A Marriage of Extremes

Late last month IGN scooped new Revolution system specs through the tireless journalistic efforts and dogged tenacity for which they are known. What they found was a system that was not willing to pony up the horsepower (get it? Pony. Horsepower.) to compete graphically with Sony or Microsoft, but instead had the unmitigated gall to suggest a great gaming machine does not have to be financially crippling. Most forum going knuckle-draggers fell into the same tired ranks of blind criticism, defense, sarcasm, and trolling, or, perhaps trawling, that they always fall into when discussions of Nintendo arise. I don't really blame them. I find it hard not to say the same thing about Nintendo time and again either as though it were fresh material, like John Grisham writing about a plucky young lawyer who breaks all the rules. But, it finally occurs to me that maybe everyone's got it wrong. Maybe, the two approaches to design aren't mutually exclusive, which seems to be the prevailing rule in practice if not theory.

As I played Oblivion the other day on my rumbling powerhouse Xbox 360, I thought with a kind of mindless snobbery how very much the Nintendo crowd would be missing out in the next generation.

And then, with my next thought, I realized that I had fallen for an industry-wide hype about graphics that has very little to do with good games. I am a product of screenshot journalism and tech-specs lust. Part of me had, on some fundamental level, conceded that Nintendo owners would be short changed in the quality of their games because it could not render sword handles as well as the 360.

That kind of pervasive and infectious mentality is what permits developers and publishers to regurgitate the same game and the same franchises on a gaming consumer base that talks the talk, but virtually never walks the walk. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Oblivion, a graphically superior title, is an exception to the rule. It may also be the best, and only example we have for a while of what a truly visionary and dedicated company can do when it marries the two extremes of gaming.

Thinking back over the past year, and the games that I've played and enjoyed the most I, come up with the following list:

Oblivion
Civilization IV
Guitar Hero
Geometry Wars
We Heart Katamari
Psychonauts
World of Warcraft

Save one, we are not talking about a collection of graphical powerhouses here, and yet I keep seeing these titles on this kind of list. One might almost be able to make the dramatic and Xtreme logical leap to a conclusion that, and I realize I tread upon gaming's most holy dogma here, graphical superiority does not alone a good game make. While Oblivion is unquestionably an amazing game to look at, had Bethesda done nothing more than slap a new coat of paint on Morrowind, as some feared they might, the game would have been as disappointingly average as public school and radio stations owned by Clear Channel. Oblivion is not a great game because of the visuals, nor despite them. It is a great game regardless.

Are we supposed to care how realistic the physics of individual armpit hairs are on the units of the Mongolian Horde, if, by having realistic-armpit-technology, we have to sacrifice the ability to actually see a horde? Should we fascinate over how many bumpy textures adorn the cancerous wart on the nose of some FPS mercenary if we're shooting him with the same old weapons at the always familiar Boxes-O-Varying-Sizes Factory? Should we boggle at the realistic blood spray ejected from the stripper we just ran down with our stolen convertible, if we're playing in yet another gritty, urban, ultra-violent environment.

Judging by a recent trip to Gamestop, where I was berated no fewer than six times for not bringing my trades with me, I'd say yes. And, why? Because they are the games to which we are told to anticipate, and enough of us buy into that.

Part of the problem has to be that we are rarely given better information to digest. And, that's not as much a fault of the gaming media as it is the medium through which they work. Would a screenshot of Guitar Hero have managed to convey the Jimmy Page awesomeness of the game in a preview? Could a Civilization IV preview have convinced me that the dark, wicked soul of Civ III had been suitably banished by a cabal of powerful holy men? Could anyone ever have convinced me of the hours I would spend on my Xbox 360 playing Geometry Wars of all things?

No, as gaming media outlets spawn like salmon on Spanish Fly, and readers demand quick sneak-peeks over long and articulate missives, the screenshot becomes the necessary soup du jour. Compelling visuals are a key part of a marketing strategy in generating interest, because if you want your big game to get the exclusive cover of PC Gamer, then you better have amazing screenshots ready, even if the title is years from completion. Design law at some point changed to: Visuals first, then gameplay as an afterthought.

Abusing great visuals are, I suspect, like abusing narcotics. The first few times you enjoy the overwhelming visual high, all the other problems just fade away, but then the buzz wears off quicker, the problems start sneaking back in, and you need more texture passes just to feel anything at all. Where once realistic shadows alone could satisfy you through six hours of repetitive gameplay, now shadows do nothing for you, and you need a complete physics engine, ambient lighting, and realistic skin. Eventually you start plugging in games, and they throw every visual trick in the book at you, but the high just isn't there anymore, and so you get strung out after a disappointing night of FEAR and in a Mountain Dew and Pizza Hut haze of sugar and fury you hold up a liquor store for Halo money. Then the cops come to your house, find you rubbing new screenshots of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Vicks VapoRub on your chest, and haul your sorry tush off to the hoosegow for six month (out in 90 days on good behavior).

