I am working on a 3D space game using OpenGL and C++ and I am planning to focus on giving the game modern, eye-catching graphics, but the more I think of it the more I realise I don't really know what makes graphics "good". Sure, I can go and play some well known AAA games and bask in the amazingly put together graphics, but I don't really know how the graphics looks good. (this is why I consider games to be an art!)

This is what I can think of now:

  • High quality textures
  • High quality models
  • A good lighting model
  • Bumpmapping + specularity mapping
  • High quality UI, if applicable
  • A wealth of not-overdone posteffects

I'm asking here in the hope of an experienced game developer who has produced games and know how they work inside and out can explain some techniques that warrant a game's graphics to look "good", and some not-well-known quirky tips. That'd be awesome.


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    \$\begingroup\$ The same thing that makes a painting look good :) Artistic elements that go well together, and are pleasing to the eye. The paint and brushes you use (technical details) are not as important. \$\endgroup\$
    – user15805
    Commented Jan 17, 2013 at 18:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ Relevant - Graphics vs Aesthetics penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/graphics-vs.-aesthetics \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 17, 2013 at 22:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ By the way, when I may suggest a 3d space game which is really beautiful in my opinion: The 10 year old Freelancer. It makes an astronomer wince, but gosh, it's beautiful! \$\endgroup\$
    – Philipp
    Commented Jan 17, 2013 at 22:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ Minecraft has terrible graphics, but arguably has some beautiful scenery and views. Its more about the game ethos and the story. If those are good then that will have much more of an influence over how the game looks. \$\endgroup\$
    – user25293
    Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 10:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ Another idea is prebaked textures. For example you can render full raytraced lights and shadows (but only for static stuff). Otherwise realtime Global Illumination is coming along. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 10:59

10 Answers 10


This may sound surprising on the face of it, but actually isn't: The higher you make the graphical resolution, polygon count, colour depth and whatnot, the easier it is for your game to look terrible. The crucial component in enjoying an audio-visual artwork is the mind: Your mind knows that you are looking at a flat computer screen. You are willing to accept that and not be bothered by it, and instead construct the mental image of the world that is being portrayed in your mind.

Now, if the visuals are highly stylized, sketchy or pixelated, the mind is attuned to that, and factors that out as "background" -- it doesn't get in the way of the mental construction of the scene. That's why a game like the original Monkey Island, with its 320x200 resolution, can get away with a door animation that consists of only two frames: We already accept that the scene is a pirate tavern, and we have no problem accepting that the door just opened.

But if you have a high resolution and want to go for photo-realism, then the mental expectations go up dramatically. It's no longer obvious that we're faced with visual fiction, and the mind does a lot less of the internal reconstruction work. The more realistic the input, the less the imagination is at work filling in the details. The (possibly unintended) side effect is that you as the designer must now go and produce all the details in actual graphics and 3D modelling. You've successfully un-outsourced the imaginative work from your consumer and signed your graphics design team on to the task.

An ill-fitting visual style and appeal can be a huge problem. If you ever felt that a game looks more like an Excel spreadsheet than a computer game, you know that the visual design has gone wrong.

As a consequence, you shouldn't try to aim for realism as much as for a coherent visual style. Realism doesn't give you immersion. On the contrary, it makes it vastly more difficult to achieve immersion. By contrast, having a unique, memorable visual style may be far simpler to produce and may well make your game recognizable, memorable and fun.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "If you ever felt that a game looks more like an Excel spreadsheet than a computer game" - Eve Online anyone? \$\endgroup\$
    – Isaac Fife
    Commented Jan 17, 2013 at 22:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ @IsaacFife: I was also thinking of several open-source game remakes. Open-source games often have enthusiastic programmers, but very few artists. So the maths is all there, but the look and feel is awful. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kerrek SB
    Commented Jan 17, 2013 at 22:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ @IsaacFife: I too thought of Eve immediately, but I think it's really different. Eve does have an art direction and a consistent, well-executed style. The Excel-feeling comes more from the mechanics and the UI-style (as opposed to art-style). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 14:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ "The higher you make the graphical resolution, polygon count, colour depth and whatnot, the easier it is for your game to look terrible." I think this statement ties with the uncanny valley effect... it's not just for humans or other characters. \$\endgroup\$
    – ChrisC
    Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 21:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ Comparing Monkey Island with the original Alone in the Dark (released 2 years later) is a good example how good 2d can look much better than bad 3d. \$\endgroup\$
    – Philipp
    Commented Jan 22, 2013 at 14:56

