It’s a padding device as old as games themselves. Throw in a little variety in your creature catalogue by changing the colours, copying the code over and slapping a completely different name on it. Cheap trick it may be, but it’s not without it’s up-sides, and it’s not impossible to do it well.
Inky, Pinky, Blinky, and Clyde became very distinct personalities in Ms. Pacman, but in the original Pacman they were just multicoloured clones of one another. Aside from the obvious advantage of giving them cool names, what benefit is there to making them different colours? It would have been simpler to leave them all the same colour, or perhaps change the colours between levels, increasing the sense of progression, but for the player, having unique colours makes it much easier to keep track of each ghost’s movements. It’d be easy for four identical ghosts to fade into your peripheral vision, and thus make them impossible to spot until too late, but changing the colours keeps the player’s attention.
Another early example of identical creature given a variety of colours, the aliens from Space Invaders: the block of sprites has a very singular strategy, one that never changes no matter how many you destroy, no matter their colour. Aside from breaking up the wall of enemies, the changes in alien design help the player track progression, although the colours have no effect on the game, the stripping away of layers is much easier to track mentally by colour than by number.
Now let’s talk about Diablo…. here’s a prime example of palette swapping gone wrong. Of all the hundreds of monstrosities Diablo 2 (for example) has to offer, they boil down to a grand total of 72 sprites for general mobs, maybe another 20 or so for unique bosses. The classic of course that we all know and love: The Fallen
Identical tactics, identical sounds and art, but with different colours! Now I don’t expect miracles from a turn of the millennium game, but I think my real question is why go to such drastic lengths with the naming scheme? I feel like it’s some poor attempt to make us believe that they’re supposed to be different creatures, and I’m not buying it. Great game, but compared to its’ contemporaries like Titan Quest or Grim Dawn (two games I talk about far too much, this is why I promised at the start of the year I was going to try and get through my Steam list) where creatures like the Satyrs are palette swapped, they’re named as different breeds, rather than different creatures.
Done well, this kind of palette swap can build up a kind of ecology, and feel within a world, make it a little more real by keeping some small level of consistency. So it really needn’t be all pointless corner cutting.
In short, I’ve grown accustomed to palette swapping, but I’m old enough now to realize that M&Ms aren’t different flavours because they’re different colours. Recently though, I’ve started observing palette swaps appearing somewhere I didn’t expect.
More and more, Games Workshop are producing twin model kits, swap a few pieces here and there on the spru and the figure counts as a completely different unit on the table, initially I was fine with that, not a big deal when the difference was between one type of tank or another, an assault sphinx or a transport sphinx:
But I find myself drawing a line when one build is an entirely different faction to the other as they have begun to be recently, and the differences are not suitably significant to be drawing that kind of distinction. I suppose my biggest question here is why? Is it to give the builder more options with the kits they buy, rather than being bound to a single model? Or is it just to save some money in plastic and moulds, because apparently the price increases just aren’t helping any more.
Call it a sideways move on the topic, but this feels like a palette swap! A cheap rehashing of old material sold as something different, and they’re not the only ones. Fans of Ashens, the action figure/cheap tat reviewer of YouTube will know how full the industry is with repainted figures resold under a different title, even as a different intellectual property. One of my favourite tabletop games is packed to the brim with palette swaps:
Resources are limited everywhere, that’s a fact, be that resource plastic, money or time. Unfortunately this means corners will be cut here and there, but at times clever design can make this kind of cheat to great advantage. This is one major incident where we can look to the past for lessons to apply today. At one time the limited resource was colour, but it was used to greater effect than perhaps it’s used today.