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.