The Art of Low poly (Art)


These are some of my observations, research and personal thoughts when working on the visual style of Pareidolia. One of the biggest challenges is to create an appealing visual style, keeping everything simple enough so I don’t have to spend too much time on each asset and still have an unique enough look so it doesn’t drown in the sea with all the other “low poly style” games out there.

The term “low poly (low polygon count)” is very vague. If you’d play some old 3D today, you would say the graphics are very low poly to today's standards. But for their time they were cutting edge and probably very high poly. And since you always try to optimize your models and only add what's necessary for the function and shape even todays high detail AAA first person shooter models are only as detailed as the need to be. But even though the term isn’t very precise, what people today think about when hearing the term “low poly” is something like this:


Large polygonal shapes with no polygon smoothing. Meaning that the 3D renderer don’t try to smooth the surface of the polygon towards the edges, to create an illusion of a smooth surface.


If you look at this example, both these spheres have the same polygon count, but the one on the left have been given the illusion of having a smoother surface. This is why “low poly” is such a vague term. There are a couple of reason why this style has exploded in popularity during the last ten years. The biggest one is the dawn of smartphones capable of rendering 3D graphics. All game companies who wanted a share of the 3D mobile market had to drastically reduce the polygon count and the complexity of their 3D art if they wanted their games to run smoothly on the limited hardware. This created sort of a rebirth in the old school way of making 3D art. When the polygon limit is very low, you have to be very careful with where you use your resources. Even though as I stated above, all models have polygon limits the amount of small and fine detail you could put on your model on the phone hardware limited artist to just show what was necessary to sell the shape of the model.

A way of still retaining most of your details is to rely more on the texture of the model. “Handpainted” is a term you’ll often see accompanying “low poly”. The artist will “paint” the details onto the surface of the model as one would a figurine or a sculpture. This can create some wonderful, interesting and unique styles, but it’s very time consuming to paint every single model in your game. Especially if your team is small, and the asset list is long


This is where the “low poly” style of today comes into the picture. When you’re dealing with large flat colored shapes, the “hard edge” style retains the shape of the objects better than a smoothed because of how the light and shadow fall on the surface. Especially when lighting and shading conditions are limited.


All these factors came together and created what we today think of as “low poly” game art. And when it’s done right and all the elements and shapes work together, it can look quite appealing. It is something with the stylized and colorful characters and environments that people find appealing. Maybe it's just the simplicity of it all, it looks kind of “retro” and “videogamey”.

This also creates a bit of a challenge for our game. Since the “low poly” style is so popular, it is everywhere and our game might just get bundled into a basket with all the other “low poly” looking indie-games out there.

So how will me make our game stand out (at least a little bit) in the crowd? How do we make people do a second take when browsing though the indie-game marketplace and Pareidolia flashes by. These are the biggest challenges when it comes to the art direction of the game. For all the positive with “low poly” style graphics (ease of asset creation) there are also some negative (also ease of asset creation) and the marked might get saturated and tired of the style.

My next post will be about how we have been going about when dealing with this, because at the time being the Pareidolia art style is still in its infancy.