Free art can help create a generation of non-pirates

The 21st century will be dominated by “digital” culture and art. History suggests that non-digital art will flourish too (while becoming a smaller, more specialized, part of a larger pie). So it’s all good: more people will have more opportunities to create – and more access to experience – a wider array of art. Win/win!

Except … our societies are struggling to work out how we’ll pay our artists when the marginal price of a copy is less than a penny.

Last week, something interesting happened when several unrelated projects I’m in all came together at once.

Someone is ‘stealing’ from CGTextures.com

Marcel at http://www.cgtextures.com/ gives away a huge library of high-res photo textures, aimed at game-developers, entirely for free. You don’t pay for access, you don’t pay to use them. You can include them in commercial games, make a million dollars – and you owe him nothing (bar gratitude).

Last week he came to a private forum asking for advice on suspected copyright infringers, who might have been taking his free images, removing the attribute/authorship info, and selling them for themselves.

Copying the images, and charging for them, is not theft. It’s illegal, but it’s not stealing. The original source is still available – free – to anyone who wants it. And many authors in this case are inclined to let the scummers go free, so long as they stop charging innocent users for something that’s free to all.

But CGTextures isn’t free to run; if they ever need to raise funds to pay for it, some of that money – which the community would happily donate – is being taken right now by a selfish scummer. Hmm. Tricky.

3D art is hard

If you’re “not an artist” (which for most people means: “I’m crap at drawing/painting!”) then making any kind of 2D art is very difficult, and tends to look like utter crap.

Computer games are dominated by good or great art. Even in the Indie scene, where “teams” are often no more than 2 people working together, we have a blinding array of beautiful artworks. At the opposite end of the spectrum – the AAA titles with budgets counted in “tens of millions” of dollars – it only gets better.

People love playing games – and they love making them too. Many people – artists and programmers – dream of “making a game”. But … just like “I’ve a great idea for a book” … the vast majority never manage it.

Two of the most common reasons they fail:

  1. Aiming too high: games require a lot more work than people imagine, and most people get 10% in and discover they’ve bitten off way too much to chew
  2. The artwork looks crap: everyone they show it to hates it (or they dont dare show it), the author hates it, they realise that no-one will play it, let alone pay for it, and they gradually lose the will to finish the project

Anyone can make a game: even un-trained teenagers

We’re in the final few weeks of proving this (a team of three 15-year-olds are about to publish their iPhone game that they designed, built, tested, and launched from scratch).

Starting with nothing but beginner-level knowledge of Javascript (not enough to write an app), they’ve:

  1. Learnt Javascript
  2. Learnt 3D-modelling
  3. Created all their own 3D models, with textures
  4. Built, tested, and refined a working game

Sounds hard, right? Well, yes, it was. But – if you know enough tricks of the trade – most of that can be made easy enough for anyone to do themselves.

  1. Game structure – use an established game engine
  2. Programming – stick to “simple” programming concepts
  3. In-game artwork – “stylised” 3D models are trivial to create (c.f. Minecraft)
  4. Testing – use a modern IDE with a decent debugger

This is all great, but I’ve glossed-over one item there: textures. You can avoid the need for painting skills by making your game-items 3D instead of 2D, but sooner or later you’re going to need to texture them.

JFGI

With the programming, one of the skills I’ve drummed into them is JFGI (Just F’ing Google It). Everytime you get stuck: google it. If you get no hits – fine, you’ll have to work it out yourself. But often you’ll find:

  1. It’s a bug in your tools, not your fault! Here’s a workaround…
  2. It’s practically impossible; don’t waste time trying to solve it…
  3. Your software documentation / manual was missing the following info: …
  4. It’s a generic boilerplate piece of code. Don’t worry about it, but use this copy/pasteable code solution: …

Leveraging the internet as a resource is fundamental to being a great programmer. I’ll gloss over the risks / dangers for now (I’ll write another post on that later), but most of the time you cannot JFGI too often.

But … with the 2D artwork, with the textures for 3D models … Google becomes a danger.

Google Images: the devil on your shoulder

Writing a presentation, and need an image? Google Images it!

…making a game, and need a “wood texture”? Google Images it!

WHOA THERE, JOHNNY!

Doesn’t feel like stealing (that’s cos it isn’t) – but it is something illegal: copyright infringement. It’s precisely why “copyright” was invented in the first place.

And yet: this single problem can make all your effort, all your hard work on your own creative artwork (your game), invalid. You can have the most sublime game design, a control system that a toddler can master, a frame-rate as smooth as silk … but if the 2D graphics (or the textures) are crap … the whole thing falls flat on its face. And most people can’t draw.

How the pros do it

There are simple techniques for making very good textures starting from random photographs. Even a novice can create something perfectly “good enough” in a short amount of time.

Only one thing is needed: a big library of photographs, MORE THAN ONE per real-world “texture” you need to create. If you have the money, there are dozens of Stock Photography resources, each one costing hundreds (or: thousands) of dollars a year.

But if you’re students – undergraduates, high-schoolers – or simply “not rich” (“artist” isnt’ exactly a high-paid career) and working on your own, you probably don’t have “hundreds of dollars”.

Hey, I know! Let’s use Google Imag- … crap.

Enter stage left: > http://www.cgtextures.com/ – a FREE, ROYALTY-FREE, MASSIVE collection of photographs DESIGNED FOR USING IN COMPUTER GAMES. Why? I guess Marcel is just a naturally generous person.

I showed the guys CGT. No problem; texture sources a-plenty. And it’s all free. And legal…

Full circle

  1. potential pirates who are ‘creating’ are happy to respect copyright, if you educate them early enough … so long as they have viable alternatives
  2. if you take away the alternatives, they must weigh up the moral “cost” of infringement against the moral “benefit” (and personal satisfaction) of completing their own work
    • I’m not advocating this piracy; but where no theft is involved, to most people’s minds the cost is tiny and the benefit is huge. Realistically I expected few people to resist when he temptations – both moral and practical – are so big
  3. sites like CGTextures put “artistic creation with 3D” in reach of everyone
  4. pirating art from CGTextures is – AFAICS – only a criminal activity: illegally extract money from someone else’s work, with no ‘creation’ involved
  5. …but if sites like CGTextures go away (if Marcel gives up), and the next generation of artists lose their alternatives, “copyright” has no chance at all

IMNSHO, anti-software-piracy organizations tend to be idiotic, amoral, and begging to be nuked from orbit. They’re often part of the problem, not the solution. If they genuinely wanted to reduce piracy, they should be creating sites like Marcel’s: royalty-free resources of reduced cost that their industries could easily afford to give away for free.

The debate has – for way too long – characterized software pirates as “inherently evil; bad-doers; malicious”. This is undoubtedly true of some (my opionions of anyone re-selling CGT’s free art are unprintable). But we’re not born as software-pirates; we get that way because of the culture and society we grow up in. We have the opportunity to teach new generations respect for copyright – but that cuts both ways.

In the Digital Age, copyright needs to deserve our respect, not simply demand it.

Some other free texture sites

While checking some of the points in this post, I noticed a few other photo-texture sites that offer royalty-free images suitable for games dev, worth checking out:

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