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In an RTS game where the units are viewed from the top so that they appear relatively small on the screen:

What would be the best game design?

  1. Colour the units per team, for example: enemy is always red, player's units is always blue

  2. Colour the units per ability, for example: the "destroyer" is always red, the "collector" is always green, the "interceptor" is always blue, etc. This will only work with the assumption that the teams would never have the same units and that there are only a small number of different types of units per game.

  3. A combination of 1 & 2 so that the enemy is always represented by warm colours and the friendly units with cold colours. Different unit types are represented by different shades of a colour.

If I choose (1) I am concerned that the player might get confused which unit is which and for example try to attack with the wrong unit type.

If I choose (2) I am concerned that the player might be overwhelmed with too many colours and will not be able to easily tell the enemy from the friendly units.

If I choose (3) I am concerned that it might confuse the players: e.g. say the "destroyer" was light red (enemy) in one game and the next game the player switches sides so that the "destroyer" turns light blue (friendly), the player might not recognize the unit as a "destroyer".

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Humans are usually far better at spotting something of a different color than something of a different shape. Here is an example of an image with some blue pentagons: find the odd shape out Among them is a red pentagon and a blue square. Which one do you spot first?

In most RTS games it is usually far more important to be able to tell what faction something belongs to than what type it is. Therefor you should use colors to mark factions and shape for unit type.

However, keep in mind that about 8% of all men and 0.5% of all women have some form of color blindness and might have difficulty to tell colors apart which look completely different for you. There are different forms of color blindness which appear in different severities, so there is no general guideline what color combinations to avoid. As a workaround you can offer an options menu which allows the player to customize the colors used by the game. This will allow most colorblind players to configure a set of colors which works for them.

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    \$\begingroup\$ There are sites that can help you pick default colors, though, that will work for the most people, like color-blindness.com/coblis-color-blindness-simulator There are also applications for various operating systems that can change the colors on your screen, so you can actually test how your game will look to people with color vision issues. \$\endgroup\$ – uliwitness Oct 24 '16 at 12:09
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Use colours for team identification and shapes and sizes for individual unit type differentiation. This means enemies and friendlies are instantly distinguishable, and unit types look distinct whilst having a degree of consistency from team to team.

e.g red triangle is an angry enemy beserker, blue square is a happy allied collector.

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    \$\begingroup\$ To elaborate on this correct (though opinionated?) answer, look at what the greats did and still are doing. Age of Empires, C&C series, Starcraft etc. follow what @Huxellberger says. \$\endgroup\$ – lozzajp Oct 24 '16 at 10:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, sorry if I came across a bit short. You make a great point about looking at what has already worked within the industry to circumvent the issue. \$\endgroup\$ – Huxellberger Oct 24 '16 at 12:03

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