Monday, October 21, 2013


Quick, can you tell me what this symbol represents?
Now just as quick, can you tell me what this symbol represents?
Or maybe this one? Does it have anything to do with ents, to you?
Oh, LotRO, is there no end of screw-ups to cite about you?

Back right before Planetside 2's launch, I criticized a few of their visual design elements. Overall, the game just looks unnecessarily "busy." There's a difference between "decor" and "random junkpile"and it only compounded the usual graphics card issues of first-person-shooters. However, my greatest complaint was about the needless ambiguity of HUD symbols. I believe I said something to the effect of "I should never hear words like fuchsia or magenta and I shouldn't have to decipher something that looks like the bastard child of Sanskrit and Hebrew - stick with primary colors and universal symbols."

And really, that's my main message here: don't get fancy with symbols!

Back over a decade ago with graphics cards getting more powerful, resolutions rising and 3D becoming standard fare, graphic designers also started to embellish the means of conveying information. I don't know if this was a means of maintaining job security by inventing more things to design or just childish glee at the newfound flexibility of colorful 32x32-pixel images but it led to a trend of utterly unintelligible skill/weapon/vehicle/ability/effect/map icons.

LotRO is a perfect example. The two skills I linked at the start of this post are only a taste, and that needless confusion stands as a sad counterpoint to the game LotRO copied for its gameplay mechanics. While I rail against WoW for various reasons, Blizzard's expertise as game designers showed in many ways, one of the more minor of which was an intuitive array of skill icons.
For instance, look at the druid travel form image. For clarification, druids' travel form was a cheetah. And yet, the icon shows a hoof. Why? Because you're hoofing it! You don't need a 16-color representation of a cheetah face and in fact it would only get in the way. When you're making an escape, you need to quickly scan your skill bar for the idea of fast travel, not marvel at the artistic triumph that is the travel form icon.

Now, I don't mean we have to limit ourselves to black-and-white math symbols and arrows. Universal symbols are all that would be needed in PS2 because it has relatively little information to relay and it uses a modern, vaguely sci-fi setting. In fact Planetside 1 used many universal symbols for stairwells and the like. Third-person RPGs with target-lock mechanics, which as a rule use a much wider variety of abilities, would logically need a more flexible system to distinguish those abilities in a taskbar. But a button icon does not need to tell a story. It should be intuitive. A hoof is good enough, thank you.

We could probably think of endless ways to re-use one icon for different purposes. If a hoof conveys the basic idea of travel, use it on a blue background for an escape ability, red background for a charge ability. Use a hoof in a stylized house icon as a horse-stable map icon.

And if you're designing the icon for a skill called "march of the ents" which does damage, put a little green ent in an angry red background. No further detail is necessary.

There are plenty of areas in which graphic designers should get creative. Character models, flora, terrain, spaceship designs... but not symbolism. Symbols serve a different purpose than entertainment. They must convey information quickly and clearly.

If the symbol you just came up with is nothing but a confused mass of colors or a random image that you think looks more artistic, you are not worth your salt as a designer.

No comments:

Post a Comment