plenty games go low fi and are amusing both to play and look at, i.e. Celeste

Specifically its more of an art direction problem.

If you have an artist with decent technical skills, enough time, and an excellent art director, you can still achieve great results. Eventually that Artist will learn and become better in what they independently produce.

Plus, the art is visible through a camera, and with post-processing and FX - which are easily controlled or influenced by that same art director. Just tweaking colour, camera angle, and FOV can produce incredibly unique results.

I had a very small budget, and no team, and was able to produce something regarded as reasonably good-looking in 3D for Frontline Zed:


Your game looks great, and so do many other indie games with low budgets like Stardew Valley and Axiom Verge to name just a few examples, even though there are many more.

Vogel just isn't willing to put in time and money into visuals because it's probably a combination of it 1. not being a priority for him and 2. lacking the skill for visual design (not necessarily implementing it, but just having an eye for it) which is probably also due to the point #1

It looks awesome! Best of luck.

The problem to me isn't when someone says "we want cheap work and we understand it will not be particularly high-quality," but when they say "we want top-quality work but we're not willing to pay for it."

And to me, I read it as he expects more towards the latter than the former. "Talented, reliable" implies an expectation of a specific level of quality beyond "cheap work, not particularly high-quality".

I read "reliable" as "delivers, preferably on time." That's reasonable to ask for from any freelancer, but since Vogel specifically doesn't pay enough to keep artists on retainer I can understand how he doesn't always get it.

I don't have such a high reading of "talented," since others in this thread generally complain that Vogel has a poor eye for quality, and Vogel in this blog post notes he's looking for a basic 'good enough'.

I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, in particular since he understands that not having a reliable cadre of artists is his problem and not that of primadonna artists. The stereotypical out-of-touch manager who asks for "top-quality work on a shoestring budget" also externalizes the blame for failure.

That is: I think many people are responding to this blog post as if it had read "our games look like crap, but that's because we can't find good artists," rather than "... and that's fine by me, we're getting what we want to pay for."

>Finding talented, reliable, reasonably priced freelancers is HARD

He wants the talent, but he finds talented artists to demand an unreasonable amount of money. To me it's him that comes off as unreasonable.

I think you're ignoring his statements about his business model, game audience, ROI for graphic's improvement, etc.

No I'm not. In fact, that just supports my point; he doesn't want to spend much on design because it won't make him more money, but he wants "talented and dependable" designers. You know that old "pick two" saying? Also, something about cake comes to mind.

Something made of straws comes to mind.

Don't see why it would. Maybe I am reading too much into that one sentence, I don't know. The whole "talented... for a reasonable price" bit stuck with me though. If all of the talented people want a certain rate, then guess what? That's the market rate.

Yes and he acknowledges that by saying they are "really HARD" to find. Clearly after 25 years in the industry he didn't wait for you to point out that reliable talented artists don't usually come cheap. He's simply decided they are not worth the price tag for his business.

...again, his definition of 'reasonable' is what's off here.

I hadn't noticed that angle, being fully invested in getting kids of my 256-color lawn. However, I feel a little more sympathetic towards Vogel; consistently making money in the games industry is borderline impossible. If, as he suggests early on, he is supporting a family with his small business, investing more than the absolute minimum in art, particularly when he has proven his business model, must look like a serious risk. Cheap art, and he knows he can recover from a failure; blow a lot of money on art, and the game sucks anyway, and he's finished, and has to go and get a day job, and post cantankerous comments on Hacker News during his lunch break. I wouldn't wish that on anybody.

I agree with your aside comment. That quote in the original article really jumped out to me. There are a ton of great indie games that have solid cohesive art direction but wouldn't be considered even close to AAA quality in terms of production effort. Some beloved heavy hitters would include the Steamworld series, Celeste, Undertale, Super Meat Boy. These are games made on a shoestring development team that don't look like garbage.

I think it would be one thing for the author to dig in his heels and make janky looking games because he truly likes them that way, but it sounds from his tone that he'd rather blame external factors for what on some level he knows is his own mediocrity.

JV spends astonishingly little on art because his games don't make very much. His audience is small (I am part of it) and his audience values that particular kind of game way more than it does art--and the marginal return from making it look a little better to appeal to a little wider of a crowd is historically negative. He cited as much, and he's talked about his numbers in concrete terms before.

Every game you listed, every one, has spends at least one FTE or FTE equivalent, either in sweat equity or in cold hard cash, on their art. (And at least in the case of Steamworld, more than one!) JV's games literally don't make enough money to pay that person. What the heck do you expect him to do?

