A good game design stands on its own...

It's true. A good game design stands on its own and instead of being pulled down by "programmer graphics" causes the less distracting very simple graphics to amplify the focus on the game play.

Two games I like are Mansionvania and Arvoesine. (I have no idea what the Mansionvania reviewer is saying but the game is fun. I got it free at Desura).

Obviously, these games are inspired by other older games.

What I really like about these games is how the simple graphics helps to increase the focus on pure game-play.

I like how both games illustrate the developers focused on the game-play first and foremost resulting in games that pack a ton of game play value putting many modern 3D gee whiz graphical games to shame.

I submit these only as case studies in focusing on game design first and foremost.

Granted, controls could be better. I would greatly have preferred to press X or C to jump instead of pressing the Up arrow key in Mansionvania. Please do not use the up arrow key for jumping. ;)
But still beyond that flaw, it is an excellent game.

What we have here so far seems to be a concensus on a lot of things. There's little or no conflict to these basic things, which is good. I agree with you. I can't play these games because I'm at work, I'm posting from my android. Does anyone disagree?

No, I agree: you're at work, posting from your android. :)

Seriously though, I think you're right. A few years back I had an idea for a tactical turn-based zombie game (Zombies, though it's not available any more — PM me if you're on a Mac and want a copy). I had a pretty good idea what the rules would be, and I thought it might be fun. So I prototyped it with a bunch of little squares: red for zombies, green for humans, etc., with their stats listed in the corner. It was the suckiest UI I'd ever seen (I hadn't heard of Dwarf Fortress at that point). But it was good enough to test the rules and gameplay.

It seemed fun to me, and when I put it out to the community for feedback, most other folks loved it too. So, we did a few rounds of tweaking and balancing with the crude UI, and then we did it up with fancy 3D graphics (for the time), sound effects, and other such candy. But it was a huge comfort to know that the gameplay was sound before we ever started thinking about fire and gore effects.

(Ultimately, the game was not a big seller, alas... it seems that most players of zombie games prefer an action game involving manic shooting, or at least flinging. But that's a topic for an entirely different thread.)

So, yeah... if the design is good, the graphics are secondary (at least, once you get people to give the game a fair try). Whether a retro look actually enhances gameplay, I dunno... I suspect that's more of an aesthetic choice than anything else.

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When you design a game, you're not inventing something totally new. You're attempting to recreate something that already exists. So, your players will recognize/relate to the experience or they won't. Some experiences are universal, like eating food. Some are very specific, like micromanaging an entire civilization. Zombies, for many reasons, are as universal as it gets. Tactical turn based combat, very specific.

Imagine a first person shooter with a heavy emphasis on historical accuracy, tactical and strategic elements that required studying real world examples to succeed. You'd get similarly mixed reviews.

It occurs to me that someone reading this probably thinks they know of a highly realistic FPS. No, you don't. They're all arcadey pew pew pew games with point and click aiming.

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You know, you raise a really good point there. If you're doing something new or at least uncommon, you can't expect players to immediately "get it." In my case, I was implicitly assuming players would be familiar with the basic idea of tactical turn-based games, because I grew up with them, but many people didn't. They probably either didn't understand how it works, or didn't immediately see the fun.

This suggests that if you're not cloning a basic gameplay that's already widely familiar, then you have to spend some effort educating the audience. That could mean tutorials, videos, built-in assistants... but whatever it is, it needs to be compelling, especially if you don't have a Blizzard-sized marketing budget to convince people they're going to love it before they even try it. People have short attention spans, and need quick success to get hooked.

(I certainly skimped on this in Zombies, and if I ever redo that game, I'll put more effort into it right up front.)

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Personally, that’s why I use my non-standard hybrid style. I like the medieval fantasy aesthetic, because even with how much it’s been done, it has so many possibilities.

What’s more, there’s all sorts of prior art that I can base a new aesthetic off of. Remember my most recently-completed game, The Hero’s Journey?

…it has an artistic inspiration:

There’s some key points in medieval art that lend themselves well to videogames, and to the plot I had in mind for The Hero’s Journey.

First, my style is based off of the early High Middle Ages, where everything is flat and perspective is just barely beginning to be a thing. Since I have stronger skills with 2D than 3D, this forms a nice reference for my scenes. The 3D backgrounds mimic the nascent perspective techniques being used, which lets my style mimic the ancient reference with a reasonable balance of accuracy and visual flair.

The ancients also liked vibrant colors, which is good for engaging a modern audience. Particularly, the ancients liked blue, because using blue was a sign of wealth: blue pigments were rare and expensive (if my history serves, they were processed from Lapis Lazuli, actually.) Mimicking the color reinforces the ties to medieval art, which allows me and my modest art skills to draw players in further still.

