Developing an art style for food chain farm

rabbit sketch and final version

Just a couple of weeks ago I released version 0.5 of Food Chain Farm! This release has been a year in the making and has a ton of new stuff. Today, I want to dive deeper into one aspect: the improved art style.

The game has a lot of graphics, more than any other game I’ve done before. Dozens of plants, animals, resources and other objects, all drawn in detailed vector graphics. And it’s a huge challenge for me. I’ve always been programmer first, graphical artist second (and music is even further down the list…). For most games I worked on in the past, I’ve either limited myself to a small amount of pixel art, or I’ve outsourced the artwork to a partner. They say you need to put in 10000 hours to become really good, and I’m afraid I haven’t put those hours in yet…

And there are so many beautiful indie games out there. It’s hard not to feel discouraged when there are so much awesomeness to compare with. Nevertheless, I’m going to stick with it. I’ll be the first to admit that this art style is a work in progress. But with the 0.5 release, for the first time I’m happy with the direction things are going.

As an example, let’s look at how one item in the game has evolved over the past years:

apple tree original

The apple tree has been in the game right from release 0.1, back in 2018, and I put it together quickly in Inkscape, from basic geometric shapes. The foliage is just the union of bunch of circles, the trunk was drawn as a polygon using the mouse. Inkscape makes it easy to adjust the curve of a given line, so I made the sides of the stem curve inwards. The apple itself is a modified circle, with a green-red-white radial gradient to give it a nice shine. I added a short brown line for the stem of the fruit. To top it all off I gave the foliage a gradient as well, as a cheap way to give it some highlights and shadow.

This was always meant to be a placeholder, to get going quickly – it was never the intention that this would make it into the final game. But coming up with a better version took longer than I thought.

I’ve experimented with various methods e.g. using a Wacom tablet, using the ‘trace sketch’ function in Inkscape, with mixed results. In the end I settled on a much simpler process: I first sketch on paper, I scan it, and then trace the sketch with the mouse, in Inkscape. The result looks like this.

apple tree sketch and final image

For inspiration and examples, I use images from the internet of course. But in this case I could actually take inspiration directly from my environment. I live next to a small orchard, and there is this nice old apple tree right in front of my house. The trees tend to be pruned to a flat wide shape (I guess it’s easier to pick apples that way) and end up with crooked, gnarly looking branches. It’s something that I tried to mimic in this sketch.

photo of apple tree

The sketching phase is important. I’ve learned that I’m much better at coming up with ideas on paper first. Sketching digitally doesn’t work well for me. And over time, my sketches have developed in a certain way. I’m making them more elaborate, trying to add more character, but at the same time I make them looser, more playful. I spend less effort making the sketches very precise. I don’t worry about the exact lines until I digitize the sketch in Inkscape.

To see what I mean, take a look at this bunny character. I started with a few quick sketches. These were drawn after photos and have realistic proportions.

rabbit sketches

Compared to, say, a cow or a pig, bunnies have a relatively small, narrow face. And, of course, large ears. By giving the head a more exaggerated shape, narrow at the eye level, and oversized ears, the essence of the character becomes more rabbity. I switched to a frontal perspective, this is a common theme for all animals in the game.

I’ve tried to become less rigid, using more round curves instead of straight lines, even for things that ought to be straight. Take a look at the new oven drawing for example. Here I exaggerated the roundness of the countertop and the brick sides.

oven sketch and final image

Below you see some sources of inspiration. The picture on the left is from Anton Pieck. This Dutch artist is known for a romantic style, with old fashioned candy shops, life-worn houses and snow-covered Christmas villages. His paintings put a lot of detail in building materials, making them atmospheric and full of character. I grew up with this art style – he was the original designer for the Efteling theme park, where I visited frequently as a kid. The image on the right is from the game Oxygen Not Included (ONI). I love this game for the art style. Everything is full of character. Ladders, pipes, walls and floors – things that really should be straight – are higgledy-piggledy. ONI takes creative liberties to give it a unique character. By the way, ONI has more things in common with Food Chain Farm – more on that in a later post.

inspirations

Also, to get more practice (to get those 10000 hours if you will), I’ve been¬† taking some live model drawing classes. The pictures below were taken during a socially distanced drawing class this summer. Drawing live models is great sketching practice. You have to be quick – the model can hold a pose only for so long. One common warm-up exercise is to draw a succession of poses in two minutes. It seems impossible at first, but you really get better with practice.