You're only mentioning the successes, what about all the Steam failures? Your post ignores that, unlike most of those relatively-very-expensive indie games that come out, go "plunk", and their developers go back to a real job, JV has successfully kept doing this for twenty-five years. He's had stinkers and still survived. The machine keeps cranking because of a relentless focus on cost control and making the game that somebody like me wants, even if it means that somebody like you adjusts your pince-nez and waxes on about his "mediocrity".

One thing that bothers me in this discussion is the 'business model' justification.

>his audience values that particular kind of game way more than it does art

Isn't that ridiculously self-selecting? If he's always been making ugly games, then it follows that his current customer base will be limited to people who don't care as much about visuals. This will always be true, regardless of what genre games you're making.

It absolutely does not mean that he wouldn't expand his audience by making good-looking games. In fact, if what he said is true and most of his current customers don't care about looks, it's more likely an indicator that the subpar visuals are indeed costing him customers.

I honestly have a hard time grasping that this even passes as an argument. It's like someone who sells shit sandwiches saying their customers don't mind the shit taste.

You might disagree--which is fine--but as one of those folks who've steadily paid his mortgage from his games I don't think the art style is ugly. It's functional. It's not particularly good, nor is it distractingly bad. That's clearly enough for the audience that he, with low-risk projects, makes enough money to get by on.

I assume that you have read the article and read how JV has tried spending more money to update his graphics in an effort to expand his customer base, to little effect. And since I assume you must understand that one can evaluate marginal returns based on cost outlay, I would think that this line of thinking should make sense, even if you disagree with it.

I've said it elsewhere in this thread but I'll say it again: the goal when running a small business is not to take over the world. The goal is to not fail. Expending scarce resources on bets with a ROI ratio under one is not a good way to avoid failure.

>JV has tried spending more money to update his graphics in an effort to expand his customer base, to little effect

I'm sceptical of this for 2 reasons

1. It assumes cause and effect are linear, which I doubt. People are put off because the games look bad. Making a game that looks better, but still bad, doesn't solve this issue. In order for Jeff to be able to properly evaluate the ROI of making his games look not-bad, he would need to have made a not-bad looking game. This is arguably not the case.

2. It's clear from the article that Jeff doesn't really understand what makes a game looks good. As a result, if he's spending extra resources on making the game look better, they're likely not well spent. The money would need to go into foundational efforts like consistent color palettes to make it visually pleasing, consistent lighting so everything feels like it's part of the same world, proper shading so everything looks grounded, making sure everything looks to scale, balancing out the level of detail between pieces to make sure the right things stand out, etc etc. In the article, he stated that he thinks good art = AAA level, so I'm guessing Jeff just paid artists to add more details to faces and monsters - which really isn't going to solve anything.

> the goal when running a small business is not to take over the world. The goal is to not fail. Expending scarce resources on bets with a ROI ratio under one is not a good way to avoid failure.

I can completely respect this decision. He's trying to run a certain kind of business and that imposes a certain set of constraints.

The irony though is that Jeff is the one who's not respecting those constraints.

It's entirely possible to spend little on art and still have a good looking game. Just pick a simple art style that can be executed fast. Alternatively, if you want to have a good looking game in your personally preferred style - that also happens to be more expensive to produce - that's also entirely possible. It will just cost you more.

Both options are fine.

But Jeff is spending little on art and at the same time asking artists to make highly detailed artworks. There's just no chance of that working out well. The poor results are not imposed by his business constraints, but rather from his failing to respect them.

I think the issue is that this particular game look worse than his previous games (of course here YMMV), which were done with lower budgets (not Kickstartered).

I do agree that Queen's Wish looks worse, FWIW. (I think the perspective is maybe not great.) But I don't know if this is actually a significantly higher budget game, though, rather than just one where he has the capital up front. Kickstarter-as-preorder is kinda what it's turned into for games. As such, I totally get the intense focus on not eating the seed corn.

Semi-jokingly: he should just dig up the Exile I tileset he included a screenshot of in the article and go to town. IMO that's the best his games have ever looked, aside from maybe Nethergate (and some of the more artfully done Blades of Exile scenarios, of course, but that wasn't him).

Vogel should peek over the fence at the adjacent roguelike community and do what they've done: custom tileset support. He's clearly not that invested in his games as aesthetic experiences, and that's his prerogative, but in the year 2019 it's actually not that uncommon for game communities to scratch their own itch in that regard when allowed.

