In developing games, I’m relatively new to the idea of ‘juice’ — apparently originating from a Gamasutra article where it appeared as little more than a personal footnote on presentational flair, the term appears to have been appropriated by the indie game developer scene as a cynical qualitative assessment of a game’s worth. Or a set of aesthetic trends that will appeal to current audiences. It depends who you listen to but like most things to do with games, presentation is subjective and transient.
My own first encounter with the term ‘juice’ was a little jarring. I was developing a breakout-style game, All The Balls (pictured) which was an exploration of my personal favourite element of such games – multi-ball. The pacing of gameplay is morphed from a patient and considered one into a high-pressure juggling game, and one I find more fun. So I based an entire game on the question “what if the entire game were multi-ball?”.
I asked this same question in a Facebook group post with a progress shot of All The Balls, and proceeded to ask if any other developers had thought of exaggerating a single facet of a game until it became its own gameplay mechanic. I received a solitary response, in the form of a YouTube video link, presented entirely without comment: titled, Juice it or lose it.
I had an initially very abrupt reaction to this; it seemed incredibly rude to be linked the implication that my game would be worth less if I didn’t “juice it” and without further explanation, the title of the video seemed to be the content of the comment. But I watched the video and thought: maybe I could pick up some tips. All The Balls was developed with an intentionally-minimalist aesthetic in mind to counterpoint the potential multi-ball chaos, but was maybe a little dull as a result. Maybe still is, but that’s for a reason I will talk about later.
My final reaction to the video, and one that has lasted, was something to the tune of “it’s pretty weak to exclaim that all games need to be as overblown as this with presentational details”. And I stand by this. The video makes one solitary point; that aesthetics are an important part of a player’s enjoyment of a game. But it makes it several times in terrible ways. At my partner’s behest, I have broken down this video; refuting, confirming, or amending points I feel are of contestation:
- The video begins by stating that ‘juice’ is an abstract notion. However, presentation in terms of appeal and clarity of conveyed information has long been the science commonly-referred to as ‘graphic design’. Whether in motion or not, I believe many of these fundamentals are transferable.
- The dogma of “maximum output, minimum input” seems to be very general, lazy, and limiting one’s audience to the gaming equivalent of popcorn-munching SFX-laden blockbuster movie viewers. This may or may not target a larger demographic, but isn’t for me personally. Mileage can and will vary.
- [2:24] the assumption that colour improves a game ‘feel’ by default is probably erroneous. On the one hand, colour can work well in conveying relevant information to a player. On the other hand (and especially if used incorrectly) it could also exclude certain demographics; colour deficiency is prevalent in 8% of males and 0.4% of females. It’s worth considering at least, instead of bluntly and clumsily claiming “colour instantly makes it better”.
- [2:51] ‘tweening’ is employed as a presentational element upon starting the game. It looks great! However, I feel such motion could potentially misinform a player as to the properties of game elements; rubber bounces, rock doesn’t as much. A player may need to know this.
- [5:54] the paddle is made to stretch on movement. Does this affect the collision area of the paddle? If so, this is a gameplay element and impacts on the game – overdoing this effect could be abusable by the player to make the game easier, for example.
- [6:20] many effects are applied to distort the ball upon collision with other game elements. It looks good, and in this case isn’t enough to delude the player into thinking anything has happened to the ball’s properties; such as the collision area increasing. That this isn’t mentioned frustrates me a little.
- [7:50] sound is mentioned. It is wrongly described as cost-effective (for good sound, recording equipment may come at a premium, as may hiring a professional) and the value of it as a means to convey information is understated. It is apparent that this area is not well-understood, because after some unique sound effects that do a reasonable job of conveying different types of interaction, they are promptly drowned out almost entirely by the accompanying music.
- [9:40] apparently “you can never have too many particles”. If they’re obscuring information a player needs to know about, you can.
- [11:58] the ball is given a trail here. True to this video’s modus operandi, it is overdone. However, such a tool may be useful to the player in determining a ball’s trajectory at-a-glance (via means of extrapolating from the established path, as illustrated by the trail) and also preventing it from becoming lost amid other details.
- [12:17] screen shake is employed. Without saying too much, I believe there are appropriate times and places for such an effect (that is rightly described in this video as ‘powerful’), and I may well write about this at length in the future.
- [13:02] the paddle is given eyes. There is honestly no need for this. It gives the thing character, sure. But that detracts from the pure ludological concept; it follows that a character needs a purpose, a plot, and possibly other characters to have relationships with — how much of this actually sounds like Breakout? Again, not the time nor place.
- [14:02] the game details are reset to the original monochrome and ‘juice’-less form. It is stated to be ‘boring’, but is fundamentally not much different from the version they just had up. At a glance, the colour is the change with the most impact, which further illustrates how wrong it is to take it lightly.
- [14:29] all details are added to the game, and then some. It becomes an overwhelming cacophony of audiovisual elements all competing for attention. Were there any success/failure conditions to the game displayed, it may well be frustrating to play – indeed, had I saw this fiasco before developing All The Balls, it would have effectively dissuaded me from developing the idea.
It was almost a knee-jerk response to decide to keep All The Balls as minimalistic as I did. Although I wanted it pretty monochromatic from the offset, I had kept a reasonably hitherto-open mind to including descriptive visual effects after the gameplay was completed. Instead, I reigned it in – a personal protest against the idea of juice. It’s as dull as I wanted it to be.
‘Juice’, in indie gaming circles, refers to the use of presentational flair to enhance a player’s experience of a game. Like most facets of game development, I believe this should be studied; deconstructed and analysed to its fundamentals so it can be better understood and therefore more effectively applied in real terms. The aesthetics of a game are pivotal in establishing a rapport of accurate feedback between game world and player, so they may enjoy it.
I will think further on the idea of ‘juice’ and how it is best utilised, but I certainly won’t be insisting to other developers that the impact of their own games hinges on the presence or lack of the stuff. Healthy diet, and all…