How to Choose your Game’s Art Style: Is Stylized a Smarter Choice Than Hyper-Realism? 

“Should I choose stylized or realism for my game?” – one of the most important first decisions you make when conceptualizing your game. Behind these game art styles lie an abundance of pros and cons that add complexity to the task of choosing the right visual approach! 

This blog is your starting point to help you make an informed decision as a new or seasoned game developer. We’ll share up-to-date information on the merits and drawbacks associated with using each style, including considerations such as cost implications, impact on production timelines, and ultimately the most important thing – how likely your players are to actually enjoy your game based on your chosen style. 

Before jumping into whether stylized is a smarter choice than hyper-realism, a key point that must be realised first is this: 

Your Game’s Genre and Tone May Be Better Suited to a Specific Art Style 

First and foremost, the choice of art style in your game design is heavily influenced by the genre and tone of the game you’re developing. It’s important to consider which style aligns best with the experience you aim to create. For instance, in a horror game where the goal is to immerse players in an intense and thrilling atmosphere, a hyper-realistic art style is often preferred to enhance immersion (e.g. Deadspace). On the other hand, for a more tranquil and cozy game, a stylized art style can be a better fit, as it resonates with players seeking a softer and more approachable visual aesthetic (e.g. Animal Crossing). 

While there can be some overlap and exceptions, it’s essential to recognise that different art styles evoke distinct emotions and responses from players.  

Now, let’s jump into quickfire pros and cons for stylized vs hyper-realistic games… 

Benefits & Drawbacks of Choosing Stylized for Your Game 

Benefits 

1. Timeless Appeal: Stylized games often have a timeless quality, with hyper-realism running the risk of becoming quickly visually outdated as technology evolves. The significant lighting enhancements in Unreal Engine 5 can make games created in Unreal Engine 4 less enduring in their appeal. Stylized styles ensure it remains attractive to players for years to come. Notable examples include Hearthstone and the Super Mario franchise. 

Super Mario

2. Memorable & Iconic: Stylized art styles allow the freedom to experiment with unique worlds, characters, and impressionistic settings, leading to visually captivating games that stand out in a crowded market.  

3. Wide Audience Appeal: Stylized games tend to have a broader appeal, as they are accessible to a wide range of players, including attracting a younger audience (which is also filterable on some app stores). On the flip side, this child-friendly stereotype can also deter users from trying stylized games, which is a consideration. Take Subway Surfers, and their most recent game we worked on (Subway Surfers Blast), which boasts a stylized design and manages to draw in players of all age groups with remarkable success. 

Subway Surfers

4. Easily Accessible: Stylized graphics are typically less demanding on hardware. This means your game can reach a larger audience, including players with older or less powerful devices, and mobile, without sacrificing the visual experience. 

5. Cost-Effective: Creating stylized graphics can be more cost-effective than pursuing hyper-realism. As already mentioned, stylized allows for creative freedom for game artists to take an exaggerated course on certain assets, making them comparatively simpler to craft since they don’t necessitate the meticulous recreation of real-world details. 

Drawbacks 

1. Limited Realism & Immersion: Stylized games often sacrifice realism for artistic expression. If your game’s narrative demands real-world accuracy, a stylized art style might not be the ideal choice.  

2. Art Style Subjectivity: Art style is highly subjective. What some players find visually appealing, others might not. Stylized games are no exception, and there’s always a risk that your chosen style might not resonate with your particular audience unless thoroughly researched. 

Resources spent on stylization may be diverted from other critical aspects of game development.

3. Resource Allocation: Stylized games still require an investment of time and resources to achieve a high level of artistic quality. Balancing creativity and the need for polished visuals can be a delicate task, and resources spent on stylization may be diverted from other critical aspects of game development. If you need resources and expertise, drop us a line! 

4. Artistic Consistency: Maintaining a consistent stylized art style throughout the game can be challenging especially as artists don’t have the real world to reference from. Achieving a coherent visual experience in every aspect of your game, from characters to environments, can be time-consuming and require a meticulous approach.  

5. Saturated Market: The market for stylized games, particularly mobile games, is saturated. Your art style must be unique and compelling to stand out from the crowd.

