Colour is an important part of modern video games. It’s not just there for decoration it serves numerous practical purposes: it can distinguish between safe and dangerous areas, show scoring opportunities, highlight significant details and much more.
Colour is simple and important – but a lot of games get it wrong.
According to statistics, around 8% of men (as opposed to only 0.5% of women) have some form of colour vision defect. There are lots of different types, the most common being what’s described as red-green colour blindness. However people with bad colour vision can have problems distinguishing between a variety of colours, especially if they’re subtly hued – see the Colour Blind Awareness site for more details.
I’m one of the 8%. Unfortunately it seems that many game designers aren’t, which means a lot of games use colour combinations that make them difficult or impossible for me to play.
Examples of Colour Problems
Here are a couple of examples from Factorio, one of my favourite games, of the sort of colour choices that give me trouble. If you have normal colour vision then you probably won’t understand the problem – which is the point of this post!
In the image on the left, red and green are used to distinguish between the Logistic and Construction range of a network. For me it’s really difficult to tell where one starts and the other ends, especially at night as shown here. The ground colour underneath makes it worse.
That’s irritating, but the image on the right is more serious. Here the green circle represents your range for launching capsules in combat. My reaction looking at this is: “What green circle?” It’s almost invisible to me, even looking at that static image. Trying to see it whilst running around dodging aliens is impossible for me – I just have to guess.
I’m not suggesting Factorio is especially bad in this respect. It’s not. It’s a game I still play despite these issues – there are many other games I’ve given up on because the colour choices make them unplayable.
How can designers fix the colour problem, make their games more accessible and possibly gain access to the 8% of the male market they’re missing?
The most important thing is to think about the issue. Don’t assume that everyone sees your game the way you do – upload a few screenshots to one of the excellent colour blindness simulators on the web.
The easiest way to solve problems is to avoid frequently confused colours such as red and green in a context where the difference matters. Use red-blue or purple-yellow instead.
That’s fine for an abstract game but sometimes red and green are just natural choices, eg for fire and earth. And easy to distinguish colour combinations sometimes look violently unpleasant to people with normal colour vision. So other options are needed.
If you must use red and green, at least make them vibrant shades rather than subtle ones. It wont help everyone but will make things easier for many of us.
Best solution of all: don’t rely on colour. Add another element such as shape or outline alongside it. If you’re designing the graphics for a match three game, make the blocks different shapes as well as different colours. For a bubble shooter add extra symbols inside the bubbles. If your game has network lines of different colours, make some of them dotted or hashed. If colours indicate boundaries, draw a line as well. If you really hate the aesthetics of that then allow the user to switch it on or off.
Here’s how it could look in my Factorio examples:
A tiny change and possibly a reduction in beauty, but a massive increase in accessibility.