You are focusing a lot on the technical aspects, but you seem to totally forget about something which is much more important than any graphic engine features:

The design!

  • Models and textures which have an unique look, but still follow consistent themes
  • Scenarios which look diverse, but still fit together
  • Well-chosen color palettes which support the mood of the game
  • Lighting that is used to set and enhance the mood of each scenario

The player won't care about hyperlinear-ultra-multipass-highdef-anisotropic-super-occlusion-dynamic-parallel-megashader-rendering, when you use it for ugly, uncreative models in a boring environment.

On the other hand, look at all the independent game studios which create truly beautiful games with minimalistic graphic engines.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the consistency is key. As an extreme example, the most perfectly constructed and rendered model would look jarring and silly in a 2D platformer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Wilduck
    Commented Jan 17, 2013 at 23:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ Very good answer. High quality textures should be a lesser concern. Models and lights are more important. The design and overall cohesion is the most important. That is precisely what gives this "professional" appearance. The UI is very important. Look up "civilization wars" on miniclip.com. The cohesion and design of this small browser game are good while the rest isn't very impressive. \$\endgroup\$
    – Yves
    Commented Jan 17, 2013 at 23:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ I tried to enable hyperlinear-ultra-multipass-highdef-anisotropic-super-occlusion-dynamic-parallel-megashader-rendering once. Once. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex
    Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 11:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, consistency is key. In addition to that, simplicity is of importance -- less is more. Put something there because it means something and it complements the overall landscape of the game. Manpower is precious, don't waste it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Roy
    Commented Jan 21, 2013 at 18:05

Cohesion? I think that's most crucial. A certain technology certainly isn't going to make a game look good, there are countless examples of games with, in its time, state of the art tech, but they didn't look good.

When you say "high quality", what defines a quality model is subjective.

If you had written "high resolution textures" or "high polygon-count models" I would say no, that's not necessary, and not a sign of quality.

Most of this will come down to artistic ability, working within your constraints and still making something look good is truly art.


Some of the most gorgeous games do not adhere to any singular principle of what's 'good' and 'not good'. From what I've seen in both AAA and indie game space is an extreme amount of focus placed on style, consistency and theme. To elaborate:

This covers anything from the color palette chosen, level of detail, the choice between richly rendered 3-d assets to painstaking pixel-art. When you see an out-of-context screenshot from games you find visually striking, you can often recognize the game immediately. This is because the artists responsible took the time not only to define a visual style in which to create everything, but have refined it to a point where it can be nothing else besides what it is. On the flip side, games that have a muddy or nonspecific visual style do not strike the same chords with us visually.

Examples of striking visual style:

  • Braid (2-d pixel/painted art and backdrops. Visible brushwork on both canvas and characters. Fluid yet simple animation. Saturated colors that tend to bleed into one another, contributing to the 'dreamy' feeling of the levels.)
  • Borderlands (3-d with painted textures, hard silhouettes/outlines, exaggerated proportions, grimy and dusty metallic surfaces, and lots of harsh lighting)
  • Fez (2-d pixel art. A very mild color palette that balances vibrant color with pastels and muted primaries. Geometric blocks/tiles, and lots of symmetry)
  • World of Warcraft (Simplistic but extremely refined 3-d models with richly painted textures. A clear distinction between color palettes in reference to different zones, cities, racial consistencies and themes of building construction and apparel/accessories. Large feet/shoulders, distinctive posture and excessive attention paid to communicating through body language)

