Video: Good Design, Bad Design Vol. 8 – Analyzing the Graphic Design in Cuphead, Jackbox, and More
It's that time. It’s your birthday! No wait, wrong card. It’s Good Design, Bad Design Volume 8. If you’re new to the series, welcome. Don’t worry, you can start here and go back to the others later. Today we’re looking at 4 examples of good and bad graphic design in games. It’s all about visual communication. Things like menus, UI, UX, color choice, font choice, animation, character design. The Presentation of Information. There can be good games with bad visual communication, and bad games that do things well. If you have any suggestions for games you might like to see covered here in a future volume, let us know in the comments! But first, a word from today’s sponsor, Audible.
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Good Design Every year around the holidays I get back in touch with my high school and college friends that have moved around the country. These end up turning into big get-togethers, a dozen or more people, and for each of the past several years there’s one game we always break out: The Jackbox Party Pack. Jackbox is not one thing, but collections of, well, they aren’t quite ‘mini-games’ but they’re smaller-scale sets of games bundled into a yearly pack. The lineup changes from year to year, but they’re all designed around a few principles. They’re meant for multiplayer audiences, and most are designed for up to 4, 8, or even more players. Most games also involve a drop in, drop out audience participation component.
It’s great for allowing Twitch streamers to play with their fans, but it’s also perfect for big parties or family reunions. Jackbox's UX is absolutely ingenious. It’s practically the perfect party game thanks to its focus on inclusive design. Inclusive design is concerned about not putting up unnecessary barriers for people to use your product. For a game, it can mean thinking about how to reach the widest audience possible and making sure they all can have a good time. It’s close to the idea of accessibility, which is focused on things like colorblind modes, screen readers, large text, or other things that help people with special needs enjoy a game, but inclusive design is a little more generalized. Designing for inclusivity can just mean making something easier for anyone to use. Pass-the-controller multiplayer modes are more ‘inclusive’ than 8-player Smash Bros.
Just because you don’t need as much hardware to get the job done. Inclusivity can also mean you don’t need specialized knowledge or experience to play. Tetris is more ‘inclusive’ than Final Fantasy in a sense because you don’t need to be able to read to fully understand what’s going on, just line up the blocks. Inclusivity can also mean the game’s experience is literally available for as many people as possible. A board game that can accommodate 2 to 6 players is more inclusive than a game that only works with a group of 3. It doesn’t mean there won’t be some decisions that may exclude some people, but if you’re designing for inclusivity you’ll at least be mindful of your choices and try to keep your audience as wide as possible.
The games are designed to be played through a web browser, but almost any web browser will do. Start the game on a computer and tell everyone else to get to a web page on their phone. Any phone. Android or iOS. Your aunt’s phone from 7 years ago with the cracked screen. Even that weird HP Touchpad you have lying around will probably work. The game can be played on a TV screen everyone’s gathered around, or on a stream on Twitch or Discord with people around the world just as easily. Even once the games start, Jackbox’s UX is across the board incredibly simple, designed with the barest minimum of interactions to play. Quiplash, Dictionarium, Fibbage, and Split The Room ask you to type out an answer to a prompt, to lie to, or to make jokes at your friends. Tee KO and Drawful have you draw pictures with just your finger and a touch screen or with a mouse. Trivia Murder Party and You Don’t Know Jack are trivia games where you press a button to answer.
Fakin’ It and Push The Button are games that mostly involve talking to and observing your friends outside of the game entirely. These simple mechanics are mix-and-matched, and combined in other games, but each game draws from a very simple set of interactions: Type something. Draw something. Press a button. Talk to your friends. Almost every person on almost any device is already capable of doing that without a learning curve, or expensive hardware, or familiarity with the design language of video games. Jackbox’s incredibly low barriers to entry, both physical and with a player’s experience, and the flexible design that accommodates a large number of players, opens up the game as an experience that can be shared with everybody. Be it a group of five, a party of fifteen, or a stream of five hundred.
