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1. Getting In - 2. The Game Experience - 3. Visual Style - 4. Business Model - 5. The Community
3. Visual Style
There's nothing more noticable than visual style when it comes to a videogame. Many refuse to take a second look at a game that doesn't catch their eye visually, and it's about more than polygon count: the interface, camera angles, colors, and special effects all work together. In the case of multiplayer shooting games, realism has been the dominant goal from the start. This part looks at the psychology and design philosophy behind the visual style of Metal Gear Online and Team Fortress 2.
Metal Gear Online
Do you like drab? Are gray skies interesting to you? Do you get confused when you see more than two colors at the same time? If you answered yes, then the landscape of Metal Gear Online should be perfect for you! Every location features a bland assortment of browns, greys and greens to stare at for hours, with none of those pesky "colors" to get in the way. Ruined cityscape, devoid of life or vibrancy, make this game visually monotonous.
Visual style has always been a huge aspect of multiplayer design whether developers realized it or not, because players are theoretically going to spend months (if not years) trampling over the same paths again and again, creating a very real question of ennui. You may recall that, back in 2008 after a major petition condemned the colorful art direction of the newly-announced Diablo III, lead designer Jay Wilson commented on photoshopped screenshots presented by angry fans. It was a big deal at the time, and one that hasn't gone away totally yet. Perhaps unexpectedly, contrary to the popular movement against so-called 'brown games', this petition was an example of thousands of outspoken players demanding that the brighter visuals be replaced with darkness, dullness, and grit. The interview cites strategic use of vibrant colors as a valuable method of keeping a player's interest. Here's what he said:
Jay Wilson: One of the things that's key to "Diablo II" — and I've gone through and done timing on it — it changes environments every 15 minutes, and every 45 minutes they give you an environment that looks completely different than one you've ever seen before. And when they change environments, the contrast is huge. It's like I'm in green lush fields, and now I'm in the darkest dungeon you've ever seen. I'm in a bright sandy desert, and now I'm in a completely dim mummy tomb. There are these vast shifts in look, and it's one of the things that keeps people interested in playing the game.
This applies to every game—especially multiplayer ones—because locations are revisited hundreds of times. The old version of "Metal Gear Online" included with Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence suffered this problem too, resulting in drab locations and difficulty spotting enemies. Using the excuse that monotone colors promoted "stealth" by allowing players to camoflauge into the background is weak, since it doesn't account for the most obvious issue of all: the sky. In real life, even Baghdad has a blue sky, so what's the issue here? My guess: a bright sky would subconsciously attract everyone's attention upwards, away from the action. Your eye is naturally drawn to brighter colors; hence, grocery store shelves looking like rainbows. A bright sky necessitates a brighter ground, which in turn would necessitate brighters characters, and so on, until everything was a primary color, which is an even bigger problem than we started with. That would make sense, if there was no way to strategically balance the amount of saturation and its placement. It's almost as if they said, "We have to stay true to the color palette we've arbitrarily chosen, and if gameplay suffers as a result that's too bad. Realism comes at a price." A steep price indeed, if it means empty servers and loss of potential customers.
But Wilson has more valuable insight to share. He notes that high contrast and visual "noise", too, can be a problem:
Jay Wilson: A lot of this change [in the modified screenshots submitted by fans] is adding noise to the screen. ... You've got to think that there's potentially up to seven other people in addition to yourself, and several dozen monsters. All that noise just translates into unplayable, especially when this starts moving. This texturing was actually very similar to one of our previous art styles. But when you started moving and the whole screen just kind of shimmers, you can't really tell anything that's going on.
Is it even realistic for games like Metal Gear Online to feature high-res textures if they result in comically bad issues of recognition? Objects that would be easily identifiable in actual reality are muddled in dense backgrounds, while your eyes are busy processing a million unimportant grains of sand on the ground. In real life situations, the human eye has certain advantages such as perhipheral vision and depth
perception, which allow it to pick out important information in a busy setting. Touting the visual style as a natural result of 'realistic'
graphics is only half true. Until the viewing technology matches the
graphics technology, designers should make sure that graphics
assist gameplay first. I have a large, high-definition setup, and it still
frustrates me when I try to pick out characters from a medium distance in MGO. So do many others. Is this the future of
Also, if realism was the goal, why do they have a
character's name and information pop up above their heads when they're
in your sights? Certainly this wouldn't happen in real life, so why did
they include it? I posit that it's because without this cheap visual assistant, the game would become unplayable. That's a sign of poor graphical direction. It's a gimmicky solution to the visual mess, and lazy. It's an admission of failure.
The "SOP system", which enables players to see colorful silhouettes of their friends and enemies no matter where they are, even behind obstacles, is the only innovative step MGO has taken visually. Yet it can also become counter-intuitive when it's impossible to tell whether there's a clear line of sight between you and the target. It's inclusion suggests to me that the team was aware of the need to address the visual mess, which begs the question of why they didn't do more.
Team Fortress 2
Smoke stacks have never looked so refreshing!
Here we see a rejection of photorealism in favour of a cartoony
stylism. It looks bold, crisp, and original, which is nice to see in
today's sea of imitation. Nothing is lacking. There are
detailed models, beautiful water refractions and effects, and good lighting. It's not the kind of eye-candy you get with 3D Mark, with a billion shimmering leaves on a tree, but no improvement to playability.
Pretty much everything you need to know about the visual style of Team Fortress 2 is included In this amazing video, so please watch it before reading the rest of the article.
You don't need to understand 'inherent frame-to-frame coherence' and 'clamped lambertian diffuse terms' to understand that this game was designed by some smart folks. Bold, distinct character designs inspired by old-fashioned commercial illustrations work together with shaders and technology for a simple goal: to help you recognize everybody quickly. This works together with the environment, which is kept "soft" in order to reduce visual noise and prevent confusion, like Diablo III. Smart designers know that while stupid people judge a game by how many polygons it has, it won't matter much if the game is unplayable as a result (as proven by Far Cry).
Valve utilized the graphics in order to assist gameplay, by using detail-levels, color-saturation, and unique silhouettes strategically. The end result is a game that not only looks amazing, but allows players to
quickly identify other characters and areas of interest intuitively. Rather than straining your eyes with useless visual noise, objects of interest simply pop out at you. If you think it's unfair to say this because it's not a stealth game, then let me give you the news: neither is Metal Gear Online.
But is it realistic to suggest that Metal Gear Online should have had a different art direction than its companion, Metal Gear Solid 4? Not if you assume that there needed to be multiplayer included with MGS4. If, on the other hand, you permit that MGO should have been a stand-alone game released on its own timeline, it's not just realistic: it's obvious.
Now I'm not suggesting that MGO should have copied TF2's style. I'm saying that it could have used clever art design to make the game more playable and pretty using some of the design principles demonstrated by Valve. For example, maps could have been designed to flow naturally, emphasizing areas of interest with saturation and strategic placement of doors, windows and environmental props. More importantly, characters could wear colored uniforms to indicate which "side" they belong to, allowing for fast recognition; the old MGO had this much, at least.
Japanese developers are afraid to make bold choices, which is why they're usually so predictable and generic. Team Fortress 2 is a huge departure from both its predecessor and the Half-Life series, both visually and in gameplay, but who really cares? It was shocking at first, but people got used to it when they saw how well it worked. The same thing would have happened if MGO had taken a step in a new direction.
Part 4: Business Model
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