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5 Important Ways to Add Polish to Your Game

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You've poured hours of your life into your game, and it's become everything you thought it could be. Well, I'm here to let you know that's not true - there's always more polish you can add to an experience. Let's look at five ways to do that now...

Make More Noise

Audio contributes a lot to the video game experience, more so than you would think. Obviously if your game is complete you already have sound, but I urge you to take a step back and see where you could add more.

In real life, everything makes noise, and in most games this shouldn't be any different. Don't forget to include the simple sounds you wouldn't be inclined to think about. Have a character that walks? Footsteps. The game takes place in a forest? Add some ambient noise. A minigun spits out bullet casings? Those should make sound when they hit the ground.

Ideally, every interaction between entities in your game should make a specific noise. Obviously this can't actually be done in practice without making an unreasonable amount of sounds, but the closer you can get the better your game will feel.

It's worth noting that there is one major worry that often holds back developers from following this type of all-in noise approach. Namely, developers often think they will over-saturate their game with noise, making the more important sounds and the music difficult to distinguish and appreciate.

This is a common thought that makes perfect logical sense, but is absolutely wrong. The human brain is surprisingly very good at highlighting sounds you are actively listening to. As an experiment, start the below gameplay video of Super Mario Galaxy 2 (a game widely known for its quality music), close your eyes, and just listen.

You can hear that, without the context of the visuals, the game definitely doesn't come off as particularly pleasant to listen to. In particular, it's very difficult to appreciate the music, due to the cacophony created by the sound effects. However, as soon as you open your eyes and are capable of matching the various sound effects to their onscreen actions, you find that they don't seem to be getting in the way of your appreciation of the music anymore, and audio tells for enemy actions are easily distinguished and heard.

Audio in games is far too often overlooked. It's a real shame, because video games are at their core audio-visual experiences, and without a doubt the audio is integral to that. So before you tie the knot and release your project, make sure it's making a lot of noise.

Animate Animations to Transition From Animation to Animation

I just mentioned that video games were an audio-visual experience, and we just covered audio, so obviously what follows next is visuals. Texture work is all nice and good, but the most important visual aspect in the vast majority of video games is the animation.

When creating animations for a game, most people tend to think of things in terms of singular unique animations for specific actions. These actions could be anything: a reload animation, a jumping animation, or a series of animations for a sword swinging combo.

But people often forget that these actions don't take place in a vacuum. A typical breakdown of a basic animation sequence for a platformer game character might start with the character perform their running animation, then as they approach an obstacle they would jump into the air while performing their jumping animation, and then, once their feet again touch the ground, they would continue on with their running animation.

This is serviceable, but far from what you would actually see in a high quality gaming product. What's missing is transitional animations: smaller, often simpler, animations used to smooth the transition between two other animations. In the breakdown above, for example, one would typically see some kind of short landing animation in between the character hitting the ground from their jump and continuing to run.

Just to be clear, this isn't restricted to two-dimensional animation or to platformers. Even in first person shooters, transitional animations can be seen. Have you ever noticed how when you play online in Call of Duty, everybody else looks kind of dumb? They always seem to be snapping in and out of prone mode, or turning uncomfortably while in full sprint - and every jump looks like it's taking place on the moon.

Part of this weirdness can come from netcode lag, but the core of why this is happening is because players don't have transitional animations. When you try and knife someone in Call of Duty it doesn't matter whether you're currently looking down the scope of a sniper or reloading your gun; you abandon the last animation you were performing and knife instantly, hence no transitional animation.

Now I want to note this isn't a failure on the developers' part; non-player characters are beautifully animated in Call of Duty. This was clearly a decision made in favor of responsiveness at the expense of visual fidelity. Third-person games facing this situation will often incorporate cancellable transitional animations, choosing a middle ground between responsiveness and animation cohesion.

This brings up something that affects this list in its entirety: there are no absolutes in game development. What worked for one game won't necessarily work for yours. However, understanding how and why certain techniques worked for certain games goes a long way towards developing your own solutions, even if they aren't directly applicable to your product.

Call the Exterminator

Your game can't have bugs. Seriously, none. Clipping, freezing, texture pop-in, massive frame drops and scripting errors among other things simply cannot be a part of your game if you are aiming to create a polished experience.

Bugs can have a multitude of negative effects on the way people view your game. They can detract from player immersion, force players to repeat sections of gameplay, seriously hurt overall visual presentation and just be generally unpleasant. Nobody likes purchasing and using something that feels imperfect, and bugs are gaming's number one sign of imperfection.

