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All You Need to Know About Game Background Design

Alto’s Odyssey by Team Alto

Have you ever paused a game just so you can take a moment to appreciate the beauty of its landscapes and take in the sights? If yes, then you know the value of a good game background design.

The game background design is often part of Game Environment Design. However, for simpler games, especially 2D ones, the game background can make up the entire game environment.

Environments are the most common type of background in games. However, In some games non-environmental elements such as particles, patterns, gradients, flat color, or lightning act as the game’s background.

Game Background Design With Skybox

As the name suggests, Skybox is a technique for creating skies for games background. While some games (especially older ones) use flat drawings with some filter as the sky, using Skybox efficiently makes the player believe there is a vast sky over the heads, kilometers away.

rage bethesda - skybox - game background design
Rage by Bethesda. That beautiful sky fills you with a sense of wonder. Those distant pale mountains are also part of the Skybox.

While it’s mostly used to create skies, you may use Skybox to add depth to a deep chasm, create oceans, or the illusion of outer space. A Skybox can make up the entire background of a game, or only parts of it.

It is called a box because Skybox is in fact a cuboid shape object that encloses the game level. The image of the sky, distant mountains, and other unreachable objects are projected on the inner surfaces of the cube.

The player is placed exactly at the middle of this box, and the Skybox moves with the player in the same direction, so it appears infinitely far. Because no matter how much you run, it still feels far away.

This image illustrates the concept of the Skybox technique for a better understanding

Rendering huge 3D skyscapes take a heavy load on the computer. However by using Skybox you can create the same feeling for the viewers, with a fraction of that computational load. Even with fully animated Skyboxes, it’s still a lot more efficient to use them to create beautiful, immersive backgrounds.

Game Background Design With Patterns

Repeatable patterns are commonly used as game backgrounds. This pattern can consist of simple graphics, abstract images, or even a silhouette of the game’s objects. In some cases, the pattern is slowly moving. Take Angry Birds 2 for example, here they have used a pattern as background for the game’s UI.

angry birds 2 - join a clan - game background design
I love Angry Birds because it’s the epitome of “simple but effective” design.

To design these patterns, you should tap into the core atmosphere of your game. Use the shape of the objects that are iconic or hold special meaning in your game world. Surprisingly enough, Rovio Entertainment has used the image of angry birds as a pattern background for their game!

Game Background Design With Gradient & Flat Colors

The simplest kind of game background, single color or a gradient can be used as the entire background. This type of background is commonly used for Hyper Casual and Minimalistic Games. “Rise Up” and “Color Switch” are two examples of such games.

flat color game background - gradient game background - rise up game
These types of backgrounds are highly favored by indie developers

Environmental Game Background Design

As we mentioned, environments are the most common type of Game Background Design. To gain more information about game environments and their various features, please check out the below article by Pixune.

Read More: 10 Most Common Challenges of Designing Great Game Environments

In 2D games, the environment is sometimes part of the game level, and other times it just serves an aesthetic purpose. For example, in “Bubble Witch Saga” the environments that were designed as the background have no gameplay function, but still, add aesthetic value to the game.

In 3D games, environmental design refers to creating non-functional objects like buildings, trees, lamp posts, or particles like fog or haze. This type of design is heavily used in games with urban and closed-off settings. However, Skyboxes are almost always used to complete environmental background design.

Functional vs Aesthetic Game Backgrounds

So far we have categorized game backgrounds based on the technique that goes into their creation. But we can also categorize them based on their purpose. This categorization is very useful, as the game background design principles are different for each.

pixel art - pixel game - pixelated - pixune game - game background design
Pixel game art by Pixune. The game background is blurred to keep the players focused on the game level.

If the background only serves as aesthetics like in “Bubble Witch Saga”, then it must be easily distinguishable from the main elements of the game. For example, all backgrounds are blurred so they’re efficiently separated from the rest of the game. This will ensure that the player is not confused or distracted from the action happening on the screen.

On the contrary, in “Rayman Adventures” the environment and the background are part of the gameplay. You jump from cliffs, land on the grass, pass the bridges and bounce on the flowers to get to higher heights. So, players must clearly see the environmental and background elements to interact with them.

8 Suggestions to Create Great Game Backgrounds

No matter what type of game background you want, here are 8 universal tips to make any background look better!

Color Palette

Don’t forget to use a color palette. Your game can potentially have several beautiful backgrounds that are out of sync with each other. That will feel like each background belongs to a different game and is made by a different artist.

Lighting

To express the importance of lighting in games we can have 100 articles and it still wouldn’t be enough. So, to make the point clear, just take a look at the image below to understand the miracle of good lighting in game backgrounds. Just look at those magical rays!

A work by our talented artist, Erfan Malek Hosseini

Blur the Unnecessary

As we mentioned, if the background serves only aesthetic purposes, it’s better to blur or darken it to make it more distinguishable from the action of the game.

Animate Backgrounds

Don’t forget to use animation. In environmental backgrounds, you can animate elements such as bushes, flowers, terrain, or clouds. If you’re using pattern backgrounds, you can slowly move it around.

Use Parallax Layers

In side-scrolling or top-down games, you can use Parallax to add a 3D effect to your 2D game. Accordingly, different layers of background move at a different pace. So, more distant layers move slower to add a sense of distance. And the closer ones move faster.

paycars pixune - parallax layers - game background design
It might not be clear by the first look, but we used 6 different layers for the relatively simple “PayCars” game.

Add Particles

You can mix some particles and VFX into your game background design to make it look even better and more alive. However, don’t overuse it. It can get in the way of the game’s main graphics and put a heavy load on processors.

Change Animation Speed

In more exciting parts of the game, you can increase the background speed. We did this for “PayCars” to great effect. In the final levels, we increased the background speed to make the players feel the car is moving faster, thus adding to the excitement.

Play With Hue

If your game’s background is flat or gradient color, you can change its hue as much as you need. This depends on your game. However, we suggest you to play around with color in games that use flat color or gradient as the background.

As simple as it may be, a simple change of color can have a profound effect on the experience.

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