How graphics are killing gameplay

I have been circling over the idea for this article for quite some time now. It all started when I realized that even in a gamedev environment, people tend to care much more about the visuals of the game than how you actually play it. When you have a gameplay build or a prototype with placeholder graphics, barely anyone wants to play it. Only after adding considerable amount of finished graphical assets, like characters, environment or motion captured animations, you start attracting attention. In a way, players tend to treat games like men treat female strangers - they are all drawn to the ones that are most visually stunning.

Then comes a disappointment - why is something this pretty so shallow? Because it can! Choosing women by their looks means they are off the hook when it comes to being engaging in intellectual way. The same goes for games. What's more, if you are among the people that are cursing this state of things, you are in minority. The fact is... most guys expect their girls to be mainly pretty. Most players expect their games to be mainly pretty. Depth of character or gameplay, being commercially less attractive, gets overlooked. That's how both markets work.

Since we are in the mixed girl/game topic and it's only a few moments before the big opening, we can take a look at everyone's favourite, Lara Croft. Let's focus compare Tomb Raider (1996) to Tomb Raider (2013). There's no doubt that the new one is way prettier than the old one. Not only in terms of graphics, actually. The story is much better, much more versatile. Pacing is incredible, sounds cinematic - everything is top-notch and I have no doubts that even hardcore and oldschool gamers would enjoy the new Tomb Raider more. I will go on with my nitpicking anyway, though. 

Take a closer look at the jumping mechanics in both Tomb Raiders. The 1996 one had a world looking not much better than Minecraft. It was built out of cubes. Even if they tried to hide that by half-cubes or triangular slopes, it all came down to big cubes being a bit taller than Lara. These cubes didn't only build the world though. They were building the movement mechanics. By pressing forward one single time, we could make Lara run forward by exactly 1 cube length. She could jump 2 cubes high to grab a ledge. She could jump 2 cubes forward to land on a cube in front of her or 3 cubes forward to catch a ledge in front of her. She could  jump 1 or 2 cubes to the sides, jump 1 cube backwards or backflip 2 cubes. These numbers might be inaccurate here and there, as I don't really know by heart every game from 17 years ago, but you should get the point. The cube was a linear measure. It helped the gameplay team build the whole levels. They designed mazes and series of barely grabbable ledges to add to the core esthetic of the game - becomming an Indiana Jones in tight shorts that solves puzzles. And the players, since they could actually see these cubes, could also fairly easily assess how far they can jump. Jumping was a skill.

In 2013 to jump you need to press X. Lara will jump over any gap between two platforms. You don't have to worry about this. As long as the game tells you "X" you know you will jump if you press it. That might actually be good, because the new Tomb Raider isn't about jumping from platform to platform, but I myself feel robbed from the opportunity to think by myself whether I will make a jump or not. The level designers got robbed of this opportunity as well, since they only had to design the levels from the visual point of view, gameplay being a secondary element. New Tomb Raider is about moving forward. Jumping when you are told to. Shooting when you get to some arena. Pressing what you are told to press. Why? Because in order to make the game look great, the designers needed to limit your options.

The sad truth is nicely revealed in this article. Another big franchise, Final Fantasy. The big number VII was released in 1997 and the newest parts, XIII and XIII-2 came to us in 2009-2011. As you can read in the linked article, making number VII in the XIII quality would take 3-5 times more than it took to make XIII-2. This means 6 to 10 years. I don't know how many of you played both games, so I will try to avoid spoilers. I will focus on simple facts. In XIII you run forward through tunnels for 90% of the game. These tunnels are beautiful, but are still tunnels with nothing to explore and nothing to see except for nicely rendered ass of the main heroine. Even a tower that looks like a puzzle location at first is nothing more than a straight line dragged through a few floors. In VII lots of parts were tunnelly as well, but you were given puzzle levels, like Shinra headquarters or train graveyard. In both VII and XIII-2 you had a casino. In VII you could play snowboard, bike-and-slash, arm wrestling, boxing, shooter, submarine simulation, mog tamagotchi, chocobo racing, fight on the arena. In XIII-2 you can race a chocobo, play one-armed bandit and poker (if you bought DLC). The snowboard alone in VII gave you way more fun than all games in XIII-2 put together. So what it was also way uglier. In order to make their games visually stunning, Square had to make them simply less fun.

The game industry, especially its AAA part, works just like any other industry. The games need to make profit. They need to be sold. What sells is new technology. Since sound or mechanics cannot possibly utilize the technology in a more exhausting way than they already are, new technologies in games practically equal better graphics. I think there must have been a breaking point in the game industry evolution where the balance between graphics and gameplay got seriously screwed up. Nowadays everyone expects at least a decent level of graphics. Do you know how much work this means? I'll tell you. If a concept is ready, a 3D artist spends more or less 20 days to make a single character model for an FPS. Now multiply it by the number of characters and by the salary of the modeller. With 30 models it is over 2 years of work for one person and I can assure you, 3D modellers aren't working for a bowl of rice per day. And that's only character modelling. Add to it all the environment assets, concept arts, all the animations, shaders, lighting and physics and you can multiply the whole number by ten. And as our imaginary calculations have already exceeded the price of Ferrari F12 a while ago, let me remind you that we are only talking about the "decent level of graphics", which means around 7/10. Games do not have unlimited budget. There are only two solutions to make it work with a limited budget. Either you cut down a number of assets and make the game shorter and/or more linear or you agree to have poor graphics. I can assure you that 9 out of 10 producers will choose the less content option.

Fortunately, there are games that go against this trend. The new remake of XCOM got really poor notes for graphics, yet is kept an impressive metascore of 89 and was a commercial success. All thanks to the simplified gameplay from 20 years ago. Dark Souls plays in the same league - the same metascore, one of the most beloved games of the last few years, nearly 2 million copies sold. All that with - let's face it - shitty graphics. Still, its gameplay held up. This gives us hope that in the nearest future more and more studios might abandon the race for most stunning graphics and focus on what the games are all about - gameplay. We just have to remember that for a studio to decide to go in this direction, there must be a market need. If the majority of players will keep buying games for their graphics, majority of developers will keep producing eyecandies with gameplay placeholders.

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  1. It's probably easier to find games both playable and visually stunning in the indie environment. First thing, that comes to my mind, is Bastion. A gem of a game. Fun to play and looking good.

  2. Of course, there are always exceptions. I am not sure whether Bastion can be called visually stunning, since it looks pretty, but doesn't utilize any new technology or doesn't show off something that hasn't already been shown. It's pretty, but in a pleasing, not stunning way.

    Myself, I am more than content with "pretty enough" visual approach, but popularity of series such as FIFA shows that there are millions of people that will buy the same game every year just for a few more polygons on the characters.

  3. Hi!
    I have translated your article into russian habrahabr.ru/post/172301/
    I agree with your thoughts.
    I thought it would be useful to broadcast them to wider audience.
    You are the author -- it's written in the header.
    I, by no means, intended to break your rights.
    If you want -- I can change the article or remove it.
    As you wish.
    I can't find your e-mail, so write here. Please, tell me what you think as a reply to this post.

    1. Hey No Mah - I am flattered you liked my article so much. Next time, please ask me before putting it up somewhere :)

      Please just add a line above the first paragraph - "Article translated from games making noob blog (link)" and we'll be fine. Right now nobody really sees the link in the footer.

    2. Thank you.
      Article translated from games making noob blog http://gamesmakingnoob.blogspot.com
      Перевод статьи http://gamesmakingnoob.blogspot.com/2013/03/how-graphics-are-killing-gameplay.html


    3. Very nice! Thank you :)


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