Behind The Scenes: Pixelart Techniques In Game Development

Pixel art has been used in video games since the 1970s and 1980s when limited hardware capabilities necessitated simple 2D graphics built from “pixels,” or single dots of color (Castle Crashers Pixel Art: Unraveling the Beauty of a Timeless Masterpiece). It involves creating digital artwork where attention is paid to individual pixels. Artists make intentional choices about the placement of each pixel to create sprites, environments, characters, and other game elements.

While modern games are capable of highly complex 3D graphics, pixel art remains popular for its retro aesthetics. Developing pixel art requires specialized techniques and skills. This article will provide an in-depth look at the behind-the-scenes process of creating pixel art assets for games. It will cover key technical concepts and workflows, from tools and software to animation, lighting, and optimization.

Tools and Software

Some of the most popular tools for creating pixel art include programs like Aseprite, Photoshop, Pro Motion, Pyxel Edit, and GraphicsGale. These programs provide specialized features like palette management, tile/sprite creation, animation tools, and more that are optimized for pixel art design.

Many pixel artists also use graphics tablets like those made by Wacom, Huion, and XP-Pen. These tablets allow for more precise and natural drawing motions versus using a mouse. Some graphics tablets even come with programmable buttons and touch rings that can be customized with shortcuts to streamline working in pixel art programs.

Other helpful hardware includes HD monitors optimized for digital art creation. Large or multiple monitors allow pixel artists to see their work at higher resolutions and have more on-screen workspace available. Things like ergonomic chairs and desks also promote good posture and comfort for those spending long hours creating pixel art.

Color Palettes

Color is one of the most important aspects of pixel art. Choosing the right palette is crucial for creating a cohesive and visually appealing piece. Pixel artists carefully select a limited range of colors to work with. Common palette sizes are 8, 16, or 32 colors (Source).

When building a palette, it’s important to pick colors that work well together. Using a color wheel can help find hues that complement each other. It’s also useful to include a range of light, medium, and dark values. This creates contrast and visual interest. A cohesive palette ties the entire artwork together into one cohesive vision.


Animation is a key component of pixel art in games. While static pixel art is great for concept art and environments, animation brings game characters and objects to life. There are a few techniques that pixel artists use for effective and efficient animation.

One common technique is to start with a sprite sheet – a grid layout containing frames of animation that can be cycled through. The artist carefully plans out movements by drawing incremental changes to the character pose in each frame. Things like limbs, clothing, hair, and facial expressions gradually move from one frame to the next to create fluid motion. The frame rate, or frequency at which frames alternate, greatly impacts the smoothness and style of the animation. Most pixel art animation aims for frame rates between 12-24 frames per second.

Another technique is rotoscoping, where the artist traces over live action video footage to extract natural movements. This helps achieve more realistic and dynamic animations. The pixel artist then simplifies and stylizes the traced animation for the final pixel art sprites. Onion skinning is also useful, where previous frames are shown as faded overlays over the current frame. This helps the artist maintain consistency and flow between frames.

There are also software tools like Aseprite that assist with the pixel art animation workflow. These tools allow easy editing of sprite sheets, support onion skinning, and can export the final animations into formats ready for game engines like Unity.

Efficient animation techniques allow pixel artists to convey complex movements and personalities for 2D game characters and objects using limited resolution and color palettes. This helps bring compact pixel art sprites to life. The combination of thoughtful planning, software assistance, and artistic skill makes pixel art animation possible.

Shading and Lighting

Shading and lighting techniques are vital for creating the illusion of form and depth in pixel art. Methods like ambient occlusion, gradients, and highlights and shadows can make a 2D pixel art scene feel three-dimensional. Master the Art of Pixel Lighting & Shading explains how light interacts with objects and surfaces to create shading effects.

Strategic use of shades and highlights brings realism to pixel art. Shadowed areas can ground elements in an environment, while bright highlights attract the viewer’s eye to focal points and direct their gaze through the composition. The article on Mastering Pixel Art goes into techniques for achieving convincing shading in pixel art, from simple dithering to advanced lighting setups.

Lighting direction is also important – consistent illumination can tie a pixel art scene together. Top-down lighting often works well and mimics natural daylight. Carefully placed shadows, gradients and highlights breathe life into pixel art environments and characters.


Backgrounds are an important part of creating immersive pixel art scenes and environments in games. Careful attention needs to be paid to layering, perspective, repeating patterns and tiles to achieve a cohesive and polished look. According to an artist on Reddit, “Making good and detailed backgrounds is very important for a captivating scene in pixel art. It sets the tone and draws viewers in” (Source).

