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Game Art for Gamers 103: Principles of Design

And how it can apply to everything in games

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Now that you’ve been briefed on the Elements of Art, it’s time to see how these elements can be combined in different compelling ways. Designing a scene is central to the artwork and can be effectively an art in and of itself.

Each one of these principles could easily merit an article on its own, but that would defeat the purpose of this article. All we’re doing this time is building awareness that these ideas exist, and displaying examples of where you might find them. These ideas span across character design, level design, cinematics, and pretty much anything in games.

Expect us to go into more detail in the future, I’m sure a lot of you are eager to learn but I’m asking for you to be patient and discuss the contents of the articles as they come.

Also understand that my application of these principles can be in either a limited or a broader scope. Meaning the principal might be applied to a logo, a character, a stage, or an entire game. That’s simply how broadly these concepts can be applied to a game.

There are a few more Principals of Design than Elements of Art. The principals are: Balance, Movement, Rhythm, Pattern, Emphasis, Proportion, Variety, Gradation, Contrast, and Unity or Harmony.


Balance is the equalization of elements in art, it is not to be confused with Unity. There are three kinds of balance: symmetrical, asymmetrical, and radial.

An easy example would be the Triforce symbol, its design clearly represents a symmetrical balance. This is commonly seen in icons logos. You’ll also find symmetry in most character design.

Asymmetry is an important one as well, it is commonly found in character design and certain scenery. A good example is Drake’s half tucked shirt from the Uncharted series, or the off centered crest on Bayonetta. On a larger scale, how a castle might have a nice and neat side, but one side seems battle damaged. Asymmetry can build interest and complexity.

Radial symmetry is a little harder, the first thing that comes to mind is radial menus. This is a very commonly used user interface system thats usually easy to handle if its well designed. But radial symmetry is most commonly used to design areas of gathering.

It might be used as the design for an arena, a temple, or anywhere people are likely to get together. A good example is the nexus in Demon Souls.



Movement is not literal but an impression. Sometimes the arrangement of objects can guide your eyes movement through a scene or character. Simply moving or looking like you’re moving isn’t enough, where is that guiding the viewer?

Call of Duty is a game thats made wonderful strides in this department through its campaign. The game tricks you into going with the flow and looking where it wants you to look by moving characters or objects in certain ways.

In this example, you’re following a soldier to a ledge and you slide down. As you slide down without warning the character immediately turns around leading your eye and your movement to follow his lead. This is an excellent design example of how movement can involve a viewer without being immediately obvious.

The very same effect is common anywhere from character design to scenery. For instance, in the scenery below from Borderlands 2, the slope of the rock formation, and the arctic lights guide your eye between various interesting objects.There might be a particular pattern that your eyes follow around the image.


Movement can also be achieved through contrast, implied lines, and patterns.


Rhythm is a type of movement that derives from regularly or irregularly repeated objects . This is probably more common in level design than anywhere. This is not to be confused with pattern although the concept is similar.

For instance in the mobile game Tiny Wings available on iOS. The gameplay centers on randomly generated waves that the bird slides on to fly. The hills and the design on them can be described as having a rhythm.


Recent and past Mario games are also a fantastic example of rhythm in a more complex form. Super Mario 3D World on the Wii U uses this constantly in its level design and presentation, as you see in the image below. Were this rhythm not there you might have a hard time navigating stages. In this case the rhythmic jumping of the fire dragons gives you information on timing, it’s easy to assume when the next dragon is coming and when you should stop progressing. Meanwhile it also looks really cool displaying that rhythm like that.

083114_0145_GameArtforG5.pngPattern (Repetition)

083114_0145_GameArtforG6.jpgPattern is different from rhythm because of its stark consistency, and its repetition it’s not really intended to create movement which separates it from Rhythm.

A great example is in Metal Gear Solid 4‘s GW Server Room, the design of the servers gives a graveyard like appearance. It’s stark and lifeless in this room.

Patterns are also a major part of game design and characters; you see repeating symbols, shapes, and colors to help you understand the world better.

For example, the yellow ledges in The Last of Us indicate climbable objects. The Red glowing eyes of the Helghast in Killzone indicate your enemy. The recurring save point in many RPG’s is a constant reminder to save. These are all easy examples of patterns in a broad scope.

