Major game releases always attract plenty of attention, and even speculation about a major upcoming console or PC game can clutter up your news feed with articles every week. With all of this buzz about the next big title sporting unmatched graphics and unprecedented realism, it is easy to get the impression that 2D games have gone the way of the dodo, and only 3D games are being made now.
With this in mind, you might be surprised to learn that 2D art is alive and thriving in the game industry. Before you scratch your head or roll your eyes, just hear us out. We will examine the current 2D game art styles and share some insights about the state of it today.
What is 2D Art?
2D stands for 2-dimensional, and is generally associated with flat shapes and objects. The two dimensions in this case are width and height, while depth/length is the additional dimension used in 3D objects. To put it into perspective, you can imagine a triangle on paper. This is a 2D shape with three sides and nothing else. However, if additional sides and depth are added to the triangle, it becomes a pyramid and a 3D shape. Though 2D designs are quite flat in appearance, more characteristics and uniqueness can be added to such objects through color, line saturation, style, and creativity.
A bit of history
Since the earliest cave drawings, people have been creating 2D art freely and in all parts of the world. While the art has been used in board games and other forms of entertainment for over centuries, the relatively recent emergence of computer and video games allowed it to truly flourish and expand in new directions. 2D game art assets truly came alive through the mechanics, cut scenes, and animation sequences. The medium fostered the development of new styles, and eventually, 3D.
And then 3D took over?
Video games first became popular in the 1970s, and it took just over 10 years for the first popular 3D titles to appear. Such titles quickly became bestsellers, and people were soon predicting the end of two-dimensional games. However, this is when something surprising happened. While 3D titles continued to improve and rise, the same happened to 2D titles, though not so dynamically and exponentially. Over the last 40 years, titles with 2D art and animation have remained in favor with millions of players, and some have even gone on to become massive hits (e.g. Hollow Knight, Rayman, Limbo, Undertale).
2D Game Art Styles
You might remember that the first computer games had simple shapes and a very poor level of detail. This was largely due to the limited graphics capabilities of software and hardware at the time. Accordingly, as the technology improved, designers were able to add substantially more creativity and variety to their work, resulting in the large multitude of 2D styles present in games today.
2D Pixel Art
This is one of the most popular styles in the field. A pixel represents a square or basic shape making up a tiny part of a character, object, or setting in a pixel art drawing or digital image. Typically, hundreds or thousands of these pixels are combined to form a single object. Most people associate the pixel art animation with early video games and arcades, but it is important to note that it remains incredibly popular even to this day. For example, Pokemon pixel art is not as prominent as it used to be, but people still have nostalgia and fondness for it, while there are also plenty of modern releases that still incorporate this style.
Examples of modern 2D Pixel Art games:
- To the Moon
What is vector art? Well, this is another major art style, though perhaps “art variety” would be the more accurate term. Similarly to the pixel style, vector imagery is made digitally through special-purpose programs. However, it does not split images into pixels, instead relying on mathematical algorithms and storing the data in polygons, dots, and lines, as well as color data. Those familiar with how to make vector art praise it for image file size smaller relative to pixel-based ones, as well as the higher quality when enlarging or zooming out on images. Vector art can be sorted into individual styles, with the overall characteristic of having a high quality and resolution.
Vector game examples:
- Steamworlds Heist
- Red Alarm
- The Banner Saga
- Ghost Trick
Cutout art is mainly used in animation. As the name suggests, this style imitates pictures on paper that are cut out and imported on a new plane/medium. For example, a digital asset of a character can be imported from real paper cutout art or created on a computer. At that point, it becomes part of the game’s world. The cutout image remains static (unchanging), but its position can be moved to simulate action and motion, and it can be instantly replaced by another cutout to simulate a change in state.
Cutout game examples:
- Paper Mario
- Sonic 4
- Sega Heroes
- Don’t Starve
Cel Shading art
Cel Shading is a relatively new style of art that has great clout in the game development community and dozens of big examples. At the core of this style is an attempt to make 3D models and objects look 2D, flat and paper-like. Imagine that you are looking at a coffee mug, and it is turned into a 3D model. Then, you take the way you see this 3D model from one angle and put it on paper, with just part of the mug visible and depth removed. This way, objects and characters maintain a high level of detail but lose their volume. For example, Unity cel shading features are a big contributor to the memorable look of Borderlands, helping make the release very successful.
