People Don’t Play Ugly Games
There are a thousand reasons to make beautiful games. The most noble reasons could be about creating meaningful experiences, developing atmosphere, or making the world a more beautiful place—but let’s face it: people don’t play ugly games. If art isn’t your thing, aspirations of beauty are the least of your concerns.
Anyone can make beautiful games.
I’m talking to you, programmers. You can pay an artist as much as you want, but if you do not understand beauty your game will be ugly. Fortunately, there’s no magic talent or personality required to make beautiful games—just skills. Anyone can learn them.
Rules of Thumb
I could get into a lengthy discussion about the principles of design here, but I think a cheat sheet of sorts would be more helpful. Most of the following examples will only use simple shapes, gradients, blurs, and strong elements of design. Anyone with a mouse and Inkscape could replicate them. Please do.
Tween Everything – Tweening is about the transition between things. Our eyes like movement. This is why low fps is so painful to watch–it’s jarring. When things happen too suddenly in your game, it is disorienting and uncomfortable. Even things you want to happen immediately benefit from a single frame of transition. If you ever find yourself asking, “Should I tween this?” the answer is YES.
Saturation – Turn down the saturation on a sizable percentage (but not all) of your game layout. Oversaturated colors are very hard to look at. People will leave your games just because they’re uncomfortable if you don’t attend to this. Your game doesn’t have to be black and white, but take a moment and think, “Does this look like I used a box of washable markers?” If the answer is “yes,” ask yourself, “Did I do this on purpose?”
Contrast – Eyes like contrast. You can contrast many things—shape, hardness, color, value, etc. The easiest way to tell if your game has at least one kind of contrast is to take a screenshot and look at it in black and white. If you are looking at a puddle of grey, perhaps you could brighten your brights and darken your darks.
Repetition – The repetition of visual concepts ties a composition together. Choose one or two things to repeat over and over. It could be a certain shape, tons of soft edges, outlines, etc. Remember that deviation from this repetition should be on purpose—or it will look like an accident.
Variation – Repetition pulls a composition together, but it can be boring if alone. Anything which deviates from the repetition will attract the eye—so use that to your advantage. Players, powerups, dangerous elements, or instructions to the player can be used effectively this way. Notice the fish in Fishin Ruth are round as opposed to straight, and warm instead of cool.
Color Temperature – There is a lot of color theory associated with this, but assuming your light is a typical sunlight yellow a wonderfully cheaty way to set yourself apart from other games is to throw some blue in your shadows. Most people just add black if they want to draw shadows. This works, but does not pop like a deep blue. Do this and people might start treating you like an artist.
Drawing != Beauty
Can’t draw? That’s ok. Anyone can make beautiful games. The ability to manipulate a pencil provides just as little access to beauty as pocket protectors and glasses provide access to math. Anyone can learn design skills, and they are just as important as programming if you want to make a game people play. Remember, people don’t play ugly games–but you don’t have to make ugly games.