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Using Theming and Color in Blinks Game Design

Hey Devs,

This is going to be a very unusual update. As you all know, we're in the midst of a global pandemic, and most, if not all, of you are finding yourself working from home, or otherwise isolated. Just a friendly reminder from Move38 to stay safe out there.

Instead of a traditional update, I want to talk about the non-technical side of Blinks game development to let you in on an ongoing conversation we're having at Move38, as we ask ourselves "what makes a Blinks game?" I'll start by discussing one of my favorite aspects - theme.

 

THEME AND BLINKS

To begin, let's compare and contrast the way that two of the launch titles use (or don't use) theme. First we'll look at Flic-Flop - a purely abstract game. Everything in the game is referred to by color and by Blink, and the goals are totally abstract (get as many Blinks "scored" to your color as possible). You could make an argument that our brief description as "shuffleboard from the future" could count as a theme, but I think you'd lose that argument.

FlicFlop Diagram Colors

Now compare that to something like Fracture. Fracture is also abstract, but with a key difference - the use of the words "happy" and "neighbor" in the rules. You might not know this, but Fracture began its life as a much more theme-heavy game, explicitly themed around diversity. This has faded into the background somewhat, but what remains is this idea that a Blink is "happy" when its "neighbors" are all different than itself.

Fracture Happy Blink Diagram

This begs the question: what are the benefits of theming a game? The number one benefit from a themed game that you simply do not from an abstract game is intuitive player understanding. In Fracture, using the phrase "happy" is more than just a substitution for a more technical term - it's a way to help contextualize a player's actions, and in doing so help them remember what they're doing and how to do it. Compare these phrases:

  1. The purpose of Fracture is to get all of your color Blinks in a position where they each touch at least two other Blinks, none of which are their own color.
  2. The purposes of Fracture is to make all of your Blinks "happy" - a happy Blink has at least two neighbors, and none of those neighbors are its own color.

I don't know about you, but phrase #1 reads as dense and complicated to me, and not particularly like a game I want to play. In comparison, phrase #2 gives me a clear goal and a way to accomplish it. In practice, I've found that Fracture is much easier to teach when I use the personified language of happiness and neighbors, and this benefit extends to even heavier themed Blinks games, like Astro or WHAM.

I want to also make a point of saying that there is nothing inherently wrong with making a totally abstract game: Blinks are a great platform for abstract games, and many of our launch titles are written that way. But if you're teetering on the edge of using or not using a theme, I would definitely encourage you to try one as you're designing, for more than just the simple reason outlined above. Speaking of which...

COLOR AND BLINKS

Blinks are all about color and light. The only method a Blink has to communicate with players is the 6 RGB LEDs on its face, and the animations on those faces does all of the work that other games might do with graphics, text, or sound. This can often put designers in a difficult situation: how do you represent the complex game-states of your game with this apparently limited palette?

The obvious answer, and one that we have certainly turned to over and over again, is color-as-meaning. Want the player to know something is bad? Make it red. Want them to know something is good? Make it blue or green. These are simple, culturally agreed-upon colors that can communicate your ideas to players. But what you risk doing is creating a game that looks essentially identical to every other Blinks game - just a bunch of rainbow hexagons that you have to decode. Let me walk you through one of the new games, and how we transitioned away from this idea to something much more unique.

Group Therapy was one of the games made at Global Game Jam this year, and it was, mechanically, amazing. Blinks identified themselves as either Introverts or Extroverts, and your task is to separate or group them accordingly before the timer ran out. Here's a video of the game being played with the original graphics:

A player testing an early version of Group Therapy at Global Game Jam 2020

As you can see, it's a game of colors. Yellow denotes the waiting period as the Blinks decide their personality, at which point they become blue or orange, one signaling an Introvert and the other an Extrovert. Players move them around frantically until the timer runs out, at which point they become either green (success) or red (failure). The messaging is clear, and the game is fantastic, but to me it ultimately looks like every other Blinks game. If I walked by people playing it at a table, I might need a minute to know that they were playing Group Therapy and not Fracture or Zen Flow or even Honey - all rainbow-colored games.

So starting from here, we decided to move away from "color as meaning" a bit, and to be more disciplined about how many colors we used. Group Therapy currently looks like this:

 

Showing the new visuals for Group Therapy during out livestream. Paper is used to make the colors more visible in the lighting conditions.

Same gameplay as before, but now we're communicating the game state with fewer colors and more animations. Personality type, previously represented by blue and orange, is now represented by a lilac purple and salmon pink. And the waiting period is no longer a flat yellow - it's a white/purple/pink static that uses a rise in intensity and saturation to show the impending gameplay. Last, success has changed from a solid green to a spinning white celebration over top of the existing personality color. Only failure, displayed as solid red, remains the same.

These changes reflect a developing sort of "Blinks color theory" that Move38 is slowly putting together. For now, the basic principles are:

  1. Try to limit your color palette so it is not just a rainbow of color-as-meaning signals. Determine how many colors you need and be thrifty with them.
  2. The spectrum from white to black (lights off, in the case Blinks) is a great set of colors to incorporate into any game's color palette. It should be considered a "free" color.
  3. When choosing your actual colors, try to use values that are evocative of your game's theme, or at the very least represent a distinct "vibe."
  4. Red may also be considered a "free" color when making games with clear failure conditions.
  5. If possible, use animations to represent information instead of new colors.

This is, of course, a work in progress. We used these concepts as we remade Group Therapy, and I personally think they helped us create an iconic, unmistakable visual style for this game. You'd never walk past someone playing the game and not know immediately that it was Group Therapy - no other Blinks game looks like it.

This is also where the idea of theme loops back in. The fact that Group Therapy had an introvert/extrovert theme, and wasn't purely abstract, informed our color choices significantly, and helped us conceptualize the visual experience. Ultimately, we decided to go with a Lisa-Frank-esque color scheme, which will also help us significantly as we work on the artwork for the game. In fact, I'm working with the developers of the Community Expansion as I write this to gather up all of the new art, so hopefully soon I can post a little gallery and maybe a quick discussion of how game art ties into this as well!

Otherwise, we hope you're staying safe out there and getting plenty of time to experiment with Blinks. Until next time.

~Dan