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The Art Of Game Polish: Developers Speak

December 22, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

Multiplayer. First-person perspective. Downloadable content. Some game features are easily defined by a short word or phrase, and their meanings are universally accepted and understood. But the definitions of some features are much more nebulous, even when those terms are used nearly as much.

One such word is "polish." Between reviews praising a "highly polished experience" to news of a game being "delayed for additional polish," "polish" is a word that gets thrown around a lot in the gaming industry, despite a lack of consensus on what it actually means.

Polish is, of course, a subjective term, one that we cannot expect to definitively classify here. But in the hopes to better understand polish, we spoke with representatives from critically acclaimed developers BioWare, Epic Games, and Obsidian, as well as upstart studio Robomodo.

With each developer, we discussed what polish means, how a team achieves it and much more in the hopes of better understanding this process.

What is "Polish"?

In a general sense, our group of developers defined a polished game as one that lacks issues that pull the player out of the gaming experience. But there is a lot of room for variance under that broad umbrella.

"To me, what defines polish in a game is a consistency of experience," says BioWare's Mark Darrah, executive producer of the Dragon Age franchise. "If you can play a game that has really great graphics but terrible balance, and that's not a very well-polished game because there's something that's pulling you out of the experience. Polish is when everything comes together in a cohesive whole."

"Polish, to me, is the last 10 to 20 percent of effort where everything in the game is now working and you take the time to focus on the little details that have a big impact on the overall quality of the game," says Rod Fergusson, executive producer of titles including Gears of War 2 at Epic Games. "Polish is extremely important, as it has the ability to take a good game and make it great."

"Different disciplines spend different amounts of time polishing depending on the feature," says Robomodo's Patrick Dwyer, lead designer on Tony Hawk: Ride. "For a designer, polishing means can we make the game more fun. For an artist, polishing means can it look better. For an engineer, polishing means is it optimized."

Tony Hawk: Ride

"For me, polish has always been fixing multiple small issues and adding tiny features that really smooth off the edges of gameplay," says Dan Rubalcalba, programmer on Obsidian's upcoming Alpha Protocol. "I say 'small' in that each issue on their own might not be noticed, but it is the summation of many of them that turns something interesting into something great.

"Also I say 'small' as I consider polish getting a system from 90 percent to 100 percent. But really, that last 10 percent takes just as long as the first 90. Polish is no small task; it is just about small unseen things." Alpha Protocol's lead programmer Frank Kowalkowski added, "Polish is often adding things nobody will ever notice, comment on, or appreciate, but will notice, comment on and appreciate when they aren't there."

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Robert Ericksen
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Polish comes from Poland. duh.

Matthew Rorie
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Just as a note, Frank Kowalkowski wasn't Lead Programmer on Alpha Protocol, he was Lead Programmer on Neverwinter Nights 2. Sorry for the error.

ken sato
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Game polish can take a title from assembly line development into craftmanship that can help define it in totality. It can create an identity for the title as well as display the over all skill and scope not just in major piece functionality (kick the tires, pump the breaks sort of thing...) but over all attractiveness.

Once the major feature and functionality blocks are in (not locked in mind you...) the persistent level of improvements beyond metrics have to take hold, the ability of a developer to say "I made this!" and have it mean something beyond milestone.

Joshua Sterns
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"I think Dragon Age is our most stable game so far."

Really? The console version sure is buggy for something so stable.

You can't go five minutes in Dragon Age (or any Bioware console game) without getting an art bug. The clothing textures are really horrible during key scenes like the dwarf assembly, and character folding their arms often have fingers poking out of their forearm. LOD's are frequent and result in environments popping in and out of place. I've crashed at least twice per playthrough, and I'm expecting no different for my fourth run. Scripting errors also occur when you attempt to talk to an NPC too early. The easiest example of this issue is the orphanage quest in the Alienage. That stupid blind Templar couldn't understand that I had slayed the demon and finished the quest. Finally sound will cut out during key speeches especially if you have skipped earlier dialogue from that same scene. The game must have been really FUBAR during development if the final product was polished.

Dragon Age is a great game. The sheer size, solid combat, and great voice acting more then makes up for these smaller issues, and I do understand why these issues exist. That's why as a tester I try to get in the small bugs early so they can be fixed. Unfortunately more often then not those issues are ignored or put on the back burner until it's to late.

Something closer to the heart of this article may be a differentiating between polish in various genres. Fighters and FPS games tend to be extremely polished compared to larger games like RPGs.

