The making of a sprite


Cairn uses hand drawn sprites, which are painstakingly made by one person. The process takes around 3 weeks with a work process that was developed by us here at Embalmit. Here’s a bit of an insight of how this process usually goes for any given sprite we make for the game.

To put it all in perspective, the costs of animating a character for a videogame can be a bit astronomical. No matter if it’s traditional animation or 3d animation, the process usually involves many staffers and outsourcing of the final product to whatever country that pays their worker pennies by the hour. We at Embalmit we just don’t have the funds for that, so instead we have to come up with creative solutions for our problems.

Since we went for a traditional animation approach for the sprites, I had to come up with a process that would make a rather long animation process into a relatively easier one and inexpensive one, particularly since only 1 person would be working these (myself).


So let’s take an animation such as the trusty Dark Scorcher, which is a new unit that still has not been formerly introduced, but which exemplifies several aspects of creating a sprite.


The first step in creating a sprite is having some sort of concept art.  This is usually to get a whole creative team on the same page, which in this case is like 2 people, of which I only have to convince just 1 person (either Adam or me, it varies). In this case the sketch was quick and dirty to convey some of the ideas both Adam and me wanted for the character. Usually Adam will start with a concept for a character he wants (usually big picture type of details, such as the name, weaponry, lore, etc), then I counter with what I think of the concept, throw in a few references and then we sort out what would be the best way to proceed. In this case I think we wanted a unit with lots of equipment and poor hygiene (for some reason).


After that I return with a working concept of how the unit will eventually look like. Some of the initial concepts are thrown out, such as the character wearing a coat and others are added, such as a the chest piece, which was not on the original talks. Most of the original feel of the character (mask, shoulders and arms) are kept in a way that makes sense as a whole. Adam agrees with the direction of the character but wants to see a back piece for the Dark Scorcher.


The back piece took a bit of time to properly add. It kept looking a bit too phallic.


At this point we usually ask for the honest opinion of our significant others to see if the entire thing doesn’t look too silly (or to get a fresh view on the subject). In this case I think Adam’s girlfriend recommended the boots to be red, which seemed like a good idea.

And so, now to draw the parts of the sprite. Each part is drawn through several passes, but the system is done so these passes are relatively quick.


The first and most important pass is the regular line work. This is a no frills type of drawing with only a bit of shadows on the right side of the character.


The next step is shading the character. One shade will be all black whereas the other will be slightly grey. Both of these are transparent, so that coloring is then applied more easily. Texturing is also done in this phase by drawing several tiny lines very quickly.


The next step is coloring. To make the whole process faster all of the coloring is made using solid colors. The idea came from a joke from Adam, who wondered by didn’t I just applied the MS Paint bucket to the units to get them done quickly. Now I obviously could not do that, but came up with the next best thing, which is draw the colors by hand, but draw them without shading, since that process is applied on a different pass.


Then come the highlights. In this case the sprite has 2 type of highlights, one is a faint shine whereas the other is a bright glow. Both of these make the character stand out.

More passes can be applied to the sprites, but it is important that all of these look like they were made by the same hand using the same processes, so the neater the process is for all the sprites, the better.


The final step is the shadow behind the character, which has to be accurate and slightly transparent for each sprite. Our first sprites had no shadow and they looked a bit off.


Once all of this is done we get the final result: The Dark Scorcher, King of the Burning Void.

Well, not so fast, that’s only 1 side of the character, we still have 11 more sides to go, using an isometric perspective and with 200+ animations, including being idle, attacking and walking. So with this dilemma we cut the character parts into little pieces, as such:


Those pieces are to be used and re-used as often as it is needed. For example for a walking animation I need 56 different leg animations (same thing with arms, weapons, etc),but parts such as the head or body can be re-used numerous times. This is a bit like doing a 3d animation by 2d means.


Which is best exemplified in this chest detail. Here we can see the 7 sides of the chest that I used for this model, each took a while to draw, but the best part is that once they are done I can re-use them numerous times.

Now each model has 12 sides, but keen observers will notice I only drew 7 sides. The reason is simple: I flip 5 of the sides to create the other sides that I didn’t drew, which saves up considerable amount of time. A few sprites have required that I draw all 12 sides, which is a pain, but most sprites will require me to draw just 7 sides. This is an old industry trick though.

And there it is.

As a side note, if some of the aspects of the sprite look a bit off, it’s because I’m not making a pretty illustration or a poster with these, they fit within the visual structure of a videogame in which they interact with numerous elements made specifically for the perception a player will have while playing the game. Also, the size of these in-game is pretty small, for which I must exaggerate certain aspects of the sprite.

A lot of the process came from patiently studying and observing the sprites of 2d old school RTS games. We miss the animation style quite a bit, and this is our love letter to those games.

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