Spriting is usually defined as the act of creating partially transparent 2D raster graphics for use in video games, commonly referred to as sprites; by extension, it is also used to refer to the act of creating pixel art, though not all sprites are necessarily done in that style. Pixel art comprises a large part of "sprite art" as a whole; though technological advances since the mid-nineties allowed pre-rendered raytraced imagery, or essentially any 2-dimensional image style to be used as a sprite. In some communities, "pixel art" is considered a synonym of "sprite art", and classification of artwork as "sprite art" is held to the same standards, though pixel art itself is not limited to the creation of sprites.
Though sprites have been a major component of many early video games, the modern, "mainstream" activity called "Spriting" arose with the advent of widely available computer graphics programs capable of editing and saving raster images. Such programs include MacPaint, and the later Microsoft Paint. The distinctive style of imagery used in many early computer and arcade games inspired people to create similar works of their own. Having the tools available to do this allowed many people to experiment with what was previously a prohibitively difficult-to-enter craft. With the advent of the internet, practitioners of spriting were able to collaborate and share their creations, which established spriting as a proper hobby, and also exposed these artists to prospective employers, and vice-versa.
Spriting is primarily done for the direct purpose of creating video game artwork, especially by professional artists. By hobbyists, though, it is often done to create stand-alone artwork, or as part of a larger piece of art, such as a web comic. The use of sprites as cookie-cutter elements of comic strips has led to a genre called sprite comics.
The technique is also used at web design where sprites are created by CSS as a way to accelerate page loading. By replacing several related images with one sprite sheet and selecting the shown image with CSS properties, the number of data requests and size of files is reduced.
Spriting as a hobby
Modified commercial sprites
Despite copyright concerns, many hobbyists new to spriting begin their work by editing sprite imagery made for commercial video games; often games seen on console platforms like the SNES or Sega Genesis. Fans of these images collect transcribed copies of them in common image formats, and post them on websites for others to see. This process of extracting the imagery is called "ripping" or "dumping". In "ripping" a person collects the imagery via screen captures of an emulator running the source game - this practice is in enough demand that some emulators, like ZSNES, have a feature to optionally display only desired layers of the game's imagery, making it easier to copy. "Dumping" involves a more sophisticated way of directly extracting the images from the game; this is often rather difficult, since on systems like the SNES, the larger images seen on-screen are stored in several smaller parts. These images are collected into compilations known as sprite sheets, large raster images which each hold all of the frames associated with a single character, or a single terrain environment. These are the de facto standard for trading ripped commercial sprites online.
Those who edit these images, which generally depict characters in the game, often begin by simply shifting the color palette; thus turning all of a character's primary costume color into a different color. Later, they will redraw small parts of the image, making slight changes to the costuming, etc. This is generally much less intimidating than creating a full, original work, and allows them practice in imitating and matching the styles used by professional artists. This progresses to modifications which are sufficiently extensive as to make the result unrecognizable from the source work from which it was derived.
Some spriters specialize in renewing the colors of old game sprites to make them look fresh. This process is called revamping.
Most revampers choose an old sprite and replace the colors with those of a more recent one. Others recolor them with a set color palette.
There is also a form of spriting called devamping, considered the opposite of revamping. It is the process of changing the color of a new sprite to make them look older.
Recolors of sprites are when you take a sprite, and change the palette to make the sprite a different color.
This method is considered unprofessional, and is done as a hobby by those who do not edit or customize sprites.
Styles of spriting
A sprite style is the way a certain sprite is made to look. Each style has methods and rules that must be followed in order to keep sprites uniform, even if they represent different characters entirely. Sprites of different styles often clash with each other, but mixing any style is never accepted. There are many different styles, even in games of the same series; some spriters also create their own styles.
Sprite styles may vary by size, palette, shading, detail, and further artistic touches.
With sufficient skill, often drawing from many general aspects of illustration (shading, color theory, foreshortening, and often comic art), an artist can create professional-quality sprite images and pixel art from scratch.
Artists will make sprites-to-order as a hobby, for either themselves, or friends. These sprites, created completely from scratch, but generally imitating sprites from a commercial game, are called "Custom" sprites, and are often seen as avatars, buddy icons, small animations, and elements of web comics. They will also often be used for small-scale video game projects.
Original Sprites are also used for advertisement. Sometimes you will see a spriter, or a small group of spriters, use a specific icon or logo made entirely from scratch. Most spriters that sprite for others yet do not have a group of spriters to work with them are called either Spriters-For-Hire, or Lone Spriters. After a while, once these spriters become more popular around forums and sometimes even YouTube, their icon or logo will become famous and well known throughout the Internet.