Emphasis / Contrast

Emphasis is the act of placing greater attention to certain objects or areas. This can be made by sudden or sharp changes to an area implied or otherwise. Contrast is a good way to describe how this can work.

Contrast is light and dark, orange and blue, dirty and clean, etc. And is central to a interesting visual presentation.

Contrast can build emphasis by highlighting one or multiple subjects in some way.

Bioshock Infinite had a few great examples of this…


For instance, in this scene from a recent DLC for the game, the characters face is illuminated by the fire compared to the background, and also demonstrates contrast in colors too.


In this scene the intense red color and glow of Songbird’s eye forces you to look at it and follow its motions during the scene.


083114_0145_GameArtforG9.pngThis is a word you’ve likely commonly heard in various contexts. Proportion is the relationship of objects to the whole and to each other. Proportion can be applied pretty much anywhere. The size of one character to another, is a good example. Generally in games, it’s important to emphasize proportion so players don’t get confused.

For instance if an enemy is larger than you, you’re more likely to believe it’s more powerful or that you should avoid it.

Proportions can also define characteristics, for instance artists often use headcounts for characters proportions. For Bravely Default, a character’s artwork is roughly 7 heads high, while the chibi styled in game character is about 3 heads high. The difference is while one looks more serious or attractive, the other might seem cute or immature instead.


Variety is made through diversity and change, this can be done using different line types, colors, and shapes.


Sunset Overdrive seems to be really good example of this, as each screen shot seems to want to throw as many colors at you as you can take. It does this while still maintaining an overall visual feel and consistency, which is an impressive success.


But the game most people are probably familiar with having variety is Katamari Damacy, another game that likes to throw as many colors at you as it can all the time. Whether it’s the giant rolling ball of everything or when the game feels like throwing a flurry of hearts at you. There’s always something different being thrown at you.


Gradation is a lot like Value, but this is in relation to composing a scene. Maybe it’s the transition of a dark urban setting into a bright city, the light at the end of a tunnel, or maybe the fog on the horizon.


Fog is probably the most popular form of gradation that’s been used in the industry for a long time. It’s often used to create a gloomy atmosphere, but also helps mask draw distance issues.

Another form of gradation is focal blur (aka. Depth of Field) which is similar to fog in that it affects the impression of depth, but its used to bring objects into focus. As seen here in Battlefield 4 the characters face is the sharpest object in the scene while the background falls into a blur. This effect is processed by a gradient of sorts.

Surely there are many more ways to show gradation but going over them all would take up the page.

Unity and Harmony

Unity relates to a sense of oneness, wholeness, or order in art. Where you would combine similar lines, shapes, colors, textures, and more in an artwork to create harmony.

You can think interconnecting arms of characters, the link of a chain, or even a flow between objects.

I think this is a difficult concept for games, and I was having a hard time finding a proper subject. More often than not, games seem to want to show diversity more than anything even if the scope of that diversity might be narrow to some.

But the strongest example of unity I can think of is in Okami when you rejuvenate an area.

Watching this sends chills down my spine, the game is doing everything it can to inspire unity. First to revive the tree you had to actively draw a circle which can mean unity. The tree then spirals into flowers and radiates its power to the area around it.

While doing so it’s like the whole world goes into a unified dance, even the water seems to be jumping happily.

And this isn’t the only sign of unity in the game, it’s brimming with it in symbolism at every turn. Leading to display unity in one of the best endings I have ever experienced.


The 1UP for this week might be a hard one. As I explained with Okami some games can be described entirely with one of these principles.

There are many games where the design seems to focus on one of these principles over another.

For example, the transition in Okami from darkness to light as you travel is a form of gradation. If you were to see a map of Okami’s world as you traveled you would see a world being gradually revived by light.

Find examples like this, where a Principal of Design might describe a games visuals or overall experience.

Tell me your ideas in the comments, and keep in mind there’s really no wrong answer.

Next Week

Next week will be an introduction to color theory. Color theory is fairly scientific, but gives some basic ideas for why some color combinations work well together over others.

  • KingKellogg The Waffle Haggler

    The Nexus in Demons souls was such a cool place. I miss it.

    As for the one up thing Im gonna go with Dragons Dogma, just cause I liked its day to night changes, when night fell it was so terrifying at first. Weird Ghost would come out and zombies and ogres, when you are low level it is intense and awesome, but then the light comes bringing safety again.

    • BasedWolf

      That’s definitely a good example :D