|The Eighth Annual Game Design Think Tank
Project Horseshoe 2013
|Group Report: Exploring Non-pictographic Symbologies for Games|
|Thom Robertson, Incandescent Workshop LLC||Erich Meyr, Insomniac Games|
|Ray Holmes, MunkyFun||John Welch, Making Fun|
|download the PDF|
Brief statement of the problems on which the group worked
The dragon model may be big, complex, and beautiful, but it’s also fantastically expensive, and surprisingly uninformative to the player trying to kill it. Glyphs can represent that dragon, and offer the opportunity for much greater information density. Substituting information-rich symbols for beautiful but informationally-poor artwork in a screen completely full of information-dense gameplay can utterly transform the game in interesting ways.
Brief statement of the group’s solutions to those problems
We propose that developers can choose a non-realistic, non-pictographic visual paradigm for their games. We describe findings of cognitive science that help us make smart choices about how glyphs are constructed and perceived.
We describe a simple work-flow for defining your presented game data, defining a data taxonomy, matching the taxonomy to the well-defined hierarchy of visual channels, and generating finished glyphs.
When the tactical system is presented in a more information-dense way, a great variety of statistical data can be quickly obvious to players. The interface becomes more clear and vastly cheaper to implement, and the designer may make the game more complex, more strategic, and more difficult. Ultimately, a glyph-based visual representation can help us create games where player choice is more important and meaningful.
Expanded problem statement
At the beginning monsters were tiny jumbles of pixels that vaguely looked like wizards or dragons. Early computers were graphical enough, though, and we didn’t NEED much. Games like Telengard, Temple of Apshai, and Ultima let us see the fiery dragons and the gleaming swords in our minds’ eye.
Looking back, where did all the beautiful graphics go? What we were seeing on the screen was not what we were SEEING in our head. We saw SYMBOLS (more specifically, Glyphs). Humans do this exceptionally well. We, as a species, are just fine with symbols. We use them all the time. The characters you're reading right now are a complex semiology of words and ideas, one of many humans have created and used for communication
Back then, even a 16x16 lump of pixels was SUPPOSED to look a bit like a dragon, with identifiable wings and legs. Today's graphics are still, to a degree, symbolic and pictographic. A flying monster must still be depicted with wings.
But beautiful artwork is always expensive, and keeps getting MORE expensive all the time. 3D cameras suck. And computer screens can still only show 256 shades of red, green, and blue (though we now have loads of tricks to "expand" that)
Rogue-alike games have taught us that an alternate symbology represents a learning curve, and many players simply don't want to climb it. But, when players finish climbing the learning curve, the glyphs become nearly invisible, translated into the "real thing". Remember the line in the Matrix movie: "I don't even see the code anymore, all I see is a brunette, red head..."
Expanded Solution Description
1. Visual Channels
The human eye interprets an image in two steps; pre-attentive (looking at the entire image at once), followed by attentive (parsing through the image). Many image aspects (visual channels) exist, and their relative visibilities are well known.
Visual Channel Hierarchy Review
Channels to Consider outside of static visual comprehension
This suggests that, as your simplistic game system becomes more complex, the glyphs become more complex, up to the perceptual limit of the glyph presentation.
2. Game Design
This sample concept is a tweak on the classic roguelike, utilizing the same basic premise but differentiated by greater player choice provided by the richer symbolic interface. Specific attributes of the design:
Our intention is to improve upon both the classic roguelike and the modern Diablo-like game. For example, we can offer more evenly balanced encounters (resulting in “close calls”) AND a greater penalty for failure than the Diablo genre (e.g., permadeath), thereby increasing the excitement of battle. We can justify this because providing more precise information about the state of the player character and enemies allows players to deploy more nuanced battle strategies and meta-game play (player ability management, item selection/crafting/leveling/charging, etc.), giving the player a greater sense of agency in the execution and outcome of the battle.
3. Taxonomy of Game Data
Key Attributes, Sorted by Importance
We need to express the most important information first. Since we have so much information to display, several items that seemed natural on our initial taxonomy fell off when we sorted it and designed the glyph system. The following are not directly actionable, but rather convenient ways to imply things that we show directly via the more detailed glyph system:
4. Mapping of Visual Channels to Taxonomic Elements
Section H.1 enumerated the visual channels available to convey information to players visually. Section H.2 described what our game is, and Section H.3 listed the specific information that is important in our game. This section H.4 details how our game will use the available channels to visually convey key information to our players.
