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Basic Construction: Tools On The Cheap

April 18, 2009 Leave a comment

Art Is In The Eye of The Beholder

The first rule of using Construct is: you need sprites, aka pictures of your player, enemies, powerups, levels, etc. Construct does have a graphics editor built in. However, it is as useful as MS Paint. If you purchased Photoshop already, skip this article. Seriously. Go make a layer style already. For the rest of us, how about taking a step up from MS Paint without having to purchase or pirate Photoshop? Let’s point you to some free graphics resources. Have our cake and eat it too? Lead on!

Here’s what we’re looking for:

  1. It needs to loosely resemble Photoshop so we won’t have difficulty stepping up when we need to. Most sprite pixel sizes are small for the most part (under 256×256, not including backgrounds), so this helps us a great deal in our choices.
  2. Free is for me. It can’t cost anything! This allows us to keep our geek cred bragging rights, as well as save our wallet some pain.
  3. Needs to support .png’s with alpha channel transparency, bare minimum.
  4. Needs to have an upgrade option, even if that means going straight to Photoshop.

ARTWEAVER (8.85MB installer)

artweaver_main.png
A view of Artweaver’s main layout.

Our first graphics program is very portable and very capable. Made by Boris Eyrich, this is a freeware program that fits somewhere between Photoshop 4 and 5, both in features and in GUI. It has the basic tool set, layers, history, and filters of Photoshop, combined with an outstanding brush system. In fact, the brush setup is stronger than Photoshop CS, in my opinion. De-selecting is a bit quirky. In fact, the easiest deselection method is to right click and choose ‘deselect’. That can definitely be tiresome after a while.

Artweaver is focused on drawing sprites, with an emphasis on drawing. It has a few Photoshop tricks, but the brushes are it’s main focus. Artweaver uses it’s own custom filter format, so no loading external Photoshop filters at all. You get some included basic filters (sharpen, blur, render, tools, noise, etc) but that’s it. This wouldn’t be such a negative if there was a community making additional filters. Again, Artweaver is focused on drawing. Coupled with any drawing tablet and you have a powerful art platform. It has TWAIN import so you can use a scanner, too. You can also use it straight up from a USB stick. If you need to draw, this is the best tool on our list. I’ll show you some Artweaver tips in another post on how to create some good effects (hint: gradients are your friend).

Minimum Requirements

  • Windows XP (SP2) – Vista – Windows 2000
  • Pentium compatible processor, 600 MHz or greater (1000 MHz recommended)
  • 800×600 resolution (1024×768 recommended)
  • 128 MB RAM (256 MB recommended)
  • 30 MB disk space
  • 15-bit color display (24-bit recommended)

PAINT.NET (1.63MB installer)

paintnet_main.png
Paint.net has a simple, smooth GUI.

Where Artweaver offered superior brushes and Photoshop mimicry (but lacked some GUI elements), Paint.net flips the coin. Without a doubt, Paint.net features the smoothest GUI out of our reviewed paint programs. The sub-menus are transparent, which allows you to keep painting without moving extra windows. It has more filters (called ‘Effects’ here) than Artweaver. More importantly, it has a user community creating more.

Paint.net is superior to Artweaver is several ways: unlimited history (limited only by available disk space), constant software updates, and tabbed documents. However, it doesn’t even come close in the brushes department. Like Artweaver, it also allows you to use a drawing tablet and has TWAIN import.

Minimum Requirements

  • Windows XP (SP2) -Vista – Windows Server (2003 SP1 or later)
  • .NET Framework 3.5 SP1
  • 1024×768 resolution
  • 256 MB RAM (512 MB recommended)
  • 200+ MB disk space

IcoFX (1.46MB installer)

This is a great program for a specific reason: sprite size. You can create game icons and website favicons, as well as sprite graphics, with a single piece of free software. There are some limits, but they end up helping rather than hindering. Maximum graphic size is 256×256 pixels, with several smaller default sizes. This helps us in 2 ways. First, it forces us to be economical with our physical sprite size, which keeps our file sizes down. This is a must if your game is flinging a few hundred entities around. It also gives us preset image sizes, in case you get really lazy. Second, we can quickly make proper game icons out of existing images of any size, presets or not. IcoFX allows us to resize and/or crop images very easily. Need to mash a big picture into an icon? Or a smaller size? This’ll do it fast.

icofx_main.png

GIMP (15.3MB installer

The one, the only, the GIMP. Once upon a time the GIMP was known as a Photoshop-Killer. However, several versions and updates later, Adobe has certainly pulled ahead and never looked back. The doesn’t mean the GIMP is useless; far from it. Out of all our reviewed programs, the GIMP can run on just about anything. That’s not such a great feature for Construct (which is a DirectX game creation system), but it does lend OS flexibility when you need it.

gimp.png

Dogwaffle (4.4MB installer)

Without a doubt, the most avant garde software of the bunch. It also has the lowest system requirements (Windows 95) However, for creative types it fits to a tee. Considering Construct is for non-programmers, or at least people who find programming difficult, this might fit alot of people. And if you upgrade, the full versions won’t break your budget (unlike Photoshop). Dogwaffle has a great focus on making organic panoramas and backgrounds. You can make some fantastic backdrops with little effort thanks to the built in tools. Unlike Artweaver, which focuses like a laser beam on brushes, Dogwaffle focuses on paint nozzles and effects.

Organic objects like plants, leaves, trees, fur, etc are very easy to create. It also has an amazing set of effects for what you get (free). The difficulty is in finding how to use the tools after jumping right in. You WILL need to sit down and read the help files to find out how the software and GUI work. It only saves in .bmp and .tga, which means transparency is right out. However, this is fine for what Project Dogwaffle does well: backgrounds. This is an artist’s program, not an IT professional’s. It is budgeted towards artists, made for a more artistic mindset, and feels more homegrown.

dogwaffle.png

That said, it’s still a very useful program (for the price). While Artweaver and Paint.net have a more logical, deliberate, and clean GUI, Dogwaffle is much more experimental. It forces you to delve into it, learn the tools, and get your hands dirty if you expect to use it. Once you do, then you can start seriously throwing pixels with it. In other words, don’t expect to dive in and get something done in 5 minutes with the free version.


A sample background made with PD Particles.

If you want something you can install, run, and have some amazing art in 5 minutes, then buy PD Particles. Even the low end tools such as PD Artist and PD Particles (both currently $19 as of 04/18/09) have an amazing number of palettes available that blows the other free tools away. They both have some serious bang for your buck. Both are full featured, meaning they can output with transparency if you need it. If you need to get some serious graphics going, PD Pro 4 (currently $119, 100 bucks more, as of 04/18/09) has animation and special F/X beyond what we need.

Minimum Requirements

  • Windows 95/98/ME – Windows XP (SP2) – Vista – Windows 2000
  • Pentium compatible processor, 600 MHz or greater (1000 MHz recommended)
  • 800×600 resolution (1024×768 recommended)
  • 64 MB RAM (256 MB recommended)

Summary

Currently, I use Artweaver for prototyping. It is extraordinarily portable. It has a decent set of basic tools. It is stable, free, and allows me to draw easily. The rest depends on the project’s art style. I’m designing a platform game with an ancient Japanese flavor, which PD Particles helps me with. On the other hand, my shmup is done in Artweaver and IcoFX exclusively. Each of these free tools has it’s own strengths and weaknesses. Spend an afternoon downloading them and put them through their paces. Some are easy to jump right into, others need some time to figure out.

All of them can be useful.