I think Exile I's graphics look pretty good, yeah. For me, it's the Exile III version of the Realmz graphics, followed by the original Exile I graphics. (The backported Exile III graphics to Exile I and II look weird to me.) His newer background/tile graphics look just fine to me too, though.

I built a couple full-tileset mods for Blades of Exile back in the day. You can do it with the new Avernum engine too. Of course, he could definitely make it easier.

I kind of understand why the graphics were redone for Exile III, since there was a need to add a lot of aboveground tiles, and also cave tiles were needed for caves that were not Exile proper but just troglodyte dens or whatever. But the gray cave floor never felt as alien to me as what Exile is supposed to be. It bothered me less in Exile III since you spend so little time there, but it was weird backported, as you say. And of course it also ended up affecting BoE.

Now I'm feeling nostalgic. Wonder if I could get BoE running again.

There are fan ports that run BoE on modern computers. Or, if you're on Linux, it runs well on WINE.

(Are you...the Djur? ;) )

Yeah, I got as far as building OBoE a while back but ran into some issues with the UI. I think screen magnification would do the trick.

(Guilty as charged, I'm afraid! Been a long time.)

> the Exile III version of the Realmz graphics

What do you mean by this?

I miss Realmz¹, and until today didn't realize that the developer of Realmz was also the publisher of the Exile series. But I still can't figure out what "the Exile III version of the Realmz" graphics is referring to.

¹My ringtone is actually the Realmz outdoor theme.

Spiderweb Software and the Realmz folks collaborated to buy an art set, which became the Exile III graphics (and fans kinda just call them "the Realmz graphics"). They were then (somewhat) modified and backported to Exile I and II in ways that didn't always work great, which became the Exile I/II versions of those graphics.

Ah, interesting. I loved the heck out of the Exile games but I was unaware of details like this. I didn't even realize Exile I/II got graphics updates.

I remember a lot more red in Exile I. The caves got more dull and gray in Exile II.

Here's the OG splash screen: http://macintoshgarden.org/games/exile-escape-from-the-pit

And here's the update: http://macintoshgarden.org/sites/macintoshgarden.org/files/s...

Interesting -- I actually see three different versions of the splash screen at that first link! (One with red text on a gray background and 1.0 graphics, one with blue text on a gray background and 1.0 graphics, and one with gray text on a gray background and 2.0 graphics.) There's also two different 3D-rendered splash screens.

That first screenshot looks like what I remember. I guess I never saw the graphics update.

For reference, the Queen's Wish kickstarter raised less than $100,000.

For each Undertale, how many games do you think there are out there that look good that will never break even?

There are two sides to this: Can you make better games for cheap? Sure you can, many people have. But the second question is: How large a proportion of those who try that would be able to keep churning out profitable games for 25 years?

Or even produce a single profitable game?

There's nothing mediocre about managing to pump out profitable games for 25 years - very, very few people manage to do that successfully. His games may well be mediocre, or at least look mediocre, but in terms of success he's doing far better than most just by still being there.

Undertale had really amateur art but it was cohesive and looked like someone actually cared about it, versus a bunch of parts-bin stock graphics some guy bought on discount.

I don't doubt the guy is successful, but he doesn't really bring up a convincing argument for his position. He could be potentially be MORE successful if he invested a little more in visual aspects of his games. Reading an article about why it isn't a priority for him isn't that interesting to me.

> He could be potentially be MORE successful if he invested a little more in visual aspects of his games.

Covered in the article (and previous blog posts, I think): I have had games where I worked very hard to improve the graphics, spending a lot of time and money, and they really did look better! But when I released those games, the vast majority of people who had said, "Your games look bad." STILL said, "Your games look bad."

They really did look better, it's just that the vast majority of people didn't think so.

Sounds like someone who worked at all the wrong things to "improve" because they don't listen to feedback.

> Undertale had really amateur art

Not sure I can agree with that. Undertale had lo-fi art, but there was a lot of care put into it.

The video game market is very different today than it was a decade ago, or two decades ago. I wouldn't compare making and selling a simple game on CD 20 years ago vs today.

Among other things, there are much higher expectations on graphics and it's a lot harder to make 3D world and assets than it was to make 2D sprites. Cheap games are also facing a fierce competition from a truckload of other cheap games and previous AAA titles. There are more games than people can play and why buy Game 2019 when Game 2015 is just as good and 75% off.

And yet he's still profitable. That he's remained profitable through all those kind of changes suggests to me he knows his market very well.

Actually, he completely owned his mediocrity, and he cited cost and risk, as well as his own comfort with said mediocrity as reasons for continuing with it.

Then he talked about great stories.

