In 2011, Minecraft exploded onto the scene introducing millions of players to the concept of plotting square pixels, more commonly known as voxels, in 3D space. The technology had been around for years before the game’s release, but along with Minecraft’s meteoric rise in popularity, the eponymous art style has found its way into toys, t-shirts, an upcoming feature film, and more than a few other video games.
While some revel in its simplicity and celebrate a return to classic style, others say it looks cheap and detracts from the player experience. So then, is voxel art here to stay, or will it steadily fade away like the once-popular cel shading style found in games like Bastion and Fire Emblem? Only time will tell, but there are a few clues for those considering using voxel art in their next game.
The More Things Change . . .
If history has taught us anything, it’s that just when it seems like the gaming industry has moved on for good, a developer reimagines the old into something brand new—and it’s glorious. It happened with pixel and ASCII art (cough SanctuaryRPG cough)—and even cel shading has popped up in games as recently as 2014. That’s part of the beauty of game design: the story is never really over. In some ways, this generation’s Minecraft is like my generation’s NES masterpiece The Legend of Zelda.
Just as the 8-bit adventure in Hyrule was for me, the realms of Minecraft will be someone else’s gateway drug to the endless possibility game design offers. Voxel art is lowering the barrier to entry for designers who are more interested in worldbuilding and mechanics than in using intricate or hyper-realistic art styles. It’s good for the imagination and it’s good for the industry, but there are definitely some pitfalls for developers watch out for.
Pros and Cons
One major drawback for new games using voxel art is that Minecraft is so ubiquitous now that any new games featuring a similar style are almost certainly going to be compared to it, which can go both ways for a developer. Any comparison to the most successful indie game of all time is likely to raise a few eyebrows, so that might be a plus. But, looking like a copycat is a sin your game is unlikely to bounce back from.
Originality is a critical metric in the gamer community, so coming with something fresh should still be the goal, regardless of the art style. Especially now, when storylines are getting more complicated and settings are moving away from familiar tropes, it might be the perfect time for another voxel art based game to inject some nostalgia into a rapidly changing landscape. Invoking a sense of retro coolness is a solid goal, but one that will only take a game so far.
The magic of voxel based games like Stellar Overload and, my personal favorite, Slayaway Camp, is that storyline and mechanics are woven seamlessly into the game art, creating what amounts to a deeply immersive experience for the player.
Many voxel-based games include an element where the player has some ability to construct the world around them, and that can be a very powerful experience. Who doesn’t have that fantasy? Who wouldn’t want the power to create their own paradise where the only limits are your imagination? Well, with voxel art, you can. And you can do it without the need for professional 3D design software, which can be both costly and complex. With voxels, you just build.
Admittedly, the banality of playing a game where comparatively little actually “happens” doesn’t appeal to every player. But, for the ones who it does appeal to, that freedom can forge some very powerful connections and foster entire communities. Voxels are the engine behind many players creating game art for art’s sake, as well as for profit. For instance, Thorlar Thorlarian’s Twitch stream, featuring a record breaking Minecraft world design that combines over one million blocks, has over 3.5 million YouTube views at the time of this writing. The Minecraft Museum has around ten thousand individual pieces from about 17,000 members. A cottage industry creating player skins is alive and well. Clearly the draw of voxels and the worlds they can create is thriving.
Voxel Art is Here to Stay
Even if the hype dies down, voxel art is too usable and too accessible to disappear entirely. While AAA titles continue to push the limits of your preferred gaming device’s processor by introducing ever-more lifelike textures, meshes, and maps, the simplicity of taking blocks and making things will always appeal to a certain large demographic of players and developers alike. It’s the same reason LEGO sets have enjoyed a major resurgence in recent years after nearly disappearing from shelves in the early ‘90s: building blocks are a fundamentally sound idea for play and education—and they’re just plain fun.
Voxels are just virtual bricks, available in unlimited variations and quantity. Even Minecraft itself has a popular Education Edition that helps teach kids how to code along with the fundamentals of physics and engineering. The evidence is all there: parents and teachers like voxels as a classroom tool; developers like voxels for their low barrier to entry; and, most importantly, players like voxels for their unique ability to create new worlds.
Using voxel art won’t guarantee your game’s success. Far from it. But there is a strong case that players with previous experience in voxel art based games already connect emotionally with the style. There is no shame in using that to your advantage, just as long as that’s not the only reason you’re doing it. Savvy players can smell a money grab a mile away. Don’t be that person.
Advice for Developers
My closing advice to game devs is this: Know your audience and know your medium. Start with a story and work from there. How does your game look in your head? If your storyline would work better with a more realistic art style, and you have the resources, I say go for it. If your storyline is less dependent on realism and heavier on imagination, I can’t find a compelling reason not to consider using voxel art if your game is going to be in 3D.
Even if you’d prefer a more realistic-looking game, don’t let that hold you back. Shipping anything is better than shipping nothing, and if you don’t currently have the resources to use the latest software and techniques, voxel art might be just the viable alternative you need to produce a solid version of your game. The incredibly robust (and open source) MagicaVoxel software is available for Mac and Windows.
A quick google search shows quite a few free online design tools, as well as a plethora of low-cost paid plugins that integrate with game engines like Unity. Whether the style will be around in ten years or not is ultimately up to the gaming gods, but I’d say the odds are pretty good that talented devs will continue to innovate on the theme and push the style forward—and that’s pretty exciting.