Photo of drawing class

Of course, for the game, I can change proportions for a more cartoony appearance. Here are some sketches I’m working on, for a future version of the game.

Have a look for yourself, Food Chain Farm 0.5 can be downloaded from itch.io!

Bringing Food Chain Farm to the classroom

We tested Food Chain Farm for the 3rd time in a classroom setting, with great results. So, how does that actually work in practice?

We use a modified version of the game. The first three “levels” are really just simulations. Students have to watch clouds of oxygen and carbon dioxide move between farm animals and answer about 20 questions on paper. Starting with a questionnaire might seem like a boring way to present a game, but it works well. Not all students are natural gamers, and this way they can think about biology before they have to think about which buttons to click.

The first few questions are extremely simple and are designed to make the students just observe what is happening on the screen:

Question: Which two resources are produced by the tree? (Answer: Oxygen and Apples)

Further on, it gets a bit tougher and students are supposed to link what they see with what they’ve learned before.

Question: Which process takes place in the tree (Answer: Photosynthesis)

Question: which cycle is simulated in this game. The carbon cycle, or the nitrogen cycle? (Answer: the carbon cycle)

But then we get to the more interesting part. Further questions do not have a single simple answer. They are designed to make the students think critically, and are a great starting point for classroom discussion.

Question: the tree converts inorganic substances into food, which the cow consumes and converts again into milk and inorganic substances. However after a while, the truck is full of milk and the cycle stops. Why does it stop? (Answer: If milk stays in the truck, then resources are taken away from the cycle. The cycle is actually incomplete, and must break down eventually)

After the questionnaire is done (after half an hour), students are free to play the regular game as far as they can get. They continue to play and build at their own pace. For an extra challenge, all scores are tracked and projected on a central screen.

This is a game is about concepts like photosynthesis, carbon cycle, trophic levels,¬† producers, consumers, herbivores, carnivores, assimilation, dissimilation, food, and energy. But the game doesn’t explain these concepts. I wouldn’t recommend giving the game to new arrivals without instruction, and expect them to be able to take a biology test afterwards. What the game does do very well however, is use what was already taught, and reinforce it, visualize it, provide a fresh perspective on it. The novel presentation keeps students engaged.

I’m looking for more volunteers to test the game in a biology classroom. After three tries I’m very confident that I can provide something that is both engaging and educational. The question list can be adjusted to the level of the students to a very large extent. If you are a biology teacher, or know one, please leave a comment or send me a tweet.

Do you just want to play the game? Food Chain Farm can be downloaded here. Version 0.2 is out now and 0.3 is coming soon!

Introducing a new game: Food Chain Farm

As mentioned before, my goal is to make an educational game. After more than a year of quiet behind-the-scenes development, Food Chain Farm is ready to come out. It is a construction game in a fun farm environment, with a tinge of biology education.

In the beginning, you see a pig, floating in a box in space. It needs food and oxygen to survive. Where do you get that from? A bit further, there is another box containing an apple tree. Connect the two boxes and transport apples and oxygen from the tree to the pig. At the same time, bring water and carbon-dioxide back. Thus, you form a sustainable loop. Animals and plants living together, each producing what the other needs.

It’s probably clearer if you watch the trailer:

Food Chain Farm is intended to be used in a classroom. Concepts such as photosynthesis, metabolism, and the carbon cycle are very abstract. The game visualizes these concepts in an appealing way, making the theory come to life for students. I collaborate with high school teachers, to try out the game in a classroom setting, to find the right balance between fun and education.

classroom
Testing out the game in a classroom

Food Chain Farm simulates photosynthesis and other concepts from real-life biology. The simulation is simplified, of course, but still realistic. Some may think that a realistic simulation is boring, and you need to introduce artificial rules to make the game fun. But I believe that this is not necessary. Nature itself is full of trade-offs, leading to interesting choices that make for an interesting game!

Version 0.1 is ready for download for Windows and Linux. This is still the early access phase, so be sure to leave some feedback so I can improve the game!