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Into the jungle of free game design resources: a guide for one-man teams and small game studios

Free Game Design Resources – Here’s a couple nice tips to travel into the jungle and find what you need to get your game off the ground.

In the last few years, I’ve seen this situation many, many times: Not-so-average Joe is a great programmer and has a solid idea for a game. He can code like a pro, but misses any artistic skills (aside the art of writing clear C++). Since a game is not made by lines of code only – and Joe is broke / has not enough money to invest into custom assets, what can they do to build at least the prototype of their amazing game? Here’s the catch: the Internet is full of free resources, the problem is taking the time to find them!

Here you’ll find a couple nice tips to travel into the jungle and find what you need to setup at least a prototype for your game!

TL;DR: If you are on the impatient side of the spectrum, you can just scroll down to the last paragraph to have a list of some useful websites which could help you find your way 🙂

The Internet is full of free resources, the problem is taking the time to find them!

Is “free” really free?

If you just google the Internet for “free music”, you will be flooded with links and pages and pages of results. But when is “free” really free?

Everytime you find a promising resource – be it a piece of art or part of a music score – you’d better be careful  to check the small notes. “Free” is a dangerously ambigous word: the Merriam-Webster dictionary lists no less than 15 possible meanings.  It could be that the resource you are looking at is “free to use in non-commercial project” or “free if you just release your game in Bielefeld“.

So, let’s have a look at the most common possibilities and how to interpret them!

Yes, this is exactly what the road for free game design resources looks like…

What does “royalty free” really mean?

A royalty free resource is a resource for which you don’t have to pay money to author (=royalties) any time you use it. This does not mean that it has to be provided free-of-charge: royalty free just means that from the moment in which you legally acquire the rights on the resource, you don’t owe a single penny more to its creator/licenser. The business model is the following:

  • you acquire the resource (either for free or paying some amount of money);
  • use the resource in-game, complying to the additional requests (e.g. attribution in the credits, link to the creator’s page…);
  • from this moment on, you are free to use what you obtained, according to the license.

Assuming you want to use royalty-free resources, let’s look now at possible licensing models…

Royalty free just means that from the moment in which you legally acquire the rights on the resource, you don’t owe a single penny more to its creator/licenser.

The public domain purgatory

Public domain resources can be used by everyone, free of charge. The issue is that, even if a song is in the public domain, that particular performance of that group who played it last Wednesday is still protected by copyright for the next 70 years (and therefore is not in the public domain)!

For example, you could have some Chopin classical music in your game on the condition that you are playing your own arrangement or you obtain a license from whoever is playing it for you.

Public domain is insidious. Be always careful with this one.

Devs, Ye be warned

All creative with Creative Commons

Creative Commons resources are a blessed gift from Heaven for small teams and single developers. Some of them are extremely useful – while some of them have to be avoided at all costs in order not to be struck with the legal hammer!

Notice that some licensors/creators could still ask you for money to download the song/resource you need (as simply explained here), so watch out for them!

Free Game Design Resources – Pretty scary, isn’t it?

The best: Creative Commons Zero (CC-0)

This is equivalent to public domain resources, with a guarantee (albeit with caveats, see last section) that the resource is really in the public domain. So, whenever you find one resource like this, the pipeline is simple:

  • acquire the resource;
  • use the resource in-game.

The good: Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) / Sharealike (CC-BY-SA)

These two are other interesting licenses that basically require you just to 1) cite the creator of the resource in the game credits OR 2) credit the author AND share any modifications to that resource with the same license. CC-BY is a win-win situation: you use the resource for free (most of the times) and you just need to put a line in the game credits to acknowledege its creator, something like saying all your players that Guitar-Guy-95 made that music score that fit so good in Level 5 of Your Awesome Platform.

With CC-BY-SA things are a bit more complicated: you also have to share any remix/modification of the resource with the same license. Basically, it means that if you modify Cool-Piano-Gal-95’s intro for your game, you will have to share your arrangement with the same license.

The pipeline becomes then:

  • acquire the resource;
  • use the resource in-game;
  • credit the creator of the resource in-game;
  • (CC-BY-SA only) re-release the remixed/edited resource with the same CC-BY-SA license.

The ugly: Creative Commons NonCommercial (CC-BY-NC)

Creative Commons NonCommercial is exactly what it says on the tin: you can use your resource for free provided you don’t monetize on it, nor you use any derivative (e.g. remix) for making money. This automatically translates in you can only use resources covered by this license in free games without ads or any sort of in-game purchase which requires real money.

That’s right: CC-BY-NC is a pain for your project. If you are not planning on non-monetyzing in any way on your game, avoid this kind of resources at all cost or negotiate a better license with the creator.

The bad: Creative Commons NoDerivs (CC-[whatever]-ND)

If you thought that CC-BY-NC was bad enough for your game (in fact, there are occasions in which I can see a good application of CC-NC), CC-ND is the absolute worst. Basically, ND stands for no derivatives, which means that even if you acquire the resource you can’t adapt it in any way.

Just avoid it at all the costs and focus on other resources.

A couple useful websites for free game design resources

So, if you are still with me, here you are some useful sources of resources (mainly music, pictures and vector graphics):

  • CC Search is a great tool for browsing different websites in search of free stuff! Just be sure to check the boxes use for commercial purposes and modify, adapt or build upon to be sure that you are looking for CC-0, CC-BY, or CC-BY-SA resources!
  • openclipart features an amazing amount of (mostly) CC-0 vector icons and graphics that you can use to build mainly logos and small graphical elements in textures. All the pictures are provided for free.
  • OpenGameArt contains huge amount of sprites, tilesets and music which are shared via several different licenses (just read the posts).
  • Pixabay is a huge source of photos and pictures you can use for improvised backgrounds or cutscene elements in case of need. Most of the pictures are released under CC-0. All the pictures are provided for free.
  • DesignBeep contains some folders full of free-to-use texture, with varying licenses, distributed free of charge;
  • Freesound is a nice website containing loads of sound effects, mostly released under a creative commons license. You have to register to download in some cases, but it’s worth using it. All the sounds are provided for free.
  • CCMixter contains a quite nice library of free music you can use in your projects, but lacks some advanced search options. All the music is anyway provided for free. Be sure to filter for commercial use!
  • As the one above, Free Music Archive is a collection of music released under a CC license. While it lacks some advanced search functions, it’s quite a nice place to look for some music. All the music is provided for free, albeit some only with NonCommercial/NoDerivs licenses.
  • Last but not the least, Soundcloud is a gold mine for music… provided you use the right search options. Differently from all the sources above, some artists on Soundcloud sell their CC-licensed songs. If you don’t see a “Download” option in the song menu (click the three-dots button), then you will probably have to go to some other website to acquire the track. Still, with the right search options you can find the music you need for free (and legally).

I wish I could list more of them (especially for 3D meshs), but this is what I found for now =)

A word of caution on Free Game Design Resources

Before leaving, just remember one thing: some people release resources under CC licenses without knowing that they can’t possibly do that. For example, if some random Internet guy just remixes Megalovania from Undertale and releases his remix via a CC-BY license, this doesn’t mean you can use it in your commercial game! The original creator never gave rights away, therefore you have to be sure that the music you are using or the sprite you are downloading are actual, original work!

That’s all for today! If you find some good source of legally free resources, leave me a shout in the comments 😉



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Andrea "Jens" Demetrio

A PhD student in Physics by day and hobbyist game programmer by night. My insane love for fighting games made me try to build my own one – Schwarzerblitz – and spending my time improving it. I'm the kind of jack-of-all-trades / one-man-team guy who goes full throttle on his passions and never gives up.

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