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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.
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."