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A closer look on the usefulness of game asset stores

After my article on why most open source game art is useless I wanted to also take a closer look on the usefulness of game asset stores. Since they are quite common now and an essential part of most game engines, people might think they are very useful and a great invention, so let us break down if that is true.

First I want to say that commercial asset stores are completely useless to me, since I'm making an open source game, to which all proprietary content is incompatible to, but I want to make a general analysis, if they are at least good for what they are intented for.

Use the original article for reference since I will address the problems with open source game art now, if they still exist with commercial asset stores: https://duion.com/blogs/why-most-open-source-game-art-useless

Problems:

1. Not enough content of a certain kind or style was available

-This problem still exists with asset stores, but less intense, since content creators usually create more content in the same style, but you will face the problem again, if you need assets of a different field, that the certain asset creator you buy from does not offer, which forces you to buy from other asset creators that produce what you need, if they exist.

2. Too low quality content to be usable

-This problem is solved pretty well, since most people selling in asset stores know at least the basics, so most content you buy is at least somewhat usable, depending on the store and if they do content curation. Only on higher quality levels you will run into problems, but the baseline of quality is much higher for the most part.

3. Unfinished content that would require significant work to finish

-Not that much of an issue since most products on asset stores are obviously finished products, only in rare cases, people sell unfinished art for example as "prototyping art"

4. Inconsistent art style, since every artist has his own style

-Similar to problem 1, somewhat better than in the open source world, but if you are forced to buy from someone else the style will no longer fit, but since general quality is higher, it is not that big of a problem.

5. Restrictive licenses especially GPL (who the hell applies GPL to art and how is that even supposed to work?)

-Commercial licenses are usually much more restrictive, so here is where open source game art scores obviously, but GPL like licenses are even more restrictive if you want to do something commercially, so commercial/proprietary licenses are better in that case. There is also the case where open source licenses do not allow the use of DRM ( digital rights management ) , in that case the open source licenses are also worse than the commercial ones. So it really depends on the case which is better.

6. Incompatible art created for another purpose

-You will not find that issue much with asset stores, since asset stores are usually tied to a specific engine or purpose, so it is mandatory to produce compatible content.

7. Total incompetence of the creator, resulting in a major mistakes that make the art asset useless, even if it looked good

-This also does not happen that often, but in rare cases it still exists, I knew cases of assets from asset stores that had textures that were not power of two. So maybe not total incompetence like it is common in the open source world, but average or slight levels of incompetence are normal in humans it seems.

8. Illegal content, many release content as open source that is incompatible with open source or downright stolen

-This is also a problem with asset stores depending how much they care about it. Some asset stores are free from that and others are filled with stolen content and the site does not care, since they make money from it. If you use them in proprietary projects it is often less of a problem, since the licenses allow that, while proprietary licenses do not allow the use in open source, which makes the use of those assets illegal by default in that case. So if used in a proprietary closed source project, it is harder to prove that the asset was stolen or they are even legal to use, since many assets primarily textures are partly free, you just pay to get more bandwidth for downloading them. Overall if a store is tied to a specific game engine, it is probably very safe to use and if not, there is someone caring about it, general asset stores or those where general users contribute are still potentially dangerous to use.

9. You could do it better yourself, which removes the necessity to use open source entirely

-In commercial asset stores the content is usually created by professionals, so it is not very likely you will be able to create better content yourself, if you are not yourself a skilled artist with many years of experience. Though there is a point here which is more about consistency and style, which I will get more into later.

 

So overall an asset store seems to score in most cases versus content that is available as free and open source, which is kind of obvious since it is professional people making money with it.

Capitalism clearly wins as it seems, but I have some major critique points that address problems with the philosophical paradigm of having asset stores in the first place.

