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How Much is Too Much Detail?
by Eric Schwarz on 07/28/12 04:35:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

I've been playing quite a few older games recently.  Deus Ex, Thief, System Shock 2, Neverwinter Nights 2 and others have captured my attention for many, many reasons.  Just today, I tried to go back to a few more modern titles, and found myself running into a mental brick wall.

Specifically, that brick wall was the amount of detail on display.  The graphical jump of the newer games was noticeable, certainly, but I found myself surprised at how much re-acclamation I had to do in order to go back to enjoying the newer titles.  There's a certainl simplicity to these older titles, much of it the result of technological constraints, that I think current developers, whether artists or level designers, could learn much from.

Readability

Level design has never just been about creating great-looking environments, or even ones that are fun to engage with on a mechanical level - a fundamental component of it is in creating spaces that are readable for the player.  That is, they must be intuitive to understand even at a quick glance.  What does this actually mean in practice?

  1. Levels must have strong focal points.  Objectives and important objects should be placed in plain sight and difficult to miss for most players.  This is pretty standard stuff - lighting, colour, elevation, and more are all capable of highlighting important game objects the player needs to engage with.
  2. Levels must be understood at a glance.  Where things tend to break down, especially in games that feature highly-detailed environments with lots of props and interactive objects, is in throwing the player into a new situation and having the goal and the means to achieve it be immediately clear.  If we don't know what we're doing, or how to do it, a game can quickly become frustrating.
  3. Levels should make use of intuitive extra-game knowledge.  The best level designs will often mimic things that we understand in real life.  We know, through experience, how an office building floor is laid out, or how a series of city blocks connect to form a grid.  A level that deviates from conventions will often be difficult to understand and confusing to engage with, since players aren't just navigating a new space, but one that directly contradicts everything they know about how that space should be arranged.

Looks amazing!  Er... so where am I supposed to go, again?

As usual, these are not hard and fast rules for building levels - many developers intentionally break them, purposely confusing or misleading players.  Valve, for example, routinely do this in all of their games, especially the Left 4 Dead series, which purposely creates spaces that are cramped, cluttered, and difficult to read at a glance in order to stall players and leave them vulnerable to attack.  Horror titles also frequently create levels which deviate from real-world expectations, in order to trick players or createa  surreal sensation.  However, these are exceptions, and a game built of nothing but misdirection will grow tedious and annoying.

Visual Language

Most games, especially those with well-defined and distinctive art styles, tend to have consistent visual languages that they use throughout to guide the player both in playing the game and in using its interface.  The key to good art direction isn't usually just creating visuals that look good, but rather visuals that assist the gameplay and provide the player with sensory cues.

A lot of these are very simple things.  Most games, for instance, use a consistent font throughout the entire user interface, and will use the same-coloured text or the same icons in that interface to be readily readable by the player - a good interface will usually let a player go on pattern recognition and muscle memory after a minimum amount of time spent with the game.

However, consistent visual language extends well past user interface or other obvious examples - in my opinion, one of the keys to this that is often overlooked is in creating a palette of level artwork that designers can reuse and players can constantly refer to.  Just like different colours can be used to outline which enemies are tougher than others, visually separating less obvious interactive game elements also helps players make split-second decisions.

BioShock uses level art, right down to mundane things like doors and switches, to guide the player and make sure each piece of its levels are immediately and intuitively readable.

What do I mean by this?  Take BioShock, a game with one of the most renowned and defined art styles to come out in the last generation.  Cutting past the pretty lighting, pixel shaders, and art deco styling, BioShock's visual direction succeeds because it adheres to a degree of consistency that extends from enemy designs all the way to the smallest environmental cues and details.

In BioShock, each gameplay element, whether it's an object central to the mechanics or an incidental environment prop, has one or at most two different looks.  The game, for the most part, has only two doors - large, vertically sliding metal doors that signify the boundaries of different level areas, and smaller, horizontally-sliding doors which signify smaller areas, like individual rooms.  The transitions between levels themselves (separated by loading zones) are almost exclusively large airlocks.  Water on the floor, useful for electrocuting enemies, always has a strong reflection visible even from a distance.

