Details matter. Just not all the details.
I was replaying Ridge Racer on the PSP. It’s a beautifully smooth fast racing game and it looks excellent. I played it when the PSP came out back in 2004 and it still impresses today. On one track, a night city track from Rave Racer, there is a bridge over water. I had never noticed before but the water is just one flat blurry texture repeated. It’s incredibly simple for such a great looking game. This got me thinking about details.
There are two extremes in handling details when we make content and a giant gulf of grey area in between. At one end, you have the “ah, who cares?” mentality. We’ve all seen this. Sloppy work that looks or sounds unfinished. Someone made the decision to let it go and, in kids’ content, someone may well have said something along the lines of, “it doesn’t matter to a five year old.”
Then on the other side, we have the few works of almost pure perfection. Every shot, every element, every detail is a piece of art. A thing of beauty. If you zoomed into that bush you see in the background in that two-second shot, you would see impeccable texturing and colour as each leaf sways gently in the breeze.
Details matter. They matter to us and, yes, they matter to a five year old because they are part of what makes up that overall experience. So when making kids’ content, the place to aim for is closer to that perfection end. You have to care. You have to want it to be as great as you can make it.
But if you’re too far over on that scale, problems can arise. Even if you have your eye on all elements, you deplete time and resources and may fail to deliver. But the real difficulty is that it is incredibly rare that someone can keep track of all the details. As focus gets deeper into some areas, others get lost in the system. And people see your end product and think, wow, that looks incredible but the sound mix isn’t so great. Or the music is wonderful in that story kids will never ever understand. Or that would look great in a picture frame but kids have no idea what they’re looking at. You have lost the most important thing about those details – they have to come together to make up a great overall experience.
So you can’t lose sight of that big picture and you certainly can’t lose sight of your audience. Yes, the details matter. But the truth is they don’t all matter, at least not in quite the same way.
The trick is caring enough and having the knowledge to really be able to know which details count and which don’t.
When Namco made Ridge Racer for the PSP, someone made the decision not to spend time or CPU power on the water that is seen on that bridge section for around a second. They were confident in the overall experience, which needed a stable 60 frames per second, and they knew the visual details that would impress: the buildings, the lighting. They knew which details would matter. They knew that if I was looking at the sides of the screen rather than the road while going over that bridge that something else in the experience probably wasn’t working. The result is that the game has always impressed and it took me over ten years to spot that the water is just one flat texture. That’s how to get it right.