The major problem is game asset stores arose with the upcoming of game engines marketed to the end user, claiming they could make games, without needing the skills to create the necessary content, which is obviously a marketing lie. Even if it was possible for the end user to really create working games, how much worth will they have, if they all use the same assets? It either will result in a flooding of the game market with so called asset flips, where people just buy assets and release them as a game, thinking they have achieved something, or result in people buying the assets and never really producing anything with it, which is basically just wasted money. So no matter how it turns out, the result is bad and you cannot really tell which outcome is worse, they seem to be both just equally bad. So overall I think asset stores primarily target the so called dreamer customer, selling them a lie. They rely on those customer base, since that is the only way they can make profit. Imagine only serious game developers would buy those often cheap assets and they will use them in a finished game, first of they would sell a very very tiny amount, resulting in them making no profit and the market gets flooded with asset flips or at least games that use the same assets, which is fine for a few times, but the more they are used the more obvious it gets. So overall I think the asset stores, even though they offer quite good content overal are immoral to begin with, because they target dreamers and sell lies.

You cannot really make a full large scale game using only asset store items, there is simply not enough. I did browse some asset stores just theoretically, looking if I could fill all the necessary items I would need for a full scale 3D shooter with asset store items and even using everything the store had to offer, I still could not fill all the spots I needed, there is just so much you need, textures, levels, terrains, scenery models, trees, plants, grass, characters, animations, weapon models, sound effects, music, ambient sounds, particle effects, GUI elements etc etc. So you almost always end up with something missing and then you need to start learning how to do it yourself, which exposes the lie of the game engine marketing that you can make a full game without having the skills to produce everything on your own. Alternatively you can pay artists to make content specifically to your needs, but this will blow up your budget by quite a lot, since asset stores that are mass produced and sold to a lot of customers are often cheaper by orders of magnitude. For example a weapon model may cost you 100 to produce, if you pay an artist, but on an asset store you may get 10 weapons for 10, so people get a wrong idea on how much things really cost and the 100 for a weapon model is already very cheap, it could easily be much higher.

Another reason why you cannot make a game with art bought in an asset store is obviously the style. Art ist defined as something unique, if you copy it, it becomes a knockoff, so asset stores are degrading art to knockoffs on a grand scale. If you make a game, your art style has to be unique, if you are serious about it, there is no way around it. Games are an art form and if they are not art, well then they are not art anymore and the way art becomes non-art is by copying it. You are allowed to use ready made content to some degree, but you have to add your own art style to it, at least something to make it unique, which requires you to have the skills to do it and if you have the skills to do it, why not do everything on your own? This is the same as the problem with open source art, if you don't have the skills to make the art, there most likely will not be enough freely available for your needs and if you have the skills yourself to do it better, why bother with the ready made content?

Let's face it, no serious developer would ever buy their art in an asset store, the reasons should be obvious, just imagine the same characters that make up your game show up in another game completely out of context, it just just make everything ridiculous and you will likely be shamed publicly. Imagine you could buy Star-Wars models in an asset store, where are you going to use them? It would appear ridiculous in anything that is not a sequel or parody to Star-Wars, you cannot really do anything with them. Luckily asset stores mostly do not sell iconic items, but this will leave your game to be totally generic without character, which no serious developer would ever do.

 

In short my problem with asset stores in general are:

1. They run on a marketing lie and selling to dreamers that will never succeed in what they are promised, which is immoral.

2. Same problem as with the open source game art, which is you will most likely not find enough and needing you to learn to produce it yourself, which limits the use of ready made content to begin with.

3. If you use copied or mass produced content, it is not really art anymore by definition.

4. Flooding the market with low quality asset flips.

5. No serious developer would use them, leaving the market to unserious ones, producing unserious products.

 

Thats my summary with asset stores, yes point 1&2 and 3&4 are quite similar, but I listed them separately since one is more the moral aspect and the other is the practical aspect.

