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How to Polish Your Games' Environments

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Your players will get bored far faster than you would expect if your play spaces don't retain their attention. In this tutorial, I'll show you how you can easily crank the polish of your world up a couple of notches—this will go a long way towards capturing the imagination of players!

Disclaimer: Not every game will benefit from this article. There are games that look better with less. There are games that look amazing empty and minimalistic. However, if you are looking to make something with a bit more oomph, the following should help you on your way.

All too often, I see promising games held back because the developers didn't spend enough time developing the space their game takes place in. Games with bland worlds that lack a sense of wonder or intrigue. To fix this is normally seen as a huge undertaking that is outside of a developer's skills, but this is absolutely not true—it just takes a little imagination to use art assets to make a vibrant and living world.

For example, this game world was  made with only two tree models. And as for the trees themselves: they're each simply a sphere on a cylinder (both with reduced vertices). Easy art with a big impact.

Creating Assets to Use

What Kinds of Assets Should You Make?

In order to create environments that look polished, you are going to need assets. Before you start creating things, you must first figure out and understand what is needed in order to give life to your world. What inhabits your world? What sort of feeling do you want your world to have?

In the picture above, we can see that the world in my game, Rabytt, is filled with flowers. That's it—and I used these flowers because I wanted to create a uplifting, loving feeling in the game. However, keep in mind that these flowers were easy to create (albeit time consuming), and went a long way in creating a more polished and vibrant world.

Create a Story With Your Assets

When you are deciding on your assets, make sure to create a story with them. Everything you add to your game has an impact on the player's view of your game world. So, before you start making the assets, first create a list of things that would populate your world. 

Are you in a space station? Then wires, vents, buttons and dials, and computer panels all come to mind when I'm thinking of a space station. Is the space station destroyed? Then these things might appear broken. Create a list of things that would populate your world.

Monaco is a great example of using a small number of assets to achieve a big payoff.

Do you have that list? Yeah? Okay, good. Now pick three things from that list.

"Whoa! But what about all this other stuff that's in this world?" you say. Well, hush: ever hear the saying "less is more?" If you were to try to create more than the three things it would:

  1. end up becoming a big undertaking, which defeats the purpose of this tutorial 
  2. make it harder to create a visual vocabulary
  3. make it difficult for accents to your world to stand out and create a more powerful atmosphere

Keep it Consistent

By now, you may have noticed that I haven't talked about how to actually physically create the art yet. That's because I'm not writing this to teach you how to draw. You as a designer must understand the limits of what is possible for you to do. Can't create amazing painterly style art? Go with pixel art. Can't do pixel art? Well that's a lie, everyone can do pixel art. You just need to start doing it.

Now that that's out of the way, the most important thing that you can do is make sure that all of your art shares the same style. I'm sure that once you get to the point where you need to populate your game with assets, you will already have a style in place. Make sure that the art adheres to that style. If it doesn't look quite right the first time around, do it over. Take pride in making sure that your game looks as good as you can make it.

To polish my game's overall look, I only used these simple, easy-to-make flowers.

It's also important to make sure that for each asset you create slight variations of that asset. Color variations, little markings, different sizes and shapes. Nothing too big, but small changes can go a long way in making sure that the player still recognizes objects without noticing patterns.

Now What?

Where Should You Place the Art?

Short answer: Everywhere.

Long answer: Everywhere.

Basically, don't be stingy with what you have. Put them everywhere that you can put them. However, be careful. You need a point at which you stop putting down objects. The best judge of that would be yourself and the type of atmosphere you game is aiming for. There will be a point where you feel like "this is enough".

In my mind it felt weird to place flowers on the ceiling and walls, but I'm glad I stuck to it. Don't hold back.

Use rotation and scale, flip them, do everything you can possibly think with them (as long as it fits your aesthetic). Holding back will stop you from coming up with some truly unique worlds.

Avoid Saturation

Do be careful with how much of the same asset you use in any one area. The reason you should create variations of the same assets is so you can ensure that the player won't notice patterns in the world. In the picture above, I used one asset twelve times in the scene—I just used variations in color, scale, and rotation to keep the player from realizing it.

Use the variations to break up patterns and stop the player from recognizing and getting bored of the same visuals over and over again. If you catch yourself using the same asset multiple times in the same area, try switching it out for a variation of that asset. The player will stop noticing the pattern and start seeing a world.

Fleshing Out the World

Sealing the Seams of the Game World

Seams are the parts of the world that don't look finished, or that feel like they're missing something. Obviously the first step in fixing this is finding out what is missing. Is a space in your world feeling empty? Is it boring? Too visually busy?

This is hard to address, because it can easily change from game to game and really depends on the art style of the game. Sometimes empty is good. Sometimes boring is good. But this comes down to your own choices as a designer.

In this particular game, for me, the seam was the background. It was empty (even with the trees), so I just used the flowers I made before, except this time silhouetted.

If there is something you feel is out of place, then figure out what it is and see if any of your existing assets can fill in the problem.

Special Art Assets

Special art assets are things that accent your world.; they give it life and a story that can't be told with words. These are one-offs, but they are extremely powerful in leaving impressions on the player of what your world is like.

These are assets that you only use once, tentatively twice, throughout your entire game. These assets are specific, and can't be generalized. Most of the time, you'll see these types of assets used for story purposes.

In Papers, Please, this style of passport is used only once. However, it communicates so much to the player about the world and the people in it.

Try to distil pieces of what you are trying to communicate to the player about your game into these art assets. Also, keep in mind exactly where you will be placing them. These aren't pieces of art that can be placed randomly; timing and position is important. However, this is something that is different for each game, so it is up to you as a designer to figure out how to get the most bang for your buck in these situations.

Conclusion

Don't ever assume that just because you aren't the world's greatest artist, or because you are strapped for time, that you can't create some beautiful game worlds. With a few simple art assets and a few moments to spread that art around as you go along, you will end up with a great, polished game world.

References

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