MMORPG Video Games

Color Blindness, Pattern Recognition, and Encounter Design: Part Two

Three years ago, I wrote this. In the intervening three years, I am sad to say shit hasn’t changed. I am moderately-strongly red-green color blind, but I exhibit some symptoms of blue-yellow colorblindness. Last year, I got a pair of EnChroma glasses as a present, and it has significantly improved my life. It’s a jarring experience, as everything looked like it was neon (and still kind of does), and the only downside was the headaches until I got used to that much sensation…oh, and the fact I apparently really dislike the color yellow (it looks completely different and I feel like it’s a liar). It has also helped with video games to some degree, but not to the degree that I thought it would. Instead, it has made one fact extremely clear – if there is not a different enough distinction in the colors, I just won’t see some thing.

Never mind if the colors are different, if they close in tone, the glasses seem to let me down to varying degrees. This is a major issue in games because aesthetic theming has become so pervasive. I understand that the fire people of the lava lands will throw fire on the molten fields or whatever, but red/orange/yellow/brown on red/orange/yellow/brown is just absolutely awful to try and see. Once again, I have to rely entirely on pattern recognition to save my digital life. This forces me to do stupid things like have to play really zoomed out in some situations to be able to see the edges of the effects, because only the edges have patterning and movement on them, or the inner reaches of the effect are so subtle as to be unrecognizable. This isn’t a big deal for people who can see blackish-purple on the blackish-grey floor, but if you can’t, it’s a kick in the dick,


This is a picture of the revamped Attumen the Huntsmen fight in Return to Karazhan. This picture makes it look ok, but the effects are ramped way down low. You see, the room has a shitload of hay and straw in it. You can sorta see it on the edges, but you get the picture. If you look at the middle-top of the image, you can see the straw fading into the fire. This is an awful time for my colorblindness. I simply CANNOT see the difference. Instead, I have to look for the little roiling dots and areas that indicate this is the fiery charge effect. On the non-straw area, it’s better, but it still blends in with the floor to me pretty well. While I am definitely glad Blizzard has implemented multiple colorblindness modes, but the problem for me is still the oh-so-close palette choices and the complete lack of any visible definition. I get that a solid, neon red line might not be a great aesthetic choice, but a solid, contrasting definition line is so important to helping people like me. Guild Wars 2 did this with their effects, adding a bright white border to positive effects, and a bright red border to negative effects. I can’t even tell you how many times I have had a healer rib me for not standing in the blue or green circle, only for me to say “Sorry man, I couldn’t see if because of the floor. Can you tell me where you drop it?” It sucks.

Pattern recognition is actually diminished in this encounter, which makes it all the worse. There are a few things going against me here. First, there is a mechanic to dispel some debuff if you are a healer. Everyone gets the debuff, but only one person gets the real debuff. This person has a ghost dude hanging over them that gives them a purple glow, while everyone else gets a blue glow. So I am told. It’s not like I can see the difference. They are both infused with whites and other blues. I can’t catch the pattern, because it’s so heavily tied to color palette. Second, if you take a look at the stone floor, you’ll notice, well, stones and patterns. Unfortunately, the way the fire appears is sorta spotty, tiny, and blends in well with the pattern of the floor. I’m sure it’s a different color, but even with the help of my glasses, the tones are so close to negate that additional help.

The way I have to complete the encounter is a combination of zooming out, looking at very specific areas, and firmly knowing the mechanics. Addons like Deadly Boss Mods and GTFO definitely help, but even being alerted to what is occurring by multiple sources doesn’t necessarily override the color-related handicaps. The fact that glasses that help me see colors still don’t help with this blending issue is indicative of a larger problem at work, here. Colorblindness isn’t seeing shades of grey, or simply replacing some colors with others. For me, it’s the blending of like tones, and there isn’t any setting, outside of the Blue-Yellow setting in Wildstar, that seemed to fix it.


I am focusing on Return to Karazhan because it is brand new content. Not because of any particular displeasure with it. It’s just the latest content and exhibits the same issues.

Take a look at the above picture. You have greenish-blue stones, dark lighting, some ghostly dude with purple shit, and swirling bluish-green energy around it. Oh, and don’t forget the patterned stone floor. Looking at a still image, I have a really hard time identifying the outer ring. I can only tell it’s there because I know to look for it. It swirls in the game, but the movement rippling only helps so much. With other spell effects going off, you compound the issue. Again, with the color blind modes, the colors are so similar that the tones blend together.

Don’t get me wrong, it looks great. It’s very flavorful, and the color palettes all say things about delivery, intent, origin, and so on.¬†All of the arcane stuff is white, blue, and purple. All of the fire stuff is yellow, red, orange, and brown. All of the demon stuff is…green. So much green. ALL OF THE GREEN. This is a huge problem, because it’s five shades of green, on green stone, with a green sky, and so on. Remember when the devs didn’t want to make the Emerald Dream because it would be all one color? Well, those days are long gone, and palette themes are the only way content is really produced now. It’s not like it’s new, but it is sad it is still around.


The above picture is about 85% good. The only problem is the inner and outer edging of the effect. The center is sort of a problem, too, but the ring around that alerts you to what you need to know. If you look at the inner edge, you see a shimmering transparency that contains the barest amount of different coloration. The outside ring has a similar effect going on, but in the opposite direction. The colors darken and blend right into the floor. I can see a difference, but I really have to be looking for it. I would expect my GTFO to be honking at me wildly until I am home free, you know? I wouldn’t trust my own vision for anything like this at all.

There are myriad examples to pull from, so these are just a few. I’m not picking on the new (as of this writing) content. That’s actually the problem. This isn’t a one-off scenario. Hellfire Citadel was rife with this issue. Maw of Souls, as much as I love it, has this same problem in a few places, particularly with Helya. I’m not even getting into other problematic areas, like graphics being bigger than effects, effect clipping, or anything else. This is entirely about the information presentation, same as it ever was.

World of Warcraft will be twelve this month. Over the course of twelve years, the game has evolved, and many changes have been implemented. Information presentation has gotten immeasurably better in so many areas. I also don’t want to denigrate the fact strides have been made to support people like myself. Over the last three years, several colorblindness modes have been available, and that’s fantastic. I, personally, really appreciate the support. I just wish it actually helped me, because it doesn’t. I might be a niche user, but anecdotally I have encountered others with my specific issue. All it would take is some clear, contrasting delineation of effects. Yes, it might have to depart with a pure aesthetic approach. Yes, it might make the game “easier” because you aren’t doubting when you are out of something (but a) most people know and b) see above about larger areas than graphic).

But wouldn’t it be worth it to fix a core fundamental design issue?

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