Programmable Series – Presentation

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When you begin designing games you will quickly find that there are 3 significant elements that make a video game.

The arguably most important element is the gameplay; if a game has solid controls, an intuitive camera and has enjoyable objectives then the game will truly be worth a player’s time. The next element is the story of the game; this does not specifically adhere to the game’s plot or providing the player with a reason to be playing the game but also the game’s setting. The environments, the enemies and the objects are all part of the story that help to shape the experience the player will have in the world that the game presents. This also ties directly into the final element – Presentation. Take note that this is not worded as “graphics” which is an important distinction. Graphics are the topic of many discussions between modern game players and often go into the categories of resolutions and frame rates. If you are working for a large publisher then you likely have the money and resources to focus on those components of game. If you’re a small indie developer or you’re focused on retro-styled games then you’re probably going to want to focus more on the presentation.

So what is the presentation and how is it different than graphics? LIMBO is a perfect example of great game presentation that isn’t based on graphics. The use of black and white contrasting colours helps to separate the foreground and background and also creates an atmosphere that makes the game easily identifiable. This game, that started as an Xbox Live Arcade-exclusive, has been ported to over a dozen different platforms from consoles to mobile phones. This is a clear indication that graphics were not as important as presentation in regards to the game’s design. It’s very likely that when the game was being created the developers discussed the tone of the game and how the contrast would be used quite heavily. It is not so likely that the were as concerned about resolutions or frame rates during the design process.

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When designing a game you can visualise the characters and world you are creating before you even begin putting the pieces together. You may not have a story or even the basic game elements, but you will likely be able to visualise the world you are creating. This is why presentation is so important; it’s the first thing you put together mentally and it’s also the first thing the players experience when they start your game. It may even be what attracts new players to your game since they will likely see screenshots or videos of your game before they play it themselves. If the game has a physical release there is the additional factor of what is presented on the box art or promotional material. If you are going to promote or even sell your game, then promotional items can be just as important as what is in the game itself. Although promotional art can be different from what is in the game, it should still serve as an accurate representation of what your game entails. It goes without mentioning (but shall be mentioned anyway) you do not want to present your game to the world like the original Mega Man release in the United States.

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There has been a large amount of indie games released in recent years that utilise pixel art for their graphical direction – this is likely going to be the style of choice when you are developing a game with a “retro” feel or style of play. Because this is a fairly common style amongst independently developed games in recent times, there has been countless discussions and forum posts on how pixel art can be considered “lazy” and that people are getting tired of seeing this style – don’t let this prevent your game from getting created! Ask just about any pixel artist and they will tell you it’s not an easy thing to create, especially to a high quality. Pixel artists are essentially taking squares and turning them into something that players can discern as a real object. Low resolutions do not always equal less work, especially when creating an image one dot at a time. Additionally, if you’re an indie developer it is not recommended that your first game be an ultra high-definition game anyway, as you would likely want some smaller games under your belt to build your skills in development and design. It is also pretty apparent that pixel art is not going away when we have incredibly successful games such as Undertale and Hyper Light Drifter out in the world. Pixel art can also considered a limitation by some people, but usually that is not the case; it is quite often a style chosen by the developers to best represent the game they are creating. You could create a high resolution and flashy Tetris inspired puzzle game, but pixel graphics would probably be just as effective.

Regardless of your selected style for the game, an important thing to remember is to keep your presentation consistent. Consistency is important to the player’s enjoyment of the game, as well as keeping them immersed in the world you’ve created. It can be incredibly distracting when things seem out of place or don’t make sense in the game’s world. If your game has a lot of gradient colour schemes, you don’t want to have a lot of flat colours contrasting that. If you have doors that are the right size for the characters but the bricks in the background are even bigger than your doors, that becomes visually distracting and doesn’t make logical sense either. It’s certainly acceptable for certain objects to “jump out” and grab attention, but anything that takes focus away from what the players should be noticing may require alteration or would even be best removed altogether. After all, it would be distracting if you were playing a high resolution 3D shooter and you came across a poorly detailed and blocky drain pipe, right?

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About Mike Clark (Chemical Taint)

*Indie game developer, specializing in classic and arcade style games. I design games primarily for personal computers and handheld/mobile devices. *Musician and part-time music producer. *Writer for Minus World's "Programmable Series."
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