An extraordinary amount of information can be displayed in a small amount of space using glyphs. The following is a glyph for a Creature unit (Player Character, NPC, Monsters), in this case the Player Character herself, which is uniquely blue in color.
In our design, differentiating a threat from anything else is of utmost importance. The fact that there is an enemy, or multiple enemies, must instantly pop in the pre-attentive phase of visual processing. Therefore we use the #1 most powerful pre-attentive visual channel, color, to identify friend from foe. We color all enemies RED, leveraging the real-world understanding that red implies “danger”, and because red really pops in the interface. We use the remainder of the elements to show the differences between one enemy and another:
Treasures are GOLD squares, again leveraging the correlation between the color gold and the valuable nature of treasures.
Items are still in development, probably a different shape from treasure and perhaps GREEN in color.
Environment is the only category of elements that does not utilize a “supplementary” area but instead occupies the full grid square and also uniquely utilizes texture to differentiate terrain.
Key Take-away: Understanding the nuances of the specific game design are critical to determining the best mapping of channels to object attributes, as informed by the sorted attribute importance in the taxonomy. For our design, we determined that “innate elemental nature” of a creature is relevant but the game is not about that. If we were creating a game where elemental forces were central to the design we might invert the color of the triangle (red indicating enemy) with the inner circle indicating the elemental alignment so the elemental alignment popped out instantly on the display. Of course, we would also have to change the depiction of the player character from being a blue triangle to, perhaps, some other geometric shape (because too many enemies are also triangles) with a different color and potentially other differences to reinforce things because shape alone may not be enough to differentiate.
Other examples where design of the symbolism of the interface to communicate information should follow the design of the game, and not vice versa:
As we utilized our own methodology we discovered the tension between what seems most pure from a theoretical perspective and what is practical and logical when the rubber meets the road. For example, Attack Speed seems important to convey in a roguelike. However, without a detailed design showing its importance we couldn’t justify potentially mucking up the visual clarity of the glyphs for questionable return. This showcases how game design and glyph design are iterative - if everything is important then nothing is, so what is most important?
Similarly, Size of an enemy seems logically necessary to convey - isn’t fighting a swamp rat completely different than fighting a dragon? Well, only if that emerges in the battle mechanic, which so far it hasn’t in our design - the battle mechanic is dominated by the various attributes of the creatures, none of which include size, even if it is easily imaginable that there could be designs where “size matters”. Nonetheless, we represent size of an enemy with the powerful visual channel of “size” in a central location in the glyph. Why? Partly an artifact of iterative design, and partly based on the supposition that even in a symbolic interface aesthetics play a role: there should be a difference in the way players experience fighting a “swamp rat” vs. a “dragon”, and with all attributes being the same, it might be nice to give the player a bit of a surprise to encounter a super powerful small creature.
A note to show we could replace or overloaded channels to help color-blind people, for example:
5. Sample Gameplay Screen
Here the eye is immediately drawn to the hero (blue triangle) as the central unit in the game. We also see several threats and rewards:
Primary reference material:
Survey of Glyph-based Visualization Techniques
Glyph-based Visualization: Foundations, Design Guidelines,
Taxonomy-based Glyph Design - with a Case Study on Visualizing Workflows of Biological Experiments
For Further Consideration
Understanding how information can be packed into glyphs doesn’t stop anyone from making beautiful and evocative glyphs. While a glyph can be designed and programmed by an engineer, it would take an artist’s eye to find the outright beauty in a glyph design. Currently beautiful and information-rich glyphs hardly appear in modern videogames at all, so any dev team which designs a data representation that’s both info-dense and evocative will be playing in a wide-open space.
As discussed above, a new glyph is a new learning curve for players, and most won’t want to climb it. In the industry, our knee-jerk reaction is to knock down any wall that might limit our player base size. But games like Dwarf Fortress show that there IS a market for games with a challenging learning curve, and if you can make a case to the users that the learning curve is appropriate, then you WILL get customers, and those customers can often be extremely loyal.
Take the Red Pill
These could be an inspiration for density of materials, to allow the player to quickly glance at a wall or obstacle to see if they can break or destroy it. For example, if the player sees a wood grain they know their fireball spell can affect the monster on the other side of the wall, but will have little effect to the monster on the other side of the stone wall.
As with the materials image above, these symbols can be used for inspiration in creating a set of glyphs to indicate the types of static organic objects in the game.
Shadowhunter runes from the Mortal Instruments book series.
These artistic glyphs show how the sweeps and curves of simple images could be made to be more evocative. A path for exploration.
“I trow I hung on that windy Tree
The wisdom Odin gained by sacrificing himself.
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