It invites people to play with the group, and can snowball on itself, and before you know it the entire house is gathered around and having a blast together, in a way that’s very hard to find in other forms. Jackbox’s design is supremely inclusive, and makes Jackbox the ultimate party game. Bad Design The original Xenoblade Chronicles is one of the best JRPGs. I’m so happy they’re making a Definitive Edition, because now there’s a chance to fix the original’s biggest flaw, its interface. Xenoblade Chronicles is essentially a single player MMO, similar to Final Fantasy XII. But the interface is kind of a cluttered mess. Some of it can be chalked up to taking after an MMO. There’s a mountain of quests to complete. Items and equipment to collect. Places to explore. People to meet, and enemies to take down.
The systems and mechanics are tied together in ways that can't easily be cut. But I want to focus on something else. We need to talk about the combat UI. Xenoblade's combat interface floods the screen with UI elements. The left side is taken up by your character’s status windows and this party gauge. The bottom is a hotbar with all of your combat arts and room for a description beneath. The right side has your map, control prompts, and notifications about status effects and other miscellaneous information like when characters gain affinity. The center is filled with huge status windows and little health bars. Not even kidding, literally half the screen is covered in UI elements. Even some of the parts that AREN'T covered are wasted. A little corner stranded on an island, in the middle of a sea of UI. So the issue is that we have too many elements right? Maybe we just drop a bunch of them? Well, no. Most of the information is important and useful.
In fact, I wish there were a few more things on display, like an objective list for sidequests. It's a complex game. It’s mechanically deep. It was always going to have a busy interface. Though they do get credit for not pulling a Battleborn, making all of the elements fight for your attention. The more fixable problem is how inefficient everything is. Take the party status windows. Starting from the bottom we have your character’s level and two bars, the orange experience bar, and the thinner yellow skill points bar. There’s the character’s HP and to the upper right is a nice character portrait. The upper left holds icons for buffs and debuffs. So the biggest problem areas here are the character portraits and the two bars. The portrait is actually a mechanic, the Tension mechanic, which influences the character’s accuracy and crit rate. The portrait, though, can be easily scaled down and simplified. Maybe convert the Tension aspect into a small bar or maybe a shape that changes color if you really want to save space.
The EXP and SP bars aren't that important mid-combat and could be either condensed or cut. Just put that information in the stats screen. None of these changes are that major, or even all that necessary by themselves, but fixing the little inefficiencies add up to save a ton of space. Compare it to Final Fantasy XII, a similar MMO-like single player RPG from roughly the same era. It’s not nearly as messy. Character status and your command menu are in the bottom, bars are thin, text is cleanly aligned, corners are better used and elements don’t have excessive margins. Of course, Xenoblade’s interface may not be able to get to the same level without compromising some of its mechanics, but being a bit more condensed and displaying information a little more cleanly is totally doable in the Definitive Edition. If they can pull that off, it may just turn a great game into an amazing one. Good Design Did you know, Cuphead has amazing animation? I know, crazy right? As a shoot em up that perfectly captures the aesthetic and spirit of old fashioned “rubber hose” era animations like those from Max Fleischer, it’s pretty safe to say that the artists at MDHR understand the 12 principles of animation.
But, beautiful animation doesn’t necessarily make for a great gameplay experience by itself. Games are interactive. They require form AND function. In action games, the gameplay revolves around observation and reaction. Learning, and, well, action. In Cuphead, you're observing and learning boss attacks. Reacting to patterns and acting to get your character out of harm's way. The 12 principles of animation are being used to make the game look amazing, but one of them pulls double duty and makes the game feel as good as it looks. Anticipation. You probably know what anticipation is when you see it, but maybe you haven't labeled it in your mind yet. Top-quality animations divide nearly every action into three phases: The Anticipation, The Action, and the Reaction. The anticipation is the announcement for what a character is about to do. It sets expectations for the viewer and prepares them for the following action.
Big anticipated movements telegraph big exaggerated actions. They make the main action look more believable and easy to follow for the audience. The rubber hose era that Cuphead is emulating is cartoonishly overloaded with anticipation, like, even for a cartoon. But that's fine, because action games need all the anticipation they can get. Cuphead is centered around its boss fights. Each boss has a bunch of attack patterns that fire off bullets to avoid or characters to dodge. Each attack is custom-animated to give each a unique look and feel. In those attack animations, the anticipation is an incredibly important step. It’s where the game signals to the player what’s about to happen, and from a gameplay angle it also signals to the player what they will have to do next to avoid getting hit. The proper level of anticipation is how the designers tuned how difficult and how fair each of the game’s boss fights are.