When constructing backgrounds, artists will often break up the scene into layers – a foreground, midground and background layer. This allows you to achieve the illusion of depth and perspective. Objects and details in the foreground will be larger and more defined, while background layers will have less detail. Using color effectively, such as darker, more saturated colors for foreground elements, can enhance this effect.

Repeated tilesets are commonly used in pixel art backgrounds. By creating a small set of versatile tiles like grass, bricks, stone, water etc. and repeating them in patterns, artists can efficiently fill large areas. Careful use of symmetry and intentional breaks in the pattern makes backgrounds feel less sterile. According to, “Making good and detailed backgrounds is very important for a captivating scene in pixel art. It sets the tone and draws viewers in” (Source).


Character design is crucial in pixel art games. Unlike higher resolution artwork, each pixel matters when bringing a character to life. Some key considerations for pixel art characters include:

Posture – The posing and body language of a character conveys a lot about their personality and role. Pixels can be carefully placed to depict different stances, gestures, and actions.

Facial expressions – Faces are limited to very few pixels, so artists use techniques like varying the eyes and mouth to portray different emotions and reactions.

Color palette – The colors chosen for a character influence how players perceive them. Heroes tend to have brighter colors while villains have darker shades.

Visual silhouettes and shapes – Distinctive silhouettes help make characters easily recognizable. Simple geometric shapes work well.

Animation – Moving sprites breathe life into characters. Keyframes, transitions, and cycles need to be optimized for fluid and expressive pixel art animation.

Pixel artists use their limited pixel resolution creatively to design iconic and emotive characters that connect with players. Every pixel is carefully placed to bring out a character’s spirit within the constraints of low-res pixel art. For examples, see the pixel heroes at this Pinterest board.


Environments are a crucial part of any pixel art game. They set the scene and help establish the overall aesthetic. When constructing environments in pixel art, it’s important to focus on consistency and detail (

For buildings and structures, it’s key to maintain consistency in the size and style of pixels used. Keeping textures and colors cohesive helps sell the illusion that everything belongs together in the same world. Natural features like trees, rocks, and water can add vibrancy, but be careful not to clutter the scene or distract from key elements.

Adding small decorations and props brings environments to life. Placing interactive objects, characters, lighting, and other fine details creates a sense of realism and draws the player into the game world ( It often comes down to finding the right balance between simplicity for clear gameplay and visual richness to enhance immersion.

With careful planning and practice, pixel artists can construct vibrant, evocative environments that support the game’s narrative and design goals.


When creating pixel art for games, especially 2D games, optimization is key for maintaining high performance across devices. There are several limitations and constraints to consider for pixel art game assets:

File sizes need to be kept small, as large image files can slow down loading times. Spritesheets can combine multiple frames of animation into a single image file. Using fewer colors also results in smaller files – some pixel artists restrict their palettes to 16 or 32 colors. The canvas size of individual sprites should also be optimized based on usage – for example, a small 16×16 sprite for a game icon versus a large 1024×1024 background image.

The number of draw calls is another important optimization consideration. Draw calls occur when the game engine has to draw new objects on screen, which can impact performance. Spritesheets and reusing game objects can help minimize draw calls. Angle of rotation is also a factor – rotating sprites in increments of 45 degrees prevents jagged edges.

According to discussions on Reddit and game development forums, some standard optimal sizes for 2D pixel art assets are:

– Tilesets: 16×16, 32×32, 64×64, 128×128
– Characters/avatars: 16×32, 32×64
– Buildings: 64×64, 128×128
– Backgrounds: 480×320, 640×480, 1280×960

Testing the game on target platforms and profiling tools like Unity’s profiler can identify optimization needs. Ultimately the constraints of the target platform determine the limits for asset sizes and performance.


Pixel art has played an integral role in the rise of indie games. Its distinct style provides a strong feeling of nostalgia for gamers, reminding them of classic titles from the 8-bit and 16-bit eras. At the same time, pixel art remains a popular choice for modern indie developers due to its lower production costs compared to high-definition 3D art.

The nostalgic pixel aesthetic continues to have enduring appeal. Many gamers have a soft spot for the chunky, low-resolution sprites of their childhood. This helps smaller indie studios compete with big-budget AAA games. Pixel art’s retro style signals that a game offers old-school gameplay, tapping into gamers’ nostalgia.

Looking ahead, pixel art has exciting possibilities going forward. Advances in technology could allow for pixel art with more dynamic lighting, smoother animations, and other graphical enhancements. Pixel art may evolve from its blocky 8-bit roots while retaining its core aesthetic. However, its low-fidelity stylings will likely continue charming gamers for years to come.