October 25, 2015 -- Cluster and Polyomino -- Article
What has been known as Cluster in pixel art for a couple years, is known as Polyomino in the maths for decades.
The word cluster too has been long known in the sciences: A cluster is a group of elements that are categorized as belonging together.
However, belonging together can have a much looser meaning than connected and of same colour.
Polyominoes are a very specialized case of clusters. Every polyomino is a cluster, but not every cluster is a polyomino.
A cluster in Blackbox is a means of organizing its memory for voxels. Blackbox has a complex multi-staged memory management, that tries to get the best of both worlds for flexibility and efficiency, with various modes of operation for various kinds of processing.
As part of that, Blackbox usually likes to organize every voxel as part of some cluster.
Voxels come in a package we call cluster. All clusters have the same size, that is the same max number of voxels. A frame that wants to contain any voxel, needs to have at least one cluster assigned to it. Whenever more voxels are needed than one cluster can hold, an additional cluster is assigned to that frame.
The total cluster count is as important as the total voxel count. The max voxel count is derived from the max cluster count.
All clusters have the same max voxels threshold, which can be decided depending on the circumstances of a certain work. The fewer voxels a cluster can hold, the more inefficient the processing of voxels, the more it can hold, the less flexible the use of voxels. Finding a good proportion to it is key. For example, you don't want your frames to have much less voxels than one cluster could hold, since that would waste memory you could use somewhere else. Furthermore, you'd like to avoid exceeding the cluster size by just a few voxels, since that would cause it to need another cluster that is largely unused. You want the voxel count to be such, that your cluster sizes are well utilized. And yet, you don't want it to have too many clusters for that one item. As few clusters as possible, for as many voxels as necessary.
For example, given an animation of several frames:
A frame's clusters combined make its visual. Whenever the voxel count for a frame dips below a cluster's voxel threshold, the cluster is freed for use in another frame, which may dip above the threshold. This is automatic. All you do is add or delete voxels. But you do have the information displayed.
You need to keep an eye on cluster count, because you can come into the situation you could still have voxels in total available for spending, but not on this frame anymore, since your total pool of clusters has run dry, while another frame's cluster still has room available for some more voxels.
It also follows, you can't have more unique frames than clusters, since every frame must have one. And since a frame can contain more than one cluster, it means your frame count will most likely be lower than cluster count. The clusters still available define the maximum number of frames you can still add to the animation. But whenever you hard copy a frame that has more than one cluster, it eats up faster the amount of new frames still available for you.
An image can have clusters of various organization, maybe it's simply the order in which you drew pixels that defines their belonging to clusters, or the functional parts of a sprite, or clusters as polyominoes, or whatever other memory scheme the tool may deem appropriate to a purpose for the asset.
So you have this game of metrics, between cluster count and cube count in relation. You can adjust these things on the go to your project's needs, and work around that for beyond. This is a much more interesting and flexible game than fixed canvas of width and height metric.
These definitions are most useful to the development of Blackbox, while they are universally understood by every other field than Pixel Art, yet studying the very same problems as Pixel Art. This meaning of cluster makes other useful forms of belonging possible, that are as much of creative importance to the art as just colour connection.
Since polyominoes are clusters, the use of the word as it has been in pixel art is not strictly wrong. It has been sufficiently correct and useful for pixel art up to now. It is just so that in Blackbox, most of your time clusters have a higher order of meaning to your work, which often entails a meaning not covered by polyominoes. And if you mean to talk about problems specific to polyominoes, you should say polyomino to be clear. All that Cluster Theory has studied in Pixel Art is polyominoes specifically, and hence it's much better to be precise and compatible to every other field of studies related to that.
The things discussed here are not necessary to know for enjoying the tool. It does most of it unnoticed, however it is very useful to know about and keep an eye on, to get the very most art out of it.
October 18, 2015 -- Limitation and Restriction -- Article
And so the question is: what do you have to gain from a limitation? A limitation denies you something. But does it enable something else for that?
Build the purpose of your work around what you can gain, not after what is denied. That the "limitation" is the removal of a complication that disturbs a certain work.
Be certain of your work.
