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Who cares what it looks like?

November 11, 2007

At what point do gamers learn that pretty graphics matter in games?

This summer, while I was blowing money on the cheap Wii downloadable games, my daughter was playing right along beside me. We played all the Mario games, the Sonic games and even Ecco the Dolphin. Ecco was her idea, and she ended up not liking it just as much as I didn’t like it 20 years ago. It was fun to replay these games with my kid. For her they were incredible new experiences. Ratchet & Clank, her favorite game, actually took a long rest while we enjoyed playing Mario together.

She’s six, and she’s really into games. Interestingly, she has yet to utter this key phrase: “The graphics suck.”

I suspect it’s because no one told her that graphics matter when one judges the quality of a game.

Sure, they matter in terms of communicating visual information. If your HUD is illegible, then yes, the graphics do suck. If they fail to deliver the information that the player requires or deliver way more information than the player can possibly process in time to make a decent decision, they suck.

They matter in terms of technical and aesthetic artistry. Gears or War is breathtaking to me today just as Myst was breathtaking to me when it first came out. I will even go so far as to say that great art in games can pull us in and make us really feel a part of a particular make-believe world. There’s no real argument there. At some point, though, the game takes over, because the “wow” of the graphics has worn off.

Imagine going to a movie theatre and staying for 10 hours to watch a film with amazing cinematography but a weak narrative. Fortunately, players are only marginally fooled by great graphics. Judging by the people I hang out with, the veil wears thin quickly and news that a game’s not much more than show is revealed. Anyone who’s ever fallen for a beautiful game only to find out 20 minutes in that wasn’t all it was cracked up to be know what I’m talking about.

Rather, it’s the mechanics that hold you.

As an industry, we have been in a graphics race ever since I can remember. In 1981, it was a really big deal that the Wizardry intro screen was in color. Then came 2D and 3D. I remember seeing a game called “Underworld” for the first time. It was painfully slow (on my 386, everything was, I suppose), but honest to goodness, it looked like pure magic on the screen. If you’ve never seen anything that was truly “awe”-some, this would have done it for you. That game eventually went on to become Ultima Underworld. It was the first time I had ever seen smooth scrolling 3D.

In my own experience, I know that graphics matter, but the moments that I remember are exactly that – moments. Wizardry 1, pictured here, was an experience that lasted years, and I think it’s partly because we were constrained by technology, and therefore, as a player, I was forced to imagine and, thus, become an active participant.

Wizardry 1

At the same time, I can answer my own question – “Who cares what it looks like?” We all do. Would Wizardry 1 sell as well now with its existing graphics? No. Maybe as an indie title or a Wii download or something on Gametap. I’d buy it three times. However, player expectation demands that artists deliver the vision just as much as designers must deliver the mechanics that run under the hood.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Brian permalink
    November 11, 2007 10:17 am

    And then you have people like me who prefer older graphics.
    I’m not sure I can fully vocalize why I love older game graphics, but I have decided nostalgia isn’t entirely a factor, as I was in love with such graphics even at the time.

    It might have to do with the iconic nature of earlier graphics.
    The sort of phenomenon described in McCloud’s Understanding Comics, where the more iconic a figure is, the more we relate to it.
    I see the uncanny valley theory being connected to this idea as well. 8-bit original Mario, awkward lump of pixels that he is, is so abstract it’s disarming. It’s when he’s made to look more realistic when it starts to creep me out, because the more it makes me imagine if Mario was a real living person and how freakishly proportioned he would be, which is really not where my mind should be going when playing a game.
    Cartoon or not, the more detailed a character, the more likely it’s going to be scrutinized in the uncanny valley sense.
    So, perhaps the aesthetic of older game graphics was itself “fun”, because it was more goofy looking, abstract, and wasn’t trying too hard.

    I honestly hated the time when games transitioned from 2d-to-3d. Even though on the technical side, it was certainly a leap forward – to my artistic eye, it looked like a huge jump backwards. Early 3D looked really ugly, compared to the increasingly detailed and emotive sprite art of the time. 3D art has since caught up in those areas – although you still more often find very non-emotive, wooden 3D characters. Uncanny valley ahoy!

  2. November 11, 2007 3:51 pm

    Yeah, graphics definitely do matter these days. Does story matter? Does sound matter? Would Bioshock feel the same way if you played it without any sound?