Definitely not mediocre.

So, the take away is story can sell to fans of story and game play.

That is not wrong. It has, does, and I suspect, will continue to.

> If the context of the discussion was about developers instead of artists, how would HackerNews feel about someone lamenting the fact that they can't get any "affordable" developers to work on their projects?

That's an interesting way to look at this article. It seems that many solo entrepreneurs have a hard time evaluating the skills of those outside their own domain.

It feels arrogant to criticize someone profitably running their own company for 25 years, but I wonder if he would be better served by hiring a design/UX firm for a day or two to get some guidance on achieving a consistent look while still spending less money.

I'm not sure such a firm exists, for what you're talking about. In games, you often have an art director whose job is to create that consistent look (and such an art director can make freelancer work way, way more cohesive!). But you have to pay that person, and it's an ongoing task.

He doesn't sound willing to take outside advice on visual aspects of his games.

> If the context of the discussion was about developers instead of artists, how would HackerNews feel about someone lamenting the fact that they can't get any "affordable" developers to work on their projects?

There are plenty of entrepreneurs here that hire all kinds of people, and always try to find good bang for the buck. Isn't that normal? I personally have hired artists, developers, marketers, lawyers, managers, you name it... I don't see why I would deal with any profession any different.

>> The key problem here is that, when most people say, "Your art looks bad," what they mean is, "I want art that is good." They mean, "I want AAA-quality art." And I can't make that. Not even close.

> That seems like a pretty big strawman to me. There is a large grey area between "crap" and "AAA-quality".

And even then, you can have low-budget (like what Vogel is doing) with good-looking art, as in good art direction, which he has already done.

That seems like a pretty big strawman to me. There is a large grey area between "crap" and "AAA-quality".

I'm one of the players that's on the margin between his graphically "good" games, e.g. the Avernum remakes, which use a vaguely consistent colour palette and are comfortable to play, and his graphically awful games, e.g. the first Geneforge, which has an eye-stabbingly bright green border around the game area that's brighter and higher contrast than the actual content, making playing the game fatiguing and uncomfortable.

Jeff's games don't need 3D art or a big budget or even a totally consistent style, they just need a tiny amount of good UX taste and a few hours of photoshop to mess with HSV. Thankfully, the more recent titles do have better UX.

I don't really see the problem. The game may be a nightmare for developers in this theoretical scenario but if the major bugs get kinked out then the audience doesn't care.

I guess it's the same case here. The art isn't as if the entire art pipeline was MS Paint so most people who don't mind graphics may at worst just put up with it for the gameplay they expect from Vogels games.

It's worse than MS Paint.

I don’t think he is looking to pay below market rates. He seems to have realised that if he wants to develop his product to that level, he’d have to massively grow his business, something he says he’s not interested in doing. He says he’s just interested in operating a company that pays his bills. He’s found an audience for his product the way it is.

The question he seems to be answering is “why don’t you try and grow your company”, with his answer being “because I’m happy with the way it is”.

Well, if you saw some of Jeff talks you know that he has a respectable sense of humor. Everything in this post that you are angry at is just plain trolling.

I think you're right. I was thinking almost the same when I was reading the post.

Let me add that, in my opinion, there are more chances of a successful game if you're a competent artist with poor coding skills than the opposite. In fact, lots of solo projects succeed because the author is an artist that happens to be a half decent programmer.

How many indie darlings have simple but unique and striking styles? AAA-quality can be just as bland and boring as an uninspired indie. This is more about lackluster art direction, which you'll never get from freelancers.

Sounds like you missed the point of the article.

Jeff, the art problems of your games have nothing to do with low-res. Baba is You (or Downwell) are just as low-res, but manage to look good because they use fewer colors and choose them well. I recommend learning that skill, it will make your games look way better and it honestly doesn't take that much time.

> Jeff, the art problems of your games have nothing to do with low-res. Baba is You (or Downwell) are just as low-res, but manage to look good because they use fewer colors and choose them well.

I expect they're also less busy, and more stylised.

Looking at the Queen’s Wish's screenshot, it doesn't look lower resolution than Dungeons of Dredmor, just worse, the backgrounds are way too busy, the colors are inconsistent, too subdued so their kind-of meld into one another making things less legible, the lighting is odd, the level of details seems to vary from one sprite to another,…





I think this looks more consistent than both: https://www.gridsagegames.com/blog/gsg-content/uploads/2018/...

It's all subjective. I much prefer the Queen's Wish look. The other one looks like somebody's MySpace page from forever ago.

I am not sure which one I prefer.

