Business vs. Art

“Games are art.”

I’ve heard this a lot over the years tinkering around with XNA and without doubt a whole new level of expression has been born during the most recent era in independent game development. But art is often compromised by the machinations of business: do you make money now based on a clever idea or homage to the past, or do you throw caution to the wind and develop an argument that may take many years to express? Are games art truly because they are comprised of illustrations, music, and writing (not necessarily from one person), or because they are expressing something entirely on their own as a whole?

Color costume adjustments for Arashi from Shadowdawn
Color costume adjustments for Arashi from Shadowdawn

In case you haven’t guessed, this is my talking about Shadowdawn: Genesis and one of the largest criticisms I’ve received from the beginning: “The game is too big.” Honestly, after watching game after game being released on various indie-friendly platforms, I realize that the biggest issue is that I am working on a game of this scope alone. That isn’t going to deter me from making the game I want to make, but if I can find passionate team members then I am going to be beside myself!

Anyways, about games as art. The difference between Shadowdawn and many titles, RPG or not, is one of theme (as in, it’s more than an exciting plot/setting). Simply said, games are not art because they contain several pieces of art, as is often argued. In fact, that argument brings such games (that could only be defined as art because of its individual artistic parts) closer to the definition of an anthology, a collection of separate expressions in character design, musical motif, and literary theme, more than a single cohesive thought. There are games, however, that can truly be considered art, that use the tools of the medium to create a theme the developer is expressing. At the heart of a work of art is an argument, one that we may or may not agree with, born from the experiences of the artist, the developer. A game without an argument is just an anthology of pixels and illustrations and slick wording. This is not to say that such games are meritless, but the contrast between art and practicality needs to be understood first before anything further can be said.

I am not business-minded, I have very different priorities and a very different worldview. If there’s one thing I’m not afraid of is to be my own person and do things at my own pace. The pressures to deliver fast are becoming more prevalent in the game development culture and developers have picked up a bravado based on the number of titles they deliver in a year, which is a simply meaningless metric. An old proverb here states, “You can’t rush art.” My point is that you have a choice as a developer: cater to this mass consumption and discarding of content while eventually being forgotten, or develop something that means something in an era crowded by fast, mostly underdeveloped ideas. To further explain, so it doesn’t sound like I’m attacking anyone for what they expect, or why they develop: true art is more than just something for the reader/viewer/player to consume, it is a way for the artist/developer to work through a very complicated subject and encode their arguments into an expression. In case it’s not inherently obvious, this method is not very business friendly, and can be outright confusing or frustrating for those who need results instantly.

What all this has to do with Shadowdawn is thus simple. I have been pressured and condescended to by many fellow developers who do not understand that this is more than just a game to me. At this point, I don’t even think I want to be a game developer as they are now. I want to make something unique, something that stands out, and something that says something. The only way I can express my argument is through the RPG genre. Every choice I’ve made in character design, story, music, and gameplay design is deliberate, and I will not sell the whole of Shadowdawn short just to finish it quickly. As such, finishing the game is my highest priority, not my personal goals to be a professional game developer. In fact, I’m so jaded by the game industry now, indie development included, that this series is probably the only thing I will be working on as an artist throughout my life. I’ll push through regardless and release one of the most polished RPGs I can because I love this setting, I love these characters, and I love these kind of games. If you do too, and you want to help in anyways, don’t be shy! I would love to hear from you.


Working through the complicated issues argued by Shadowdawn alone is taking more time than I had hoped, and I have been throwing myself out into the world by returning to college more to get a better grasp on my argument and a better characterization for Arashi and company, as well as learn to draw with more skill so I can take care of all the assets. These eight characters are some of my favorite I’ve ever made in all my writing; even though I have a fondness for the cut members of the original game’s cast, the Shadowdawn: Genesis group is just that much more solid. Because of that I’m gradually getting back into the flow of development, along with deciding which platform ultimately the game will reside on. The death of XNA has been frustrating and demoralizing, but I’m confident I’ll be happy with another development platform soon.

As an afterthough, I’ve been adjusting the saturation levels and color contrast of the character designs, because I’ve noticed that, probably due to the lighting at my old house, they were far too bold and weren’t meshing well with the environment graphics of the game. I like the balance a lot more, so I hope you do too. Once I finish drawing these final large set pieces of the first level (including a waterfall, the bane of my existence), expect a playable demo of the game to surface!

About Astrael

A long-time independent game developer that was lucky(?) enough to have grown up with the gaming industry. I am a programmer, a game designer, a concept and pixel artist, a music composer, and a novelist. This has been my dream for as long as I can remember, and I am determined to take advantage of every talent I hope I have to make it happen!