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How Graphics Stunt Programming

I like to think of myself as a capable programmer, but as a designer I have a lot to learn. For instance, the making of this very site, while easy programmatically, took a very long time to complete because I couldn't figure out a pretty design for it. And so this follows with app development.

It was practically a year and a half ago that I started work on the app Cartographic, and let me tell you, I did not spend a majority of that time programming. In fact, not only did I get most of the work done in late 2011, I think I only made one or two commits in 2012 overall. What, then, is the problem? Am I simply lazy? No (at least, I hope not), the problem really lies in the fact that without a graphics designer, my project isn't going anywhere.

Cartographic is a good game (if I do say so myself), in that beta testers have responded well to it. It is playable and it is fun. However, the graphics are not only really quite awful, but also consist of sprites and backgrounds I borrowed from other games. Clearly this is not a shippable state of affairs. I wrote the entirety of Cartographic in a few months, but the fact that my app has to look good, coupled with the fact that I couldn't create pixel art if my life depended on it, is forcing this project to take a backseat to things that are more easily designable (like websites, which can be simple yet elegant, unlike iPhone games).

The truth is, software not only has to function, it also has to look good. I'm not saying that every app has to be a masterpiece, but if I removed all sprites and backgrounds from Cartographic, you wouldn't really be able to do much. Graphics are how users interact with your software and regardless of what your standards of "looking good" are, they still have to exist and be usable.

Take, for instance, the current main menu of Cartographic.

While this certainly works for testing purposes, there are quite a few problems with it. For one, yes, it looks very ugly. The title text is in an ugly font which clashes with the background, and it really just doesn't work the way it is. The buttons are also very monotonic, standard and boring. Second of all, the background image is not my original work, which means I cannot include it in an app that I wish to sell.

Programming skill alone is no longer enough to sell a product. In the Golden Age of the 90s, any Joe Schmoe who could hack together some bits of twine and call it a program was able to market it because no one cared how things looked. The reason for this was that the technology was so new at that point that no one knew how to make things look good. In these days, people want flashy sparkles and smooth transitions, which require specialized skills that actually take time to pull together. This is good for the economy, as it increases jobs, but bad for me. The prospect of adding another member to the Apathetic Ink team at this point is not very appealing, especially as we have yet to release a product. iPhone game development might rake in a few dollars, but unless you develop the next Angry Birds, you're not going to become a millionaire, and you're not going to attract potential employees.

So, what is there to do at this point? Unfortunately, the answer is hard work. The kids play of programming is done, now it's time for the real men and women to sit down at the table, break out Photoshop and try to work some pixels together. There will be crying, there will be the flipping of tables, and there will be hair torn out, but hopefully, in the end, we'll have a product. I know you're all excited for that.

Hatkirby on January 3rd, 2013 at 12:00:00am
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