My advice would be that you better look into buying better tools or content creators, this way you get the benefits of both worlds, you get the time savings of asset stores and you still have unique content, that you produced yourself and in the long run your money investment pays off more in work saved and you also will improve your art skills, kind of a win win situation. This also seems to be the trend in the serious gaming industry, selling high quality tools with lots of templates that reduce the workload by a lot. To be honest this can result in the same thing like having asset flip like games, since most people are probably too lazy to change the templates from the tools, but I think the mere fact, that you at least have to put in some work yourself, to create the content, will filter out most of the incompetent people. Another exception is raw materials or raw models, like things you cannot really change much or add your own style to it, since they are just a representation of reality, like phototextures or object geometry. I think you can even use asset store items sparingly without it being too obvious, if you put significant work into it yourself, though you probably should try to avoid it, since if you get caught using asset store items, it automatically makes you look dubious. Yes some games I will not name here are getting away with using lots of bought assets and people not really care that they get an inferior product, but just because some get away with poor corrupt company politics does not mean it is good.

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Why most open source game art is useless

Well first let me tell you the events that lead me to this conclusion. My initial idea was to create an open source 3D shooter, because there was no actively developed 3D shooter for years now, so I thought I just make one on my own. I thought it cannot be that hard, since open source gives you so much benefits, like using other people's work and combining it to something new, so you end up with much less work. There were certain things on my checklist of what I need like:

1. Open Source game engine

2. Open source game code

3. Open source game art

The open source game engine I had already found. Open source game code that was universally usuable was basically nonexistent, since it was mostly engine or game specific, so I already accepted for me that I probably have to do the game mechanics programming from scratch. Open source game art was the point I had the most expectations from, I thought I can build a full game out of open source game art that was made by others and already ready to use. I did some investigations before, if open source game art is available in large quantities and it was, so I did not enter this project without investigating first. Thinking it can save me lots of work I searched basically the whole internet for open source game art and downloaded everything that seemed to fit, this of course took some time. Then I made a big archive with all the content I got and sorted it all so I can better access it later when I need it. While doing this I already encountered the first problems:

1. Not enough content of a certain kind or style was available

2. Too low quality content to be usable

3. Unfinished content that would require significant work to finish

4. Inconsistent art style, since every artist has his own style

5. Restrictive licenses especially GPL (who the hell applies GPL to art and how is that even supposed to work?)

6. Incompatible art created for another purpose

7. Total incompetence of the creator, resulting in a major mistakes that make the art asset useless, even if it looked good

8. Illegal content, many release content as open source that is incompatible with open source or downright stolen

9. You could do it better yourself, which removes the necessity to use open source entirely

 

So let us break down each problem, what other problems it leads to and how it has to be solved.

1: For the problem of not enough content available the solution is obvious, create it your own from scratch or pay someone else to do it, but paying someone else is too expensive so we are left with do it yourself. To be able to do it yourself you need to aquire a range of software or even hardware and to learn the skills yourself, which in the worst case can take you years to learn and thousands of dollars in cost for hardware etc. Yes theoretically the great open source community will help you creating exactly what you need totally for free if you just ask them, in reality this almost never happened, you only get ignored, if you find any open source artist at all. So due to its high unlikeliness that someone else will magically solve your needs, we can dismiss this idea. Only option we now have, if we do not want to do everything our own is to reduce the scale of the project and use only what we got, but the bigger the project is you want to build, the more unlikely it is you can  get away with this. For example to build a 3D shooter with halfway decent quality, the minimum requirements are very high already and it is almost impossible to cover this with free open source stuff you find on the internet. So the verdict is if you face this problem, start to learn to do everything on your own or your project is dead.

2: Low quality content is always a problem, since open source game art gets created over a long period of time, the quality is often low. The biggest contributions to open source game art are things that someone else throws away because it is too low quality for the regular market. So you end up having to use other people's trash all the time, which may be fine for smaller projects with "intentional" low quality, but for serious game projects this is not an option. If your project grows and you eventually become better in your skill, you will likely find yourself wanting to replace or improve them anyway, which may result in even more work than not having used them to begin with, since you have to try to fix low quality material or replace it, doing all the work twice. Some might argue "Oh but this is good for placeholder art", but using placeholder art is not that practical, if you don't have a big team with a big budget. You can only use placeholder art if you want to do the programming first, but not release that placeholder art. Verdict if you face this problem, well "only" lower quality and eventually extra work, if you plan to improve later.

