Video Games

Color Blindness, Pattern Recognition, and Encounter Design

Like a lot of people, I have a hard time seeing some colors. While I am not entirely color blind, I am color deficient. I am roughly fifty percent red-green deficient, meaning that colors tend to blend together and all look the same to me. I wasn’t diagnosed as such for a long time, because as a kid I kept passing the color blindness dot tests that I had to take at the optometrist.

You know, like this guy.

I wasn’t passing these tests because I could see the numbers, and I wasn’t electroshocked into having ESP by Dr. Venkman. No, I was able to see a few of the dots colors and extrapolate from the pattern of those dot placements what the number was likely to be. This infuriated my mother to no end, as she saw examples of my color blindness on a daily basis, yet my eye doctor would never believe her. This probably gave her some sort of complex, now that I think about it. It’s a good thing that have this experience as a child, because video games sure as shit don’t account for color blindness by and large.

Sure, a few games have “color blind mode” but rarely is it full bore graphic replacement. Usually, it’s a tool tip here, and very rarely some greyscale there. I understand that meeting the needs of color blind individuals is hardly a high priority, so I am not actually upset about this. Usually, it doesn’t affect me at all, thanks to pattern recognition. As most video games amount to “master the trick, master the game”, as long as I can discern the pattern I need to discern, I will complete the game just as fast and skillfully as any other average player. Every now and then, something pops up that really tries this, and the pattern is incredibly hard to find on its own. In this case, I will go ahead and call it what it is, poor encounter design. This brings me to a current raid encounter in World of Warcraft, Durumu the Forgotten.

Durumu is your run of the mill beholder. Dude is left behind for thousands of years as a guardian and has to amuse himself. As it turns out, guy really likes mazes and hidden object games to kill the boredom. Whatever floats your eyeball, pall. This guy is really not that hard, provided you can see colors. If you can’t see colors, you have to deal with this clusterfuck of terrible graphic execution. The encounter itself is a challenge, just due to how many tasks have to be executed simultaneously, but it’s nothing insurmountable, and the mechanics are a pretty fun lift from Rift. However, the fight is two phases of color-centric frustration and only through extremely subtle patterns can you ever discern what the fuck is going on. This is a major issue due to the color palettes. The hilariously frustrating part of this is that the problem exists in both phases of the fight, though it’s a completely different problem. The first phase is less of an issue, due to the fact that you can simply watch your debuffs and get an idea.

This is super clear, right?
This is super clear, right?

You have three different beams, two of which have similar particle effects, and one that is different. You have pools on the ground that are dark in nature, on a swirled patterned dark floor,  and player spell effects all going off at the same time. I won’t get into specifics here, but you can see how this might be something of a problem.  Luckily mods are such that everything here screams at you, and in-game alerts, such as debuff watching, work well enough to prevent most color and pattern related catastrophes. However, no such luck persists into the second phase.

Full Disclosure: I haven’t done the encounter post hotfix changes this week, but for the purposes of this discussion it shouldn’t matter as it is about the initial design.

Look at all that same colored shit.

Yeah,  it’s like that. The second phase is where the real problems arise and it is quite clear that pattern recognition was never something they considered here. When Durumu begins to cast Disintegration Beam, the room begins to rapidly fill with purple-black smoke.  Prior to this,  you can only know which pie slice is the safe pie slice by watching for tendrils of electricity. You run to the tendrils to be safe. As far as pattern recognition goes, that’s what you’ve got folks. The smoke persists, but sections of it become clear as the beam moves around. The only bits of pattern recognition here are: one safe area exists in melee, and one at range near the edge. The safe areas only advance JUST ahead of the beam. Otherwise, the maze reveals more or less at random and you just kind of have to juke and bounce to keep in the safe area if you can’t actually see it. Hilariously, if you have a nice computer, you were penalized here, because high graphics create a lingering fog trail that actually somewhat obscures the safe area, it is barely a different density and color. This is not exactly helpful.

Cranking down the graphics helps here, as the vapor only somewhat drifts and the different smoke movements can become discernible, creating something of a pattern to go with here. This is actually what I use to stay safe. I look for the different looking smoke curls and more or less get it right 95% of the time. The rest of the time I can take a tad bit of damage and get safe pretty quickly. Still, this is hardly the benchmark of a well thought out graphic design. In fact, this is further clear by the repeated hotfixes that have been steadily applied over two weeks to help. To make matters worse, if you don’t complete phase one correctly, you still have those light beams rolling around. This is not smiles times.

The point becomes evident here pretty rapidly, while form is important, and everyone loves a spooky, classic dungeon look, function is ever your watchword.  This is a classic information presentation problem. If you display the information in only one format, color in this case, you are going to proscribe the information from ever reaching the hands of those who cannot readily access that format. Providing feedback in only a single way is always the wrong answer when you are designing an encounter.  The nature of this encounter prevents textual clues, and the random nature of it all but cuts out mod work. While third party software should never be required for a game, it does mean that your game has to be able to properly convey that information. Which it’s single sourced, that’s a recipe for failure.

This, again, isn’t something new. It’s a best practice to build redundancy into networks, business plans, job execution, and so on. If something fails, you need to be able to continue without a hitch. For some reason, information presentation seems to be forgotten about, but it shouldn’t be. Nothing is more important than the level setting provided by everyone obtaining the same information. Yes, you absolutely cannot reach everyone no matter how hard you try. However, trying only once is always the wrong answer.

In a game like World of Warcraft that has been around for nine years, to see this kind of fundamental failure is always a disheartening experience. This is something that no game should be experiencing, much less nine years into their content and game cycle. In an expansion that otherwise has a lot of polish, this is a glaring burr. This is something everyone can, and should, learn from.

Single points of failure should always be avoided, especially when it comes to information presentation. This is the most important thing you can do well. I am not waxing hyperbolic here. This is seriously the most important thing in just about everything. Present information well.

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