Best Concept Art Tools for Indie Game Designers

Lauren Fram
Lauren Fram  |  March 18, 2019

The process of creating a video game can take years, and a huge amount of work needs to be done before the first line of code is even written. Creating a concept and overarching design for your game is crucial before you sit down to put all the pieces together. Changes will certainly happen over the course of development, but having a strong idea mapped out will save you a lot of time and frustration down the road.

Regardless of whether you plan for your game to be 2D or 3D, you will need tools to help you get your ideas on figurative paper. If you’re an artist, these tools will be invaluable to you as you design the look and feel of your game. If you’re not an artist, it will help to be somewhat familiar with the tools your artists may be using.

However, if you are an artist (which is probably why you’re reading this), the best tool in your toolbox is versatility. The more programs and methods you’re familiar with, the more competitive you will be. We’ve compiled a short list of art programs commonly utilized by concept artists featured on our site. If you’ve used any of these platforms and loved or hated them, please leave a review to help other artists find software that will work for them. All of our data comes from reviews, and our reviews come from verified users.

Best concept art tools

Nothing beats traditional pencil and paper, except 2D digital drawings. Digital drawings allow you to easily iterate your designs and import textures and patterns to punch up your concepts while allowing you to move as quickly as possible. Digital drawings also can be shared and annotated, allowing for easy team collaboration.

1. Photoshop

Photoshop concept art tools

Photoshop is the holy grail of concept art. It’s essentially industry standard, though there are several other products you can use that are perfectly good. Some familiarity with Photoshop, however, is not a bad idea. The fact that you can both alter photographs and create art from scratch gives you a wide range of options. You can also create textures to map onto your 3D models, which makes it even more flexible.

Pros

  • Used widely in the industry
  • Flexible, lots of plugins and downloadable brushes
  • Large learning community and lots of tutorials available
  • Easy collaboration using the Creative Cloud

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Can have a steep learning curve
Photoshop concept art tools Dragon Age Inquisition
Photoshop concept art tools The Witcher 3 Wild Hunt

Pricing

  • $599.88 for an annual subscription for an individual

Features

  • Photo manipulation
  • Brushes for 2D art
  • 3D painting
  • Cloud integration (save on one device and pick up where you left off on another)
  • Multiple file formats available

2. Painter

Painter concept art tools

Painter focuses on mimicking traditional media over manipulating pre-existing images, which makes it great for artists seeking a more traditional look and feel. While not as many concept artists use Painter over Photoshop, it can be better if you have a more gestural or painterly style. Concept art is all about getting ideas on the proverbial paper quickly, so if you’re looking for something with less of a learning curve, Painter might be a good choice.

Pros

  • Lots of brushes, textures and other tools
  • No subscription necessary (unlike Photoshop)
  • Easy to pick up

Cons

  • Too many brushes, can be overwhelming
  • Less stable than Photoshop
  • More limited options, leans towards mimicking traditional media 
Painter concept art tools Assassin's Creed Rogue

Pricing

  • $429 for one license

Features

  • Thick paint brushes
  • Cloning capabilities
  • Texture synthesis
  • 2.5D texture brushes
  • Drip and liquid technologies
  • Selection brushes to customize brush shapes
  • Texture fill
  • Canvas textures
  • Pattern pens
  • Particle brushes
  • Perspective guides

3. Sketchbook Pro

Sketchbook Pro concept art tools

Sketchbook Pro is another 2D option that is less robust than Photoshop or Painter, but easy to use and a less expensive option. While less frequently used than Photoshop, Sketchbook Pro does have similar tools and can do some of the same things. If you’re looking to start somewhere, this is a good place to consider, since the investment is much lower.

Pros

  • Less expensive

Cons

  • Fewer robust features 
Sketchbook Pro concept art tools

Pricing

  • $10/month or $85/year

Features

  • Unlimited brushes
  • Layers
  • Predictive stroke
  • Four symmetry dimensions
  • Rulers and guides
  • Custom perspective guides
  • Copic color library
  • Flipbook animation
  • Distort transform
  • Simple selection tools
  • Fill and gradient fill
  • 18 blending modes

3D super modelling

A lot of video games are created in 3D, so being familiar with a few 3D modeling programs can help make you a triple threat, a master of the three D’s. If you’re primarily a 2D artist, becoming familiar with 3D will take some work. However, the more programs you’re able to use, the more marketable you are, so it makes sense to attempt to branch out.