3: Unfinished content is very similar to the first problem, since having unfinished content is basically almost not having it at all. It is like having a car with 3 or 2 or no wheels at all, yes it may look nice, but you cannot drive it. Solution to this would be again to learn how to make art yourself and finish it, but if you can do it yourself, why bother fixing someone elses content and even having to credit them for it, because they chose a stupid license. Statistically the most common unfinished art asset is an untextured model, but from my experience the raw modeling is often not even half the work, more like 25% the work, 50% is texturing and maybe 25% implementation and this does not calculate in testing and optimization, since if you do testing and optimization you might find out, that the mesh architecture was badly made to begin with, so that it would have been less work to rebuild it your own from scratch. So if you face this problem, it is the same as the first problem, if you don't have the skills and potentially minimal time savings, if you have the skills. Sometimes it requires even more work to use someone elses unfinished art as a base, plus having to attribute someone else even though you did all the work.

4: Inconsistent art style is not that big of a problem compared to the other problems, since even though your game will look ugly, it will at least work and have all the needed pieces. So the verdict for this problem is, it is "only" ugly. It may even work for small game projects, but the larger and more serious it gets, inconsistent art style can be tolerated less and less.

5: Restrictive licenses can be a big problem. The irony here is, that open source licenses are supposed to be less restrictive, but some end up being even more restrictive. The worst people are those who apply GPL to art assets, how is that supposed to work? Does it mean you have to open source the whole game code plus assets under GPL as well, if you just use one small GPL image? Or do you have to GPL only the art? (Even though GPL is not supposed to be used on art) Or very liberally you have to open source only the GPL image again under GPL?! Nobody can really tell you, some even argue that art or data is magically not part of the program and therefore does not have to abide by the GPL license. Same problem goes for a lot of other licenses such as creative commons, since they are all slighly different and even there nobody really knows what the licenses mean exactly. Overall the more different licensed content you use the more trouble you have, since you cannot just simply release your game under one license, but have to provide a long list with attributions and license terms in the correct way every time. Verdict: Having different or restrictive open source licenses reduces the art assets you can use safely greatly, which is a big problem since when using open source art assets the choice is not that big to begin with.

6: Incompatible art is encountered a lot, since many open source digital art creators do not create it for games, but for render scenes or for movies, so if you encounter those, you may be able to fix it, but mostly you end up with totally unusable art assets. The worst part of this is that art like that often looks very good, since hey that is what it was made for, to look good, at the cost of having millions of polygons and hours of render time, good luck using that in a game. Verdict: Painful and frustrating, since you often have to throw away good looking art.

7: Incompetence is always a big problem, how often have I opened a .blend file totally not knowing what to do and the settings were so messed up I could not repair it. The art asset may be usable in some way,  but since the author did not provide instructions, it is basically useless. It is like gambling, are you trying to figure out how to use it and / or how to repair it if necessary, or just make it on your own from scratch? This is similar to the third problem, you may end up having to spend more work into it, fixing someones broken stuff and even having to credit them for it, even though you did most or even all of the work. Some people will probably say, you can import the mesh into a fresh blend file, yes but you have to find first what to import and how. Even if you manage that, the asset will probably not work, since hey you threw away all the setup. Another problem are formats you have no idea how to use and how to import, or textures you have no idea how to apply. The other big problem is, that it requires a certain skill level to make usable game art, if major mistakes are made it can render the whole art asset useless. So if you are an artist releasing stuff as open source, please think about that someone else must be able to use it and cannot magically figure out how you intented it to be used. Verdict: Also painful and frustrating, since you are so close, but it still turns out to be useless.

8: Illegal content is probably the main reason I use less and less open source art. Potential illegal content can render a whole source like a website useless, since everyone can upload there, so you find lots of illegal content there as well. So you end up having to limit your sources greatly due to this problem and can only resort to sources that are credible and know what open source means. Opengameart is the only website that cares and is very safe, but I also found illegal content there after it being there for a long time. On blendswap I already found 3D models with textures with branding in it, since many people think all images from google are fine to use. Even on open source art websites you find a lot of people still using cgtextures even though they explicitely do not allow the use in open source at all, there is no debate on that, it is forbitten, but people refuse to learn. Verdict: Potentially very dangerous and can cause you a lot of trouble and shame.

