Gamasutra: Phil RA's Blog - Why "Next-Gen Games" Went Gray, Brown, And Grey.
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  Why "Next-Gen Games" Went Gray, Brown, And Grey.
by Phil RA on 06/06/09 08:07:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs
13 comments Share on Twitter Share on Facebook RSS
  Posted 06/06/09 08:07:00 pm

We've all heard it before; since the PS3 and Xbox 360 generation, our games' color palettes have moved towards desaturated tones. I'll try to explain why this has happened, and focus on one of the less obvious reasons.

Since textures are now of higher resolution, dirty surfaces such as rusty metal, rocks, muddy grounds, damaged concrete, etc., can look pretty good. On top of that, using specular highlights implies metallic or wet materials.

Dynamic lighting coupled with normal maps leads us to make environments where surfaces are not flat; we're more likely to make damaged or rocky surfaces to get that extra detail in our environments now that our shaders allow us to, and metallic surfaces to make specular highlights and normal maps more apparent as the lighting moves over the surfaces. So by default, the new tech leads us in a certain direction. We could make some nice looking clean world, but it would imply new challenges to overcome.

Imagine you were to look at a painting of a person. You know it's not real, hence there are various errors that might subconsciously bother you, even though you wouldn't have noticed them if those same apparent errors were edited into a photo. You might not be able to pinpoint what's wrong with it, but instinctively your mind noticed something wasn't right.

Video game worlds are by their very nature artificial. There's all sorts of factors that we would normally not be bothered by that will simply feel wrong when seen in a video game. A very clean hallway will look unfinished and a perfectly straight edge will look like it lacks detail.

So we can tell that already, the artistic direction has been influenced by the development of the tech we can now use, and that the video game medium makes it easier for the viewer to doubt what he sees.

But why desaturated colors? There is one thing that our current consoles are terrible at; lighting. Our current lighting solutions are improving, but for the moment we have much difficulty simulating indirect lighting, especially in real-time. In the previous generation, graphical quality was not high enough for us to be bothered by the lack of indirect illumination in our saturated environments, but once again, as graphical quality rises, so does our expectations of how the world should be presented. Just as wonky animations will shatter immersion, so will poor lighting.

To hide this problem, we tend to instinctively desaturate everything. The mere presence of saturated colors unbalances the rest of the image. Since we often have some form of ambient occlusion in our environments, this visual effect makes the game look more visually convincing. The lack of indirect illumination, or more specifically the lack of radiosity, brings this level of believability off balance.

Here is an image that illustrates the problem:

With and without radiosity

The top image doesn't look bad, ambient occlusion (the dark edges around the areas where the different surfaces are close to one another) works well to add quality to the image. But the lack of radiosity doesn't feel right. Imagine if this scene was actually a colorful sunlit living room in a penthouse. The lack of bouncing colors would really cheapen the quality of the image.

Here's the same image as above, but in black and white:


Now that the radiosity can't really be perceived, the visual quality doesn't go off balance.

The game Mirror's Edge used some nifty tech to simulate indirect lighting, which was really vital to the game's visual quality. It simply could not have been set in a clean white city with brightly saturated surfaces if it wasn't for this tech; it would have made the game look cheap, fake, and not immersive at all.

Mirror's Edge

Gears of War on the other hand had an artistic direction developed around the idea of using the new graphical developments to their full extent, so Epic went for dark environments with bumpy rocks and dirty metallic surfaces which would allow them to light the scenes up with multiple dynamic lights, allowing them to get the most out of their normal maps and specular highlights.

Gears of War

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves has an even more saturated palette than Uncharted: Drake's Fortune because their lighting solution has vastly improved since and can be showcased rather well in colorful environments.

They also use saturated colors to make certain objects stand out so as to guide the player throughout the level, it's subtle but it works well. Uncharted 2 will probably be even more of a trend setter than Mirror's Edge since it manages to pull off the gritty look while still using a unique color palette. It really allows the game to set itself apart from the competition.


As our lighting solutions unify and become more dynamic-oriented, we can expect the next-generation games to have a much wider variety of color palettes as real-time translucency and indirect illumination become easily achievable. Expect saturated colors to be the new brown.

