I’ve been reading “Graphics Don’t Matter”, as well as the “Gamer’s Manifesto”, as well as hanging out on the Serious Games listserv, and even talking to some friends. And they are all saying the same thing: “graphics don’t matter – what’s important is game-play!” and then they go on to cite some game that they played that had really bad graphics that they enjoyed because of the game-play, as if that singular example should become some sort of example for the industry at large. As if they have single-handedly locked upon the uber-truth of the games industry, the well kept secret at the back of the very well-guarded dragon’s lair. Well, sadly, I have to stand here and tell you that they do, in fact, matter. A lot. Perhaps as much as game-play itself. Here it is in a nutshell:
Best face forward. In the not-to-distant future each of us will be asked to plunk down a not insignificant amount of money for a new console, either an X-Box 360 or a PS3 or a Revolution. Well, the first thing I’m going to do is play a game on my new toy, and it had damn well better look better than the last console. I mean, who would want to chuck all that cash only to see games looking just like they do now? Yeah, the new systems will be multi-core and have superfantabulous AI and characters that can fry eggs for themselves when they get hungry – but there is that stage of initial impression where it really matters what it looks like, because the consumer is deciding if such a thing is worth investing the time to get to know it.
That’s a really important point so I will say it again a bit differently: the consumer is deciding whether or not a title is worthy of personal investment based on its appearance. Yeah, I know, shallow. So transparent. But I can guarantee that no one will know about your super-smart awesome character AI and intricate plot details (and believe me, I love super-smart toons and plot details – its why I read science fiction in the first place) if there isn’t a pretty face to suck people in. It has got to look worthy of investment. All the games that I see people listing off as ‘great game-play with bad graphics’ miss a very important aspect of their development: they had great game-play and good enough graphics for their time.
People often pick on Pac-Man with regard to this. I mean, Pac-Man had little yellow eat-y things and some dots, and some crude ghost things. Well lemme just tell you my experience with the Atari version of Pac-Man then: it sucked. I fired it up – the ghosts were the same color as the Pac-Man which was the same color as the dots, which were the same color as the walls. Bor-ing. It was laid out stupid because it had to fit a TV rather than an arcade console, and the pixels were huge and stupidly blocky. Yes, as a programmer I am well aware of the requirements for the platform and all that. I never played Pac-Man on an Atari more than a few times – better to save some quarters and go to the arcade and play, because it was a more compelling game experience, because the visuals were better. The rules for Pac-Man were the same everywhere – and it was a great game – but it was very much augmented by its visual presentation. DON’T confuse simplistic design and minimalism with a lack of R&D and research into graphics. When it was originally released, Pac-Man didn’t have the best graphics in the arcade, but it did have acceptable graphics for its time.
A lot has been made comparing the relative success of World of Warcraft with that of EverQuest2. Allegedly WoW is creaming EQ2 (I say ‘allegedly’ because I don’t know the real numbers. I will take it on faith from those making this argument that this is true – if it isn’t, my apologies. It makes no difference to my argument). Critics point at WoW and say ‘See! This company invested in the game-play of this game! That’s why it’s a success! They aren’t interested in graphics like those screw heads over at SONY!’
Whooooah. Time out. Not interested in graphics? Have you looked at WoW? It’s freaking gorgeous! Its stylized and Tolkien-esque and yet brings the grittiness of Warhammer to bear. Things absolutely, positively don’t get that way by accident. Heck several hundred people bought the ‘Art of Worlds of Warcraft’ book (note to Blizzard: send me one of these! Puh-leeeeze!). Major props to the folks at Blizzard for the look and feel of that game – don’t you for a second think that the people at Blizzard think that graphics don’t matter.
Instead, what we really have is a compromise – a note that graphics do matter, very much, in the initial stages where we form opinions about a game. That graphics are critical in creating the suspension of disbelief that is critical to take a game seriously as entertainment. But what we will probably all agree on is that graphics do not make a game fun. They make it pretty. WoW is not fun because of the graphics. (But the graphics are certainly a draw into the world, and help to define the world to the user.)
This is the second stage argument of those that would seek to convince us that graphics don’t matter, that since great games often have graphics that are merely good enough (note I now use my ‘good enough’ clause rather than ‘horrid’ as many proponents of the argument want to say) and, conversely, many games with great graphics aren’t any fun to play, we need good game-play and it doesn’t really have squat to do with graphics.
Except that it does. Allow me to illustrate by (once again) comparing the games industry to the movie industry. In the movie industry, there are these things called special effects, the equivalent to the pixel shader. We would (I think) all agree that special effects can be overdone, hackneyed, and just plain detrimental to story in several instances. (Why hire good actors and get a good script?!? Just blow some stuff up! )
But in the right hands, when used oh so appropriately, special effects help tell the story. They become part and parcel to what is happening on screen with the actors and the plot. Not every film that incorporates special effects is another half-assed space battle. Remember… E.T.? Powerful storytelling there. Would that a game had that level of emotional attachment and pull. But could E.T. have been made without the graphics, without the state-of-the-art special effects? Yeah, it is what it is because of the characters, but you would be hard pressed to tell that story without those effects. Did you know, in fact, that it is actually hard to find movies these days without some level of digital wizardry that come out of Hollywood? It s just that in several cases its subtle, a concept that is sometimes lost on today’s graphics programmers (but not always.)
Imagine a game where the effects and visual aesthetic were tightly integrated into the necessary core components of the game-play. There have been a few. Graphics can be used to inspire fear, awe, joy, and offer a sense of reward to players. I want to SEE the smoking husk of the dragon it took me 37 hours online to kill, not just have it poof into some random chest of loot. The seeing is sometimes the believing.
When I wrote the Death of Pixel Shaders a few years ago (Years! Ack!), I was lured into thinking along the same lines that a lot of folks are doing now, that somehow good game design was the antithesis of graphics. But it isn’t. People that make games decide how much to spend on graphics, and while some may feel that is an area of diminishing returns, I say to them ‘just wait, because the level of immersion and experience that graphics will soon bring to you will dwarf what you currently understand.’
But be that as it may, great games will continue to be great games because of a single, well-worn idiom: balance. Balance is the key to great games, good graphics, good game-play, good music, good writing, good characters, etc. etc. Balance of several disparate elements is the wizardry of good game design, of realizing the entire system from concept to finish (and finish is remarkably undefined these days). Balance between initial impression and long-term playability. Balance between budgeting for graphics and AI and musicians and writers and designers (and I would agree that here, at least, balance is not being achieved).
Balance. To deny graphics their place is to cast good game design in an almost ridiculous parody of itself, where any game can be reduced to something played with blocks and sticks. And I would argue that as much as blocks and sticks can teach, the modern day experience is substantially altered by the medium of its message.
The most innovative game I have played all year was probably Katamari Damacy. That game was brilliant in its simplicity. It was also brilliant graphically, had a great sytle, a great sense of scale, and running over little people was rediculously cool looking (they are stuck on there! wicked!). Great game design. Great graphics. I would be disappointed rolling a ball around just picking up ‘stuff’ (and yet… what was Pac-Man a decade ago?). Synnergy. Balance. Great games have everything. We only blame graphics when the game-play sucks. But that isn’t the fault of the graphics, it is the fault of the director.