    Each element are increasingly important these days. With the improvement of technology gamers just expect the improvement of immersion. 3D sound, spectacular graphics, a great storyline.

    Just like how we still enjoy all those old games we used to play back in the day, newer generations are growing up with these awesome graphics. And they expect more, not less.

  3. November 12, 2007 2:24 am

    I had to test this, and played Bioshock for a full 10 minutes without any sound. It was painful, frustrating, and enlightening. I’m a firm believer that simple games, like Chip’s Challenge and Nethack should be more commonplace. Because of the ease of development of these games, ongoing stories and massive multiplayer worlds are very possible, full of player-generated content. Because the content is so simple, it’s relatively easy to procedurally create.

    By this, I don’t mean games like Spore. Browser-based games are becoming increasingly popular, even games like Urban Dead, which has no graphics at all. It has a half-million players, and a truly massive wiki of player-generated content and storyline.

    Now, that type of game is definitely geared toward a certain type of play style. An action game is almost completely visual and audible, requiring little to no imagination but lots of reaction. Your mind doesn’t need to create anything, it just needs to react. I believe that certain styles of games are becoming played-out. Action games have been done in nearly every conceivable fashion. Puzzle games are becoming more popular(portal), and massive sprawling games (spore) (mysims) are coming into their own. I love action games as much as the next gamer, but really: do we need another Gears of War? What will it offer that the first didn’t? What does Gears offer that Tomb Raider didn’t?

  4. November 12, 2007 3:04 pm

    This is the first time I’ve heard of Urban Dead… That is amazing how large their player base has grown from such a simple concept… Heck, I don’t think any current MUDS have anywhere near that amount. I could be wrong.

    I’m going have to fiddle with this thing tonight.

    While there have been the same redundancy with Action games, I have heard people say the same sort of thing with MMORPG’s. “Oh gawd, another MMO-RPG!” I think this falls into the developers hands to make a truely unique feeling to the game, or to throw a twist in it so that it doesn’t feel like the same ol` Action game, or MMORPG game.

    Examples: Crysis, and, Age of Conan

    Crysis blended two concepts from two different games to bring them together, this is in addition to the utilization of DX10. Updated graphics is something that did pull me into wanting to play this game.

    Age of Conan redeveloped it’s combat system to have more of an Arcade type. Where you can produce combo’s — the skill is derived off of the player.

    I haven’t played AoC, so I can’t vouch a whole lot but that it is something completely new to the MMORPG arena.

  5. ai864 permalink
    November 12, 2007 3:18 pm

    When will we learn that it’s the gameplay more than the graphics that keep you around?

    About the same time we learn that it’s not the looks of the person you date, but their personality that matters.

    So… um… we should be getting there any day now, right? Right?

  6. TJLK permalink
    November 12, 2007 10:30 pm

    My good friend Chris and I were talking about this in the car the other night. Graphics won’t ever make a game good and it won’t ever make a game bad. Perhaps it can make a game seem slightly better or worse than it is but to me graphics do not make the game. Same applies to audio and narrative. All these things do matter, but not nearly as much as game play.

    I think any game could be fun without the pretty images to accompany them. I think games like Katamari Damacy and Wario Ware: Smooth Moves are strait-up ugly. But they are fun games for most people. Pokemon still doesn’t offer an amazing visual or audio experience but it continues to succeed because it is a good game.

    Perhaps some genres are more reliant on sound, graphics and narrative than others are. I’d personally would find it more important for a FPS to be pretty than an RTS.

    Of course I couldn’t ever consider myself an average gamer so I suppose I could be wrong in terms of sales. Other super-dorky gamers like myself will agree that it is all about the way the game plays and not the way it looks. But I guess if you are trying to sell a product you have to give the audience what they want. But since when does the audience even know what they want?

  7. drummingpariah permalink
    November 14, 2007 12:36 am

    I’m going to say that there are exceptions to the graphics/sounds-don’t matter. In some cases, they can make a game really stand out above the rest. Here’s an example:

    The (relatively) recent World War 2 fad that’s been going on and generating so many clones was (again, relatively) recently underdog’d by Relic in Company of Heroes. It was wildly successful and well-received, and got reviews stating that it was a more immersive WW2 game than the FPS games of its time.