A freedom can be annoying, because the irrelevant options forced on you every step hinder a task. Can you design new opportunities of creativity that make the lack of something a desirable feature instead of annoying restriction. Boil it down to the relevant options that in their ease of access very much enable you to do something. That enable you to do pixel art, and the things it is best for doing. This is the only worthy challenge in it. A good reason for doing this pixel art, nothing else. Because that is pixel art. The purpose of its chosen limitation. which is freedom. in concentration. to be a fun experience. When pixel art feels only restrictive because you want to do something that makes no sense doing as pixel art. for no good purpose.
What is the point of a pixel art removed from any well designed definition, that limits it merely for not being something else. To do something else? That still is worse at something else, than doing something else? A pixel art that even at its greatest self-denial can't avoid having a sort of restrictive definition for identity, but with less clear purpose, no good reason, for being pixel art, than ever? A pixel art in identity crisis?
A pixel art unhappy about itself? that feels complicated? That it is not what it should be? never can be? like all the other arts are on TV?
Make pixel art proud.
But as much as many a modern pixel art is confused, so is the pixel art of the past.
Pixel art was never well designed as an artform. It simply happened to exist. The creative limitations resulting from the technical restrictions were mostly arbitrary. maybe it happened to be fun. maybe not.
Our task today is to better define the creativity of pixel art. We remove those limitations & freedoms that serve no good purpose.
And from that critical mass remaining we form the features, that explode into new opportunities.
It is important to realize: Limitation and Restriction are a word relation to us like Complexity and Complication.
We want a sensible limitation -- focus -- to empower us in creative potential, but we don't want to feel annoyingly restricted in that.
What is now the truly interesting part: how flexible can we work around a given limitation? The rules of game are to be simply clear, but how many kind of moves are in it? So that the limitation defines a creative potential that is unlimited fun.
Finding a measure of limitation and flexibility that makes consistent sense today and gives the most interesting playfulness.
As an example: Having a limit to your cube count makes sense. That your cubes can have various individual sizes and arbitrary distribution on dimensions, makes it immensely flexible to work around that. This one metric of limit: cube count, is much more interesting to play with than fixed canvas and pixel size defining pixel count in restrictive dependency. The cube count finds its countless forms like water. And this thinking goes through out every aspect of the tool. That makes it powerful unequalled as pixel art.
Let's elaborate that example further: Deciding to what cube count you want to limit yourself for a scene, you have continued flexibility, much more advanced than explained earlier.
The cube count is global for an asset. You can cheat this limit by using referenced tiles on this asset. You can spend cubes from the global count on each referenced tile as you need individually, they are not allocated equal, and not fixed either.
And placing a referenced tile counts as one cube of the limit, while consisting of several actual cubes itself. This can exponentiate the use you can get out of little actual memory allocated.
While the limit rule is simply clear, the creative flexibility in this system is mind blowing.
But it also applies across frames of an animation, as it does across layers.
Do you want to spend all your cubes at disposal on one single frame for a still scene of fantastic detail? Or do you want to distribute those cubes across several hundred frames for a lush animation?
Again, the cubes don't have to be spent equal -- one frame can have more or less than another. And so you sprinkle them around as you need in any given situation, and not any more, to save them for where you need them most. The memory management is fully tracked and dynamic. Maybe you made a mistake in spending your cubes? just delete some cubes of one frame or layer or tile, to place them in another. nothing is fixed.
Then consider, from frame to frame you don't have to hard copy the cubes over, which would cost cubes, you can reference copy the cubes of a frame.. and then just animate by changing the colour palette of the frame. This colour palette cycling technique allows you to stretch complex animations across thousands of frames at tiny cost. The timing of each frame can be set individual, which also let's you change the dynamics of animation without costs. Combining both, cube changes and colour changes and clever timings from frame to frame, allows for animations of awesome detail and dynamics. Whether you want to animate a pixel art as graffiti on a small wall hidden somewhere in the world, or animate the space of a whole world at once, is your choice.
The flexibility goes even further: referenced tiles are handled the same as any colour, and as such are listed within the same index list of colours. Whether you pick a tile or colour is no difference, and you organize their index the same as well.
Maybe you want to use up more indices for colours, maybe more for tiles, to any degree. Consider what it means for palette cycling that you can even change tiles on swap..
