Game Development Reference
Puzzles that were intuitive suddenly become impenetrable. Players
miss routes that they used to have no trouble finding. They can't see ene-
mies who they used to spot easily. Just replacing gray surfaces with art has
made the game become unplayable, even though the mechanics design
has not changed at all. I've seen this happen over and over, on multiple
games across several platforms. The problem is that art introduces visual
Complex art creates noise.
In a world of gray shapes, every enemy, goal, tool, and path is easy to
see. Since each shape on-screen has some mechanical meaning, the player
doesn't have to do any mental work to know what's important. But when
we add art, the world fills with lines and colors that have nothing to do
with game mechanics. Now the brain must work to pick out which shapes
actually mean something. Sometimes that work is too much to handle,
and the signal degrades into noise.
This effect isn't limited to environmental visuals. All complex art cre-
ates noise. Complex sound effects are harder to interpret than simple ones.
A more detailed character may be more beautiful, but all the extra shapes
obscure the mechanical information he must convey: where he's facing,
how he's moving, and what he's holding. Nuanced animations are harder
to read than simple ones.
This is an endemic problem because it crosses boundaries between
development disciplines. Left alone, an artist will rightly seek to create
the most beautiful piece he can. He will pack in details that make the art
look great in a high-resolution render, just like the portfolio pieces that got
him his job. But as soon as that hyper-detailed character is put into a game
screen alongside a hundred others, it will degrade into a blur of pixels.
All those beautiful details become noise when rendered in a fast-moving
It takes close cooperation among designers and artists to craft a look
for the game that is both artistically compelling and mechanically clear.
Sometimes this just means balancing the amount of detail in the art, or
using special cues to call out mechanics-relevant parts of the image. Other
times, developers go further and create unique art styles that can be beau-
tiful while naturally minimizing noise. For example, Valve's Team Fortress
2 and Portal , and DICE's Mirror's Edge all use fictions that are specifically
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