Best Features to Optimize Your 2D and 3D Isometric Games

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Why do Isometric Games Rock?

Isometric graphics is one of the most widely used types of graphics in game design with many of the top best-selling video games being isometric. The many benefits the isometric technique offers to development, performance, and gameplay have made it extremely popular over the decades of the game industry development. Isometric design is used in RPG and strategy and is ubiquitous in mobile games.

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Are Isometric Games 2D or 3D?

Isometric is a technique of creating a pseudo-3D environment in video games by depicting a projection of a 3D object in two dimensions. It uses parallel projection in which the angle of view allows the players to see the parts of the environment that would not be visible from a simple top-down or side view, thus creating a 3D effect.

As for the assets, they can be 2D, 3D, or a blend of both. We will talk about it in a bit.

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What is an Isometric Perspective?

In the true isometric projections, all of the angles are 120° which does not allow for perspective distortions. However, other kinds of perspectives that are used in games are referred to as isometric as well. Notably, the most common kind of projection used in “isometric” games is actually dimetric and has a 2:1 ratio.

Initially, the dimetric projection gained its popularity due to the limitations of pixel graphics: the graphics looked better on low-performance old computers with tricky 116.57°-116.57°-126.87° angles than with true isometric 120° ones. The diametric perspective remains to be the most popular now when modern devices are perfectly capable of handling true isometric graphics.

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How are Isometric Games Made?

The simplest and most effective type of isometric design is a tile design in which every visual element is broken down into smaller pieces of equal sizes. The game world is made of these pieces, or tiles, that form a grid. The grid is divided into areas (e.g. the grass area, rocks, etc.) and isometrically projected. To optimize RAM usage on mobile devices, each tile is rendered separately.

The assets for isometric video games are sprites that are generated based on 2D or 3D models. The most common way of creating assets is making a 3D model that is then turned into a sprite. It starts with creating a 2D concept art of an asset. A 3D model is made that is then textured, lighted, rendered in several layers, and an overpaint is performed which further refines the look of the asset.

When the environment sprites such as trees, walls, buildings, etc. are ready, it is time for the characters. As a bare minimum, four to eight sprites are made for one character depending on the number of directions characters can move in the game. Some isometric view games use 3D characters while others use flat images (sprites) rendered from 2D or 3D models.

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The Pros of Isometric Graphics

What started as an easy way of making flat look 3D, has since revealed many benefits and remained popular long after 3D development became widely accessible.

From the development side, it offers performance benefits since the computer does not have to calculate the changes in the shape and size of the assets and simulate visuals in response to the player moving or changing the camera angle.

From the gameplay side, it obviously has a much more vivid and engaging combat and platforming experience to offer compared to 2D graphics. It also allows for a larger scene and greater control over the unit than the first or third-person 3D games. So when it comes to managing a group of characters in an RPG or an army in a strategy, isometric design is indispensable.

The fixed camera in isometric games is also great for active combat when managing a 3D camera can be cumbersome and annoying. The player can see the whole battlefield, including the enemies behind them, and focus on the game instead of rotating the camera back and forth.

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The Limitations of Flat Design

Despite many advantages and suitability for certain game genres, there is an obvious point to be made about the immersiveness of isometric games and that is — you cannot create a profound gameworld you can feast your eyes on using isometric game art. You need 3D for that. Also, compared to 3D engines, isometric games cannot offer a complex combat system and the game micro-control is rather mechanical.

Another flaw of the isometric style is a continuation of its strength: the static camera. Having a fixed viewpoint all the time can be tiresome, routinizing, and disengaging for the players.

Last but not least, there is a technical issue with the maintenance of games with isometric projection. As the resolution and display ratio of devices continue to evolve, the static 2D images have to be visualized again and again to keep up with the changes. Otherwise, we encounter pixelization and use anti-aliasing as a crutch — not good.