The indexed tile can consist of several other indexed tiles cascaded. right click to pick whatever. if it is an indexed colour or tile, it's selected in palette; if it is not index yet, it's marked for hard-copy on further draw, if it is you'll draw soft-copy. Shift-right click to assign selection to the index slot currently marked in list.
What improves further the handling is, that you don't have to select them from list or main view, but can use the interactive mini cam views at the side of the screen to organize your colours and tiles in a more organic and complex form of order than a simple list for quick and easy overview and picking.
The camera system itself is flexible, since each cam can be used for different purposes and modes such as using one for an animation preview running and updating hot, while you keep working your cubes.
You can start drawing in your mini cams located where-ever, instead of main view. You can set your main view to any mini cam. or any mini cam to your main view. Your cams have many different uses, yet look simple and same.
The flexibility in all of this is immense. and it is desperately needed for voxel space, because of the demanding requirements even for modern hardware. but also on the artist for managing the greater workload in 3D.
Through clever management of this resource, the artist is able to create incredible visuals you wouldn't believe possible at the given footprint. There was supposed to be a clear limit.. it is. and yet the possibilities are limitless, depending on your wits. Work smarter.
This is the innovation of pixel art I want.
October 17, 2015 -- Complexity and Complication -- Article
A complexity without good purpose is complication.
Your work can be extremely complex, yet never complicated. Or it can be very simple, yet even so already too complicated.
You want your work to have a complex depth to make it interesting, but you don't want it to be annoyingly complicated. That's what complication is: annoying. If your complexity is not annoying but interesting, it most likely is no complication.
Complexity is a positive word, complication is a negative word. If you try to spin complication into a desirable quality you're after, you confuse your language and thought, and do yourself a disservice.
If you think you must improve your art with complication, to make it more interesting, your art has other problems you should rather address to actually make it better, because that really won't. And consider for a piece that is good: is it good because of complication, or is it good despite the complication?
And yet despite that, complication can have purpose, when being annoying is desirable. A maze is complicated by design. Its layout has no other purpose than to confuse you.
All the same, such a maze is quite tedious to create for a human artist. A computer is excellent at making mazes, because it is perfectly fit to generate a complexity without a need or desire to understand it.
The more complicated your pixel art, the more likely a program does a better job at it, the more likely you want a program to do this job for you. Styles of realism have a high degree of complication. They contain much more information than necessary, much more than has reasonable purpose.
The more your art work is about the necessary purpose to what makes a visual understandable and pleasing yet also interesting, this work is the job of an artist.
And it follows, a High Definition pixel art is pointless as an art form, because it is so much less about the purpose of a pixel to fulfil, and so much more likely to make a pixel part of complication instead of straight complexity. Which is why it fits a pixel shader program so well. Which is why it has so much trouble doing a sensible Low Definition pixel art.
So you might ask, but is there still a market for non HD pixel art? Minecraft seems to say yes. Actually, the much better question: Is there a market for HD pixel art? that is much more unproven. There definitely is a market for HD art. but is there really for HD pixel art? That we will have to see.
Because what differentiates HD pixel art from the lowest definition pixel art of Minecraft is functionality.HD pixel art is non-functional. It is purely result driven. Minecraft is purely process driven pixel art. The pixel art is part of the game's purpose. Pixel art as game.
The most important question you should ask yourself when making a game is rather: What is the point of making this game as pixel art? What's the point to the player? Can you communicate why the player should care, other than sentimentals? other than self-serving aesthetics even? The more obvious to the player why this game is better for being pixel art, the more likely is that an ingredient for success.
I have never understood what is the desire for a pixel art driven to the point it isn't pixel art. When used like that, its disadvantages weigh in heavier compared to regular HD arts, as they compete. A pixel art disgraced to being a wanna-be HD, offering merely to be an awkward version of it.
In the golden age of pixel art, it was popular because it made games possible, not because it restricted them. Minecraft is so popular, because this form of pixel art made a new genre of game possible, quite obviously.
And this is the core of my work: making things possible that are barely possible otherwise. Not in other arts, not in pixel art of the past, pixel art will never have been more relevant as art. From general concept to particular implementations, it all wouldn't be possible without pixel art.