[Originally posted at]


Alex Webster
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From a theoretical standpoint, this is a very interesting observation as to how games are continuing to look. Beyond the argument of unrealistic real surfaces translating into boring game visuals, there is a conflict of whether game art is progressing in a direction which is more realist or figurative. I come from a background of cinematic theory, and one of the names most commonly tossed around is Andre Bazin, who argued that photography rendered figurative artworks obsolete in the role of representing reality. I can come up with arguments in defense of game art as like photographic or figurative, but I feel that I'd only be scratching the surface at that rate.

Philippe Ringuette-Angrignon
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Thanks for the comment!

That is a good point. I think when it comes down to it, either in the case of figurative art or realistically rendered video games, it's a question of intentions. The one who makes figurative art might make it for a reason; maybe it is what the client is asking, maybe it is for his own personal satisfaction, etc. The same can apply to video games; if realistically rendered games are an easier sell, something that appears to be true, then we will continue to make them. Unlike in the case of paintings and photography, video games are first and foremost a product, so this is what will lead us in a certain direction over another.

We can make games that are not necessarily realistic. It's simply a question of threshold; how much margin you have before you produce a game that goes against the market. Uncharted is a good example of a game that struck a good balance I think, but this can change from one type of game to another, or as time goes by based on the current sentiments of the market (too many games looking similar, etc.).

Germain Cou�t
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Personally, I tend to agree with you that this "trend" is more associated with current technology. With the coming of high detail modeling softwares such as Zbrush or Mudbox, lesser artists tend to go overboard with detail. I think there is a sign of excellent artistic design when games can have an appealing look without depending on highly detailed models, like a painter who can represent convincing characters with nothing more than a few brush strokes. For example, Halo 3 has been widely critiscised for not having good enough graphics, but knowing Bungie and Mircosoft, they didn't lack the budget for graphics. Instead, they created colorful environments and extremely appealing characters without using generic rust/metal textures everywhere. The same thing goes for TeamFortress2 or Mirror's Edge. All three games, I believe, have achieved excellent visuals without using that grey/brown effect.

Jamie Mann
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Hmm. This takes me back to the old joke about Quake having 256 shades of brown :)

As per the article, the key problem is lighting, though I think it's not so much about technology. Put simply: real life is generally a bit dull and dirty looking! The closer we get to simulating reality, the worse the problem.

Back to the 256 shades of brown, a game released around the same time as Quake (around 6 months later) took a different approach. Shiny Entertainment deliberately decided to focus on good texture mapping, a good draw distance and a high poly-count: things like dynamic lighting and gouraud shading were left out.

Combined with some sharp level design, this made MDK stand head and shoulders above the competition - it still looks fairly good today (and runs fine on both Vista and XP, thanks to Shiny releasing a Direct X patch). It may not be realistic (and it doesn't lend itself to the sandbox-world environments being created today), but it's a useful reminder that technology needn't be the limiting factor.

Admittedly, I may be slightly biased - I've dumped a couple of videos of MDK gameplay onto Youtube:;=channel_page

It's worth taking a look though:)

Dirk Broenink
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We will see the color palettes going into a completely different direction when raytracing becomes technically more usable.

Dave Endresak
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Philippe offers some good points. However, games are not restricted to photorealistic art, nor should they be, even with the current gen of consoles or current state of PC hardware. For example, Tales of Vesperia and Star Ocean: The Last Hope are two of the biggest RPG releases for the Xbox 360 during the past year, and neither game bothers to focus on any attempt at photorealism. In addition, the two games take very different approaches to their visual presentation and style. The same thing happened last console generation, too; you have games like God of War and BloodRayne but also games like Xenosaga and Growlanser. Meanwhile, the current tech sees rereleases of classic games via disc collections or individual download.

In my view, the English market (particularly the development side) tends to have a focus on photorealism rather than approaching visual art from a broad perspective and offering the consumers a wide variety of styles and presentations. Photorealism is not needed for a fun game, so there's no reason to limit development with such a focus. I hope this trend will reverse itself; after all, there's a good reason why various games that are not photorealistic are very popular with consumers while some games that are very photorealistic wind up being generally panned.

Alex Webster
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I agree; I think that the spiraling costs of making photorealistic graphics cannot be good for the industry, especially with regards to taking risks by making new and interesting games. What I would really like to see is the development of some sort of new, uniquely video-game aesthetic; something that can integrate the imperfections of cheaper, older graphics into its artistic look.

