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Andrew Phelps Andrew Phelps is an assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in Rochester, NY. He is the founding faculty member of the Game Programming Concentration within the Department of Information Technology and his work in games programming education has been featured in The New York Times, CNN.com, USA Today, National Public Radio, and other publications. Email: amp-at-it.rit.edu
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June 13, 2005

Graphics Don’t Matter (and other assertions)

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Posted by Andrew Phelps

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.

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COMMENTS

1. Hieronymus on June 14, 2005 8:49 AM writes...

There's been some discussion on other blogs about the importance of graphics and how great it will be that the Revolution might allow downloading of older NES and SNES "classics". I've been saying essentially what you are - talk is cheap, but when it comes down to paying money for it, folks want their graphics, and DigDug just won't cut it. It's sort of like how the auteurs talk about how great the silent movies are, and while some folks like them, the vast majority wouldn't watch one if you paid them. And I think the same is true for graphics in a game - graphics sell, no matter what some might otherwise claime.

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2. Troy Goodfellow on June 14, 2005 12:49 PM writes...

I don't tend to toot my horn, but I wrote a similar defense of the importance of graphics for DIYGames a couple of months ago. (http://diygames.com/index.php?p=886&more=1)

Mind you, mine was not nearly as good as yours.

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3. Carlo on June 16, 2005 3:02 PM writes...

I saw this article too when it was posted on Slashdot a few days ago. What strikes me as being kind of odd is the fact that the discussion revolves around video games - video being one half of that label.

Graphics do matter; they matter just as much as the gameplay, and for something to be a video game (especially a good video game) one cannot live without the other. There has to be a balance and both have to be done well.

Sure, the old Atari and NES games cannot compare to the visual quality of the upcoming consoles from Sony, MS and the big N, but they represent what that time had to offer and I'll be damned if many of them don't offer just as much fun and challenge as today's games and carry a certain charm about them with their visuals, as antiquated as they may appear.

This is like saying you're only focusing on the story in a movie now because all movies have amazing special effects, full color and beautiful people.

And yes, WoW is gorgeous, and horrifyingly addicting. :-)

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4. Gregory Waxman on June 20, 2005 4:44 PM writes...

Here is an interesting resource for you Andy http://www.mmogchart.com/ it contains information on the amount of subscribers to possibly every "major" MMO. The figures show WoW has 22% market share, while EQ2 has 3.1%, which less than EQ at 5%.

Game-play and graphics are two different beasts. The product is the sum of the parts; however, I think you hit the nail on the head about an issue I feel is currently happening by what you wrote in this paragraph, "Best face forward. In the... to know it." Graphics sell to the masses, since the masses tend to be uninformed about the actual game-play. Slowly, but steadily, it seems more and more games are falling victim to a mentality of 'If it shines, it will be fine'. The game industry appears to be following in the shoes of the movie industry, 'Bigger bangs, more money made'. Both are sacrificing good stories/game-play in order to initially attract more people at the cost of keeping them "playing". Of course, the graphics should be good, but at the cost of the game-play is becoming the norm.

When people are willing to pay for better looking games that do not really innovate/change/revolutionize game-play, why should companies interested in making money not just copy the tried and true game-play and make the games look even better? Unfortunately, no one can really take a glimpse at game-play like they can at graphics. Until there are less of the "unwashed masses" and more "educated gamers", many developers will sacrifice their game-play for better graphics.

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5. Shawn on July 13, 2005 8:06 PM writes...

We (the consumers who are addicted) are the ones that are greatly affected by this. We are the ones who shells out the dough (cash or credit) for these consoles. We are willing to pay for something that can really catch our fancy nay we opt for a much better graphical consoles.

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