Graphic Style Analysis – Part II

May 17, 2010 // Graphics

In part I I’ve explained the most obvious aspects of graphic styles in video games. In the second part of this article series I’m going to add some narrower points to the list. They are visible at all but won’t be experienced as important as for example 2D/3D differences.

Resolutions

High resolutions like full HD or higher are common these days. They are possible because we can buy advanced hardware (HD flat screen for consoles or 1920×1200 monitors for PCs) for a song. This was not the case back in the 80’s and 90’s when game production was in its younger days. Early personal computers used television sets as their display devices. Therefore resolutions were bound to PAL or NTSC, many standards having dimensions about 320×240. As technology advanced standards rose to 640×480, 800×600, 1024×768, etc.

Most game genres are resistant to varying resolutions, e.g. first person shooters, casual games or racing simulations. This is because their game objects are large enough to be identifiable at weak resolutions. Genres like strategical simulations suffer from low resolutions because they use much text for displaying the game state. Text is a bottleneck because it needs a minimum of pixel height to be readable. This is the reason why text-heavy games had their home on PCs while action-driven games settled on consoles. The console joypad was important to but that’s another story.

Today games are commonly hi-res. Low-res is either used to support older hardware, smaller devices (iPhone, DSi, PDA) or for creating a retro style. There are even games which use their transition from low-res to hi-res as USP like Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix does.

Color Palette

Alike resolution colors were a question of hardware restrictions in the old days. The minimum color palette has two colors, mostly black/white or black/green. You can’t get lower than this because a pixel just needs one bit of memory. Less graphical information is no information at all.

Over time graphics components in computers became more powerful and used more color bits per pixel (BPP). For example CGA had a maximum of 16 colors (4 bits), VGA’s Mode 13h had a maximum of 256 colors (8 bits), XGA raised the bar to 65K colors (16 bits) and SXGA finalized the BPP increase to 16.7 million colors (24 bits) for mainstream displays. The human eye is not able to distinguish small color differences in higher BPP rates. Only image post production, mainly in the movie industry, profits from higher rates, e.g. 48 BPP.

Color palettes may comprise of colors from the RGB color space or may just use different shades of a single color. The Game Boy color palette is a good example. It just uses white, light-grey, dark-grey and black. Another more awkward example is the black/red LED display of the Virtual Boy. Aggressiveness guaranteed:

GalacticPinball

Virtual Boy’s Galactic Pinball courtesy of www.vgmuseum.com

Restricted color palettes are no longer barriers but tools for game artists. Games like Machinarium or Limbo use them for creating atmosphere and style. As with small resolutions small color palettes can be used for creating a retro style to.

Edges And Faces

Visual objects always have a body and a silhouette which delimits the body from the environment. A few games like Vib-Ribbon or initial Elite versions strip off the body and use just the edges. Most games don’t accent edges, only the body surface is important. Real life does not accent edges either. Games like XIII use both, body and edges, to create a unique graphic style. This is not restricted to 3D mesh objects. Ultima 8 uses 2D sprites which show the body combined with black edges.

This graphic style aspect does not seem to provide much artistic freedom. But there may be some future styles buried beneath. What about using different “brushes” for the edges? Crayon Physics Deluxe already did it. What about displacing the edges from the face borders? Finally shaders provide many more possibilities than we see today. LOVE proves it.

Camera Movement

In the pre-3D (navigation) era nobody talked about camera handling in games. Views were fixed to top-down, from aside or from behind. Everything in between was named isometric. Panning was known as scrolling and zooming was rare but possible. I think Sim City 2000 had fixed-step rotation around the vertical axis to but I’m not sure about this. All these more or less implicit constraints made choosing the correct viewpoint a breeze.

Expanding interaction to the third dimension introduced a whole bunch of new problems. Position, orientation, rotation, speed and view angle of the camera were no longer a simple derivation of scene states. Handcrafted camera paths, new play-test routines and new camera movement algorithms had to be added to the game production schedule. Today we have some algorithms for autonomous camera movement. Most of them can’t make manual camera adjustment obsolete. A task no player should be bothered with, it does not provide any fun.

Games like the first Resident Evil instances use special fixed camera positions for adding thrill. The “head mounted view” of first person shooters puts the player directly into the game world. Viewpoint is one of only few isometric shoot ’em ups standing out of the crowd, regardless of its brutal difficulty.

Conclusion: Special camera positioning can make a different gaming experience.

End of Part II And Outlook on Part III

This is the end of part II. The presented aspects may not make the biggest differences between styles but they help adding a unique note to them. Details make or break a game so they should not be underestimated.

Upcoming part III of this analysis series will show some pragmatic approaches to the graphic style question. Hardware, budget, time, ethics or game design may influence the graphic style. Games should not use graphics merely as transport layer of the game state from RAM to the player’s eyes. Game design and graphics should be developed side by side. The outer reflects the inner. The inner may abash the outer.

Cheers,
Thomas

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