Jacek Wesolowski
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Robert - polish actually comes from Polynesia. Poland is a major exporter of flagpoles, polearms, magnetic dipoles and sirloin (a.k.a. "poledwica").

Seriously, though, in the context of large budget computer games, "polish" is a buzzword. I see it as a kind of developer's OCD - you tamper with stuff because it makes you feel less insecure. Like a person who keeps vacuuming just to keep their mind occupied, you focus your efforts on minute details so you can feel less anxious about the big picture.

Polish is like cholesterol in that there's a "good" variety, and it's important, but the "bad" variety is a silent killer that can grind your project to a halt. The pursuit of "polish" is the source of creeping featurism and excessive reiteration, among other things. I've seen dozens of man-months being spent on polishing stuff that got subsequently replaced because someone didn't like the core idea after all. Then the replacement was polished to death... and replaced, because, again, it wouldn't work in the long run. At the same time, throwaway prototypes are not being given sufficient attention, internally, because they lack polish. They're not shiny enough.

Ironically, when I play big budget games (some of which have been mentioned in this article), I often have this crushing impression of dealing with something un-polished, incomplete, and half-baked. The models are high-poly, but they are all alike. Their faces have normal maps, but they don't have expressions. Voices are recorded as high definition sound, but voice acting is mediocre at best. The animations are top-notch motion capture, but NPCs behave like idiots, walk backwards, make instant turns as if they were plastic figures on a stick, etc. The art is super-detailed, but there is no apparent art direction.

Also, priorities tend to go wrong. Dev teams can spend weeks and months polishing textures, models, tweaking decorations, but they don't bother polishing their gameplay. They work very hard, but they don't work smart at all. That's neither craftsmanship not art. That's just a waste of time.

Daniel Martinez
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My version of "polish" is about the same to what Rod Fergusson from Epic said. Once a game has had all major features implemented and all major bugs sorted out, polishing takes place in the form of fine-tuning and adding in details which reveal hidden beauty to the beholder and will make the game really shine and stand out; just like polishing a car for an exhibition.

Marc Miles
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Polish is getting the game out of the Uncanny Valley of what the game is trying to be/achieve.

Stephen Etheridge
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In the first 15 minutes of me playing Dragon Age I came across several noticeable art bugs both in-game and while using the character customisation feature. The worse case was a seated NPC floating to one side of his chair. Now, I know that (3D) RPGs are notoriously laborious to polish, but this issue occurred in the starting area, which is traditionally the most polished part of any game. Two years of testing have taught me that much.

I'm 5 hours in now and the bugs haven't stopped; I can definitely corroborate the 'folding arms' thing mentioned above, my characters aren't always depicted with the correct headgear during dialogue, misaligned textures (not usually noticeable but when they are positioned behind talking heads in cutscenes they are brought to the fore), my party attempting to pathfind through fences, inappropriate music during dialogue... the issues are minor but the list is long.

Then there's frustration: as I play it now there are a lot of times I go back to NPCs to see if there are any new developments, only to be forced to re-listen to the full voiceover of old information. Mass Effect had a skip button, and from the comment above DA 360 seems to, too, so I don't understand why this would be left out of the PC version considering the kind of polish such a useful feature adds to a conversation system.

I don't mean to use this article as a forum for discussing Dragon Age's foibles, it's just that it isn't the best example of a game with overall polish. DA is a good game, but I feel the polish has gone into different parts of the experience. Instead of focusing on the cosmetic, it seems a lot more development and time has gone into exploring and expanding on the notion of causality in an RPG. I can talk to a character, make a decision and be bound to my actions. If I treat someone unkindly, or aren't sensitive to their beliefs, I can harm my relationship with them, whether this means losing out on some loot, a side-quest or even losing a party member. At the beginning of the game I will begin in an entirely different setting depending on which race and background I have chosen. Realising I've angered one of my party members and will now need to rebuild their trust is tortuous, but it's the sort of stone-cold consequence I've been longing for in an RPG since Baulder's Gate, and Dragon's Age takes it several steps (leaps even) further.

This notion of choice and causality, and the narrative setting are where Dragon Age shines, and it definitely seems to fit with Darrah's "consistency of experience" mantra; but I wouldn't agree that the game is on the whole polished because the more I play the more I see (and I'm not particularly looking). Maybe it would be more interesting to hear Bioware speaking specifically on how they decide where to concentrate their efforts in terms of polish, knowing that it is impossible to provide a completely polished experience given the scale of their games, because Dragon Age still emerges as a very rich and engaging experience.


