Game Development Reference
Signal and Noise
Every piece of information the player gets is part of a signal. The signal is
divided into different channels: visual information from a screen, audio
information from speakers, perhaps haptic or other feedback. Players use
their natural human ability to filter, prioritize, and interpret information
to try to understand what the signal means. But if this process fails, parts
of the signal degrade into noise .
NOISE is signal that fails to transmit meaningful information.
Noise isn't just meaningless signals like static in a phone line. It covers
any signal that does not add meaningful information to a player's mental
model of the game. It doesn't matter whether the signal is confused by
layers of aesthetic beauty, requires too much skill to interpret, or is simply
packed too closely together with other signals. The result is the same:
the player doesn't understand game events, and thus can't think about or
respond to them.
There are two main causes of noise: complex art and overcrowded
noise anD aRt ComPlexity
As you can probably tell by now, much of my design experience is in first-
person shooters. Here's a story that I've had play out many times during
the level design process.
I start designing a new level. At first, I work in graybox. Graybox is
exactly what it sounds like: the space is constructed from flat gray boxes.
A tree might be represented by a pole with a large ball on top, like a giant
Styrofoam candy apple. A car is a wide, low box with a smaller box on
top. Working this way lets me work very quickly. At my best, I can find a
problem, fix it, and retest the game in less than 10 minutes. And graybox
can express a lot—combat encounters, narrative placeholders, and level
geometry can all be nearly complete without adding art. By the end of the
graybox process, I have a functioning, balanced level that playtesters enjoy.
But the level has to look like something eventually. So I work with
an artist to replace the giant gray candy apples with trees, and repaint the
boxes in the streets to look like Volkswagens and Fords. And that's when
everything goes to hell.
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