Could BioShock have had a hundred different types of door, each one perfectly suited to a given location?  Of course, and it also could have had dozens of brands of ammo dispensor.  The pretense of detail and realism is certainly compelling - but by limiting the palette available to level artists, Irrational Games created a game whose visual style was in direct service of not just the gameplay mechanics, but the needs of players in actually using those mechanics.  Once you've performed an action, interacted with an object a few times, it becomes second nature - and the key goal of play summarily becomes problem-solving, not mere navigation.

The Perils of Detail

When examining older titles like Thief and Deus Ex, it becomes obvious very quickly that these games are exceptionally readable.  A noisy, tiled floor in Thief can immediately be distinguished from a soft, quiet, carpeted floor.  In Deus Ex, ventilation ducts, often both enablers for tactical gameplay and safe havens, always use the same texture.  The simplicity of the visuals works so well even to this day because they are eminently readable; there is no room for misinterpretation because the levels are clean, focused and consistent.

As I mentioned above, earlier today I went back to a couple of other more modern titles.  The first was The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.  Although I'd put over a hundred hours into the game in the past, it was shocking to me how much time it took for me to get back into the swing of things.  Paths through the game world were difficult to read due to the extremely dense vegetation.  Discerning which objects in the environment were interactive, and which ones were worth interacting with in the first place took me an extra mental step or two.  Picking out enemies to fight was less about looking for familiar shapes, animations and routines, and more about scanning for movement, then focusing in to ascertain the source.

Games like Skyrim are visually impressive, but also visually cluttered to the point where it can be difficult to pick out anything at a glance.

It didn't take me more than an hour to get used to it - but it does highlight how the lack of a readily readable game world can get in the way of gameplay.  There are many, many situations throughout Skyrim where the only way to proceed in a given quest is to loot a certain chest, or read a certain book, or kill a certain NPC - and without the ever-present quest markers hovering over the important things, it's almost impossible to tell how to make progress in the game in any sort of visually intuitive manner.  These assists exist not because players are dumb and too thick-headed and ignorant to figure out where to go to finish the game - they're there because the only people who could intuitively navigate much of Skyrim are the developers who created the content in the first place.

The other game I went back to was Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, for a little bit of multiplayer gaming - and I learned very quickly that it was a far cry from Unreal TournamentCall of Duty's levels are mostly drab and monotone, making it very difficult to distinguish one area from another at a glance (though this improved in some of the sequels).  Many spots are thick with clutter objects and vegetation, making it very difficult to pick out individual players.  The constant stream of explosions, smoke and fire throughout the levels is disorienting and obscures other players, available routes through the level, and other important information.

Older titles like Deus Ex are visually fairly simple, but there is no ambiguity in interpreting its environments or scenarios.  No more pixel hunting?!  2000, here I come!

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course, when taking into account the fact that Call of Duty intends a degree of realism compared to some other shooters - target acquisition is intentionally a bit difficult, and the chaos of the battlefield can be hard to understand, precisely because the game's goal is, to a degree, to replicate the chaos of real warfare.  The challenge of Call of Duty doesn't just come from pointing and shooting, but from being able to cut through all the smoke and fire to understand the battlefield.

Even so, I found myself almost entirely relying on certain visual assists.  Without the little "X" that appears when firing at an enemy, it would be nearly impossible to tell you were actually hitting until the enemy was dead.  Without the coloured names over team members' heads, it'd be impossible to tell one black-clad, helmet-wearing man with guns from the next.  Without the grenade indicator on-screen and the distinctive "ping" noise one makes as it lands nearby, it'd be almost impossible to dodge them.  Unreal might not be realistic, but at least I can tell different players apart from one another! The chaos of Call of Duty may be intentional, true, but the reliance on all these user interface elements to distinguish them highlights that the focus on detail and realism is not necessarily conducive to good gameplay.

Closing Thoughts

As I mentioned earlier, I can't stress enough that a lot of these things aren't set in stone - sometimes making exceptions to the standards set, or intentionally creating a game without a degree of consistency, or one that is difficult to read at a glace by "obfuscation through detail", can actually work really, really well.  And, while I might have had trouble getting back into some newer titles, I don't want to paint a picture that they are difficult to play or confusing by any means.

Rather, I'd like this to be a cautionary message against creating detail in game visuals for the sake of detail, and realism for the sake of realism.  The increasing number of interface assists in most titles, coupled with the desire to continually push the bar in creating highly detailed, cluttered, rich game levels, just doesn't always work.

