Note: A list of sites where you can download free art that you can legally use in your video games (including for commercial usage) can be found at the bottom of the article, read along.
Working on Wagic has introduced me to the painful reality: I suck at graphics. Initial graphics in Wagic were mostly made of copyrighted content, and this eventually led me to trouble. Our game has since then been blessed with the help of several talented designers (including Julio, Jeck, Ilya B., Kaioshin…), and, let’s be honest, art is basically the only thing players have to make their first impression on a game, so I’m really really thankful for these people’s help.
If you’re a game developer and suck at drawing like me, there are a few options for your game, and you’ve probably thought about some of them already.
The easy solution, the one most people unfortunately choose, is to take your graphics from somewhere else, without looking at copyright information, or knowingly stealing graphics from games/movies/anime… You won’t see any harm in that initially, but if your game ever becomes successful (and don’t we all want that to happen?), this will bite you. For the youngest among my readers, taking a character from an anime and removing the background does not make the art “yours”, and redistributing it is copyright infringement in most countries.
Another option, which many of us choose, is to use “easy to make” art, that even you can create. Your main character becomes a blue cube, and its enemies are red circles… Obviously there’s so far you can go with such a solution, once all possible clones of tetris and pong have been made on all platforms.
The luckiest among us have a friend who happens to be a designer, motivated by their project, and who will help as a full part of the team. But if you’re in this situation, you’re most likely not reading this article. I’ve seen on many homebrew forums people offering their services as a designer for free. I’ve grown extremely suspicious of those. Many people who have claimed to be “designers” to me on those forums were kids with close to no drawing skills, who had been running a pirated version of Photoshop for 15 days, recompositing stolen art and claiming it to be theirs. My advice would be: avoid like the plague such “artists”, not only will they bring you legal trouble, their creations are often not great, and they have no experience in teamwork. Depending on the size of your project, trust is extremely important between the devs and the designers. A good designer will not join your project if you haven’t proven that your game is seriously going to happen. The same way, as a good project “leader”, you shouldn’t accept a “designer” who cannot prove they are good. In my case, with Wagic, the game came first, and then designers came, and provided graphics. They didn’t “offer” their help, no, they came to us with art, telling us “hey, I made that for your game and thought it would be interesting for you”. We provided a working game, they provided “working” graphics, no false promise of “help for the future” here, or rather, the promise was in the achievement. Both the dev and the artist were able to tell each other “I can work for a good amount of time on this project, and provide a result” before even actually talking for the first time. forums discussions starting like “I’ll code a game” and “yeah, and I’ll do your graphics” rarely lead anywhere.
Another option if you have a bit of money is to look into royalty free stock photo websites, such as dreamstime.com (this is a random example, I am not affiliated with them, and have not tested their services). These sites can sell you pictures for as low as 1$ per picture, and allow you in most cases to use those in video games, even commercial projects. However I’ve dug recently into many of those sites, and let’s be honest, it is very unlikely that you will find lots of useful content for video games… no textures, no 3D model, close to no drawings (mostly photos…)… but it can help for a loading screen here and there.
For the rich among us, art commissioning is also a possibility. I don’t have details or good resources on the subject, but the basic idea is that you pay an artist to do the work for you. I’ve seen prices for such commissions go as low as 5$ per request on ebay, but never checked if this gave you the right for commercial use, or even redistribution. I guess it’s up to each creator and how you can convince them. I’ve also seen prices go up to 1000$ per image for a complex request, and commercial use.
The best solution I found recently is to focus on Creative Commons, Public domain, or GPL art (GPL art is kind of an heresy, really, but it exists nevertheless). A few sites are designed to gather that kind of art. I’ve unfortunately ran into many sites claiming they have “Public Domain” art, when a quick google search showed that this was pure b***s***, so going only to trusted sites is an important thing here.
The best site on the subject I could find is opengameart.org. They have thousands of sprites, 3D models, 2D graphics, sounds, all available with very precise license explanations, and most of them being available even for commercial projects (as long as you are ready to make derivative art available with the same license, which is not too much to ask, I think). The major point of that site is the centralized access to open resources you would have to hunt on the Internet otherwise. Free Art Search and FreeGameArt are similar sites, but not as well organized as OpenGameArt IMO. Burningwell.org is a site with Public Domain images. These images are free for any use, including commercial works. Again, we run into the problem that images on burningwell are “only” photos, and will need some tweaking on your end to be usable in your game.
Those are the easy ones. If you’re ready to dig more, google books has options to look for books published before 1910. Those that contain images will be in the public domain, so things like that can be investigated as well.
finally, this page has a series of links to free game art that you might want to check.
opengameart.org is to me the most interesting of these websites, with its community-oriented system, and the fact that I have been successfully using some of their resources recently for one of my side projects. I wish I could contribute directly to that site, but I’m not an artist so for now I’ll just say that my way of contributing is that Wagic is open source (and has been so since the beginning). If you happen to be a talented artist and want to help the indie gaming community, opengameart.org could be the best place for you