Everyone knows that in order for a game to be finished, it is going to require a good amount of polish. However, few people seem to be able to define what this means exactly? If you ask a professional developer, they will likely say you need to juice it or that polish is fixing all the small details. You can’t disagree with those statements, but they are pretty meaningless as they can’t really be acted upon. In order to polish the last 10%, you need to complete the first 90%. So how does a developer, especially one that has never created a “AAA” product, know when they have hit that threshold? Can this threshold be quantified?
The answer is yes, so let’s walk through what I call the five steps to polish. I have created a very simple game to help illustrate these steps. There are three core elements to this game 1) a scoreboard to display the points, 2) every two seconds or so, an object will spawn randomly somewhere on screen, and 3) every time an object is clicked, the player is awarded 100 points. At no point will we change these elements in a way that alters their functionality, such as randomizing the point value or having the objects move around the screen. We will purely focus on polishing the experience as it is.
Step 1: Core gameplay
The first step for creating a good game starts with solidifying the core gameplay. This step is incredibly important to get right and to not move on until it is complete. Ideally, the game should be as art free as possible so that you aren’t influenced by anything other than the gameplay. Too often, this step is rushed through with the belief that the game will be fun once the game assets are all in. If the game isn’t fun with just basic shapes, it probably will never be fun.
As you can see in the example, the gameplay is functionally implemented for our design. Clickable objects appear and when clicked give the player points. Is it fun? Not really, but that was done on purpose. Remember, we are trying to understand polish, so let’s start that work!
Step 2: Art and Audio
Once gameplay has been solidified, we can move onto the second pass by adding in the Art and Audio. This step is the one that will display the most noticeable increase in quality to the game. As much as wish games would be judged based on gameplay alone, the fact is people will base their judgement on what they see and hear well before they even touch the controls. Even a little bit of art and a few sounds will make a big impact.
In the example we have done a simple pass of art and audio, something basic enough that anyone could create it. We changed the player sprite from a square to a more rounded square-like character with eyes which keeps the size and shape effectively the same. The score has been centered and a font applied to make it more readable. When the character is clicked, it plays a sound indicating its death and displays the value it was worth. Finally a background image finishes up the theme. Note that none of this is of exceptional quality, but it is still a drastic improvement over the previous step.
Step 3: Animation
While the game looks better at this point, it is still quite static. The next step towards polish is to add some dynamism to the artwork. Any element in a game that changes should have at least a little bit of animation. Seeing something switch from one thing to another in a blink of an eye always feels harsh. Adding motion will soften that effect and add more visual interest.
In the example we have added some type of animation to every element we have created so far. The character now blinks occasionally which makes it feel a bit more alive. The scoreboard now quickly tallies up to each new score so it feels like the score is filling up. We have added a particle effect on the death of the character to make it feel like it exploded. The point value now floats upwards making the score more noticeable. We also animated the background art to create a bit of a parallax effect. Once again, there is a noticeable improvement in making the game feel closer to complete. It should be noted that many people stop at this point with their games as it feels alive, but it still no where near being polished.
Stage 4: Transitions
At this point in development, it starts to become a bit more difficult to see what needs to be added. Much like cleaning a room, once you get all the big elements out of the way it begins to feel like you are done. But there is still a lot that can be done. The next step is to implement transitions, or adding effects to the start and end of each element. This will help blend and soften elements we don’t want to pop such as fading out instead of blinking out. It can also help draw attention to things we want the player noticing, such as scaling up instead of blinking into existence.
In the example we have put transitions on almost everything. The character transitions in with a fade in, scaling up and a sound to indicate it’s entrance. On death, the character grows larger and fades away. The particle effect also changes color over time to give the explosion a feeling of cooling off. Every time we gain points, the scoreboard pops out and scales down, helping draw our attention to the reward. The floating score display dissolves in and out over time. At this point the game is really starting to feel polished, but there is still a lot more that we can do!
Stage 5: Polish
Finally we are approaching the last 10%, where we can actually start calling what we are doing polish. This step is harder to describe but can be thought of as adding effects to effects. Often it is looking for anything and everything that doesn’t have an effect of its own and applying some type of flourish.
In the example we can see a variety of additions, some more obvious the others. The most noticeable is the camera shake upon the characters death which gives us the feeling that we are really destroying something massive. All sound effects are now position based creating a more expansive soundscape. We added a rainbow effect the the scoreboard during the pop out transition, again drawing our attention to it. We have adding a hover effect when we go over top of a character to help add a sense of intelligence to the objects. We have not only added another particle effect to the explosion to make it look better, but we have also added a small particle effect on the fade out of the floating score. We can now comfortably say that we have polished this game.
There we go! We took a very simple game from a very boring but functional beginning and through several steps ended up with an visually entertaining, well polished product. Imagine what the game would be like if the gameplay was actually fun and had some challenge! The important thing to remember is that polishing a game is always the most difficult part of the entire development process. By breaking it down into quantifiable steps, it should make it easier for a developer to recognize what stage their game is at and understand how much further they still need to go.