Fortnite

Benefits & Drawbacks of Choosing Hyper-Realism for Your Game 

Benefits 

1. Strong Immersion: Hyper-realistic graphics can create an immersive experience that transports players into a lifelike game world, which enhances their overall experience. It’s also easier for artists to replicate real-life appearances. Forza Horizon does a great job of this, with incredible attention to detail with realistic weather effects, intricate car designs and dynamic lighting reflective of the real world. 

2. Narrative Depth: For games with complex and emotionally driven narratives, hyper-realistic visuals can help convey the story’s depth and emotional nuances more effectively. This style can make character expressions, environments, and storytelling more profound. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a fitting example, which as this article suggests, focuses on making the world feel organic by being responsive to the player’s actions.

Red Dead Redemption 2

3. Showcasing Technical Prowess: Creating hyper-realistic graphics often requires advanced technical skills and updated technology. Using hyper-realism in your game can serve as a showcase of your development team’s abilities, potentially attracting attention and admiration from both players and publishers. 

4. Cross-Media Opportunities: The lifelike nature of hyper-realistic graphics can open doors for potential adaptations into other forms of media, such as movies or television series, increasing your game’s reach and revenue potential. Just like The Last of Us, one of the best-selling video games of all time having sold 37m copies worldwide as of December 2022, and the series, where 8.2m tuned in for the finale.

The Last of Us

Drawbacks 

1. Resource-Intensive & Development Complexity: Creating hyper-realistic graphics demands significant resources, including time, budget, and advanced technology. Achieving the desired level of detail can result in longer development times and higher production costs. This commitment to detail may result in larger download sizes too, limiting accessibility for players. 

2. Hardware Limitations: Hyper-realistic games often require powerful hardware to run smoothly, limiting the potential audience to players with high-end gaming setups. This can exclude a substantial portion of the gaming market, especially those on older or less powerful devices. 

3. Liabile to Imperfections: There’s a risk of the ‘uncanny valley,’ where excessive realism may make imperfections unsettling, requiring a delicate balance. For example, we mentioned the following in our previous blog “when crafting a game world set in medieval times, art direction is essential in preventing elements from different eras from infiltrating the narrative.” 

Less room for imaginative and fantastical elements.

4. Creative Limitations: The focus on realism can limit the creative freedom of game designers and artists. There may be less room for imaginative and fantastical elements, which could be essential for certain game genres and storytelling. 

5. Limited Artistic Diversity: Hyper-realism may not be suitable for all game genres. Games that focus on whimsical or abstract art styles may not benefit from the extreme attention to detail that hyper-realism offers. 

6. Quickly Outdated: Hyper-realistic games, despite their initial visual appeal, carry the risk of quickly becoming visually outdated as technology in the gaming industry advances, just Tomb Raider: Legend (2006) vs Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2018) as flicking through this video illustrates. The rapid pace of technological evolution means that what we consider innovative hyper-realism today can appear less impressive in just a few years.

Conclusion: Should you choose stylized or realism for your game? 

In the quest to choose the perfect art style for your game, there are contrasting possibilities to navigate. Stylized and hyper-realistic art styles each come with their own set of benefits and drawbacks, making the decision a complex one. The key to making the right choice lies in understanding your game’s unique needs, objectives and intended audience, whilst considering all the pros and cons mentioned along the way.  

Stylized art styles offer timeless appeal, artistic freedom, and a broad audience reach, all while being cost-effective. For example, our stylized 3D characters are typically 60% less expensive than realistic 3D characters. Yet, they may struggle to satisfy those seeking realism, and the subjectivity of art can be a double-edged sword. 

On the other hand, hyper-realism offers fantastic immersion, narrative depth, and a way to target realism enthusiasts. But it comes at the cost of being resource-intensive, hardware-demanding, and potentially limiting creative freedom. 

While each art style may have its drawbacks, these challenges can often be mitigated through careful planning and balance.

In the end, the question isn’t whether stylized or hyper-realistic is the smarter choice. It’s about finding the style that fits best. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that while each art style may have its drawbacks, these challenges can often be mitigated through careful planning and balance. 

Both stylized and hyper-realistic art styles can yield incredible results. It’s up to you to choose the path that will lead to a gaming experience that players will cherish and remember. It’s a fun game in itself, enjoy it! 

If you have decided whether you’re opting for stylized or realism for your game, we always have artists available from our seasoned vetted network who have worked on indie to AAA games, stylized to hyper-realism. Let’s chat if you want to hire one or more of our expert artists and get your powerful team underway! 

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