How to avoid bad Color Schemes

Notice: you may want to get Krita in order to follow the steps described below.

I’ve adviced a few indie programmers with their games already. And all of them had a common issue: color choice. Good old infamous programmer art. How do you get better at it?!
Now I could bombard you guys with dry color theory in this post. But eventually this is all just “theory” and not necessarily helpful for you in practice (especially if you lack the understanding for it).

So let’s start off with applied color theory. I’ll show you some pics while explaining the basic concepts, adapted to gamedev.


 

Contrast

Every picture can be minimized to black and white, right? You have hotspots here and there that attract your attention. You have dark areas that create contrast and can be used to create multiple effects in the audience (like emotion or tension).

In the above picture, there seems to be a dark blue cloud luring over what appears to be a yellow valley. Notice the white areas on the right and left top corners of the picture that surround the darker areas. The contrast of the cloud is rather prominent, creating a tense scenery. The tilted angle adds to the dramatic display.
Now the interesting thing about this is, that a lot of this can be applied to games. You want your enemies to stand out, peaceful items also needs to be highlighted (the white areas) and obstacles that cannot be passed (dark blue cloud). And then you have your environment, that balances out those two elements (yellow/purple valley).

You do not want to have a very similar contrast for your background and your walls, for example. Or all your backgrounds, obstacles and player in the same brightness of color. It will look mushy and they won’t stand out, making your game look worse and harder to play.
Look at this picture here:

This looks like a ornamented floor, right? Let me show you what happens when I make the green tiles darker.

Now these tiles actually look more like walls that encase a tiny room. Darker. Impassable. Something you probably should not even bother messing around with!

Contrast is an important tool to set apart different elements in your game. If you have moving entities, they must be distinguishable from the rest of the environment.

Let’s take a look at this screenshot of Sonic The Hedgehog (Genesis).

The overall environment is relatively bright, happy even. Yet the enemies are still easily to spot and distinguishable from the rest because they have a very strong color (red) that does not appear in the rest of the environment. Sonic himself has a different hue than the water, too.


 

Color

So much for contrast. How to choose the correct color?
You can choose colors using color wheels or similar provided by graphics programs. If you keep moving the color wheel towards cyan in Krita and pick one color every now and then, it’s a very good starting point to figure out rough colors that fit.

Like this, I’ve chosen this color palette. Let’s imagine I want these colors in my game. These aren’t perfect, but definitely usable.

The color picture looks like this:

So let’s apply the contrast lesson here. I put the color picture layer over the contrast the black and white contrast layer. Then I applied blend mode “Darken” in Krita on the color picture layer. You can download this file here, by the way!

So the result looks like this:

…which is a pretty solid color scheme to use for your game. To modify it, you can use the HSV tool of Krita to make further adjustments. Keep in mind you will have to readjust colors to the correct contrast if you do that. The second color of “player, enemies” is too similar to the first color of “backgrounds” and may make problems in a final game!


Getting Color Schemes

You don’t have to do this process all the time. There are numerous websites and tools that help you chose a fitting color palette. One of these tools is paletton:

Another website that is very useful is www.colourlovers.com. It provides very handy, user-created palettes. The palettes displayed below are actually very interesting colors to use in a game already.


 

Choosing the right Color Scheme for your game

So how do you choose the correct coloring scheme for your game? 

It always depends what kind of game you are making and what kind of atmosphere, experience and emotion you want to create. Colors can be a very powerful tool to help achieve this, as they have a strong subconscious effect.

If you make a post-apocalyptic game, you should probably use pastel colors (colors without high saturation) – as long as it looks rotten and pale, you’re good to go!

When making a horror game, you may want to do the same. Or you maybe want to use dark colors only, with red being the only brighter color.

But not only the colors themselves are important, but also the context they are perceived. If the gameplay makes it clear there is danger near, I will perceive a red-black color scheme differently than say, a blue-black. The cold, blue colors may even create a sense of despair!

In the picture below, I created a few color combinations and listed the words that came to my mind when looking at them.

You can do the same experiment by looking at other games, movies or art and asking yourself how what you see make you feel. That also helps you figuring out a good color mood for your own game.
I hope this article helped you figure out more about colors and color schemes! What are your favorite games in terms of colors and atmosphere?

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