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  • Andrew Jonhardt

Learning free art licensing and searching

Not so long ago, back when I was studying for that Microsoft certification, I stumbled across an article on Gamasutra about using cheap art. It's by Jeff Vogel, head of the small but long-lived Spiderweb Software, and it clued me into something: I'd completely omitted the possibility of using free art in Masks of Undying. My (unconscious) reasoning was:

  • Paying an artist to do everything saves time.

  • Licensing for free art can get confusing.

  • I'd need to appropriately credit any artist whose work I used, both for my own conscience and in accordance with the terms of some licenses.

None of the reasons listed above are valid for a solo developer. So, I've been working to educate myself on art licensing.

Brief aside: I'm not a lawyer, so don't take anything I say as legal advice of any kind. Additionally, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with the licenses below; I'm attempting to explain what meets my needs and why.

First off, in case anyone is unaware, all of the art you find online should be assumed to have a license of some kind attached. There are licenses that allow for completely free use, but there're also licenses that restrict use or have dangerous strings attached for free use.

Through OpenGameArt and a little research, I've learned that the best assets for my needs are those tagged with a CC0 license. This license appears to allow for free use and modification to an unlimited degree. The modification part is particularly important, as I would need to modify every applicable CC0 item I've so far located in order to make it fit my game.

The other licenses artists use are a little more unnerving. For example, CC-BY may be safe for most uses so long as the artist is credited, but any CC-BY-SA work will require you to copy its license forward to your project. Essentially, if the CC-BY-SA art is free, your project must be free. I'm hoping to make a little cash without resorting to public donations, so CC-BY-SA is a big no no. GPL and LGPL, too, appear to have little built-snags designed to always keep the associated assets free and accessible in distribution, which means potential cost to your project.

The final license I've encountered so far, OGA-BY, appears to be something OpenGameArt came up with to resolve an issue with CC-BY. OGA-BY is intended to be roughly similar to CC-BY, reportedly.

So, CC0, CC-BY, and OGA-BY appear to be the safest licenses to go by when your searching for free art. Out of sheer paranoia, I'm going to try and stick with CC0-only for Masks of Undying. Well, sheer paranoia and limited need: I'm open to using free art for tiles, walls, environment flavor (chairs, tables, etc), effects, and items, but I'm still hoping to pay someone to make custom (fancy) player and enemy sprites in addition to the few backdrops I'd like for some mostly-text cutscenes.

I haven't been impressed by the selection of CC0 art I've found so far. OpenGameArt has a bare 80-odd offerings for CC0 tiles/tilesets. They offer a much larger range of seamless textures, which can easily scaled, colored, and converted into tiles, so the situation isn't hopeless. And, there are individual artists you can reference, site by site, who provide CC0 art. Going site by site sounds like alot of work, though.

Why not try to pull CC0 art from another large database, DeviantArt for example? Well, why not?

If you search by "creative commons" on DeviantArt , you can pull up a number of pieces that do have "creative commons", or CC0, listed for the license. You can add an additional term, like "tiles", to make your results a little more useful. However, if you're still not finding what you're looking for, you can try a custom Google query. The following is a basic format for what I mean:

"This work is licensed under a Creative Commons" site:deviantart.com

The above query looks for the licensing terms posted under a deviantart image, and filters accordingly. I've found the results to be fairly reliable so far, and have refined the query to better fit my own needs:

"This work is licensed under a Creative Commons" and "tile set" site:deviantart.com

Regardless of the query you use, you'll still want to confirm the license and make a note of the artist and page. I've seen some artists with CC0 licenses still requesting attribution in the page comments and, though the CC0 license doesn't appear to require you to credit the artist in your project, I'd still recommend doing so. Of course, I'd also recommend finding a way to thank and credit anyone who helps you in your projects. Just 'cause.

I'm fairly confident what I've already pulled from OpenGameArt to meet my game's needs. Still, I'm going to go over DeviantArt's offerings. At the same time, I've realized several of my basic foes could be covered by a simple zombie/ghoul sprite, so I'll be expanding my search a little. Regardless of what I find, I'm still going to need a main character, a pig abomination, the various boss creatures, and the previously-mentioned single-panel cutscene backdrops.

I hope I helped someone learn something with this post. Until next week!