Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The functionality of visual design

Talking with an EA associate producer recently, I mentioned my visual design abilities as a high point in my developer retinue of skills. He was not sure of how relevant these talents were to game design. In his head, the realm of the visual design and game design are two wholly isolated areas. Having heard this before I was neither confused nor surprised, but this common sentiment held in the games industry is a confusing one indeed

Game Designers need to understand what is entertaining for a player in an interactive and dynamic space. In order to build a game world the designer has to understand how information is being delivered, received, and responded to. This is an inherently visual process.

When designing a webpage the first thing to consider is how a user will respond to the site at first glance. Successful designs allow users to find the information they need immediately without any thought. This is primarily achieved through visual layout cues.

A game designer has a very similar role in the presentation of their game world. On top of designing mechanics that are fun and fluid, there needs to be devices in place to inform a player as to how the mechanics are functioning. The second a player needs to stop to ponder the rules or what they are able to do in order to function in this game world is the same second they are pulled from the game experience.

Playing through Call of Cthulu: Dark Corners of the Earth I find this game makes excellent use of visual construction opening up the game to HUD free play. This could be amazingly immersive. But on the other side of the quality coin, whenever I hit the action button and nothing happens (a frequent occurrence) because that bright distinctive object is simply background decoration I am torn from the game world. This is a visual problem that relates directly back to level design and the game-play functionality of the action button.

Another visually based problem is the less than obvious game-play cues provided: You are on a boat, and never having had to grab a railing for support previously in the game you have a minute to figure it out or die. A slight glow on the rail and a solitaire NPC doing the thing you are supposed to does not provide the visual information required by a player to compute that they must press the action button at the bar area. Not in the thirty seconds that you have to figure this out before you die (one example of many). The game designer fell short in constructing their visual cues grossly impacting game-play.

There is a distinctive reason that game design, level design, and creative direction are commonly listed together. These positions all require a grander understanding and envisioning of a larger space and game dynamics. These positions all require that conventions be established and followed to consistently, including visual conventions. And these conventions need to be quickly and consistently understandable by players.

In video games, the rules are visual. They’re not audio games... So why is it challenging to understand the importance of visual design skills in the gaming industry?

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