Spriting as a profession
With the advent of dedicated 3D hardware, sprites lost their near-monopoly on video-game imagery. However, sprite art remains a popular medium for video-game imagery, and has witnessed a comeback in the commercial markets for handheld consoles (like the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS) or mobile phone games. The companies that create these games hire many of the best sprite artists who maintain online portfolios of their work, and who openly seek such employment. Recently a demand for spriters has opened up in the MMORPG field, for games such as Habbo Hotel.
Professional sprite artists often delve into other areas of illustration, including animation, comics, and computer-generated art, often doing those on a professional basis as well.
Spriting needs only a computer and a graphic editing program, although other tools can help. Depending on the target use of the sprite, it may be necessary to have a program capable of adding transparency information (e.g. an "alpha channel") to sprites. For handheld/mobile games, it is also necessary to post-process the imagery, converting it to a format native to the hardware the game will run on. When editing pixel images, a professional artist will typically use either a program designed for sprite-editing and animation, and/or will modify the workspace of a major image-editor like Photoshop to accommodate sprite editing. The following programs are prevalent:
- Common programs
- Microsoft Paint is included in Microsoft Windows. It lacks many advanced features, but basic graphic editing is very mature and suitable for pixel by pixel editing.
- Programs designed for sprite editing
- Pixen is free, open-source, and available for Mac OS X. It offers many tools tailored to sprite creation and animation.
- ASEPRITE is free, open-source and available for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. It is specifically tailored for sprite creation. Supports animation, onion skinning and layers.
- GraphicsGale, for Windows, has both freeware and ¥1995 (roughly $20) shareware versions, and has features designed for animation and cursor creation.
- Pro Motion is available for Windows, and costs $78. It is often used by professionals, and offers many animation features, and features tailored to producing art for the Game Boy Advance, or Mobile Phones.
- Major image editors
- The GIMP is a free, open-source image editor, available for all major platforms. The GIMP-GAP plugin greatly enhances its animation capabilities.
- Adobe Photoshop is a commercial image editor available for Windows and Mac OS X. In order to make a sprite in this program, users mostly have to use the pencil tool.
- Paint.NET, built with the .NET framework, is open-source freeware capable of similar functionality as Adobe Photoshop and a number of professional tools.
- GrafX2 is an open-source picture editor very similar to Deluxe Paint and others from 80's and 90's.
A scanner can be useful for transferring penciled sketches/designs of a sprite into a computer. Advanced sprite artists often create their sprites directly on a computer, although, a graphics tablet can greatly ease the majority of the work; especially the sketching and blocking stages, although the finer details will inevitably need to get tweaked with the mouse.
There are several ways to create a sprite. Virtually all of these involve some way of "planning out" the form of the final sprite image. By laying out simple, and quick to draw suggestions of the final form, an artist can evaluate and correct the general direction that the construction of an image is moving towards, eliminating errors in perspective, anatomy, and foreshortening before the major work of drawing begins. These methods are very similar to other forms of illustration.
"Blocking" is what painters do: a spriter will lay out large regions of color/shade, trying to lay them in what he or she will think to be their final position, but starting with the biggest regions first. The artist will then sculpt these regions into the correct shape, and add in additional highlights and shadows to form the image, sometimes finishing the image by adding cartoon-like outlines to frame parts of the image.
"Line Art" is the outlining used to draw many styles of illustration. These are usually shades of black (Pure black or dark grey, usually) but this is not always true. It can stand on its own without coloration, and many spriters will draw black and white outlines of their intended final images before filling them in with color, and shading those filled regions. More experienced sprite artists will often color most of this line art; giving it a darker hue of the region it surrounds, rather than using jet black for all of their outlines.
After any of these methods are followed, the sprite artist will clean the image of any extraneous pixels unrelated to their illustration, apply proper transparency, especially to the blank canvas surrounding their illustration, and then export the image to a format suitable for sending to their client or friends. The PNG and to a lesser degree, GIF formats are suitable, and JPEG is notable for not being so - the lossy nature of JPEG compression often mars some of the finer details of sprites, but more importantly, can shift the colors of a sprite's pixels. Many videogames that use sprites require the sprites to use an exact, predefined palette of colors, and often create graphical effects by shifting these colors; any colors outside of this scheme will cause this to fail. Specific projects may convert the images to a proprietary format used internally by their game.