June 10, 2015 -- The Pixel Art of Cross-Stitch -- Article
Old hand-made cross-stitches are very cluster oriented. Modern pixel art studies often compare clusters with the dynamics of brush strokes from painting. Now the fun thing is, these old cross-stitches often are reproductions of famous oil-paintings or try to generally emulate an oil-painty look. and they happen to end up with a strong cluster orientation in that effort. I can't say for sure what's the relevance of this correlation in developments, but it's curious at least.
Back in the day they could not articulate what they are doing in terms of clusters, but they had similar goals, and it ended up in paralleled techniques. Also, the greater hardship of finishing a larger cross-stitch portrait, pressed them to maximize their workflow efficiency and planning. And while they didn't have loads of coloured threads to work with, it was more colours than computers had to start with, and they could use it less restrictive in terms of placement (early computers had quirky rules, like only allowing a certain number of colours per cell/character/line of screen, in addition to the global palette limit.) They could have more "screen" space, too. And all that led them back then to what we call cluster orientation today.
I also got some old carpets that are stitched like that, and what's really weird, carpets are a bit more fuzzy in their "pixels".. it kinda reminds me of the colour-bleeding from CRT pixels, compared to the sharper "LCD-ness" of the cross-stitch wall-pictures. Funny, huh.
It can be quite surprising how sophisticated cross-stitches are as pixel art even compared to contemporary standards. They feel quite modern as pixel art.
They are little to no dithering, anti-aliasing or outline... and they even comply to the most recent "no single pixel" paradigm that says to avoid even single-pixeled 45 degree lines.
It is not so often that I find pixel art this strictly made, so to further study the potential of how well this can look, I actually have to look at old cross-stitches from a century ago, for examples to understand the most recent development of pixel art...
So what was it that fascinated people about cross-stitches for all these centuries? Why bother? After all isn't it simply a "worse than oil painting"-art?
Is pixel art just a feature reduced and awkward version of digital painting? What really is its creative strength? Can we think about pixel art in a different context than "limitation" for identity? Can we think about it more in a context of empowerment? That we choose pixel art because it's the best method of doing something?
Where is the hidden power of placing, connecting and combining elements? I want a tool that is mechanically fascinating. I almost want to say like a Rubik's cube. Most of my efforts go into the mechanisms of medium on the user end, rather than result rendering.
Every "pixel" in cross-stitch, even if intended to be the same, has its own unique character, a subtle variation in colour and form, that wasn't your conscious choice when planning your set. It introduces a little chaos into the system, a natural variety for free. Another obsession we've been having in pixel art besides limitation is control. absolute control about an idealized pixel. that never really existed. pixel perfect work with the perfect pixel. For the longest time in human history, this logic of creation did not know that sort of control, it did not need it, it did not base its self-conception upon it. It knew an intentionality, as any other form of art would, as it would know the natural limits of it. Maybe art really is more about controlled chaos. Even for computers, when it comes to the physical display of the image on an arbitrary screen, at latest then we have much less control over the pixel and the conditions of perception than we like to think. Purity is a myth. People have romantic ideas about what really happens within the software and hardware or other people's eyes. What actually matters is the scope of control that effectively works for us. What makes pixel art different is the act of placement, not so much the total control of the visual experience in the very end.
I noticed that the subtle individuality of pixels in cross-stitches works especially well with scenes of nature, landscapes, etc. Though it's nowhere near as messed up as the photos made it look--in reality it still maintains a plenty clean, crispy, crunchy, clusterific quality. And yet that this microscopic chaos in part even supplements manual polishing techniques at no cost.
It would be possible to emulate this by giving all vertices and colours of the scene a subtle offset at random. For an extreme and animated example of this, remember the old Labrats demo. Though I'm not so sure how well it would work together with mixed resolution, and it's likely that the advantages of mixed resolution beat such a gimmick, if given the hard choice. Still, the ability to slightly "disturb" the grid could be an interesting option.
But that must be done careful, since the recursive properties of the system require consistency, but on principle also enable to do pretty much whatever, given the resources. For this project, I like to look more at the potential of generalization, rather than arbitrary specialization. Just like in Lego, what I like most is the general building blocks that let you do anything, rather than the themed special block models. So in this tool, not only are you using the block-pixel, you build any block you need out of ever smaller block-pixels.
Another feature we can observe in old cross-stitches is the half-pixel, known as corner tile in pixel art games, because a pixel in cross-stitch consists of two diagonal lines, with only one of which making a corner cut.