Eric Diemer
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First let me say very good point here. Very nice indeed. My thoughts are way on left field. The visual aspect is only one side of a game, will great art make a game? In my mind NO. Game play makes the game. It breaks my heart every time i see topics like this. ART ART ART is this style good or is this style good. I really think the industry on a whole focus way to much on the art than the game play. I will agree with one thing photo realism is something i really wish would stop. Not just the cost but more for the fun factor. Overall less focus on art and more focus on unique game play.

Alexander Bruce
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Eric, this article says nothing about what makes a good game, so your comments are pretty useless. Games still need art, regardless of how they play. This article is merely talking about why they're getting more desaturated.

Philippe Ringuette-Angrignon
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Thanks for the comments all.

It seems there is currently a problem with my host, so the images are not displaying right now. I'm guessing it will be resolved soon.

Adam Bishop
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I found this article very informative, so thanks Philippe. As for Eric's comments, I have to strongly disagree. I come from a writing background (so settings and characters are what really interest me), and I'm horrible at visual arts, but I find that a great visual design can make a game far more interesting to me. Eternal Sonata comes to mind as one recent example of a game that bucks the trend for desaturised colours, and was very striking for it. I definitely wouldn't have enjoyed the game as much if it weren't for the colourful, instantly recognisable images.

raigan burns
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I think Philippe has indirectly presented a really cool solution for improving the look of lighting in current-gen games: use a black-and-white-photography style!

Also, I sort of prefer the top image; perhaps I've been conditioned by current game graphics, or perhaps vibrant saturated well-lit objects aren't something that I'm used to seeing in nature, but all the colour-bounce and lack of nice crisp dark shadows in the bottom image make it look quite surreal.

Another obstacle/technical impediment currently is the distortion caused by linear perspective projection, where rotating the camera makes things look "wonky". This can be reduced with the right FOV selection but it's still present. Probably I'm not explaining this very well; I don't know if curvilinear projection would fix this problem, but _something_ is not right with the way things currently get all swimmy around the edges of the screen when rotating the camera around the vertical axis..

Dave Endresak
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@Alexander & Adam:

Actually, I think both of you are reinforcing Eric's point even if you meant to disagree (and Alex's too, for that matter) because Philippe is offering a possible explanation as to why current (mostly English market) games focus on certain visual presentation choices, but underneath Philippe's explanation is the assumption that developers need to focus on attempting to use photorealistic art. Everything in Philippe's discussion revolves around why things look "off" but his points are only applicable to photorealistic visual styles.

What is "interesting" for one person is not "interesting" for someone else. However, the current development trend is to focus on photorealism as "necessary" or "the only approach" to visual art, and the assumption is that this view is the only one that consumers find "interesting." This is a false assumption, of course, but the trend continues (with all its associated problems, some of which Philippe discusses here). This assumption has been largely in the English development community but Japanese and other East Asian companies are beginning to focus on "making games that appeal to Western markets" (according to related articles and interviews here on Gamasutra and other reliable news sites). This is not a positive direction for the industry; it undermines diverse tastes in visual styles. The same is true for other aspects such as writing, of course.

Personally, I have argued that a game that is appealing due to story and character development, as well as visual style, causes the player to put up with gameplay that may be inferior. Obviously, we,d prefer to have excellent gameplay, too, but many players will tolerate gameplay flaws if they feel emotional attachment to the characters and events in the game. They want to see what happens, so they keep playing.

Alex's point about costs is important, though. The focus on photorealism happened when the graphic card makers caused too much influence on the industry. In addition, it's much easier to market "cool, flashy graphics" than "innovative gameplay techniques." The former can be seen, but the latter must be experienced through actual play sessions. The industry has been choosing the easier selection by focusing on graphics for their cost expenditures, but this isn't necessarily the best choice for longterm benefits for a game product. It's easier to justify and market, though, so this direction probably won't change anytime soon, at least for larger publishers.

The best hope for more creative and innovative approaches is probably independent, small developers. Of course, I tend to feel that Japan has a very strong, vibrant doujinsoft community, so I think they have a big advantage in this area. At the same time, there are more exchanges of information and styles worldwide than there used to be, and I've seen influences from East Asia making their way into the independent art community in America and other Western markets. I'm hopeful that this will help counterbalance the trends of the past 10-15 years in the English market.


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