Another bit: notice the relative sizes of all the people. The peasants doing construction are significantly smaller than the key players, and are wearing more subdued, less detailed clothing. If you walk into a town in The Hero’s Journey…

Notice anything similar? The guards and civilians use fewer, and more common, colors. The main player is clad in the blue noted above. The only thing that doesn’t carry over well, is the scale of the agents relative to more important agents.

Of course, my failure to use scale where it counts (boss fights) I feel is one thing that harmed my game’s execution, aside from the poor writing. When faced down by a big, pissed Death Knight of Doom, that creates a certain tension. When faced with a you-sized mook wearing blood red armor, it’s only mildly distressing. But, the point is: yes, the scale does matter.

TL;DR - Color, shape, and scale matter just as much in 2014 as they did in 1214. Aesthetics are a useful thing, and they help alter the player’s engagement, but they’re only one piece of a much greater whole.

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I’m not sure I fully agree on this thesis. Well-designed graphics and animations do more than simply look pretty; they communicate vital information. A good game design can be rendered inscrutable - and by extension, unplayable - by graphics that do not properly communicate their function.

We might simply be disagreeing on what constitutes the scope of “game design”, but I think that graphic and motion design are very different fields of expertise compared to game design. All the same, bad graphic and motion design can ruin a good game design.

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That seems fair. Poor graphical design can certainly ruin an otherwise good game design. On the other hand, if the game design is poor, I don't think the even the prettiest graphics can rescue it.

This reminds me of one of the most annoying games of all time: Lair. This game had gorgeous graphics, responsive and intuitive flight controls, and a fundamentally fun premise (riding a fire-breathing dragon into battle). It even had useful graphical elements, like a "dragon vision" mode you could briefly enter which would highlight enemies and hazards, and provide some targeting support.

The problem was, pretty much every level started with a difficult slog and grind, and only towards the end of the level, when you had defeated all the major hazards, could you start having fun really wading into enemy troops and wreaking major havoc. And at that point, the level ended. Every. Freaking. Time. I felt like the game designers were told, "Don't let the players have any fun! If you catch them starting to have fun, you put a stop to that right away!"

What actually happened, I'm sure, is that they started with essentially no game design at all; just a cool idea and flight mechanic. They worked long and hard getting this novel mechanic working and tweaked so that the dragons were a pleasure to fly. And then they realized they needed to ship and hadn't put much thought into level design yet, or gave that task to the new guy, because they believed their game was all about the flight mechanic. And they simply botched it.

It really made me mad, because I loved flying those dragons. But the there was no place you were allowed to have fun with it; it was just a long string of overly-difficult, too-constrained missions that ended just when were starting to have fun. A pox on their house... and all because of a failure of game design!

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[quote]
Color, shape, and scale matter just as much in 2014 as they did in 1214. Aesthetics are a useful thing, and they help alter the player's engagement, but they're only one piece of a much greater whole.
[/quote]

Those are examples of stylistic choices. You could just put text over stick figures to tell users "hero" and "npc" and the fundamentals of designing your game would be unaltered.

[quote]
In the Steven Spielberg movie "E.T.," why is the alien brown? No reason. In "Love Story," why do the two characters fall madly in love with each other? No reason. In Oliver Stone's "JFK," why is the President suddenly assassinated by some stranger? No reason. In the excellent "Chain Saw Massacre" by Tobe Hooper, why don't we ever see the characters go to the bathroom or wash their hands like people do in real life? Absolutely no reason. Worse, in "The Pianist" by Polanski, how come this guy has to hide and live like a bum when he plays the piano so well? Once again the answer is, no reason. I could go on for hours with more examples. The list is endless. You probably never gave it a thought, but all great films, without exception, contain an important element of no reason. And you know why? Because life itself is filled with no reason. Why can't we see the air all around us? No reason. Why are we always thinking? No reason. Why do some people love sausages and other people hate sausages? No fuckin' reason.
[/quote]

Do you know why Super Mario has a mustache? There weren't enough pixels to do a mouth well, a big nose and mustache were clearer. Many of the things we think are done by our heroes and idols were done for no reason. Many of the things we don't think about as players were considered for hours on end.

Visuals may be part of game design, but they needn't always be. If Pac man were green, it would have been the same game. If the ghosts didn't turn a different color when they were vulnerable, it wouldn't have been the same game.

There are visual style choices, which may be artistic, preference or no reason.

Then there are visual design elements, which can be considered themselves mechanics of play, if they communicate something important to the player about other play mechanics.

If there are no other connections to the visual style choice than preference, nothing that could affect gameplay, it's not part of game design.

It's all about connections.

