Perhaps nothing has been more hotly debated within the gaming community than the color yellow. From a Tweet that picked up more than 18 million views to thousands of messages on Reddit and Resetera, the debate over yellow design cues in video games rages on. 

This time, it’s the release of Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, the latest installment in Square Enix’s remake trilogy leaving some players frustrated. Sure, the in-game world of Gaia has never looked better, but was it always covered in this much yellow paint?

Much like Resident Evil, The Division, and the Uncharted series, Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth uses bright yellow design cues to highlight interactive details, guiding players toward the next objective. While that seems like a reasonable solution to in-game navigation, some players feel these cues detract from the game experience. Others dislike the prompts, and would rather figure things out themselves.

Game developers have always used signposting to nudge players in the right direction, from waypoints and tutorials to classic in-game iconography like the familiar explosive red barrel. 

But perhaps it’s time for an evolution in how these cues are handled (or to consider if they are still needed). 

To get to the bottom of the debate, we take a look at the argument from both sides and explore whether game developers should pack away their paintbrushes—or at least choose a new color. 

How game developers playtest navigation


(Heat map for Apex Legends) 

With few exceptions, navigation isn’t much of a player concern in modern video games. In most cases, it’s as simple as opening the map, setting a waypoint, and following your next objective. It’s easy to forget that behind the scenes, game developers invest time guiding players from point A to point B through playtesting, which can be broken down into one (or a mixture of) these three methods:

  • Observation: Game developers record or monitor a playtest and observe player behavior. They’ll look at whether or not the playtester followed the intended paths, used all the movement features available to them, and reached the target objective as intended. Game Maker Toolkit has an insightful video on how playtesting guided the open-world map design in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. 
  • Feedback: Following a session, playtesters complete a survey or take part in an interview where they’re encouraged to highlight any areas that were difficult to navigate (among many other aspects of the build). This feedback is followed up with the relevant design changes. 
  • Tracking & telemetry: Many game developers use dedicated tracking features to monitor the paths playtesters take, even generating heatmaps to highlight the areas where players spend most of their time. Developers use this data to tweak in-game environments or design cues accordingly. 

So what’s all this got to do with yellow paint? 

We can't nail it down without official confirmation from the developers behind some affected titles – a tall order, given the amount of discourse! That said, these eye-catching design cues, such as Final Fantasy VII Rebirth’s yellow cliff ledges, were likely born out of insights gleaned from such playtesting sessions. 

Developers may have observed playtesters walking right past climbable objects or spending too long exploring other map areas without progression points. Alternatively, they may have recorded heat maps of players wandering around in circles or going back on themselves instead of following the relevant progression paths to the next area. 

How yellow paint became part of game design

Climbable walls in Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth 

Today’s game developers have plenty of graphical features to utilize, enabling them to create realistic, high-resolution environments oozing with detail. But with great clarity comes great responsibility. 

The drawback is that many destructible objects and interactive aspects of the environment blend into the world more seamlessly, making them harder to see. A dash of yellow paint can often be the solution. It's designated as "neutral" within the color palette and stands apart from other hues like red, green, and blue, typically allocated to specific in-game elements such as enemies, health, and mana. 

However, some titles such as God of War (2018 upwards) and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt use alternative colors (often white) or intricate patterns. While these colors can change according to the game’s design and color scheme, the purpose is very much the same. 

Regardless of the color, plenty of screenshots show an obvious difference between interactive objects and non-interactive parts of the environment. That may make some of this argument redundant, but that’s not the full picture. Game developers often reuse assets for consistency, time-saving and cost-saving measures. In such cases, 3D assets with these design cues might end up in areas where they’re not necessarily needed as much as others. Alternatively, they may end up in areas where they clash more with other aspects of the environment.  

You could argue there’s an element of hindsight bias. It’s easy to point fingers at these games and say the developers were heavy-handed in using yellow paint. But there’s a good chance that many players would get stuck if it hadn’t been there in the first place. This can be especially true in the case of bigger budget titles, which cater to massive audiences consisting of experienced players (who need less guidance) and more casual players (who likely need extra guidance).

Is yellow paint the right solution?

A player-created mod for Resident Evil 4 Remake removes yellow paint 

It’s hard to say whether or not the use of yellow paint is the right solution, as we’d argue it all depends on the type of experience the developers are trying to create. For example, in the Assassin’s Creed series, climbing and using parkour to maneuver through the world are massive parts of its appeal. If Ubisoft highlighted the path forward in such an obvious way, it would arguably detract from the whole experience.

However, in the case of a game like Resident Evil 4 Remake, which prominently uses yellow paint, the main draw is fighting an onslaught of parasitic horrors and carefully managing your resources to survive. How it highlights aspects of the environment is generally more acceptable as there’s less focus on exploration, although some players have criticized the yellow paint design cues for breaking ‘realism’. This does seem slightly strange for a game where you rescue the President of the United States’ daughter from chainsaw-wielding cultists in a fictional European village… 

Nevertheless, it’s hard to disagree that the yellow paint can sometimes be intrusive, leading us to believe that game developers could devise an alternative. One solution could be to offer more hardcore players the option to turn off design cues entirely, as free mods on some PC versions of the affected titles already have. Shadow of the Tomb Raider explores this route with individual difficulty options for puzzles, traversal and combat – although such options can come at the cost of precious development time. 

An easier solution would be to contextualize these design cues in some way. A case in point would be Horizon: Forbidden West, which gets around the issue by having players use Aloy’s Focus (a futuristic augmented reality device) to scan the environment and highlight climbable surfaces. In the Batman: Arkham series, players can enter “Detective Mode” (an advanced forensics examination device built into the cowl of Batman's hood) to scope out interactive objects. 

Playtesting the future of navigation

Navigation is one of the most important aspects of game design. That said, there is sometimes a disconnect between how issues are highlighted and addressed during playtests. The continued discourse surrounding yellow paint in video games also highlights a need for more understanding from players around design cues and user testing in general. 

With video game visuals improving with each new release, we suspect more releases will deploy signposting solutions to nudge players toward interactive elements. This will be particularly important to cater for the growing demographic of players, ensuring players of all skill levels can enjoy new video games.

As game developers look to refine their guidance systems, iterative playtesting will be essential to designing better navigational solutions. The player feedback gathered from these sessions will help game developers confirm that their navigational aids naturally fit into the universe, supporting players as they intuitively discover their path forward.

Moderated remote playtesting is a great approach to gathering this data, as developers are observing the playtests in real-time and can ask probing questions and dig deeper. Developers can gain more understanding of the player’s mindset, and can immediately clarify what the playtester saw (or didn’t see), as well as how they feel about the cues. This level of detail goes beyond what typical unmoderated, remote playtests can uncover. 

However game developers try to solve their navigation challenge—whether it’s more yellow, less yellow, or something else entirely—playtesting will tell them when they’ve got it right. And it goes without saying, but failure to implement effective design cues will lead to a significant drop in player retention. Test early, test often, and keep learning from your players.