The unique look of the anticipation of each attack’s animation reveals what’s about to happen. The length of the anticipation often corresponds to how devastating each move will be to the player, or how long they will have to deal with the attack. If the boss fires off a projectile, the projectile itself is an ongoing warning, so that attack’s anticipation is usually pretty short. Attacks with a wide area of effect, or a tricky pattern to dodge will have longer anticipation stages, so players have more time to get out of the way or prepare for the upcoming pattern. Without balancing the anticipation of the animations, the motions look cheaper, but the gameplay suffers even more. They would feel drawn out and dull if they gave too much leadup for a wimpy attack. Or sudden and cheap if they were too short for a full-screen laser. Players might have to resort to memorization or luck to figure out how to get through a fight alive.
Cuphead is a difficult game, but the way it warns players lends itself to feeling fair. If it had lost that feeling, it would feel difficult, but cheap, and would feel more unsatisfying to play through. The telegraphs aren’t there to tell you immediately what’s about to happen, but they are meant to reduce the number of times you’ll have to play a boss to familiarize yourself with how the fight is supposed to go. It helps you overcome the challenge through recognition, repetition, and skill. There’s another interesting wrinkle to the anticipation in another set of animations in the game. Your own. The animations for Cuphead himself have very little anticipation for the basic actions you take as a player. It’s all very snappy. When Cuphead jumps, he doesn’t slightly crouch down for a few frames to build up power in his legs. He just immediately enters his jumping state. When he dashes, there isn’t any preparation or winding back.
He just goes right into a diving pose as he moves forward. But, remember what anticipation is used for. It's to prepare the viewer for the action to follow. But in this case, the viewer is you. You told Cuphead to jump. You know what's coming, so you're already prepared for the jump to happen. You don't need as much anticipation, so the movement is still believable to your eyes. It's not as pretty, sure, but it's well worth the tradeoff to make Cuphead feel quick and responsive to control. Cuphead’s animations are second to none, and through knowing when to use and when to break some of the 12 principles of animation, MDHR has made a game that looks amazing, and plays even better. Bad Design Coming up next: Chime Sharp on tonight’s episode of Zero Contrast Theater. So, anyone remember Chime? No? It was this cool block puzzle game. You put blocks on a grid while a music measure loops around the board. As it passes through each block, it adds in a sample from the level’s song to build the soundscape piece by piece. Once you have a solid 3×3 square, you expand those blocks, and fill out the grid as much as possible before time expires.
It's a simple game once you get into it, and the first game felt pretty good, though it didn't have all that many songs to choose from. When a sequel was in the works it seemed like a perfect opportunity to make Chime into a hit. The sequel, Chime Sharp, is fundamentally the same game just with more content. Oh, and the UI is a lot worse. Whoops. Front and center, this is some of the worst contrast I've ever seen in a UI. The board for each song uses a unique color scheme with most of the color choices being… questionable. The color schemes swing wildly. Sometimes the colors are so intensely saturated that it just hurts to look at. Sometimes the contrast is fine with white text on a dark background but then you have light gray text on a light background. Then this gradient shows up, destroying whatever contrast is left.
The original Chime didn’t have this issue because while the blocks are a different color for each level, the background would always be a very dark shade. It created visual consistency and avoided contrast problems. The sequel uses thin white line strokes, and slight opacity changes for its typography, and seems to be going for a more elegant look. But thin lines and bad contrast don’t mix. The contrast problems aren’t even just an aesthetic issue. You know how most modern Tetris games will show you the next several pieces? After some time you can tell what’s coming up by just seeing the shape’s unique color in your peripheral vision. The original Chime shows your next piece at the top and the thick block outlines made it fairly easy to see what was about to show up. In Chime Sharp, the next three pieces are shown in small, thin outlines. It's almost impossible to see in your periphery, lost in a light-on-light contrast nightmare.
I honestly forget that this UI element is even there when playing. Plus they lower the opacity for the boxes in the second and third spots, making bad contrast problems even worse. The time limit has the same problem. It's a bar meant for your peripheral vision, but it just gets lost in the background. Magenta on top of … another … magenta. Come on. Chime Sharp is a surprising revival, but consistently poor readability and some bad color palettes make a promising game into something you hate to see. *chill vibes outro from Tetris 99*.