Game Development Reference
Thankfully, there is a technique used by graphic designers that we can
borrow to solve this quandary. It's called a visual hierarchy .
In a VISUAL HIERARCHY, everything is displayed at once, but more
important pieces of information are made more visible so that people
notice them first.
When presented with an overloaded signal, people unconsciously
ignore the least visible parts. This isn't a skill—it's a universal capacity of
the human perceptive unconscious. Things that are bigger, closer, bright-
er, and faster get noticed first. It's why advertisers use bright colors and
credit card companies use fine print.
This is useful for designers because it means we can control the order
in which players perceive information. All we have to do is assign each
piece of data a different visibility—make it brighter or duller, louder or
softer. The absolute visibility of each piece doesn't matter; all that mat-
ters is their relative visibilities. If each piece of information's visibility
corresponds to its importance, players all across the skill range will each
perceive only the information that is useful for them while automatically
ignoring the rest.
For example, a novice player might not know a game, but if there is a
big man hitting his character, he will automatically ignore the mini-map,
health bars, inventory, music, and background characters because those
elements are less visible. This is good, since he can't use any of that infor-
mation anyway due to his low skill. His skill only allows him to interact
with the simple big man signal; ignoring the rest is a good thing.
As his skill increases, his perception capacity goes up. He starts seeing
the second-most visible element, then the third, and so on. He starts to
notice his low health bar and run away from the big man when appropri-
ate. Or he sees an ally approaching on the mini-map and stays in the fight.
By arranging the relative visibilities of these elements, the designers have
decided what he will perceive and when. And if they did a good job, the
player will always see the next most important element as he climbs the
Every game can have a visual hierarchy. Just look over the interface
and ask: is there any part that should be learned before another part, but
is less visible? If so, swap their visibility around until it aligns with the
proper learning order.
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