It might be a simple or even obvious message, but it's hard to play a game when you can't differentiate the important bits from the background scenery, and the result is that even (relatively) mechanically shallow games with simple, linear levels and mission objective markers around every corner can still feel cluttered and overwhelming in a way that actively goes against the freedom in gameplay that was engineered in the first place.

pit_door

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Comments


Axel Cholewa
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I play Shadow Of The Colossus HD at the moment and had similar thoughts. Especially in HD the simple graphics always let you know where you are and where you can go. When the task is to navigate to the next colossus things are not that obvious and you can get lost when you don't pay attention. But then again that's your task, to navigate, and it's good that you can fail. In the colossus fights it's always clear what you can do, and looking at the environment and the colossi tells you what would make sense. For example all colossi have hair on them which you can grab to climb the beasts, and it always looks the same. How to reach that hair is a different matter, the player has to figure that out by himself. But you always know what you need to do.

Another more recent example is Demons' Souls: simple, clean and clear graphics, easily readable for the player and still very atmospheric.

Eric Schwarz
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Shadow of the Colossus is one of those few games that has a high level of detail to it and a fairly realistic art style, but remains very easy to understand visually. I think part of that is a degree of scale - the game features huge open environments, thus the micro-level details are less important.

The design also helps. As a relatively limited game in terms of mechanics and objectives, the player is also never asked to hunt and peck through the scenery for collectibles, and the huge bosses ensure picking out enemies is never a problem.

Rasmus Gunnarsson
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That's one of the things I miss with 2d. While 3d is more dynamic 2d is usually more readable.

James Hofmann
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The problem did exist in 2D as well. While the level geometry is occasionally mismatched or misleading in 3D, it usually appears in non-critical elements. In 2D, if geometry doesn't match art(which often happens if high detail is emphasized), it tends to exaggerate into a major, life-or-death failing.

As well, level design in 2D is more likely to suffer from repetition - although it's harder to overlook exits and disrupt the player's mental map, there are fewer ways to make landmarks and lead the player using geometry alone - so it's still easily possible to get lost in a large 2D level.

That said, it's a lot easier to get 2D right.

Eric Schwarz
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@James Hofmann

I'm reminded of many, many games from the SNES and Genesis era which had a lot of ambiguity in their level art, such as things that were "actually a door" or "actually a power-up." Artists did get better at this as the generation went on but it's definitely not uncommon to find old-school games that are somewhat incomprehensible due to cluttered artwork, though I'd say the issue is less to do with sheer detail as it is with poor differentiation of characters, items, etc. from the backdrops.

Michael Joseph
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kinda like

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greeble

syndrome...

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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Composition over detail.

Abraham Tatester
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I gave up on Crysis just a couple hours into it because the AI could always see me before I could see them. There was simply too much on the screen—and too much of it moving, swaying in the breeze—for me to see what the heck was going on.

But gosh, what gorgeous environments!

Eric Schwarz
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I actually really enjoyed Crysis, but the density of visuals was certainly an issue. The fact that there were so many aids to pinpoint enemies (binoculars that let you track them, radar, etc.) and so many sequences focused on long-range rather than short-range combat suggests this might have been a way of compensating for the difficult visibility.

My problem with Crysis, visually, was actually just finding weapons and ammo. The large amounts of clutter made it difficult to distinguish a magazine from a box of tissues. I can see why they switched to an auto-pickup mechanic in Warhead later on.

Roger Tober
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I think a companion problem is that, as the game gets more realistic, there are less interactive objects per square foot, so there is more time walking around unchallenged. When things aren't so realistic you can put things closer together and it seems all right because you aren't comparing to real distances. Walking around looking at pretty scenery gets old after about 2 minutes.

Eric Schwarz
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This is a great observation. While I'm not sure there's a direct 1:1 correlation between realism and content density, I can certainly see how certain games, striving for realism, would potentially have less interactive elements, fewer mechanics, etc. on the way from point A to point B. This is why setting is so important in a game - it structures and gives weight to the mechanical possibilities designers have in a given scenario.

P J
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Detail is not a problem. Having an interface with tiny letters because the game is designed by kids with perfect is IS a problem.

Andrei Cojocaru
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That would explain why i was attracted by exactly two modern FPS games: Serious Sam 3 and Bioshock. But this started with Far Cry, not Crysis. That's about when i gave up on 3d shooters :)


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