The Digital Nomad Workflow of a Pixel Artist

Maker Spotlight: Matej 'Retro' Jan

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I am a pixel artist and game developer, currently working on Pixel Art Academy, an adventure game where you become an art student and learn how to draw. I studied Computer Science in college and Education in grad school, but I was always also interested in art. Going to art school remained a dream of mine, so I’m now making a game where you can do just that.

How did you get started doing pixel art and web development?

We've had a computer at home ever since I can remember, so I was drawing things with pixels from the get-go. We drew pictures on graph paper first and typed them into the computer as numbers. It wasn’t even called "pixel art," it was just how we did graphics for games. In college, I started doing pixel art illustrations as an actual art style. There weren’t any university programs for computer graphics in my country, so I chose the second closest thing and studied software development instead.

What's a typical work day for you?

I am a solo indie game developer, which means I do everything from programing and drawing to marketing and accounting. The most time-consuming is writing code, so that takes up most of my days. It’s an intensive activity done best when I have the whole day cleared of errands. Big problems require large chunks of uninterrupted time, so you can get in the zone. Drawing on the other hand—as soon as I have the composition and references prepared—is mostly relaxing, and I often listen to podcasts while pushing pixels left and right.

What's your workspace like? 

My lifestyle is a bit untraditional—I travel around the world visiting friends and new places as a digital nomad. My office is 100% portable and everything fits into my backpack: 15” MacBook Pro, 13” iPad Pro, Apple Pencil, iPhone, AirPods, external hard drives for video editing, charging cables, and of course Luna Display. The non-tech stuff in my bag are glasses, medication, screen cleaner, and a tiny paper notebook in case all hell breaks loose and I need to write something down in a zombie apocalypse without electricity. Needless to say it’s mostly empty—I do everything digitally.

What apps and tools do you use to manage your workflow?

WebStorm is my IDE of choice for all things web development. I test in Chrome, as it has great debugging tools and the fastest rendering engine. Penultimate is my note-taking app (synced with Evernote) and Linea for drawing concept art. Most of the graphics for my game were made in Photoshop and GIMP, but I’ve been slowly working on my own pixel art/3D modeling software, so I can do some never-before seen rendering tricks.

What's the best thing about the work you do?

Game development has so many different aspects (code, art, design, audio, business …) and I love them all! Doing most of them myself is a blessing of diversity, albeit one that I pay with in slower progress. Also, as an independent developer without a publisher, I spend a lot of time talking directly to players, which has brought a lot of awesome people into my life.


What's the hardest part about the work you do?

It’s tough when someone asks for a refund. It means they were excited enough about the game to buy it, but then it didn’t live up to their expectations. I don’t take it personally—you can’t make everything for everybody—but it still sucks that they got disappointed, be it my fault or not.

What podcasts are you listening to?

Pixel Art Academy borders on educational technology so a must is the EdSurge podcast. I love everything from Gimlet Media (StartUp, Science Vs, The Habitat, Sandra), and since I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for 5 years, I love me some banter from This is Your Life in Silicon Valley. I wish there were more podcasts about game development, but there's a documentary series I particularly like called The Life & Times of Video Games.

If you had to describe yourself as an emoji, which would you be and why?

It’s technically named Alien Monster, but we all know it as this: 👾(space invader). As the only pixel art emoji and a symbol of retrogaming, it’s the embodiment of my pixel art brand Retronator.

And finally, what Instagram are you obsessed with?

My friend and his girlfriend bought a big off-road vehicle, remade its interior into a living room/bedroom, and are now living a life on the road, slowly cruising from Europe towards Middle East. They post about their adventures along with beautiful photos on their account @dalec.si (meaning "you’re far away” in Slovenian), and I just love following their journey.   
                                                  
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