Consider, if you will, the interesting case of the PSP and the DS. The PSP strikes me as an attractive and visually compelling medium in which publishers dumped every cash-in franchise they could find. A whirlpool of bullet-points and market research that rejects daring and creativity as resoundingly as Claudia Schiffer would reject my suggestion that we totally start hanging out. There is nary a lawyer game, puppy simulator, or musical invertebrate to be found on the PSP.

And, the frustrating point is that the PSP and those developing for it could be making as interesting and unique games as are available on the DS. It's simply that somewhere along the line someone is choosing not to. They are investing money in taking the most advantage of the technical superiority of the system, and not in making a game with a unique experience and engaging style.

Nintendo, despite its many flaws, seems to be the only major player willing to go against the conventional thinking. In some ways, at the risk of going political, Nintendo is the George Bush of gaming, determined to do what they think is best despite and without any interest in what their critics might say. The more people tell Nintendo they can't be successful with an underpowered, dual-screen, stylus input, portable system the more Nintendo does whatever the hell they want to thank-you-very-much! Sony and Microsoft would have certainly abandoned the initial concept after the first focus group responded to such a system with the same kind of expression you might wear if your grandfather explained that he was a boxers man because briefs were too constricting for his unusual girth.

And clearly Nintendo's play is earning them a dominant place in the industry, great buzz, and strong sales. You see that, folks? That was sarcasm.

You see, Nintendo ultimately falls into the same traps as everyone else. In dramatically sacrificing technical proficiency they alienate a market that, despite its better angels, gives a serious damn about how what they're playing looks. The DS has some premier titles that demand to be played despite bland visuals, just like every other system, but for the average game for the gamer, visuals are relevant. Again, Nintendo, like Sony, is making a choice; one extreme for, and at the expense of, the other.

In the end, you can only buck the trends so far, before the market goes away. As long as the market thinks it needs fancy graphics for its games, then you have to make some effort to deliver. And as long as games featuring rap stars living out their snuff film fantasies to their own self-aggrandizing music sell a million copies, then those of us begging for change are going to look like the kind of idealistic, art-house miscreants you see attending film festivals in small mountain towns, drinking overpriced coffee and congratulating one another for having such a fine understanding of the craft.

But, consider this in closing. Imagine a company, for a moment, with a dedication to unique and playable games like Nintendo, with the technical strength of an Xbox 360 or PS3. Like the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup marriage of two great tastes that taste great together, what would gaming be like if we had more games that did both?

- Elysium

Comments

A little bit of a rebuttal if I may, because Smials brings up some interesting points.

I'll begin with a statement that I think not asking for better from the industry because of some perceived certainty that no one is listening is both flawed and short-sighted. It takes into assumption that nothing has improved from public outcry or request, and that's not accurate. I think both developers and gamers would be lost if they didn't care and strive for improvement within the industry.

Short checklist of popular agony haute-gaming-journalism subjects (yes, I'm looking at you, Escapist!!!):

- Next-gen production prices are skyrocketing: blame pretty graphics.
- 99% of games are rehashed tripe: blame conservative+greedy producers in love with pretty graphics and realistic boob/solid body physics.
- Innovation is rare and getting rarer: blame above.
- The small guys cannot compete: blame above. Maybe they shouldn't, which leads us to:
- Oh finally, the Indie Scene will come to our rescue, courtesy of Live Arcade and resulting loving embrace of mainstream. Yes, those guys always value The Craft and Gameplay over graphics and glitz (maybe because that's the only thing they can affort, baing barely able to pay for their Open Source toolchains).

I don't blame graphics. I blame an industry that dictates its design decisions through focus groups and stereotypes. I reject an industry that belives a game sells because of graphics, and the numbers and critical response supports this. There have been a number of notable flops for games that had very pretty graphics but no gameplay to support it, while titles like Guitar Hero, Civilization IV, and most notably World of Warcraft exceed expectations. That is the crux of my PSP vs. DS discussion (though, it's only an element; there are other factors), that eventually the publishers and gamers will discover that graphics alone do not move product. I'm not asking gameplay at the expense of visual bells and whistles, I'm asking for gameplay and graphics.

Will that cost more money? Not really. It simply means a redistribution of existing resources that dramatically overspend on developing or licensing expensive engines and leaving no resources for the teams that are supposed to make a game fun. Obviously I don't expect every game to be Oblivion.