    In essence, it’s just a new rendition of the Close Combat series, which was the last WW2 game I enjoyed until Company of Heroes. It now has new shiny graphics and a MORE INTUITIVE INTERFACE. The interface and graphics go hand-in-hand. Knowing what’s going on (or having too much smoke and debris from artillery to be able to see what’s going on) sucked me in. I never once struggled with the controls, never had a complaint about the sound quality, and everything about the game drew me in further.

    The graphics and sounds were at the forefront. Admittedly, this is an exception to the hard-to-bend rule that gameplay is first and foremost, but marrying important aspects of games together is equally important. Two good features are worth more than one great feature. That is why graphics often lose points. So much effort is placed on graphics that nothing else is even touched.

    However, designing games is hard. It’s very hard. You can’t develop a gameplay prototype without having the graphics engine in place already. It’s not easy to just patch better graphics in after you’ve playtested. A designer is therefore forced to “guess” at what will work. The only way around that is to use established framework, which is both good and bad (and universally expensive).

    As far as Crysis goes, let’s compare that to Bioshock. Crysis looks a lot like halo with less armor and better physics. Bioshock looks like a beautiful world with an LCD screen being my window into it. The two games invoke a vastly different reaction in my mind. I’ll probably go get Crysis, but Bioshock was must-have. It’s the same for the Fallout series. Anyone who played the old games (or still does) was dragged into the world helplessly by its depth and span. It was HUGE, and there really was a whole world there. Once again, graphics were good enough to stay out of my way and keep me from complaining. Everything else was the best that it could be.

    With the technology we now have, even Flash games are becoming fun. Game systems can become complex without making interfaces and rule systems for the player overwhelming. Well, this ended up quite a bit longer than was expected for a comment. Back to designing the city for my own game.

  8. stef1987 permalink
    November 14, 2007 2:38 pm

    I totally agree with you.

    I always liked nice graphics in games, but I though it was a shame that the focus was always on the graphics when trying to improve games.
    When I got a PS2, I thought, that’s it, that’s as good as the graphics need to be, there’s no point in improving them now.

    I hoped that with the new consoles, the improvement in the games would be on the other aspects rather than graphics.
    Yet it seems that it is pretty much only that that has improved again.

    There could be done so much more, but most people don’t even seem to notice that.
    Lots of people I know state “what else can they improve on ?” (with “they” beeing the game developers)
    They think that graphics is all that matters, a 2D game isn’t even worth playing for them.

    I had so many ideas for the new Ratchet & Clank on the PS3,
    there was so much they could improve on because of the new hardware, if only they left the graphics the way they were.
    Yet it seems that the new Ratchet&Clank is the same as the previous ones, only with a nicer, cleaner look.

    And don’t get me wrong, I love the Ratchet&Clank games,
    but I think it just won’t feel as great anymore if they keep the formula the same

  9. November 15, 2007 11:09 am

    I played “endless zombie rampage” for three hours last night with a friend, taking turns back and forth. That game is amazing, and there’s next to nothing to it. I’m going to put a link up here, but I’m wary about that, as you may not end up coming back again.

    It’s a perfect example of getting graphics to the point where they’re good enough to get the point across, and add to the game’s feel. After that, it’s just developers spending too much time on little things. Low-tech isn’t a problem as long as it’s well-polished and doesn’t interfere with an otherwise good gameplay experience, which I feel Endless Zombie Rampage has. Even though three hours is an obscene amount of time to play it (really, a half hour is too much) the gameplay is definitely there.

    I’d love to see more games with that level of polish. It’s too bad that so many have lost that.

    I completely agree about the “next-gen” gaming systems. I still remember when a 3d game was pushing things to the limit and games like Thief were really taking you to another place.

    Unfortunately, these changes aren’t going to come from developers. Developers work for publishers/investors, and they work for financial numbers. New and risky games that don’t have the bullet points that are considered “safe” such as “next-gen graphics” or “established franchise” are avoided by less-savvy investors, and big companies such as EA really aren’t trying to break any new ground.

    The changes have to come from gamers. Plenty of developers are trying to push their new ideas, such as Darwina (which is an amazingly fun game that they didn’t waste obscene amounts of time or worry on graphics that wouldn’t add to the game; instead, they stuck to basic graphics and made them shine). Gamers need to focus on games like this, where a seed of creativity is growing. It’s really the gamers who provide the sunlight and nurture that budding creative companies need. They’re spending their time making killer games, not advertising the next chapter of their franchise.

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