9: If you can do it yourself, why bother with open source art? Yes, theoretically you safe work, but practically you also have to deal with all the issues I listed before, which may end up taking you much more work and trouble. My conclusion from this experience is, that most open source art is useless. For a video game, you need a large pallette of art with consistent quality, style and functionality, which is almost impossible to be fulfilled by open sourced art others released already. Yes there is a big exception here and that is raw materials, like texture photos, which I also offer here a lot, since having a large library of safe and ready to use raw materials can help you a lot, but the more specific the art assets get, the more you run into problems. To those people that might argue, that since I admit raw materials for asset creation open source art are not useless, the contept of offering open source game art in general is not useless, I say: If you have the skills to create the art on your own, why bother with ready-made open source art? Yes theoretically you safe work, but that is only if the creator is very skilled and did everything right and also meets the style you need, which practically is almost never the case. Raw materials are not art already, art requires that you do something unique with the materials first, a pile of mud is not equal to a sculpture.

 

Well that was quite a long article, but nothing compared to the time I wasted in my delusion thinking the concept of open sourcing game art works out as it currently is. I can imagine it could work out, but only if skilled artists take part in it, agree to producing content meeting certain quality and functionality standards. The anarchy idea to let everyone do as he wants, if qualified or not, does not work out, it needs a clear guidance, someone who controls the quality and especially the legality. For example browsing probably thousands of free 3D models I cannot remember finding even one that had LOD levels or collision meshes, which are pretty much standard in the gaming industry for over a decade now, or only one or two character models that were rigged and animated so that they could work in a game. So out of ALL the as open source freely available art assets, the number you can use out of the box in a game is basically very close to zero.

It is a problem of service, commercial asset stores give you exactly that, you pay, get the item and it works out of the box almost all the time. What the open source community has, you don't pay (which is nice), but what you get almost never works out of the box. If the open source community could progress to having a product that is at least somewhat useful, they could score with the free aspect, but a product that cannot be used is like a product that does not exist, it being free does not help much.

Yes, the open source idea COULD work out, but the way it is now, is just a pile of garbage.

 

PS: For those people who like to attack me with arguments like "Oh you are part of the community etc" - No, I'm not, they pretty much threw me out after not agreeing to their garbage production policies. I also think I fixed most of the issues (which nobody ever seem to have addressed before) listed here for me and as a result I'm offering asset store quality game art assets under the most liberal license available here on this website.

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Why ready-made textures often are not as useful as many might think

On duion.com I offer mostly unedited texture photos and I often got comments like "Oh but they are not ready-made yet, so they are not useful" so instead of answering all those individually I will write a ready-made answer for this here.

The main reason is probably, that I don't have the time to convert them all, but let's say I would convert them all, then I would face the question: "To what and after what standards do I want to convert them?". From a users perspective ready-made always sounds good, it sounds like good quality and most importantly less work, but from a developers perspective this can quickly shift into its opposite. Yes if you are a user and unskilled anyway, then you are probably well off, with just using them as they are, but if you are an artist with a bit of passion that wants to create something he can stand behind, then you may not be fine with the quality you are given and want to improve or adapt it. I for example always found myself looking at ready made textures and thought "Oh yes they look very good", but on closer look or when testing them in a game I noticed them being wrong or having some kind of flaw I had to correct, since I'm a bit of a perfectionist.

Most asset stores provide their textures for a specific purpose, this is fine for that specific purpose, but for everyone else a disadvantage, since they will only fit that specific purpose and for everyone else they will be less useful or not useful at all.

