An open letter to the games industry
My name's Dan, I've run a popular text adventure on the internet since 2008 and been involved in the arcade, pinball and amusements industry since the 1990's. I'm writing this open letter today to address the visual iconography of head-up displays in video, board and tabletop games.
It's established convention that when shifting from textual representation of stats to visual, hitpoints will be denoted with HP in a textual setting and a little heart in a visual setting. Attack points can be represented as ATK or a picture of a sword, defence points with DEF or a picture of a shield. Coins as representations of in-game currency are understood in both fantasy and sci-fi settings, and a local currency symbol is understood in games in contemporary settings. Consensus has arisen about the visual language used to represent these in-game stats, and consensus is desirable. It reduces learning curves between different games and helps establish a basic ludological literacy within the population; this is good for players, good for developers, and good for the industry at large.
REQ (or your game's currency abbreviation, GP or CRD for example)
The elephant in the room is the humble Experience Point. The closest thing to consensus among game developers on how to represent XP visually is by a graphical representation of the letters 'XP.' It's unfriendly to markets without a Latin alphabet, awkward in the context of other stats having convenient generally-agreed-upon graphical shorthands, difficult to incorporate into a cohesive style - yet it persists despite its unsuitability, because no consensus has emerged around an iconographic replacement.
I personally encountered the friction that this phenomenon introduces into game development workflow while working on improvements to my game's mobile interface, and took to the game's chat to engage with my players and seek their input.
Admin CavemanJoe says "How the hecc do you make an icon for XP"
Admin CavemanJoe says "Like, experience points"
Green-eyed lady Peridot says "I dunno lol"
Admin CavemanJoe says "That isn't just the letters XP"
Admin CavemanJoe says "Has nobody figured this out yet"
King Kodiak Thanius says "I was about to say, Joe, If you can't make an icon for Windows XP, iunno what to tell you, buddy."
Green-eyed lady Peridot says "A brain?"
Green-eyed lady Peridot says "Or... A graduation cap?"
Green-eyed lady Peridot says "A light bulb?"
King Kodiak Thanius says "An upwards arrow?"
WolphStrykes says "A thumbs-up? A sparkly star?"
WolphStrykes says "A flexing bicep?"
King Kodiak Thanius says "Actually like a group of stars would be an idea"
Green-eyed lady Peridot says "A potato"
This brief discussion illustrates the lack of consensus on visual shorthand for experience points. At first, the conversation cycled through previously-discarded icons for XP.
Green-eyed lady Peridot says "A potato"
Players quickly came to the same conclusion that I had; there's no established visual shorthand.
And so, left without input by a computer gaming industry that has failed for half a century to establish consensus - I'm very disappointed in you all - we are left with the potato.
Green-eyed lady Peridot says "A potato"
King Kodiak Thanius says "^this"
Green-eyed lady Peridot says "Make the icon a potato?"
WolphStrykes is flashing back to the MLP bit where a character proudly exclaims, I didn't learn a darned thing, I was right all along, which promptly caused a flood of ZERO XP EARNED meme variations.
King Kodiak Thanius says "Yeah, just no other explanation. Jsut potato."
WolphStrykes says "Absolutely potato. And because hardly anyone expects potato, they would keep trying to explain what the icon is..."
Old Growth Lillian says "Potato is good"
TaMart CEO TaMar says "Up arrow."
King Kodiak Thanius says "Potato with an up arrow on it"
Admin CavemanJoe says "Sorry Tamar it's gonna be a potato"
Green-eyed lady Peridot says "YES"
We see in the space of just a few comments how the lack of an established consensus within the industry caused a vacuum which a suitably cooperatively-minded community will fill within seconds, as soon as a remotely-viable alternative presents itself.
Admin CavemanJoe says "Lemme see if I can squeeze that into 16x16 pixels"
King Kodiak Thanius says "ok, but why potato?"
King Kodiak Thanius says "Y E S"
WolphStrykes says "Why not potato?"
Admin CavemanJoe says "why not :D"
Green-eyed lady Peridot says "Make a variation of the minecraft potato icon maybe?"
Green-eyed lady Peridot says "Or something similar-ish"
WolphStrykes now wants a T-shirt that says Why Not Potato
Green-eyed lady Peridot says "Yes lol"
Green-eyed lady Peridot says "Potatastic."
WolphStrykes says "No punctuation, either. Leaves more to the imagination."
King Kodiak Thanius says "Joe, we need a limited run of a "why not potato" shirt"
Green-eyed lady Peridot says "No capitalization either"
WolphStrykes says "WHY NOT POTATO"
Green-eyed lady Peridot says "Just a low quality image of a potato and the caption "why not potato" in comic sans"
WolphStrykes says "Nah, not even a picture of a potato."
The Shuffler Tarot says "Hashbrowntag POTATO"
TaMart CEO TaMar reeeees
WolphStrykes says "Which is weird, coming from me. As I vastly prefer communicating in images over words."
WolphStrykes says "TAROT!"
King Kodiak Thanius says "no hear me out"
WolphStrykes merrily pronks circles about Tarot in greeting.
King Kodiak Thanius says ""Y" "*picture of a knot*" "*image of a potato*""
The Shuffler Tarot wiggles eyebrows at Wolph.
WolphStrykes immediately thinks of potato pretzel twists.
WolphStrykes waggles ear temples at Tarot.
Green-eyed lady Peridot says "No, just "why not potato" in comic sans"
Green-eyed lady Peridot says "With incorrect kerning"
The Shuffler Tarot is a poet 8 toe
WolphStrykes says "ohhh no the incorrect kerning would make me want to tear the shirt to pieces, heh"
Scaly Medic John
rolled a ridiculousness on a potato-sided die.
Green-eyed lady Peridot says "That's the point, make it as low effort and shit as possible."
The consensus is reached, the problem is solved, you're welcome, it's a potato.
I trust this puts the matter to rest. In case it doesn't, here are some anticipated questions:
Why a potato?
Why not a potato?
What does a potato have to do with experience points?
So why're you using a potato?
That's the same as the first question.
Can it be something else? Like, not a potato?
We've had over fifty years to come up with something tastier. Sorry, time's up. Someone had to make the call, and your failure to act means it's potato time now.
How long will it take to establish the potato as a universally-understood shorthand for XP?
Decades, probably, which is why we should've settled on potato right from the start. It took a long time to establish a circle broken with a line somehow meant 'Turn on/Turn off,' it took a long time to establish that a green light on a pinball machine meant ball lock, and it'll probably take a long time for people to get that potato = XP. It's likely to be a rocky and confusing transition, but I'm sure as an industry we can navigate these choppy waters together.
Are you confident that potato will ever be accepted as shorthand for experience points?
In a world where 🚺 means "toilet," sure.
What about level?
At present, Levels suffer from the same problem as Experience Points, having no commonly-accepted iconography beyond the letters "LV," but we can change that. If experience points, the currency used to earn a level increment, are represented as raw potatoes, then it naturally follows that levels themselves be represented as "final form" potatoes. There are as many possibilities for iconographic representation of "level" as there are things you can do with potatoes, and it may make sense to localize your iconography for different markets. Improbable Island is an English game, so we plan to use chips
but the possibilities are wide open. You could use baked, fried, scalloped, chipped, chopped, souped, curried, boiled, mashed, stewed; you could also, if you wish your iconography to be consistent across regions, allow the potato to grow eyes and put out roots.