Principles of game design: Visual Style

If you are designing computer games you need to understand the principles of game design. These are broken down into two sections, visual style and game play.

Visual styles relates to how the game appears to the player. It focuses on the appearance of the main game world and the components used within the world to enhance the game play. It’s important as a game designer to focus on all of the visual aspects required to maximise the appearance of your game from the start of the design process. When looking at the visual style of the game world itself we can look at the terrain, the architecture and objects used in the game world to enhance the appearance of the game world for the player. There are millions of different terrains used in game worlds, from a simple block representing a floor in an adventure game to realistic looking desert terrains used in FPS games. The design of games world has improved dramatically over recent years with the advance in graphics and the switch from traditional 2d games to realistic looking 3d world. Game world design has also been enhanced by the development of architecture that looks realistic and enhances the player’s journey through a game. Modern games such as Call of Duty have been designed so that the terrain and architecture included in the game world is so realistic that the player actually believes that they are in real-world combat conditions. Many different terrains are used in a game such as this from internal concrete and wood floor conditions to rough dusty gravelled conditions. The architectural design of the buildings is very realistic and is designed to fit in with the conditions of the game as certain parts of the architecture look as though they have been bombed out. In addition to the look and feel of the terrain and architecture other objects are used in games to improve the visual style. These may be passive object that sit in the same place and have no function other than to add visual styling to the game world. Examples of passive objects would be non moving vehicles, plants or street signs used to enhance the architecture and make the visual style of the game world seem more realistic. Obviously the main game playing characters are a key element of most games. Many famous gaming characters have been developed over time from simple 2d animations to complex 3d models that give a complete perspective of how the character looks from every angle. Graphics have been improved to the point of where the visual style of playing characters is very detailed and goes into minute detail on facial expressions and clothing. Famous characters such as sonic and Mario have been developed over time from simple animated sprite into complex 3d models but in addition to this many modern games have created their characters so that the visual style is very close to the appearance of a real world person. 3d models are used to represent characters and enhancements have been made to show minute level of detail such as talking and eye movement. The visual style of characters in modern games will also have to be designed to match audio that is designed to enhanced game narrative. Games such as Fifa11 will represent how famous footballers look in real life within the game itself. The level of effort that goes into designing individual characters for games like this is immense. Character design is probably one of the most important aspects of creating visual style for a game as most games follow the character through the game world and the main character is displayed on screen at all times. In addition to the main characters of a game there are other non-playing characters that need to be designed to enhance the overall visual style of the game. The player will not have any control over mom-playing characters but they are an important feature of the game world and must be designed in a similar level of detail to the main playing character. Examples of non-playing characters are enemies in a game that try to kill the main character. Normally the visual styling needs to be designed to reflect the movements required by the non-playing characters. This needs to be considered when adding the artificial intelligence to the non-playing characters by programming them to work as expected within the game. Complex algorithms and careful graphical design are required to make sure the non-playing characters operate as realistically as possible within the game. The visual styling and functionality of non-playing characters is very important to get right to enhance the game play for the user. To increase the user experience many games will also incorporate visual feedback to the player. The feedback interface may be in the form of onscreen narrative messages or by displaying information on the scoring of the game. Many games will show the current score, player health or number of lives on screen during game play. These will be constantly updated during game play and need to be visually style to suit the style of the game. Many military type games will shows number of bullets or include a compass or map to feedback to the player exactly where they are within the game world at any given point. The feedback interface is an important aspect for the player in providing hints on how to move through the game. There is no point putting a massive amount of effort into designing a realistic looking game world and playing characters and not putting the same level of thought into the visual design of the feedback interface for the game. When designing games it’s very important to consider the visual perspective from which the player journeys through the game. This must be decided before any of the design work is implemented as it has a roll on effect to the design of the main playing characters, non-playing characters and the terrain, architecture and other objects that will be used in the game world. The following perspectives good be used when designing the game: 2d, 3d, first or third person, aerial, scrolling or context sensitive. When looking at a completed game you may be able to say that you are looking at the action from both a 2d and a scrolling view at the same this. This is fine as this will have been considered at the design stage. You could also say that you can see the action in a 3d and aerial view, again this will have been considered during the game design phase. The key point to remember is that whatever perspective you wish to design for, all of the characters, architecture and objects must be designed to appear correctly in this perspective. The first computer games were designed using basic 2d graphics and had very basic functionality. The visual appearance of games developed over time when more colours were used and characters moved across the screen in platform games that were introduced. With the success of original single screen platform games came the scrolling screen perspective. Scrolling games involve following the playing character through the game world and moving the view along to focus on the character on a level that would take up more than one screen. Obviously only a single screens worth can be seen in the view at one time and it looks as though a camera is following the main player through the game. The visual effect created by the scrolling view allowed game designers to create larger more detailed game worlds that enhanced the gamers experience on their journey through the game. Simple 2d games had overhead or aerial views. If you look back to one of the original video games you could say that the simple tennis style game called pong was seen from an aerial view. This has also developed over time in 3d games when the game play can be seen from an overhead perspective that allows the player to look down on the main character or vehicle and see how they are moving through the game world. You could also say that first and third person shooter games provide an aerial view of the game play. A first person view sees the action from the eyes of the main playing character itself. You will often only see how the main character looks in start up screens and advertisements. Third person perspective lets the player follow the main character on screen and the character is visible at all times in the game. The 3rd person view is normally an aerial view from behind the character. First and third person view are normally identified by the terms third and first person shooters as they are combat based games involve the use of a gun. In recent years context sensitive views of games have been developed. Context sensitive means that the view will change depending on what is happening in the game. Some fighting games provide context sensitive replays of the main action from 360 views based on real game play. The context sensitive perspective is one that is difficult to develop and many gamers prefer being given the option of choosing the perspective from which they view the action rather than having a changing view at all times. However, when done right the context sensitive perspective is very real to life and creates an almost movie like feel to the game. Full motion video became popular in the 1990’s to enhance the visual style of game worlds. FMV uses pre-recorded movie quality video to enhance the visual style of the game. The problem with this is that it is very expensive to produce and it is very difficult to accurately program for the game play and maximise the player experience. With the enhancement in graphics in the late nineties FMV games became much less popular. In saying this full motion video is still used in game start up screens to enhance the visual style. You can see a difference in the quality of the graphics used for game play and the FMV used for instructions screens. FMV is also used in advertisements for some games and you will see the difference between this and the actual game play. In addition to this, advertisers normally state if shots used in an advertising game are actual game play or not. Sometimes different player perspectives are used in FMV trailers for game trailers where a context sensitive view is used and the actual game play itself may be from an aerial view. Advertisements normally state the difference to cover the game manufacturers from a legal stand point.

In conclusion, you can see that planning the design of the visual style is very important as many factors have to be considered. Designers may need to go into very detailed investigation and produce a lot of concept art in the initial design phases. When this is done they may have to design models of the main characters and the game world including terrain and architecture from different perspectives. The visual style is definitely one of the key elements to get right as this is something that really makes a player decide on whether they like the game or not. A lot of gamers like modern games based on how the visual appearance of the game world enhances their experience of playing the game. To see more about the principles of game design gameplay have a look at our main article.

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