June 7, 2015 -- Pixel Art: Retro or Modern? -- Article
I recently held a talk about historical technical progression, communities, tools, methods in pixel art, and how that all changed over time. So that was the argument for why Pixel Art is more than just Retro, not just because of some voxel tool, but because what happened with even classic purist pixel art itself. I showed that calling Pixel Art retro, because it was done 30 years ago, is like calling Computer Science retro, because that was done 30 years ago too. The reason computer science isn't just retro is because it changed and adapted over time. Same reason pixel art is not just retro, because it changed and adapted too. What even purist pixel artists do today, is not what was done 30 years ago, you see, unless you make it a point to make pixel art to 30 years old hardware specifications and with 30 years old tools. But other than that, even most of the purist pixel art today use different pixel techniques based on different pixel philosophies, that adapted to different screen and graphics technologies. For example, pixel art back in the day accounted for visual quirks of CRT screens. Then LCD came along, and pixel artists changed their habits, their art technique alongside computer tech, and adopted new features and better tools that helped even their purist pixel workflow. And this process has been active all along, and is still open ended today.
This topic generated a lot of interest, even among young generations without any nostalgia. I see this happen everytime I do that. Because, yes, this method of art is a timeless style of its own, alongside other kinds of art, and people intuitively recognize that, understand its own advantages, and love it every generation anew. All kinds of people from all ages love Lego too, given several product lines tailored to their various interests, and don't feel it's retro or low quality, but a consistent logic of creation, a powerful and pleasing creative enabler. Lego too isn't the same today as it was 30 years ago; Lego is modern and on everyone's Mind(storm), right now. Yet Lego unmistakingly is Lego, by basic principle unchanged, even compared to 30 years ago. What gave Pixel Art a retro reputation today is mostly indie marketing selling it as retro. The Lego corporation didn't go for that, it always made a thematic as well as methodical effort to maintain a contemporary image. Nevertheless, Pixel art today is a sizable, lively and useful part of the gaming and toy market for good reasons, and that alone makes it contemporary, even if it's not the biggest part of the market. It stays a relevant culture technique in development.
May 19, 2015 -- Approaching Pixel Art in Blackbox -- Article
Common techniques of old school pixel art are colour limit oriented. They were willing to waste pixels, waste clusters of pixels, to save on colours. Because that was the technical reality at the time. But in this tool here, instead of budgeting your colour count, you budget your cluster complexity.
For example, dithering, anti-aliasing and outlines destroy, dilute and waste clusters, waste pixels, in the assumption it is a smaller waste than colours; this is what the hardware made them believe. This is transfigured hindsight with taste: the few colours total give a sense of harmony and cohesiveness.
Now we turn the tables. We say: wasting clusters is confused, where is the geometric harmony and cohesiveness in the pixel grid, at the heart of this art? And it behaves bad visually in flexible environments, and it runs worse because other resources are more critical now.
The integrity of clusters is key to our pixel art, it takes precedence in our method of art. The purpose of clusters is describing shape, not saving and simulating colour. If anything, you choose colour to simulate shape and material, you choose colours directly to improve perceptual sense. Among the worst case scenarios is making several close cubes for the sole purpose of simulating one cube of a new colour with reusing existing ones in an optical illusion. If you need a new colour, make a new colour. If anything, it's the other way around: using a new colour to save on cube count / make your clusters clearer.
I regard a sound use of colour still key to pixel art. Yet I believe there is more to pixel art that's just as important, and sometimes even more important. And while I think that operating on a Limited Set of sorts is key to make sense of Combinatory Logic, there's actually more than one aspect of limitation within a pixel grid, that includes cluster form. And that there is a relation between those two and a balance that's important. And that a romantic obsession about a time's technical restrictions can whack this relation out of balance, for an unelegant pixel art. In a way, I want a pixel art purer than pure. I want that the method of pixel art is freed from platform, because I want that aesthetic considerations are of prime importance when making your choices, because certain restrictions made for a warped sense in aesthetics, partly because they were being wasteful in just a different way in their attempt to visually break beyond a technical restriction.