Examples of Cel shaded games:
- Ultimate Spider Man
- Jet Set Radio Future
- Mega Man Legends
- Pokémon X & Y
- X-Men Legends
While there is no universally accepted monochromatic art definition, artwork and designs are usually called monochromatic when they employ a very limited color palette, and usually just 1 or 2 colors. However, a wide range of shades and tints of this color(s) is also used to distinguish between objects, settings, and parts of an image. Black is the most common choice for such art, with most elements in this color, and the rest differentiated through white or shades of grey.
Monochromatic game examples:
- One Upon Light
This one is somewhat self-explanatory. Flat design in games presents objects, characters, and settings without depth and volume. There is no dedication to realism or physics like the one typically present in cel-shaded titles. Instead, artists designing such art have an incredible amount of artistic freedom in their work. Flat designs and models tend to all have unique looks without a common characteristic, unless they borrow from other styles.
Flat game examples:
- Gravity Defied
- Stick War
- Flat Kingdom
Doodle is perhaps the only art style defined not by certain characteristics that define a unique look, but by the actual content of the work. To doodle is to draw something while your attention is focused on other matters. Thus, doodle images tend to have a very abstract, strange, and warped composition. It is also common for “doodles” to have a collage of unrelated characters and objects appearing together and taking up the available space. In the context of computer and video games, doodle art is sometimes hand-drawn before being imported as digital assets.
Doodle game examples:
- Doodle Jump
- Krusty Towers
- Google Doodles
By no means is this an exhaustive list of styles used in 2D, but it includes some of the most prominent styles used today, as well as promising styles that may grow to fame in the future.
How to Create 2D Game Art
Some games take inspiration from the notebook drawing style or specifically give assets a flat, paper-like look, but it is quite rare for hand-drawn designs to be used outside of 2D game concept art or board games. Thus, anyone aiming to design assets for a video or computer game should prepare to spend a lot of time with a computer/tablet.
Naturally, you can create 2D art using the default program on your computer (e.g. Paint for Windows), but this will not suffice for professional design. You will need special software suitable for the tasks you need to accomplish. For example, if you only need to design a character model, background, interface or some other (comparatively) simple thing, you may need a program different from one used for bitmaps, sprites, and animation elements.
Top 2D Game Art Software:
Many of these programs have a difficult learning curve, and can only be used confidently and efficiently by experienced 2D artists and designers, though it is certainly possible to become proficient in this field through reading and practice.
Conclusions and Outlook
It is a common misconception that a game can only be made with one of the two technologies – 2D or 3D, but the reality is that nearly all 3D-oriented games have plenty of 2D assets and elements included. Most of the time, they are present in menus, backgrounds, user interface options, and other locations. Thus, most 3D designers still need to use 2D throughout their work, even if their focus is predominantly on 3D.
The 2D game art market remains incredibly strong to this day, and the universal use of the technology is just one cause of it. Another cause is market demand. Players are still interested in 2D releases, and this is evident by the quantity of 2D hits released recently, including Celeste, Super Ghouls and Ghosts, Undertale, Cuphead, and Worms.
Looking ahead, we predict that developers will still need to create or buy game art of different varieties, styles, and technology for the near future. 2D and 3D both offer individual advantages, so game makers would be wise to implement both and get the best of both worlds. 3D art may dominate and elevate the market, but 2D will always remain one of the key pillars holding it up.
2D game art design services
Creating beautiful art and designs for games takes a lot of time, but this is just a drop in the ocean compared to the time it takes to become proficient at this sort of work. This factor, often in combination with a shortage of good artists, prompts many studios to look for specialists outside of their company. 2D game art outsourcing services are very popular, and there are many companies presenting artists and designers to help with your game project.
Choosing the right team to assist with your project is important, and we recommend that you pay attention to such factors as experience, certification, and portfolio when making your choice. 3D-Ace is one of the longest-running art studios in Eastern Europe, boasting over 26 years of gorgeous artwork and designs. Our specialists are qualified in a range of services, from 2D art creation to VFX and animation, and you can see some of the marvelous work they have done here.