Of course I'm being an idealist and a hypocrite here; few games in the history of gaming have been released without any bugs whatsoever. Back during the infancy of games, crazy bugs were the norm rather than the exception, and even today games with huge budgets and massive QA teams, like Fallout 3 and Assassin's Creed 3, can be released riddled with creepy crawlies.

This can happen for a multitude of reasons, but these types of situations arise in large companies mostly due to budgeting and time constraint issues. As a hobbyist, pinpointing and squashing tricky bugs can be incredibly difficult, but it's better to strive for perfection and come up short than to settle for mediocrity.

Realize Players Don't Care About You or Your Game

After spending a huge amount of time toiling away on your game, it can sometimes be difficult to grasp the idea that gamers don't particularly care about it or how much work went into it. This isn't to say players are necessarily ungrateful, or oblivious to the work it takes to make a quality video game, they just don't really care all that much.

This is important, because it means players aren't necessarily going to do things the way most developers think they will. They aren't going to go out of their way to play your game right. You might be really proud of the witty puns you have on the posters covering the wall in the bedroom scene of your adventure game, but chances are people won't notice, or won't take the time to read them. Yeah, that is a really cool skybox, but nobody's going to look at it.

Now, people not noticing things in your game isn't something you can change, and it definitely isn't a negative to count against your game, but it does need to be considered in the way you present information to the player. Unless you are specifically going for a feeling of mystery and player discovery, à la Dark Souls, you need to make sure the player will actually absorb the information you need them to.

You must realize that tutorials and major plot points can and will be ignored by certain players unless you force them to pay attention. If you spend hours building up to a major plot twist you may want to make sure it's not delivered through an audio log.

The counter argument to this is clear, however; players who would not be inclined to pay attention to some long exposition probably won't be very happy when they are forced to sit through it. (With that said, when it comes to simpler and quicker things like explaining mechanics or introducing a key character or even just looking at a really cool explosion, this type of player resentment isn't really that big a deal.)

More than any of these tips, this particular suggestion must be taken with extreme discretion. Directly forcing players to absorb information can have tremendous positive or negative effects on the pacing of your game depending on the type of experience you are creating. Importantly, though, a game developer who is aware of what information the player may or may not pay attention to will end up with a less confusing game and a happier player.

Make the Player's Fingers Happy

Games are controlled by all types of inputs nowadays: traditional controllers, keyboard and mouse, motion controls, touch screens and even more are commonly used. Touch screens and motion controls in particular have brought to light the importance of a solid control scheme, with almost everyone these days having played a game absolutely destroyed by poor controls.

I encourage you to take a look at your game's control scheme and make sure everything makes sense. You've been no doubt playing your game for quite a while so the controls will feel natural to you, but take a moment to step back and think about the players.

Gamers play many games, and it feels when the controls line up between them. There's a reason most shooters use the square (or X on Xbox) button for reloading, and that's because it's the reload button in almost every shooter ever. It's a chicken and egg scenario; I don't know which game used that button first, but it's what people are used to and feel comfortable with. There isn't really any reason why you can't use the right trigger for reloading and use the square button to throw grenades, but it will annoy your players every time they kill themselves with a grenade when they run out of ammo, so you might as well stick with the norm.

Another thing that needs to be looked at is ergonomics - always try to make your controls as comfortable on the hands as possible. Darksiders 2 is a notable game that really fumbled in this regard. The only control scheme available requires holding the L2 button for locking on and the L1 button for activating special abilities (left trigger and bumper respectively on Xbox). This practically requires using the middle finger to hold down L2 while keeping the index finger on L1.

However, for many people this grip is not at all comfortable. Since most games only use one shoulder button per side at a time, many players are accustomed to using their index finger for both the L2 and L1 buttons, something that can't be done when they are required to be pressed at the same time. This brings up the most important point of all about controls. Notice how I mentioned the only control scheme was configured a certain way? Yeah, don't do that.

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It's easy to include multiple default control schemes as well as fully remappable controls and there is little reason not to include this feature. This is especially true for PC games where the different ways players are accustomed to placing their hands on the keyboard can vary drastically. It's so easy to include this feature, and so many people will be upset if you don't.

Hopefully with these five tips you'll be able to take your finished game to the next level, creating an experience oozing with polish that players will look at with admiration.

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