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The Joy of Unlockable Color Palettes

I’ve been playing a lot of Downwell since it came out recently and it’s got me thinking about the value of color and customization in games.

As you play the game you unlock additional color palettes. It’s a nice incentive to continue playing but they’re also an opportunity to personalize the game and express yourself through your palette choice.

The colors technically have no effect on the gameplay but they can completely change our perception of the game. Each color palette in Downwell has only three colors and it’s amazing how much depth and variety can be created with so little.

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Default palette, Downwell (2015)

Over time I’ve developed strong preferences for particular palettes. When I sit down to attempt a serious run I find myself favoring palettes with higher contrast, making it easy to quickly distinguish enemies. Playing late at night I might choose a softer palette with lower contrast so it’s a little easier on my eyes.

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“Lavender” palette, Downwell (2015)

Usability

Some of the palettes, while interesting, can seriously hinder the game’s usability. Inverted palettes with light backgrounds, colors that are similar in value, or colors vibrate against each other make the game more difficult and can feel mentally straining.

The palette swap also extends to the game’s menus. In some cases, this can make menu text really hard to read.

Requirements

Palette swapping like this only works in a particular type of game; it has to be minimal enough that each palette only includes a handful of colors. The effort required to build a wide color library increases exponentially as more colors are introduced.

It also works best with 2D games. I’m not sure how this idea could translate into the more visually complex world of 3D, with shadows and textures.

N++

Metanet Software’s N++ is a simple-but-deep 2D action platformer that fits this formula perfectly. It’s rooted in minimalist design thinking, visually and in its gameplay. In addition to designing their own palettes, the developers also collaborated with graphic designers to build 58 distinct palettes—8236 colors in total!

The inspiration for these palettes is varied and includes: a cat, Tokyo’s subway maps, city skylines at night, a particular design book, and old computer terminals (among other things).

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“Evening” theme, N++ (2015)

In the months leading up to the game’s release, Metanet Software published a series of posts sharing some of their inspirations and design thinking behind the various color palettes. Here’s a selection of those:

In this post they explain the influence and value of the varied palettes:

“We’re offering a selection for players to choose from, because we’re finding that they really affect your mood as you play. You can choose from bright, energetic schemes, or subtle, sedate ones, as well as many in the middle. Depending on the level, you may find that different colours help you to concentrate better.”

Luftrausers

Vlambeer’s Luftrausers is another 2D action game with a small set of distinct colors required for gameplay. The default palette is a muted daytime scene but the unlockable palettes bring in vibrant, electric colors that give the game a new and different intensity.

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Default palette, Luftrausers (2014)

There are 15 different unlockable palettes but they all seem to be optimized for the in-game experience. Some of the palettes that look great in-game can be problematic in the game’s menus. In practice, you don’t spend much time in the menus and the game encourages you to launch a new round quickly so it doesn’t break the game but it does result in some graphical weirdness.

VIDEOBALL

Action Button Entertainment’s upcoming VIDEOBALL is another 2D, graphically minimal game that acknowledges the power of color to create an experience. The game will include selectable color palettes that are used to distinguish teams and other in-game objects.

The palettes have been carefully selected to be easily distinguishable, even for players with color blindness (myself included!).

Customization

This article is concerned with full palette swaps in games but color customization has been an important part of games for a long time.

Racing games allow us to choose our car’s paint job, RPGs (sometimes) let you customize the colors of menus and dialog boxes, and multiplayer shooters often allow customization of your player’s armor, including the color of your gear. But, I’ll save discussion of those things for another article.

The Future

As the landscape of minimal 2D games continues to grow, I’m curious to see how this trend of unlockable color palettes continues.

Can you think of any other examples of palette swapping games?