Completely agree that it doesn't have anything to do with the fact that they are low res. However, it's not just the colors. For me it's mostly that the lighting across artwork is very inconsistent. The artwork separately is quite good, but because some stuff is much lighter than the rest it feels like it's gathered from multiple separate games and put together in one.

The article explains why this is so. Arguably with some art direction from Jeff himself he can make art that is more easily replicable, but the reasoning seems to be that "I have to be able to swap artists out."

Instead of learning enough about game art over 25 years to direct some consistency across artists for his games, he rationalizes it as an explicit business choice.

I think he's missing an opportunity to learn more about art himself. After making so many games for so long you think there would be some learning/mastery of low-res art. Seems like Jeff is taking the easier route of "that's my style."

No where in the article does Jeff talk about any effort he's put in to learn about palettes, lighting, or generic styles that can be emulated. He only talks about swapping out artists.

He could first pay an artist to create a style guide like this: https://66.media.tumblr.com/f055b014e1db777c9ebd54579691cda0...

Then swapping out artists will be easier and the game will look more consistent.

Yes! It's clear the consensus is that he needs art direction to get consistency, but this is how you actually put that into action. He needs style guides 100%. It's also potentially a good longer term investment, you can re-use and adapt them.

The guide also needs to include lighting, which he has diddly-squat of.

That palette swapping trick looks like a great idea for indie games!

It was used on the Gameboy Color to colorize the grayshaded Gameboy games.

You can choose what palette to use by pressing a combination of buttons on most start screens. See this example of Super Mario Land: http://i.imgur.com/HupBY.png

"I have to be able to swap artists out” is, in my opinion, a really bad reason as it leads to an inconsistent messy looking final product. I’d rather have repetitive art (due to not finding another artist who can match the previous ones work and therefore having to reuse assets) than an inconsistent one.

I play a lot of games with low resolution, cheap or crude graphics and that never bothers me, but I find inconsistent art really difficult to ignore to the point where I probably wouldn’t play this game.

Keeping art generic, boring and inconsistent to swap out artists is akin to using a lowest common denominator language and framework so you can swap out programmers. Maybe it makes business sense, but it leads to uninspired boring results.

I’m sorry at how negative this comment turned out, so if the author reads it I hope he takes it constructively and considers how to improve the consistency of the art.

EDIT: I don't think the art looks terrible, but it could be improved a lot with relatively minor changes (consistent shadows would be a great start).

I don't think you can develop more universally palatable sense of esthetic even over 25 years. You like the stuff you like. You can hire people to have sense of esthetic for you. But you need money for that so....

There are pixel artists that create and share restrictive palettes, which I think could help. For example: http://pixeljoint.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=16247

Totally aside the cross-dither chart gives a great animated effect on my monitor!

Baba Is You and Downwell are a totally different kind of retro. They're trying to look like NES games. John's games are retro as well, but they channel the very different style of 90s Windows games, which had so many colors (256) they didn't know what to do with them all.

I was going to say exactly this, but you nailed it.

The 90s game style saw more powerful chips and higher color depths as a chance to do realistic art and skeuomorphic interfaces.[1] I'm sure they looked good to people then, but the reason they look so dated now is that realism as a design goal is better accomplished with modern graphics technologies than anything they had available then. Anything that still looks "good" does so because it was able to carve out a stylistic niche that didn't depend on having a more realistic interface as the end goal.

Pixel art games look timeless (to me) precisely because their limitations meant that designers had to find a style that worked for the particular game. To be sure, there are 80s games with bad art, but I think on the whole the older art was better (and is now more iconic) because the limitations pushed creativity.

I still love to play low-res games (including new ones like VVVVVV[2]), but most of them are in an older art style than John's games, which (if I'm being honest) look (visually) kind of crappy to me.

[1] The poor font rendering in most 90s games doesn't help matters either.

[2] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/52/VVVVVV_-...

> honestly doesn't take that much time

On the contrary: It will take all your life :)

Honest question, where does one learn that skill? If it doesn't take that much time, how long it usually takes? I have no clue about art, design, and stuff. Where does I even start?

I made a minimalistic game requiring only 3 colors, then spent a month making different palettes for it. Started with terrible color sense, ended up with this: https://imgur.com/a/boc29

This is missing the point entirely. The point is much closer to: don't worry about art and focus on making the game.

People will always get upset about graphics, and will always have their own "suggestions" on how to make your art not terrible. If you listen to one person, you might just alienate every other player that doesn't like that person's style.

So basically Jeff just need to take some art lessons

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