So what you do then? Many will argue "Then you edit them yourself to fit your purpose", yes this is possible, but textures now consist of many layers like diffuse, normal, specular, ambient occlusion, heightmap etc, so once you edit the diffuse, all others are wrong, so you have to edit them as well in the same way, for which I have no idea how to do that in an efficient way, so the best option you then have is to edit the diffuse layer and generate all the other layers again yourself. Once you are there you realize that:

1. You do not have the skills or tools to do it

2. Even if you do so, you still have no idea how the original creator did it

3. Then your textures will end up different in style and quality, so they do not match the others

4. So the ready-made material you downloaded, was useless to you

5. You may have been better off with the unedited source image which has probably higher resolution and more image to work with

 

From this train of thought you can see the big problem that can arise, since a ready-made material is only useful for a specific purpose, for everyone else it will be less useful or even problematic, since even if you manage to edit it to your purpose, then you still end up with the problem of inconsistent quality since your style of editing is different, but this all assumes the texture was usable for your purpose to begin with, since if not you end up with another list of problems:

1. The texture may have weird resolution like 3205x1208, most developers know textures should be power of two and squared or rectangular with power of two, like 512x512 or 1024x512 etc otherwise game engines cannot work with it. Yes for some purposes like rendering it may not matter, but you still may end up with all the problems listed above, for everone else the texture becomes almost completely unusable, since of course you could just stretch the image into power of two, but then it will be stretched, then you will have to unstretch it inside your application again, but the image remains kind of stretched since the pixel density is different horizontal to vertical.

2. The texture may be overedited so that it is too bright or too dark and information was lost or some kind of filters were applied, so it no longer fits your purpose or style.

3. The seamelss conversion is poorly made, so you have a lot of editing artifacts, obviously repeating patterns and lots of image pattern was lost due to it. Yes you can fix that, but it will lead to even more image pattern will be lost.

4. Even if everything is fine, you never know how much quality was lost in the conversion compared to the unedited source image, resolution or image pattern may still be lost.

So in all the above cases you would be better of with an unedited source image, if you have even a little editing skills yourself.

 

My solution to this problem is, that when I need a texture I browse the Texture Photos on this website and pick one or more of the textures that seem to fit, then I will test if they fit my purpose, so either I edit them into a seamless version already or just apply it as it is, to see how it looks inside the game or render view on the model. When I'm fine with the result I will finish editing the texture, at first only the diffuse layer and will go and test it ingame to see if there are any flaws, mostly repeating patterns from the seamless conversion and only if the diffuse layer is ready-made and tested ingame, I will start making the other layers like normal map, specular map etc, then I will go again into the game and test the texture with all layers applied and test each layer individually if it fits, if not go back editing that layer until it fits.

This may sound very complicated and work intenstive and depending how often you have to fix it, it really is, but if you have your workflow and toolchain already setup, it is not as complicated anymore and you are guaranteed to get a good result that fits your purpose. The time I spend making a texture could be anywhere between 5 minutes and 3 hours, on average probably more like 0.5 to 1 hour. Most time is spend on testing, especially since I like to play around a lot, like walking around observing it from all angles and in different conditions, but you do not have to do that.

The ready-made textures I offer are made like that and designed to be used with Uebergame/Torque3D so they may not work that well for other purposes, but at least for that one purpose they are well adjusted.

I can understand why most asset stores especially since they are often commercially oriented will just pump out as many assets as possible in the shortest amount of time, I could do that as well and just spend 5-10 minutes on each texture and put out 5-10 times more in the same amount of time, but I could not stand behind that product even if it was free, since I would know that it was not that useful to others in an untested and unpolished state.

The industry kind of addressed that issue since more and more they sell tools now where you can quickly generate textures in the way you need them, but I'm still a fan of photo textures, since they offer the most realism, since they are real, those synthetic textures often look like plastic. Of course technology gets better and you can render photorealistic textures now, but this is still quite a lot of efford and costs time, so why not just use a photo instead, if you have one at hand that fits.

I hope this breakdown was somewhat useful and I admit that there is a place for all those categories from source images, to ready-made textures to texture generators, but each one has its limitations, so it is not that ready-made is the best product for everyone.

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