In order to achieve these kind of results, an artist needs to be able to envision not only the end-vision of the style in question, but how it can be used to complement gameplay and add to the user experience. The less artists at your disposal, the more diverse a skillset they will require. A single artist creating the visual assets for a 3d title will need to have a firm grasp of the following and more:

  • Construction and animation of 3-d models
  • 2d image projection/texture mapping creation
  • An understanding of architectural style and settings
  • The ability to build a 'scene' from foreground to background and everything in-between
  • An understanding of setting, mood and how to extract the desired emotional impact of both the world and the characters that live in it.

I am only scratching the surface here, but that's because to attempt to apply something so varied as art into silos of 'good' and 'bad' is complicated.


You need skilled artists.

All the technical stuff can help a bit to make the work of the artists better appreciable, but the truth is that you can get a perfectly capable rendering engine for free or very cheap, and a better engine will only increase the quality marginally.


To begin, I think it's important to point out the obvious. A good looking game does not necessarily mean it has good graphics. And one doesn't have to look any further than Nintendo to see how it is done.

Take Wii Sports for example. One of the most successful games of our generation and it has horrible graphics on a purely technical level. However, the look of the game is by all accounts a tremendous success. So what did it do right?

In my personal opinion, it's because the target demographic interested in the game bought into its presentation. They expected a certain product when they picked up the title, and the title delivered on their expectations if not surpassing them. To me, that's the fundamental point. It has to touch the player somehow and how to go about achieving this will depend on who you are targeting.

That's the reason when I picked up Playstation Allstars for my PS3 recently, I was disappointed by the "graphics". I was expecting it to look more like Smash Bros, but instead everything looked quite cold and bland in comparison. Not only did it not meet my graphical expectations, it did not excite any new emotions, so I just ended up being disappointed. (To be fair, the gameplay is fun).

I would also use this argument with Diablo 3. Technically a fabulous looking game in nearly every aspect. However, it still disappointed many core fans because it changed the dark tones that were so prevalent in the first and second iteration.

Good graphics is just like any other art form. It's more than the sum of its parts and has to touch on the player's emotions at that specific point in time. Thus, I'd argue that there is no secret sauce to it because our tastes are constantly changing over time. What looks good today may not look so good tomorrow, yet looks good again the day after that.


A game with lambert-shaded polygons or wireframe models can look good! All kinds of games have looked good, historically, and still do.

An old arcade machine running Battlezone looks good.

The main thing is for everything to be robust, highly playable and not exhibit any flicker or tearing (use double buffering or blitting of whole frames from an off-screen buffer, ideally synchronized to the vertical retrace of the display device).


Basically you have 2 things:

1) Art

2) Effects

Art is all about just putting the world exactly as the artist envisioned it. This means having a killer artist who can design a cohesive world with fantastic looking textures. As long as you have enough texture memory, you can make a scene exactly as the artist envisions it / authors it in a 3d modelling package.

Effects. These are the real-time effects you lay on top of the already awesome art, like your standard particle engines and bloom effects and better looking execution of the artists vision using things like order-independent transparency.



It's not the only thing that matters, of course, but it's very jarring if there's not a consistent point-of-view throughout a game. People have made great games with all level of graphic quality. Look at Kingdom of Loathing; a great web-based game that is consistent in its graphic quality (low) and humor (even lower). World of Warcraft has a graphic style that has been consistent since the old RTS games (at least from Warcraft II, the original had a very different style). Braid had that beautiful hand-drawn painting style.

In other words, people may buy into your vision or they may not, but there should be a consistent vision.


1) The models

2) Clearly and decidedly SHADING. Programing crazy shaders will give you exeptionnal graphics.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Please provide more details instead of just two short lines without any meaningful explanation. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 7, 2014 at 9:02

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