Visual Clarity in RTS Games

Clear graphics cause the player to work much less to do the most basic thing in an interactive game, which is to observe and quickly gain information about what is happening so they can react accordingly.

The birth of 3D gaming and increased processing power is both a blessing and a curse, with more power, comes more detail, and more reckless use of detail. Below I’ll show some examples of what I think are examples of clear graphics and stressful graphics.

Red Alert 3

This game makes my eyes bleed.

I could never get into this game. Every time I tried, I felt like my eyes were bleeding and had to stop. Something about the hyper saturated and over contrasted image along with all of this brand new detail and 3rd dimension was just a visual-overload. I couldn’t handle it, I still can’t handle it now. I can’t discern units from each other without great work and stress– it just doesn’t feel worth it.

Supreme Commander

The tactical view of the entire battlefield is actually pretty clear, the simplified view of icons, and colors give me an immediate idea of what’s happening in the game. I love this view. Until you zoom in…

Zooming in, you gain much more detail, but you lose clarity. It’s a bit harder to see what’s going on in this photo at first glance. It is mitigated a bit by being able to keep strategic icons activated even when you’re zoomed in, but it’s still a bit hard to look at sometimes. Especially when some units can be tiny, or as large as a building, or bigger, and buildings can be as tiny as a small unit or ginormous.

Red Alert

Extremely clear graphics. I can look at this picture and know exactly what everything is. It’s a mixture of a few things that make it clear. Buildings tend to be of a certain size and have large, unique properties. Units tend to be of a certain size and are very clear in what they are– that’s a tank, that’s an even bigger tank, that’s a jeep of some sort, etc. And the colors clearly separate the units from the background. This is a beautiful game, and extremely easy to look at.

Red Alert 2

As much as I love this game… It’s not as clear as it could be. The obvious upgrade in graphics and detail unfortunately make this game much more visually cluttered and harder to look at. Of course a trained eye would get better at seeing this game, but it’s still a challenge. It’s not as bad as other games, but still could use some work.

There’s a lot going on in this photo, but it feels like a bit of a Where’s Waldo drawing. It costs valuable brain-CPU to scan this image. Can you find the dogs? How long did it take you to find the dogs? Now, can you find the floating Yuri? How long did it take you to find Yuri?

There was no Yuri in the picture. But the fact that you didn’t just glance at it and realize within 2 seconds there was no Yuri means this image is too hard to scan. It’s too detailed!

Starcraft 2

Starcraft 2 is one of the few 3D RTS that are both detailed and clear. It’s very easy to see units, buildings, and terrain in this game. It’s also visually pleasing, the colors are muted except in certain areas where harsh, bright, glowly colors are needed for effect.

Starcraft & Remastered

The original Starcraft was great for its day, and the remaster brings it right back up to one of the prettiest RTS games available. The units are clear from each other with unique properties, and the dark, gritty terrain clearly separates from the starkly contrasted factions. Protoss, Zerg, and Terran look nothing like each other. Even someone who has never played this game before may be able to tell what race is which just by seeing a few units from each beforehand.

I’d love to see a game that prioritizes visual clarity over extraneous detail. I think some developers are finally growing past the ‘graphics are everything’ era, especially with Minecraft being in the rear-view mirror. Starcraft 2 shows us clear and beautiful 3D graphics are possible for RTS, but detail can obviously be stressful to our eyes.

Hopefully the new title being developed by Supreme Commander devs will be the best of both worlds, combining clear up-close graphics like Starcraft 2 with their signature strategic zoom from Supreme Commander!