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2D Assets for Isometric Game

While initially isometric assets were created solely in 2D, it is rarely the case nowadays. Pixel art is easier to learn than 3D and it is simpler to make changes to the art and make it look great using just Photoshop. However, getting several angles of a 2D asset from different viewpoints is rather time-consuming since every viewpoint has to be drawn from scratch. It is especially relevant for city-builders and character animation. Moreover, the lighting and shading of the asset need to be done right after you draw them, which leaves little space for trial-and-error. Still, there is an unbeatable advantage in 2D isometric games and that is they are perceived as quaint and more atmospheric.

The two projects our 2D artists did isometric drawings for are both 2D isometric games centered around the medieval aesthetic art style.

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Runefall: Match 3 Quest Games. An isometric 2D unity game where you get to solve puzzles, play match-3, and rebuild a stylized town.

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Heroes from the Past: Joan of Arc. An isometric game with Unity 2D graphics that combines a city-builder, match-3, and an exciting storyline.

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3D Assets for Isometric Games

The vast majority of isometric games are made using 3D models. A 3D world is created and the camera is rotated to a degree that makes it look isometric.

It takes nothing to get the images of the asset from all the viewpoints that you need. As for the characters in 3D isometric games, it is easy to import them to your 3D space and make them move. Moreover, you can reuse the animation that you have for one character and apply it to other characters — a drastic difference from a 2D character animation. Lighting and shadowing are highly-adjustable and since they both strongly influence the look of a 3D isometric game, the ease with which they can be implemented is an important advantage of using 3D graphics.

Merge Dreamland is a fantasy 3D isometric puzzle game we did all the 3D art for. Its cotton-candy world is full of dreamy characters, whimsical castles, and air balloons, skillfully crafted by our 3D artists.

The drawback of this technique is obvious: you cannot have the same aesthetic as with 2D art. The assets will be less detailed and have a different feel to them. Creating a 3D asset that has the same amount of detail as a 2D sprite takes just an unbelievable amount of time, so generally, 3D looks simpler.

3D modeling is of course a more complex craft than doing 2D sprites. Even though it is much less time-consuming to get different angles of the assets if you have a 3D model, making the model itself is not swift. Making lots of models, for example, for a city-builder, takes longer still since modifying the models you have is time-consuming too. If you delegate game art for your game to an outsourcing studio, you will have a team of professional 3D artists at your service and the cost will reflect the time and expertise needed for the project.

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2D/3D Blend

The best way we know to create assets for isometric games, however, is a mixture of 2D and 3D. Drawing from the best each technique has to offer, we have worked on dozens of projects creating game art for indie studios and huge mobile game developers like Gamegos.

In the workflow we came up with, we mix 2D and 3D techniques in one asset while dividing the process between the teams. This way we save time and make our artists happy by giving each the task they excel at. 2D artists create concept art of characters, buildings, props, and other assets, whereas 3D specialists do modeling. When the models are ready, 2D artists jump back on and color the assets making them come alive. Our experience shows that 2D artists are much more subtle with textures and give the assets a more refined look.

Take our ambitious project SteamPower 1830 for example. A city-builder with such a name could not possibly get by with plain buildings that are low on detail. We put much care and a painstaking amount of work into the assets, yes. But it is our workflow utilizing 2D artists in the final stages of asset development that allowed us to contribute to the creation of a city-builder that looks truly unique.

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Manor Cafe is an enormous restaurant that required tons of isometric assets for the interiors and exteriors. For most of the assets, we also created several looks: before renovation and after a series of repairs and upgrades.

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Bottom Line

Despite the relative accessibility of true 3D game development, games that offer pseudo-3D only grow in popularity. The advantages isometric design offers for both developers and players have secured its place in the gaming industry and effectively became the best solution for strategies, group RPGs, and relaxing renovation games.

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Both 2D and 3D art can be used to create flat assets that look three-dimensional. At RetroStyle Games, we are happy with the workflow we established which divides the tasks between 2D and 3D teams and employs the best from both worlds to create detailed and stylish assets, be it a character, a building, a prop, or something else. We offer high-quality game art services, isometric level design, isometric maps, and the creation of promo materials for your game.