Graphics Aren’t the Enemy

Maybe I’ve just been reading too many youtube comments, but as a game artist, you can’t quite help get the feeling that some people consider you partially responsible for the downturn in the quality of recent blockbuster titles.

I was recently discussing the new GTA facial animation technology with some friends and someone made a comment along the lines of “Meh. It’s a shame people will be praising this, the gameplay will no doubt  suck.”

Hearing a comment like that isn’t uncommon, and nor is hearing support for it. There have been a bunch of memes with a similar attitude flying around the internet for the last few years, so I figured I should give a go at dispelling some of the main ones in the chance for some unity and piece of mind.

Modern games just focus on graphics instead of gameplay

This is by far the most common one to hear, and though there might be some truth in it, it’s just a gross dismissal of the issue. The statement is purposefully ambiguous – as to actually use a word other than “focus” ties people down. For these people graphics have just become a scapegoat for bad design.

Most commonly by “focus”, people mean that more money is being spent on graphics than is justified. While games do have much larger budgets for artwork now – budgets across the board have increased. Programming teams, too, are larger, with a requirement for a much vaster selection of technical skills. These teams have had to deal with increasing expectations from the industry as well. The building of expansive maps and characters, which is often the standard now, isn’t just an artistic burden! Design teams are larger too, with a host of new dedicated positions for mapping, scripting, writing and many others. The idea of this paradigm shift by funding toward “having to be the best looking game” is simply a myth.

Even more to the point – does anyone really believe money can simply be thrown at good game design, and if it was the case, with the kind of sums made from WOW, wouldn’t developers and publishers be doing it already?

All my old favourites were just about gameplay

Recently I went back and looked over some old reviews of one of my favourite games, Populous: The Beginning. I expected it to score well overall, being a fantastic game. But what I wasn’t expecting was the fact that in almost every review it scored 10/10 for graphics.

Thinking about it afterwards, it didn’t seem so odd. The graphics for the time were amazing. Deformable terrain and flowing lava, as well as a beautiful world which felt alive with a host of subtle touches. Thinking about it even more I realized that almost all of my favourite games are in the same boat – Quake, Black & White, Sonic 3, Half Life, numerous others. I couldn’t even think of an example with graphics significantly worse than average. Developers have been pushing both graphical and technical bounds since the beginning of gaming.

Graphics are largely unimportant in a game

I think most people would agree, that almost by definition, gameplay is the most important part of a game. But pretending that graphics are unimportant is simply ridiculous. Atmosphere is one of the key parts of a game, and is deeply tied to the graphical style and quality. Immersion also is important, and while this doesn’t really relate to the number of polygons a game can draw, the consistency of the visuals are hugely important.

Developments in graphics are a hugely important device in opening up doors and new opportunities for game designers. It isn’t just coincidence that the vast majority of games for early systems were very similar, and usually tile based or 2D scrolling platformers.

Perhaps in the near future we’ll see another shift in game design and development, similar to what happened when 3D worlds became a legitimate mechanic. I, for one, want to be around when that happens, not lamenting over my Sega Mega Drive.

I don’t care about graphics providing the gameplay is good

This one is most commonly heard from the die hard fans of games such as Dwarf Fortress and the various MUDs and Roguelikes out there. There are grains of truth in this statement but most advocates seem to just be picking and choosing what they consider to be “graphics” when it suits them.

Gameplay and graphics can’t be separated so easily. Interaction, the key element of games, requires graphics at some level, and if it is impossible for a person to relate to this representation of interaction, the game is bound to fail.

The origin of this meme appears as an attempt to distance oneself from the typical screaming Call Of Duty kid, but just because a game doesn’t look like a generic Gears Of War clone, with bloom and HDR turned up to 11, doesn’t mean it isn’t impressive graphically or technically – often quite the contrary.

A good example is the indie gem Minecraft. Perhaps suprising to some, most artists would agree Minecraft has excellent graphics – and the progammers are reasonably impressed too. The whole game is soaked in atmosphere, the style is charming and consistent. There isn’t much more you could ask for.

Look on the net and you’ll find hundreds of instances of most incantations of puzzle and platformer games. It isn’t a surprise that the most popular version is usually the one with the most charming graphics ( NOrisinal come to mind).

Number of polygons might not matter to some people, but the ultimate system for how interaction is achieved, does.

So whose fault is it

One of the common trends I see in great games that stick in your mind, is an approach where by the essence of the game appears to be drawn out from the world. Populous, as mentioned above, is a good example of this, as well as another old favourite, Dungeon Keeper. In games such as this, the world and gameplay go together so beautifully that it isn’t even possible to quantify the gameplay mechanics without including the graphics, the atmosphere, the story and all the rest with it.

It seems that many modern blockbusters have a focus on “features”. Fallout 3, for example, feels very odd to play because it is set in this wonderful rich universe, but the gameplay is still more or less completely separate and abstracted from the setting. In a similar way, you could name a number of other recent titles, that seem like basic first person shooters with a graphical setting, and a number of “features” tacked onto the side – and none of that holds together very well.

