Game Development Reference
designed to create simple, comprehensible images. Team Fortress 2 's char-
acters are rendered in a cartoon style, with simple textures inside exagger-
ated silhouettes. Portal is set in a scientific testing facility built exclusively
from white-walled chambers (just like a graybox level). And Mirror's Edge
is set in a city constructed chiefly of naked white concrete (again, like a
graybox level). These art styles solve multiple problems at once, across
several disciplines, and give each of these games their own unique look.
In every development process, there comes a time when a playtester fails
to notice some signal that the designer wanted him to notice. He doesn't
notice words on the screen. He doesn't see a character. He misses a piece
There is an obvious solution here: make the signal louder. Add more
visual indicators, louder sound effects, and more energetic animations.
But, as Mark Twain said, “For every problem there is always a solution that
is simple, obvious, and wrong.” Often, adding visibility is the obvious and
wrong solution to this problem.
The problem is that players rarely miss signals because they're not
visible enough. They miss things because their perception is being over-
whelmed by other signals. It's not that the signal they missed was too
quiet—it's that the overall loudness of all the signals is too great, and the
player is overwhelmed. Adding volume to one part of the signal just over-
loads the player even more.
Players can only absorb a certain number of signals at a time. Further
signals added past this limit can't be processed by the player and
effectively become noise.
We should try to balance the overall density signals to match the play-
er's ability to absorb them. But this isn't a complete solution for all players,
because players at different skill levels can absorb very different amounts
of information. Think of how quickly you can read these words compared
to a child sounding out the letters one by one. You can absorb the signal
on this page many times faster than that child. In the same way, expert
players can drink in a game many times quicker than an utter novice. So a
signal density appropriate for newcomers will leave the expert with boring
flow gaps, and a signal density appropriate for experts will overwhelm the
newcomer. It seems like a catch-22.
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