Graphic design is possibly the area of a game that can help the most with achieving elegance. Graphic design includes all visual elements of the game except the illustration. The goal of graphic design is to present information. The better the graphic design, the easier it is for the player to understand that information.
Icons can add style and theme to a game and help make it language independent, which can save production costs for international markets. However, icons are only useful if the players know what they represent.
Icons need to be clear and distinct from one another. If players need to spend time figuring out which of two or more similar icons they are looking at, you have defeated the purpose of the icons. Limit the number of icons in your game and make sure they are visually and conceptually clear. Ideally a player should be able to look at an icon from your game, with no context or rules, and know what it means.
Don’t use an icon to represent something that doesn’t come up in your game often. Learning the icon will be more effort than it’s worth. The more often an icon can be used the more useful it is and the meaning will be more strongly enforced.
Color can be a useful way to add information to icons. There are some long established conventions of colors representing certain concepts. For example, red is commonly associated with health, blue with mana, and green with poison. Going against these conventions can be unnecessarily confusing to players. However, you should never rely on color alone to present information.
The arrangement of the elements of your game can make a big difference. Some layout will be dictated by the game’s mechanisms. If you want pieces to move from one area to another, those areas should be adjacent. Other elements, like information on cards, may have more freedom in how they are arranged. For these elements, present the information in the clearest way possible.
Think of how the information will be used. Does it interact with other information in the game? Would placing the character’s health on the left of the card work better so it lines up with a health bonus on another card?
Think of how players will use the components. If players hold a hand of cards, most of the information is hidden behind other cards. If cards are placed on the table, players can see the entire card, unless they are building overlapping rows or columns of cards, in which case import information should all be on the same edge.
Put Rules on Components
Whenever possible, put graphic rule reminders where they affect the game. If you have a phase where all the cubes in zone A move to zone B, have an arrow showing that. If every resource in your game scores differently at the end of the game, have a reference chart on the board. Whenever possible, take the work of remembering rules away from the player and put it on the components.
Make sure all of the information you want your players to see is as clear as possible. Use high contrast for all text and icons. Don’t use color alone to show information. Be sure that your graphic design is visually distinct from your illustrations so it doesn’t get lost. If possible, your illustrations should further enforce any graphic design. If there is a map with distinct regions, the lines separating those regions should be easily distinguishable from the illustration of the map. You can go a step further and use geographic elements such as rivers and mountain ranges to further enforce the separation of regions.
Let Players Take Small Bites
Avoid large blocks of text or overly complex iconography. Keep the information separated into easily digestible parts. This makes things less daunting when a player first approaches the game and makes it easier to reference specific information later.
Don’t Fight the Player
Making your game intuitive to players will help minimize the learning curve and increase rules retention. Players are used to certain conventions for the display of information. Some of these vary by region like the direction text is read. If you go against these basic conventions, it can slow down the understanding of the game and increase the likelihood of mistakes.
There is a wealth of research on user experience design and the psychology of how people learn and process information. Make your game fit the way people want to use it and it will be much more enjoyable for them and easier for you.
What are some games that you feel use graphic design to increase their elegance? What are some ways you have increased the elegance of a design with graphic design? What are some examples of graphic design making a game less elegant?
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I’d like to thank Phoebos Stergiou from Hercules Game Studios, Odin Phong, C.M. Perry, and Rick Lorenzon for their feedback on this article.