Graphics and gameplay aren’t these two brothers competing for attention, and if you intend on making a truely great game, act like the responsible parent and don’t send them to their individual rooms – force them to play nicely together.

One Response to “Graphics Aren’t the Enemy”

  1. Inverse Square Says:

    Interesting article. A few things I might say:

    I hold the sentiment you describe; that “graphics” receive too much “focus”. The place where I’d say it’s easiest to see is in the effect of procedural animation on platformers.

    (mainstream) Platformers used to be about skill and about friction. Super Mario Brothers and Bubble Bobble were entertaining because there were some intricate and visceral systems behind the way their main characters moved – the fun of the game came from coming to understand those beautiful systems. They could be fun even when you died.

    The focus of modern platformers is different. Throughout the last month or two I’ve played (respectively) Uncharted 2, Enslaved, and Assassin’s Creed 2. It has depressed me! In Uncharted 2, you work out what the right direction is to go in, you push the analogue stick in that direction, and press X. If you were right about the direction you progress, if you were wrong then you die and respawn. Enslaved is worse; it doesn’t even give you the freedom to make the wrong decision. Assassin’s Creed 2 is nightmarish! You just hold down two buttons and it jumps for you.

    I don’t feel very much as I play these platformers – there are no intricate systems, curves, nothing to think about or feel. There are just buttons, and animations. I press the buttons so that I can see the animations, because the animations are nice. I’m not saying it’s just old = good, new = bad. There were a lot of incompetant platformers in the eighties. Uncharted 2 had moments of friction, and Mirror’s Edge was ok. But why do you suppose there are so many low-budget hardcore platformers being made (and gaining success)?

    You phrase it in terms of money, but I don’t worry about too much money being spent on graphics – I worry about too much thought being spent on graphics. I worry about skilled people, who care greatly about games, spending too much time on graphics, simply because that is the thing you need to think about a lot in order to compete with modern games. And it seems to have little point to me, because there is only so much that can be expressed with graphics. Bioshock, now Bioshock expressed a lot with graphics. It had beautiful, interesting environments with tonnes of philosophically charged details and emotive setpieces. And yet, because its makers went into it without any desire to think about the gameplay, the game is at its core a mediocre FPS and all the interesting environments had to be filled with machinegun-bullet vending machines and target ranges for your telekinetic bullshit powers.

    You’re right to point out that a lot of the classics have had great graphics at the core of them – Ocarina of time, Half Life, Doom, f’ sho. But those games hold up because they have something else too – and games that are purely about graphics shall be very swiftly forgotten. There have always been methods that games have used to rest on graphics, but the ultimate expression of them is the Quick Time Event. Those things, in their purified form, are entertaining *only* because of graphics – and how are they going to look once their last blobs of technological varnish have dried up and fallen off? Let’s remind ourselves that this is the fate of almost all eye candy, except those few parts of it that have thoughtful art direction.

    Let me say that I partially sympathise. Shadow of the Colossus and Another World are two of the best games of all time, and they are quite unambiguously about graphics. Half Life and Populous had cool things that worked orthogonally to what the game looked like, but these two games are purely about images. To be honest I don’t know what to make of them – I spend a lot of time trying to work out what I should make of them.

    You’re sensible to admit that immersion isn’t all about graphics, but seriously, neither is atmosphere. For me, two of the absolute most atmospheric games of all time are Panzer Dragoon Zwei and System Shock 2, both games of the late 90s that I played quite recently. I might also recommend Lalaland: http://www.gamemakergames.com/archive/la-la-land-4 it’s very atmospheric, even though it was made in game maker!

    You are right when you say that gameplay and graphics can’t be separated so easily, but I might say that it can and should be done. Jon Blow asks us: “What would your game be like if you took away everything that was not necessary for success in the game? If you removed the music, cut away every polygon in the background, took away texture mapping, lighting system, the story elements, etc. Then ask yourself: is your game still engaging?” That’s not a direct quote. He qualifies it, by pointing out that some gameplay is affected by story (RPGs, The Void), music (rhythm games), lighting (survival horror) and texture mapping (Space Giraffe) – so obviously, this methodology needs a bit of discretion. He also admits that there is almost not a single game on earth that would not be in some way weakened by this(N would stand a chance!). But his idea is very interesting to me, and worth being spread around.

    Lastly, I want to say this because I recently discovered it: John Carmack is fucking creepy. Possibly more than anyone else, he has dedicated his every last brain cell, his every last synapse, to the cause of making the games that he wants to make, even though he says he’s fine with games being simplistic and escapist. But playing his recent games, I don’t think he even cares about escapism any more. Doom was a great game, and it was about escapism. Wolfenstein(the recent one) is not a great game, and it is only partially about escapism. Wolfenstein is mostly about collectibles, and levelling up, and “progressing”. The gameplay is absolutely nothing but a vehicle for the graphics. And that’s what Carmack wants. He has dedicated his life to graphics in all their transience, because… I dunno! He wants to impress people I guess. And that should worry anyone.

    Gonna post this now. I’m hoping that it isn’t as long as your article.


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Last modified: August 14 2014.