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  • Pretty Pixels: The Value Of Visuals In Game Design

    - Anderson Addo
  • [This feature was originally published at Loading Developer.]

    Imagine yourself 20 years in the future. All your dreams are realized, and you're way up there, making multi-million dollar AAA games for a living in your favourite game studio. One day, you're in downtown making your usual rounds when you bump into an old friend of yours from college.

    What happens next is expected: loud hey's and woah's as you old timers catch up after years of separation. Then, the inevitable question pops up:

    "What's your job now?" your friend asks.

    With pride in your heart, you tell them that you're a game developer - one of the best in the country at that. He shows that he's impressed (in these types of conversations, he kinda has to), and by the end of the exchange you leave feeling proud of sharing how far you've gotten with your old companion.

    In the Eyes of the Beholder

    The thing is, being a game developer (or lemme be more specific - a game programmer) means different things to different people. If your friend was, per se, a web developer or something of the sort, he would perfectly understand the gravity of you becoming one of the top game programmers. During that conversation, thoughts of advanced architectures, syntax expertise, performance optimization and other fancy concepts would have come to mind when you mentioned your profession.

    That's pretty impressive from his point of view.

    But if your friend was someone with pretty much no above-than-average knowledge of computers (i.e. most of the world population, including most of your potential game players), then this is what would have come to their mind:

    "Oh cool! He makes pretty pixels do fun stuff on a screen."

    Don't get me wrong - that's pretty impressive, but not as impressive as complex algorithms (colour me nerdy).

    The Disconnection

    Understanding this disconnection is very important for a game developer (especially an indie one), because it makes them appreciate something that would otherwise probably go underappreciated in their development cycle - visuals.

    Good visuals don't necessarily mean good graphics, but good aesthetics. You can have a game with sub-par graphics that stills looks absolutely stunning (like ABZÛ or Angry Birds). There are tons of ways to make a game look good, and lots of nuances that increase the aesthetic value of a game, but the point is it has to look good.

    But why should it? This question may seem pretty obvious, but there are some interesting things to talk about when tackling it and finding its answers. One of the first things we should ask ourselves as indie developers is why we don't sometimes treat the visual side of our games with as much respect as we should.

    The Culprits

    One of the main reasons is that most of us are ...well... dirt broke. The painful truth is that most quality game art is pretty expensive, and hiring a designer to make custom art for us is even more so. Because of this, a decent game can quickly scale up to $200 of cost just for the art, and more complex games can cost a lot more.

    For those of us who are students or dependants, we just can't afford that.

    So then, we resort to hunting for free assets, which is a terrible bore. Hunting for assets is tedious and very often disappointing; many indie developers can go days without finding decent art for their game (I've felt the bitter end of this reality many times). Eventually some get burned out settle with whatever assets they've found up to that point, and hope that nobody will realize that the art isn't really that good (unfortunately lots of people will).

    Another reason is that art in games requires a lot of detail.. Everything you do in terms of art is going to be seen by all (if not most) of your players. That means that you once you decide to invest in it, you really invest in it; you can't afford to be lazy.

    For some indie developers, that's kinda scary. When we're programming, nobody is going to catch you if you use an algorithm that is theoretically inefficient, after all it's just between you and your computer. But if you're lazy with your art, everyone will catch you. So they'd rather not invest in it at all.

    And the last main reason is the famous argument that the looks of the game don't really matter much as long as the gameplay of the game is on point. Because of this idea, many game developers just stick to the programming ("We're programmers anyway," they say) and just slap on some mediocre art when they're finished because they're confident that the game will succeed as long as the gameplay is good.


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