Posted in Business Hidden Asset

Why isometric?

August 12th, 2010 - 3:34 pm

I’ve often been asked why I chose to go for an isometric art style instead of the more modern proper 3D (actually, no one has asked me this yet, but I’m just going to pretend that somebody has as an excuse to write a blog entry about it!). In this day and age, true isometric games are a rarity and pretty much completely extinct when it comes to big AAA games. Games like Dragon Age: Origins and StarCraft II that can at first glance appear to be isometric are actually proper 3D with the camera placed at an angle above the playing field. To find new isometric games today, you’ll usually have to turn to browser based games or games from smaller independent developers like Spiderweb Software and Basilisk Games.

So why choose an art style that only browser based games and a few indie studios use today? Why not make a real 3D game like the big AAA studios? Well, precisely because that’s what big AAA studios do. As a small one-man game studio with a very limited budget, there’s no way I’d be able to make a game that can compete with those big blockbuster games. I have neither the manpower nor the knowledge to do so. However, I believe I’ll be able to make a game that can compete with the other isometric games out there. The advice that’s most often given by existing indie studios to new indie studios is to find a niche and make the best game within that niche. It’s better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond. I hope to become a big fish in the small isometric pond. That’s the business reason for going isometric.

The technical reason for going isometric is two-fold. There’s the development side, and then there’s the end-user side. On the development side, it’s a lot easier and faster to make an isometric game as it’s still basically 2D. There’s no need to build, import and display 3D meshes (something I have pretty much no experience with), I just blit the 2D sprites to the screen in the correct order and at the correct coordinates. And a lot of those sprites can be created with a relatively cheap and easy to use program like Poser, instead of having to build them from scratch in a program that’s a lot more complicated, like for example Blender. I’ll probably still use Blender for making sprites that aren’t characters, but if I don’t improve my 3D modeling skills to an acceptable level, there’s always the option to buy finished 3D models. For a program like Poser, you can get a lot of quality models for a cheap price – the only catch is that you’re not allowed to use the model meshes themselves in a game, but you are allowed to use 2D sprites rendered from those models.

As to the end-user side of the technical reason for going isometric, a 2D isometric game requires a lot less system resources than a full 3D game. I’m using my netbook as the target platform for Hostile Takeover – a computer that only has the most basic integrated graphics chipset. I’m already making a niche game, and there’s no need to make it even more niche by having high system requirements.

Finally, there’s the personal reason for going with an isometric art style. As I’ve probably made very clear in previous blog entires, I love that particular art style. I’m sure a big part of that love is nostalgia, but I also have a fascination with miniature things (hence why I have a netbook!), and to me the isometric art style gives the impression of a miniature world. It’s not realistic like 3D is, and you’ll probably never mistake an isometric game for reality as you almost can with a pixel-porn game like Crysis, but I feel it’s exactly this feeling of artificiality that gives isometric games their special style and mood. You’re looking down at this artificial, isometric world and can move your character around in it – almost like when you were a kid, sitting on the floor in the middle of the living room and playing with your action figures. In many ways, the viewpoint the player has on the world of an isometric game is the same this kid has on his action figures. The action figures have just been replaced with 2D sprites.

Basically, this is me working on Hostile Takeover:

Kid playing with action figuresImage borrowed from this site



August 12th, 2010 3:34 pm

You look pretty young in that picture (lol)!

Christian Knudsen

August 12th, 2010 3:34 pm

I exercise and drink plenty of water! :D


November 12th, 2010 3:34 pm

I often wonder to myself whether hand animation really is less work than using 3D – I mean, you need about 8 directions for it to look okay, 3 of which can be mirrored: that means every animation for every character has to be drawn 5 times to get all the angles!

On the other hand 3D models only need to be modelled and animated once, and the same animation can often be applied to multiple character. Quite a few games “flatten” (or have flattened) 3D meshes to create their sprites (including the original Starcraft has it happens). I don’t have any experience with 3D programming, but I have done some modelling, and I’m not certain that drawing takes less time. Then again I do use a mouse :-S

Good post anyway :-)

Christian Knudsen

November 12th, 2010 3:34 pm

I think that if you have plenty of experience with 3D programming and can either make good models yourself or can afford buying them, then 3D is quicker (and you wouldn’t have to “settle” for 8 directions). I kinda feel I’m in the middle-ground; using 3D models to create 2D sprites. Like you say, I only have to animate the 3D models once… and then just turn them 45 degrees a few times and render the sprites.


February 14th, 2012 3:34 pm

Love it…the plastic soldiers was something I played waaaay back in 1982 (9 years old), and my mom wanted to send me to a psychiatrist due to the excessive violence observed… now 30 years on, I am exploring isometric game design in XNA gaming along with the new “2.5D revival” on simpler devices like iPad and windows phone…the era of the indie developer. Now its sprites doing the ‘killing’ instead of plastic soldiers. I totally get the nostalgia thing having played everything since then and now… Still loving it… still need that psychiatrist. ;)

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