Revisiting the old school: Deluxe Paint

There’s a lot of ideas that were explored briefly the first time they came up in the computer evolution, not all of them game related!

Interestingly, with the technology today, we have actually forgotten a great many of those ideas in favour of what we do now, because we have new techniques that often replace the old – but they need not.

The best example I have of this phenomenon is colour cycling. Scroll back a few years, games had the ability to display 16, 32 or 256 colours on the screen (depending on the system you were using) but that was it, you could only have that many unique colours at once.

What a number of folks figured out was that while the number of colours had to remain the same, the actual colour didn’t. You could, conceivably, change the colour each frame. Just not the pixel itself. If it was colour index 123 last frame, it’d still be colour index 123 this frame – but you change it so all the pixels of colour index 123 this frame are a different colour.

And recently, I saw someone emulating the effect in modern technology (in a browser, which is no mean feat since we’ve “moved beyond” needing such techniques), over at http://www.effectgames.com/demos/canvascycle/ which is an incredibly neat thing to do in my book.

If you look at the ‘options’, you can see exactly what it’s doing: it’s not changing the pixels, merely the colour attached to them. This was an incredibly neat thing to do 20 years ago, and it has a charm today that can’t be emulated except by actually doing it. You ask an artist to draw you an animation of a waterfall, they’re not going to use this technique, unless you ask them to, they’ll use whatever magic they have at their disposal.

I’m not saying that this is better or worse, merely different. It’s the sort of diversity that we’ve lost along the way, because ever better technologies and facilities mean that the limits we used to have to think about are no longer limits.

Consider: the artist making an animation today won’t care how many colours or frames there is in the animation, only that it looks good. It won’t matter how much space it takes up – space is cheap and plentiful. So is graphics hardware with many millions of colours. Techniques like colour cycling are old-school, and a dying breed.

But innovative? Sure. They were in their own time, but here’s the thing: you take that old-school idea, apply it to a new technology and a new use and you can do amazing things. That site is just one example: how to take a technique pioneered two decades ago, remix it in a new way and to do all sorts of things with it that had never been conceived of before.

The result of doing *that* is what is done in http://www.effectgames.com/demos/worlds/ for example.

Now, there is actually a point to all this. A lot of the game ideas I’ve been playing around with would all carry some of the old-school vibe to them, because I want to remind people of games of that generation.

You see, games from the generation when I grew up (which is the late 1980s, and the early 1990s), relied a lot less on graphics and sound and much more on playability, on replay value, and really like I’ve said recently, on leaving something with you (other than muscle fatigue).

The thing is, games that have that style really need the accompanying art style for mood; you can’t have a game that feels ‘retro’ while looking modern, because it’ll be mistaken for a modern game with modern values, where we seem to have fallen into the trap of dumbing down games for the lowest denominators. Playability is often limited, so is replay value, it’s all about how good it looks.

So to successfully pull off a game with retro vibe and retro playing characteristics, you need retro looking art, and after experimenting, I think you need a retro art tool as well.

I’m not a great artist, but I can knock the odd thing together if need be. Here’s the kicker, though, I spend more time faffing about in GIMP trying to do ‘retro’ than I would actually using a retro art package. It’s easier to be retro, to do retro when you’re already half way there.

So, this is one thing I’ve been noodling about, quite a bit. And really why I’m going to town with a big article on it!

You see, back in 1990, that fateful Christmas when I unwrapped a shiny new (parents-already-opened-and-had-lots-of-fun) Amiga 500, the first thing they showed me was Deluxe Paint II. Not the dozen or so games we had even then, but DPaint.

Now, I’ve already spoken at length about things staying with you, and DPaint has, probably more than most of the games I’ve ever played. I learned more about how to use a mouse from that first few minutes with DPaint than I think I can remember – it seems so natural and obvious now, but 20 years ago, this was still quite a new idea (PCs didn’t come with mice entirely as standard at this point!)

But not only was this using a mouse, this was using a mouse in a very visceral and effective way. And, now that I look back, the stuff I created even then would fit right in (if looking just like a 7 year old’s scribble!) in a retro environment. You wouldn’t get that in Photoshop – even a first timer’s attempt at making something in PS looks so much more polished and professional than the things I made as a kid.

But there are many things you just can’t quite do in PS as freely or easily as Deluxe Paint, and a lot of my spare brain time has been wondering just how much effort it would be to revisit a great many of the characteristics of Deluxe Paint, in the modern day: doing old-school, new-school.

I suspect it would make a great difference to those making retro-styled games, actually, and in hindsight there are a lot of cute features that really would make a difference.

Probably most notably, actually, is the split screen view. Actual size on the left, zoomed in view on the right. The really strange thing is that there have been plenty of times I’d wished to have that in GIMP or similar tools, it would have made life easier, but no-one’s implemented it.

Interestingly, I looked around the other day. There’s a relative dearth of pixel-perfect editors that all seem like they should be ideal for this sort of thing, for retro-styled art, but they all end up doing it wrong. They try to be modern in their approach and mimic the old school style, rather than being old-school in their roots. The consequence is that you end up with half-assed tools that not only fail to be any good at what they were designed for, but aren’t suitable for anything else much either.

I think for it to be any good, it has to be more specific than just a quasi-generic art package.  Deluxe Paint was very, very good at what it did, and it did a lot of things, but I’m thinking of its pixel art capabilities, with the other stuff (like animations) as just a bonus rather than a primary feature.

I suspect, quite firmly, that were I to attempt it – and it has crossed my mind a lot – I’d probably look at dropping the extra stuff and focussing on the pixel art features much more heavily, because all the other stuff for general art making… it’s all been done before and GIMP or Photoshop is probably a better bet, even if you can do some truly amazing things in Deluxe Paint (like the demo pictures that it comes with)

Mind you, I suppose even the more general tools for bigger works will retain a place, if only for title screens, logos, interfaces and stuff like that.

You know the really weird thing? I’ve thought about starting to make a DPaint like tool many times over the years, in the different environments I’ve come to work with, not because I’m fixated with a 20+ year old paint program, but because it approaches the material with a view that stuff today just doesn’t. There’s none of this layers business (well, there’s two layers, but only in the sense of a primary canvas and a ‘spare’), only one undo level, and a very much ‘iterative’ process to drawing, that you just don’t get with art programs today.

I find the art packages very much removed today: they’re very sophisticated tools, very powerful in the right hands, but they’re suited to photographs and photographic manipulation, not the sorts of things I want to be able to do, things that look and act a certain way.

I think there’s potential here…

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