If you're looking for a posterboy for polish, you need look no further than Batman: Arkham Asylum. The first time I played that I noticed that when you are walking alongside the Joker as he's being escorted to his cell your character is restricted to a walking pace, but as you move away from him (as I did, to explore the world) your character speeds up. So I was able to break briefly from escorting the Joker to go and look at the computer screens in the guard's room, I couldn't get stuck or disoriented because the Joker kept goading me with directional audio, when I decided to return I was able to quickly run back to rejoin the Joker but when I arrived I slipped seamlessly back into keeping pace with the other NPCs.

This sequence shows that a designer on this game has sat down and specifically worked on a system that:

A) allows the player to explore the world at their leisure during the first interactive cutscene of the game

B) prevents them from getting left behind

C) prompts them if they hang about for too long

D) preserves the mood of the sequence

That for me is a great example of polish: it's taking a scenario that potentially could detract from the game experience (player getting lost, player being restricted from exploration, player being able to do quirky things like run around as a headless chicken during an interactive cutscene) and come up with a seamless solution that is acceptable within the game world (Batman walks at the same speed as the guards to not look weird, Joker shouts taunts to orient and prompt the player). So many games would opt for forcing non-interactive cutscenes on you, or limit your interaction to player camera movements only.

This is just an example to show the attention to detail the developers paid to their game. The rest of it, while it may have its weak sections (Croc sewer section), is largely polished to the same insane degree. It looks great, sounds great and plays great, so although it didn't set out to do as much as something like Dragon Age, it still emerges as a very well rounded, solidly entertaining experience.

Joshua Sterns
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I couldn't agree more Stephen. Batman: AA was probably the most polished game I've played this year. The only noticeable issue was the occasional corpse twitch or oddball ragdoll physics. Both of witch are hilarious to watch. Nothing like punching the crap out of someone and then watching their body randomly shake on the floor--in a video game that is.

Also wait to you get to the progression stoppers in Dragon Age.

Daniel Martinez
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I personally think Fallout 3 had tons of polish despite all its bugs. Yes I've gotten repetitive crashes, found multiple graphical corruptions, hangs, audio glitches, etc... but still, the beauty is in the details and that exactly what good polish does for a game.

Andrew Timson
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"Mass Effect had a skip button, and from the comment above DA 360 seems to, too, so I don't understand why this would be left out of the PC version considering the kind of polish such a useful feature adds to a conversation system."

Try Escape, if I remember correctly.

James D
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Someone from the Tony Hawk: Ride team is cited talking about polish?

...I admit to smiling a little bit. ;-)

J. Matthew Zoss
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Batman: Arkham Asylum was one of the games that inspired this article. Unfortunately, Rocksteady was unable to participate.

John Paduch
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Just realized how old this article was. Nevermind.

Jason Bakker
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@Joshua and Steven

From a programmer's perspective, saying a game isn't stable because it has bad textures or UV mapping doesn't make sense - art issues aren't really "bugs" or errors, they're just caused by a lack of polish on the art side. You can have a stable game with crappy art - the two states don't really interrelate (_unless_ you have actual export errors, or an artist exports some textures way higher res than they should be and it pushes your game over limits/causes slowdown, things like that :P ).

Ed: You're right about the scripting errors and crashes though, those are stability issues - I had exactly the same thing - two crashes and the Alienage orphanage quest bugging out. The crashes seemed to always be happening at the end of a fight for me - some issue with the game transitioning back out of combat state. But that said, regarding general framerate and lag/slowdown (on explosions/etc), I definitely got more of that in Mass Effect than Dragon Age - this is I believe what Gardner was talking about.

Stephen Etheridge
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Jason, I don't think I ever made reference to stability (Joshua did, but I didn't directly respond to his comments). I agree stability is a far higher priority than art and gameplay polish, especially considering the amount of time the average player will spend with an RPG like Dragon Age, meaning much higher chances of triggering rare crashes and memory leaks, but one of the arguments put forward here is that when these minor aesthetic and gameplay errors keep reappearing all the time they become, on the whole, more noticeable, to the point you probably wouldn't apply the 'polish' label if queried on it.

Andrew, thanks. I'd written that comment before I'd resigned myself to hammering all the buttons randomly to find the 'skip' key ('Skip Dialogue' is not mentioned in the Controls menu, and Esc in fact refers only to 'Main Menu', to make things more confusing).

Muhammad Saber
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One of the best Polished games I have ever played is UT3, and also modern strategy games like Command and Conquer is very well polished,

"polishing is important" endeed!