4. Maya

Maya concept art tools

Maya is one of the industry standards for 3D modeling and animation in the gaming industry. It is pricey, but it also has a suite of features that includes 3D modeling, animation and rendering. The learning curve can be steep but this is a very good tool to have in your toolbox. For concept art, you’ll really only be utilizing the 3D modeling capabilities, but familiarity with all of its capabilities will only help you in the long run.


Pros

  • Powerful
  • Widely used by the industry
  • Large suite of tools

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Steep learning curve
Maya concept art tools Call of Duty Black Ops 3

Pricing

  • Maya: $185/month or $1470/year
  • Maya LT: $30/month or $240/year

Features

  • Sculpting tools
  • Polygon reduction tool
  • Quad draw tool
  • Multicut tool
  • Paint selections
  • UV and texturing tools
  • 3D animation and rigging
  • Motion graphics
  • Animation deformation
  • Camera sequencer
  • Rendering and imaging
  • Dynamics and effects
  • Pipeline integration
  • Data and scene management

5. 3DS Max Design

3ds Max Design concept art tools

3ds Max Design is another industry standard for 3D modeling. Primarily used for large, open-world games, 3ds Max Design has powerful 3D modeling and rendering tools. Concept artists can use it to create detailed models and environments relatively quickly and easily. As a widely used tool in the game industry, familiarity with 3ds Max Design is highly recommended.

Pros

  • Widely used in the industry
  • Easy to learn
  • Robust 3D modeling tools

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Not as good as Maya for animation
3ds Max Design concept art tools Mass Effect Andromeda

Pricing

  • $185/month or $1,470/year

Features

  • Animation tools
  • Blended box map
  • Enhanced ShaderFX
  • Placement tools
  • Mesh and surface modeling
  • Texture assignment and editing
  • Shading and material design
  • Vector map support
  • UV mapping
  • Interactive VR engine
  • Physical camera
  • Stereo camera
  • Dynamics and effect

6. Modo

Modo concept art tools

Modo is less widely used than Maya and 3ds Max Design, but it’s still a powerful tool. Modo is optimized for creating 3D models specifically for games, while Maya and 3ds Max Design tend to be optimized for film. While all three products are widely used in the game industry, Modo is used less often than Maya and 3ds Max Design. However, there are many passionate users of Modo, so it’s worth becoming familiar with the platform.

Pros

  • Optimized for video game design
  • Less expensive than Maya and 3ds Max Design
  • Robust rendering tools

Cons

  • Fewer learning resources available
Modo concept art tools Call of Duty Infinite Warfare

Pricing

  • Permanent license: $1,799
  • Annual license: $599

Features

  • 3D modeling
  • UV workflows
  • Sculpting
  • Shading
  • Rendering
  • Baking
  • Rigging
  • Animation
  • Effects
  • Hair and fur
  • Camera and projection

7. ZBrush

ZBrush concept art tools

ZBrush is a sculpting program that works much like traditional sculpting. With the ability to sculpt up to one billion polygons, you can create incredibly detailed models. ZBrush is great for concept art because your designs can easily be imported into another program for rigging, animating and rendering.

 

Pros

  • Easy workflow for sculpting
  • Good for modeling and texturing

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Not the best for anything other than modeling and texturing
ZBrush concept art tools Frameshift

Pricing

  • $795

Features

  • 3D sculpting brushes
  • Subtools
  • Mesh extract
  • Layers
  • Surface noise
  • Transpose
  • Deformations
  • HD geometry
  • Projection master
  • FiberMesh
  • MicroMesh
  • NoiseMaker
  • Topology/geometry
  • Texturing tools
  • Rendering tools

Select a tool for you

Concept art is probably the most creative you can get when making games. All of these tools are simply ways to channel that creativity in usable ways. Your unique workflow will dictate which tools work best for you, but having familiarity with a few of them will only serve to make you more marketable. If you’ve used any of these products and loved or hated them, feel free to leave a review to help other concept designers find a tool that works for them.

Lauren Fram
Author

Lauren Fram

Having lived on both the East and West Coasts, Lauren has settled in the happy medium of the Midwest. After nearly 13 years in Chicago, she has fully co-opted the Midwestern habit of saying "oop" when nearly bumping into things. In her free time she enjoys games of all sorts, and is particularly fond of board games and tabletop RPGs.