Taking a minimalist approach to graphical design can sometimes prove to be a real issue when it comes to bringing in potential players, as Richard Perrin, developer behind upcoming exploration title Kairo, has discovered.
The game, named after the Japanese word for "circuit" (a thematic element in the game), focuses on exploration and puzzle-solving in a 3D world -- a world that mainly consists of simple textures and abstract sights.
The issue is that attempting to portray the atmosphere in such a seemingly simple adventure game can be tricky, especially in screenshot and video form.
But then on top of very abstract puzzles that provide absolutely no text explanation regarding how to solve them, Kairo's methods for toeing the line between minimalist aesthetics and satisfying puzzle-solving have been tricky to nail down.
"This has been a really difficult part of development," admits Perrin. "I've spent a lot of time watching people play and try to figure things out and I've responded to where they've struggled."
He continues, "The path to [design] improvement varies from puzzle to puzzle. Some just required a few more visual cues in the environment to draw their attention to key elements they've missed, like some sparks falling from the ceiling or scratches in the floor. For one puzzle I saw around 10 people all expect the answer to be something I hadn't thought of -- eventually I made that the actual solution!"
Elsewhere in the game, Perrin found that using two audio cues -- one for "good" and one for "bad" -- helped players find the right path more quickly, although he describes this as a "cop out method."
However, despite these teething issues, Perrin knew exactly what he wanted to achieve with the puzzles that he set in place, and how he wanted to shape the world. In essence, he has created a universe that he believes explorers will be more than happy to conquer.
"When I'm making a puzzle, I spend a lot of trying to get into the mindset of the player, thinking about how they're going to approach it and reach the solution," he explains.
"However, when it comes to the environment, I've focused more on my own mindset than the players. I tried to build a world that I wanted to explore, and found interesting to wander about. I've hidden things all over the landscape to find, so that it's rewarding to spend some time in each room and not just run through to the next puzzle."
And the issue with looking perhaps a little too abstract in screenshots and video? Says Perrin, "I can afford for the game to be a total failure, and it was still worth it for me personally to make it."
"There's no denying Kairo is a pretty niche game," he adds. "Thankfully there's only me and a musician working on this game so I don't need to sell millions of copies or I'm going to ruin employee's livelihoods."
Those who have played Kairo have had only good things to say about it, and Perrin says that he has been happy with the response, no matter how well it ends up selling. "Maybe I get a self-selecting audience who see the look of the game and know it's their sort of thing," he says, "but the people who've sat down and spent time on it have really seemed to get what I'm trying to do."
Of course, not everyone is so kind, especially on the internet. "The only thing that rubs me the wrong way is getting called 'lazy' in the occasional comments thread," he admits. "I can see why people might think that from the screenshots of the game. It's easy to assume the abstract design is covering for a lack of skill.
"The truth is there's not a single room in the game that I've not spent weeks on the design and lighting to get it exactly how I wanted it to look. There's this internet credo that you're not supposed to get mad by things people say online, but when you've worked on something for two and half years it's difficult not to be a bit defensive."
Kairo will launch on October 21 for Windows and OSX, with Linux and iOS versions due late 2012. Those who pre-order now get access to the beta build instantly.