Why “next-gen games” went gray, brown, and grey.

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. By 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 has ambient occlusion, but no radiosity. The bottom image has both

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. Considering we could have a much higher quality if you went for a different theme where your tech would really work at its best, we might as well change the whole theme and make it an older, dusty living room with a CRT television, and cracked walls with paint that started peeling off here and there. The dirty look is to have a greater level of detail granularity in our textures, the peeled off paint is to get that extra bump that our normal maps allow us to have, we probably have some metal pipes here and there with their specular highlights, and the CRT television is to have a dynamic source of lighting to make it all even more apparent.

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


Completely desaturated

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

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

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.


Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

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.

7 Responses to “Why “next-gen games” went gray, brown, and grey.”

  1. Jennifer Diane Reitz says:

    Personally, I would gladly, happily take the less real, but more brightly colored world every time.

    I can get photorealism from real life. I want to experience bright worlds of fun and wonder in my games. I want those blue skies and green forests - give me surreal before you give me brown.

    I don’t care that the hues do not reflect off of the walls. I’d rather have fake, than drab -every time.

    I don’t like this choice of visual detail being more important than mood and visual appeal. It seems more like one-ups-manship (our graphics engine is more bonerific than your graphics engine) than doing what is best for the actual game.

  2. admin says:

    Hi Jennifer, thank you for reading!

    I am not advocating the idea that we should make games more realistic at the detriment of colorful games, I point out one of the reasons why a lot of games have gone in a desaturated direction.

    It’s a sort of uncanny valley effect where, if you present the game as being realistic, you have to remain loyal to this level of realism throughout the game, otherwise perceived quality becomes unstable.

    So if one wants really colorful worlds instead of photorealism, it’s simply a question of not fooling the player into thinking the game will be realistic. In Okami, the lack of radiosity is never a problem, because ours minds never expect to see any.

    When we make a realistic game where we worked hard on making it look convincing at various levels such as AI, animations, textures, etc., the lack of radiosity becomes a problem if we have saturated colors because it gives an impression of lesser quality, so we desaturate the culprits. If we want colors in a realistically rendered game, having radiosity will significantly improve the quality; in the absence of this tech, developers will tend to desaturate the colors. This is what many devs do without even realizing it.

  3. Ken says:

    It probably comes down to money, like anything in games. Okami is an excellent game, but it’s probably a lot harder to make a completely new game like that every year than it is to make another “guy with a gun shoots things” game. Or at least a lot riskier.

  4. Odysseus says:

    Jennifer Diane Reitz +1,000,000

    It’s sad how game development has stagnated for a decade or more as everything has been focused into video. Tetris isn’t a better game if you add 3D graphics. Neverwinter Nights has an atrociously lobotomized AI (can’t do shoot-n-scoot, or any of a dozen other rookie tactics) because of the focus of graphics. Sigh. So many wasted resources.

  5. Ken says:

    I would take what Jennifer said one step further: why do we need sky or trees at all? Tetris wouldn’t be a better game if it was shoehorned into a world that tried to imitate real life.

    Attempting to connect your game to *anything* in the real world (photorealism being just one part) ties you to whatever the state-of-the-art is this month for simulation.

    A game’s long-term popularity seems inversely proportional to its realism: the most abstract games are the most long-lived. At the top, Pong, and then Tetris and Pac-Man, and below that Frogger and Joust, and so on. Almost no classics from before 1990 I can remember tried to imitate life.

  6. admin says:

    Part of the reason those games are classics has more to do with them being highly accessible and easily emulated, and having been released at a time when there was little competition, rather than being related to a lack of realism, which was simply not possible back in those days. Plenty of games are released today that fall in the same category as Tetris and co., but the market has changed, there is more competition, so it’s more difficult for games to become classics.

  7. Tetris Games says:

    Nice blog man, enjoyed it.

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