When I look at the old hand-made cross-stitches I acquired on flea markets, they strike me so much purer... and you know why? I think that you naturally tend to maintain better cluster forms, because it was physically just too damn difficult if you wouldn't try best to get that cohesive, too. For example, they all tend to avoid single-pixel technique like the plague... it would be just too awkward and wasteful to do. They would not try to trade-off clusters and colours, but balance out both best as possible. Computers afforded us this wastefulness bias more easily, just as it would eventually introduce every kind of wastefulness the same into the grid.
Blackbox removes many of those restrictions that are arbitrary to the core mechanic of the art, and should be conscient choices to an aesthetic requirement more than anything. And when you're working in it, trying to get the best out of it, you will find yourself need use more colours than maybe you're used to from the past, because it now makes you account for aspects of the art you might have neglected so far. And I believe it will be a purer artform than it ever has been, as well as more effective work process in its better defined scope.
At any case, there is more than one size of set that can be understood for deliberate use by a seasoned artist. And each size is a possibility space that's not just easier or tougher, but has its own difficulties to be learned about. A four colour restriction can be as much interesting challenge and learning experience as it can be just another comfort zone eventually; as is for a 64 colour space. And seeing your scene, your primary mission is to make it readable, you will do what needs doing, and some kind of scenes need a lot more than others; some need more colours, while others need more pixels. And the flexibility of 3d needs more than 2d: in my last samples, the 10 colour wall was a clear improvement perceptually in movement over the 2 colour wall, not just an aesthetic choice, and I think the most likely way to improve it even more would have been going to even more, 15 colours, for another shade to bring out the form. Just for this one asset, this wall tile. Now consider all kinds of objects that would fill out the room, and each must stay recognizable in its parts the same, and in front of everything else in a dynamic perspective, and you got a lot to work with. That you need more colour doesn't make it easier, and that you are too shy of it might just be as much a mistake as over-using it. It means that you need to have a very good grasp on colour and understand what the situation requires, a use beyond the most plain interpretation, even or especially because you must manage more colours placed literally in technique. You will do what you need to do, as is available to you.
So the tool reminds you of that. Each click has these huge consequences to the canvas as a whole, you see the mechanic of medium at work directly, it all logically breaks up, your action ripples, your every action is of huge importance to the whole canvas, it reminds you how important each click is, for each pixel that you think should be different than the rest.
Let's look at a typical pixel art sky, which traditionally makes use of a lot of dithering to fake a smoother gradient colourization. Many pixel art lovers look at it now and see beauty in it, the beauty of all these little patterns, and how it saved you five colours, in this higher resolution image. This is how we've been raised and trained to appreciate, evaluate and judge this art.
Each pixel pattern is information, you insert many thousands of information tidbits into the image, greatly reducing the coherence of grid, to marvel at the elegancy and efficiency of saving on the information of a couple more colours in the palette. We have learned for decades of this medium's technical implementations: colour is expensive, micro-structures in the grid resolution aren't; a bitmap of a certain dimension is the same, no matter the patterns, isn't it? Only the bit depth counts most. Amusingly, an image compression format has a better opinion on what is more efficient art than we do now. We are completely blind to how ridiculous it is. We are severely biased to what elegancy and efficiency means in this art for questionable reasons. You can have a similar perspective on outlines and aa.
In this tool however you are made aware much more that there are other aspects to the art. And that you should save grid patterns for much more relevant information than fake colour. The adaptive grid mechanic intuitively reminds you of it, but at latest after the ten millionth cube you placed, to see your screen stutter along, you'll eventually just get it and start to reevaluate your taste on the topic.
So we have this strange situation: on one hand certain limits have been lifted, on the other it isn't just limitless. Other aspects of aesthetic are introduced along with a more wholesome sense of what efficiency in information technology means, through a new take on what grid means, which offers some interesting possibilities and abilities in the art of using it, which makes it worthwhile. So the motto now is more like: colour comes cheap, clusters don't. Whenever you save on cluster complication, you increase colour count. And then you look to it that you are conservative on colours too, that it isn't more than needed beyond that, for that polish and balance in coherence.
However, keep in mind what matters most in something as complex as art is situational judgement and "mixed bag"-thinking. Being aware of the priorities, you still want the right mix of techniques used with care to make the best of a piece. There is no wrong technique, but wrongly used technique. The heart of pixel art is the strategy of techniques. Very selectively and refined.