As the proud owner of a shiny new Xbox One, the issue of game visuals has been on my mind lately. When the PS4 and Xbox One were announced last year I couldn’t help but notice that in terms of the games, one of the only advancements emphasized was the visuals. Oh sure, the XBone was keen on showing off all the eggs it had piled in the multimedia basket, and the PS4 was quite proud of its social networking integration, but how were the games better? Well…they looked better. Looking better isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but when developers and consumers over emphasize how pretty a game is, they lose sight of what’s really important and create a whole host of problems.
Let’s get the most obvious issue out of the way first: gameplay always trumps graphics. No matter how beautiful a game may be, if the gameplay isn’t fun, the game is a failure. Conversely, a game can look absolutely terrible and still be a huge success if it’s fun to play. Minecraft looks like the bastard child of a Nintendo 64 and a box of LEGO bricks, but that didn’t stop it from dethroning a host of AAA blockbuster titles to become the number one played game on Xbox LIVE in October 2012. It achieved widespread critical acclaim, cultivated a rabid fanbase, and made sacks of money, and it did it at a fraction of the cost of its competition.
Cost is one of the central issues with AAA game development these days because fancy graphics take an absolute fortune to develop. As developers continue to push the boundaries of what can be rendered in a video game, consumer expectations for new games rise and force developers to push graphics even further, causing budgets to swell to alarming sizes. Halo 4 for instance was rumored to have a $60 million budget – which it exceeded. When the cost of game development reaches such a large scale, publishers get understandably cautious about backing new projects or green-lighting long term productions. Because publishers and developers have to make all their money back (with a profit) on new game sales alone, they are forced to sell millions of copies in the first few weeks of a game’s lifespan before the used game market absorbs their product. The result is stagnation. Publishers back the same franchises over and over, relying on tried and true gameplay formulas to sell the same game every year, but with a fresh coat of paint. What I find so tragic about this is that it’s unnecessary.
You don’t need to sink tens of millions of dollars into a game to make it look beautiful – art style always trumps raw rendering capability. The truth is that you only notice how good or bad a game’s graphics are when that game is trying to emulate the real world. As visuals get more analogous to reality, audiences become more critical and developers and publishers have to spend more money to impress them. But when a game embraces a unique art style, it can look visually stunning on its own merits, despite being technically inferior. Nintendo has been getting by with this approach for years. Games like Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and Metroid Prime 2: Echoes still look good to this day due to their superb art direction and unique visual styles, while more realistic games like Halo 2 look like absolute crap today because our standards for realism have gotten so much higher.
I for one would like to see a wider spectrum of innovative games with stylized visuals from the AAA market. When the yoke of realism is thrown off costs are decreased, innovation becomes less risky, and more projects can be funded. Most important of all, if we stop caring so much about how a game looks, stop demanding higher and higher fidelity graphics, and start focusing instead on how it plays, maybe we’ll get a more diverse market of mainstream releases instead of the endless parade of formulaic shooters, racers, and action games.