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Lessons in Color Theory for Spyro the Dragon
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Lessons in Color Theory for Spyro the Dragon

May 2, 2000 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

The Power of the Sky

If your game takes place outdoors, one of the dominant colors in the master palette will be that of the sky. Time and time again at Insomniac we have been surprised at the tremendous impact that the color and nature of the sky has on a world. Many times when we had a difficult time getting the right emotional impact from a Spyro level, someone would suggest that we try a different sky. Every time we were surprised at the extent of the change brought to the level by the new sky. We learned that unearthly colors in a sky can create unexpected emotions, which is sometimes good if you want to make the player uncomfortable (as if he's in an alien environment), but if that's not your goal, use caution when dealing with sky colors (see Figure 3).

Recently, I designed a sky that was one of my all-time favorites. It was a misty green sky, filled with wispy clouds and distant planets. It complemented the world it was designed for, but something wasn't right. While beautiful, it also evoked negative reactions from people. Finally someone pointed out that it looked poisonous. That would have been great if that was what we intended, but this particular world wasn't supposed to be poisonous; threatening yes, but not poisonous. In the end, we went with a more naturally-colored night sky, which contained several moons and a haunting red glow on the horizon.

Figure 3. By experimenting with different skies, the nature and emotion of an entire world can be radically altered.

Consider the relative contrast between a world and its sky, and the differences in their color saturation. If the terrain is bright and saturated, then often it's helpful to color the sky using softer, desaturated colors. The reverse is also true. This helps set off the horizon against the skyline, which in turn gives the player some depth cues and aids navigation. When the terrain and sky are too similar in color or saturation, they lack the necessary contrast and appear to flatten out. Definition gets lost, and players often do as well.

Wallpapering Worlds

At Insomniac, we try to keep both the contrast and the color saturation down and still keep colors bright in our textures. Typically televisions, especially NTSC-based ones, pump up both the contrast and saturation of game colors, pushing the images over the top into a cartoonish look. Sometimes that's the goal of the game developers, but more often then not, a slightly softer, more realistic look is better, even on a cute or light-hearted game.

Shading and Lighting

The final major source of color comes from shaded textures, from techniques such as colored vertex shading. The addition of colored shading on top of rich textures can create a spectacular look, but sometimes it can be too rich. The problem is that the cumulative effect of colored vertex shading can over-saturate or intensify the contrast of texture colors. This is one more reason to keep the base textures somewhat desaturated - there is plenty of room to apply color shaders with out blowing the colors over the top (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Top: A model
with only simple vertex shading and no background sky. (Note the use of the different colored shaders
on the island, bridge, and tunnel.) Middle: The same model with shading and the sky in place (Note how the color of the sky is reflected
in the use of color in the shaders.) Bottom: The
finished world with models, shaders, textures, and sky.

Where Am I, Where is it Safe to Stand?

The two practical aspects of videogame art show the player where it is safe or unsafe to travel, and to give him visual landmarks so that he doesn't spend too much of his time wandering around lost and confused.

The simplest way to show the player safe areas to walk is by defining edges. It's a time consuming task, but making sure that a real-time strategy game, for instance, has terrain with carefully highlighted nooks and crannies will add reality to the game and alleviate much of the frustration a player is bound to feel if he keeps getting killed because he inadvertently walks off cliffs, into quicksand, and so on. Sometimes edge definition requires a not-so-subtle value or color variation to properly indicate the edges of a walkway or where a ledge exists on the far side of a canyon. Proper texture design can also help define edges and boundaries.

Creating navigational landmarks can be helped by careful level design, but it also depends upon careful coloring. Sometimes it's the case of simply color coding similar looking objects so the player can differentiate between them. Sometimes it is difficult, when "landmarking" an area, to set aside the desire to create a truly realistic environment. There may not be a good reason why one section of the wall is colored differently from the rest, or why one cave would emit a blue light and another cave had a red light, but the player won't care about that nearly as much as they will if the caves aren't color coded and they repeatedly get lost because the caves look alike (see Figure 5).

Ageless Principles

Overseeing the color management within any game is an ongoing process. One of the most important things to do during development is to regularly take a step back and view the game as a whole. Examine each level and make sure that it works on its own and also supports the overall gestalt of the game. The textures and shaders should strengthen the settings, the settings should strengthen the game play, and the player, at a glance, should be able to see what's important what's simply eye candy. It's constantly a surprise to me, and everyone here at Insomniac, how powerful a role color plays in pulling all these elements together, or in tearing them apart.

Figure 5. Using color to differentiate or "landmark" areas can prevent players from getting too lost or confused.

Take advantage of the lessons learned from the traditional schools of art. Basics such as color theory, balance and composition are ageless, and we must understand them and keep our creative edge sharp by using them. It is all too easy to get caught up in tile counts and polygon limits, and miss the fact that a level is lifeless or confusing because we failed to show adequate respect for the power of basic artistic concepts.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

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