If in Zelda the hearts did not tell how much life you had, they would just be decorations. Some things connect to play mechanics, some don't, some offer hints while others are irrelevant.

Why would a pokemon be green, but not weak to fire? If I make a pillar blue and ice blocks blue, and ice can be melted but not the pillars, I need to communicate that. I need to help the player make connections.

So, graphics are not important to game design unless graphics are part of the game itself, which is not always the case and must be carefully evaluated for each situation.

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I agree completely and this is actually what I mean. In the examples I shared in the OP, the graphics and animations communicate the vital information. They are, at least in my opinion, highly “readable”. I’m not saying redoing the graphics in AAA 3D high-def textured models would make the games less playable but I do think it could certainly be a distraction to “reading” the graphics depending on how much fluff and other crap was added. By keeping everything lean & minimal the graphics do not get in the way of the game itself. And without the burden of making everything look super jacked the developer can focus more time on the actual game play.

I think you could take these games and redo the graphics to look nice and shiny without losing anything. I think doing so could definitely add to the marketability of the games. Screenshots and videos would likely have a better chance of catching players’ attention. But would the game experience change for the better? For me at least, it would not mainly because once I am “into” a game I really don’t notice the graphics and animation. Whether an enemy is represented by a low-resolution 64-pixel high image or a ultra detailed 3D model what I “read” is an enemy and my focus is on how to overcome it.

I'll second that. Some of the greatest games I've ever played were Nethack and its derivatives, where your avatar is a little "@" character on a text screen. I would recoil in terror from the capital "D" just as readily (perhaps more) than I would from a 30,000-polygon bump-mapped dragon with real-time shadows today.

Since I jokingly brought up Dwarf Fortress before, though, I'll bring it up in a more serious tone now. Both DF and Nethack have ASCII interfaces, but Nethack has a well-designed, thoughtful, consistent interface that is easy to pick up and use, whereas DFs... well, let's say it's more of a challenge. There seem to be arbitrary differences in what keys do and how you accomplish the same task in different contexts, for example. This makes the game more challenging to pick up than it should be. I tried to play this game — I really wanted to like it, since from what I'd read, it sounds like exactly my cup of tea. But it felt like an exercise in frustration, just to learn the UI, so I gave it up.

So, I think these two examples support the thesis we've developed here, that fancy graphics are neither necessary nor sufficient, but having a well-designed UI (and other gameplay elements) matters very much.

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You are not alone, as someone who grew up on zork/rogue/nethack/etc. I thought DF would be up my alley but it was just a hot mess to my eye. I’m pretty sure quite a few people who extol it’s virtues have never played more than 5 minutes of it but rather like the general idea of it instead.

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Pretty much sums up my thoughts as well. Though DF is a little less obnoxious if you grab the starter pack made for it that features interface changes, it still has a pretty horrid interface.

With that said though my tastes have changed over the years and I do prefer some form of 3D environment over simply ASCII. It doesn’t have to be much though as Minecraft’s are sufficient.

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^ This! That’s a darn fine statement you made there. Well said!
Gigi

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When I try to think about what "hooks" me in games, it varies. In a game like Civilizations V, its building something inside of a system, so I would say that's a game that lives on its mechanics. But if I think about the Vanishing of Ethan Carter, which is still fresh in my mind, I wasn't hooked at all in its mechanics or systems. I was totally hooked, but what I was hooked on was actually curiosity. I was curious to see the next strange happening, or the next strange place. I was also incredibly curious to discover why all this weird stuff was happening in Red Creek Valley. So that is a game that lived on both its narrative and its aesthetic. If navigating my avatar around in Red Creek Valley was like moving a white dot on a black screen, the game would be almost nothing. The best example I can think of a game that doesn't live on its mechanics is Journey. The thing driving me in that game was PURE aesthetics. If you strip Journey of its sounds, music, and animation I don't think there would be anything left of it.

You are not incorrect and it’s pretty important for people to start thinking about graphics, sound effects and music at the same time as they are thinking about gameplay. Too often, it seems as though they are considered mutually exclusive on both sides. All of the games that have been loved throughout the last few decades have had memorable sound effects, recognizable music and some kind of graphical style.

Who’s to say that red rectangles representing zombies couldn’t become a good graphical style? We call that retro and if you do it right, it can be pretty awesome.

The point is to do it right.

I wish I had my old Gamemaker crap projects to show, sometimes, so I could show you how I was doing things so very wrong that I thought were absolutely perfect when I was doing them. My first game was paced so slowly that when I went and looked back at it, it seemed like the entire game was in slow motion. At the time, though it seemed great.

Feel, pacing, etc. it’s all very difficult to get it right but it’s like balancing the seasonings in a recipe. Slight changes can have a big impact on the end result.

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