Now, I don't know if 99% of games are rehashed tripe, but I might say 75% on the main consoles. The blame can be nicely spread around for that, but I think it actually falls most solidly on the gamers that continue to buy rehashed tripe. Of course, we're actually winning that battle too, as EA has given lip-service to launching more unique IPs. Nobody believes it for a second, of course, but their even discussing it serves as an example of the magnitude of the problem. It was only a year and a half ago that of the top 50 best selling video games, only 3 (I believe) were not sequels or new games in existing franchises. Blame who you want, that's crap.

Innovation is rare, but it's not getting rarer. Nintendo's DS is a font of innovation lately, and mod friendly PC gaming is increasingly the norm. Live Arcade does show some promise, though it hasn't had a good original title lately to keep the momentum going. Valve's Steam support of outstanding independent and small-house development signals new opportunities for creating and generating revenue for those kinds of developers. Whether they will come to our rescue or not, I doubt, but don't underestimate what a force they can be. Not only do they explore branches of gaming that can be later implemented into larger budget games, but they create experience for the developers who will go on to larger houses.

Minor gripe about said point, though: it comes dangerously close to the "we deserve an SUV with Lamborghini handling and performance, preferably for a Mazda price - look, those guys did it, why can't you??". Well, sorry, dear consumer, can't have it all, at least most of the time.

We deserve nothing. But, that's not really my point. What I want, however, is fewer games designed and developed by marketing reps and accountants, and more games developed by people with a passion for making a great game. I think you'll find that many of the people actually making the games would like that too.

It may seem like beating my head against the wall, but the wall isn't as strong as it once was and there are cracks here and there.

Oh, and most important, you have my utmost sympathy regarding bedtime management. Why won't they just go the hell to sleep?!

Am I the only one who doesnt see anything special about this article?

I hate to come off harsh but this seems like mostly another Oblivion ode mixed in with another graphics shouldn't matter rant.

Its not bad, its just not as provokative as typical Ely article. We've been over this before. The release of Oblivion doesnt add anything new to the same old arguments.

Great Article Elysium.

Elysium wrote:

You see, Nintendo ultimately falls into the same traps as everyone else. In dramatically sacrificing technical proficiency they alienate a market that, despite its better angels, gives a serious damn about how what they're playing looks. The DS has some premier titles that demand to be played despite bland visuals, just like every other system, but for the average game for the gamer, visuals are relevant. Again, Nintendo, like Sony, is making a choice; one extreme for, and at the expense of, the other.

I agree, but I don't think the degree of alienation will be close to Sony's. I might be wrong, but isn't Nintendo trying to make a the Revolution an affordable system. People that crave graphics can have an xbox360 or PS3, but would still be able to buy a Revolution an enjoy any unique games that come out for it. I know I would consider buying a Revolution to side beside by 360. I'm not sure I can say the same about the PS3, just because I don't think I could afford too.

Agreed, Elysium. And note that fang is right too, this is not up to your regular hard-biting commentary. More like a light nibble around the softer tissue... okay, bad imagery coming up, let's continue.

Um, I'll tell you what. Since I generally agree with your above points (and not a little wishfully, to be honest :)), here are a couple of observations from the sidelines. Sidelines, since in the past months I have _barely_ bought any games, and the only one I can foresee purchasing for certain in the next 2-3 months is Guild Wars: Factions, due to (offspring and work-related) time constraints. The last game I (re)bought was Worms Armageddon, and before that... can't even remember. Ah, yes, I obtained Gothic II somehow. So, slightly contrived but hopefully valid observations/poorly formed opinions:
-) Recent innovation seems to have been concentrated by platform.
-) Platform is usually cheap and/or is "innovative" in itself. The examples I'd give are DS and (surprisingly) PS2.
-) Often, innovative title (and expected near-future innovative titles) is somehow driven or delivered by 1) a control scheme, 2) a distribution scheme, 3) a unique presentation which (cleverly!) bypasses the need for extreme horsepower. Examples off the top of my head: 1) Guitar Hero, many DS games, 2) Geometry Wars 3) Darwinia.

Just a couple observations. You can tell that I'm absolutely frothing at the mouth for Revolution, can't ya?

And against this backdrop, my sleep-addled logical conclusion is simple: it is clear that neither Oblivion nor WoW are innovative in any way. They are "simply" examples of outstanding project management and stunning, awe-inspiring dedication by the entire crew. And I would not expect less from flagship titles of developers who control their own timetables and are proud of their IP as much as Blizzard and Bethesda are.
So I'm sorry, but on paper it looks like the only real contribution that Xbox 360 and PS3 bring to the world of innovative, exciting gameplay, are the internetty, Live bits, which should have happened so bloody long ago, it's criminal . Over to you, Nintendo.

Edit: Well okay, the PS3 will be able to render stuff over people's faces or body parts in real time. Which I'm sure will be put to good use in "enhancing" the general population's webcam experience. No really, I can't wait

Elysium wrote:

Valve's Steam support of outstanding independent and small-house development signals new opportunities for creating and generating revenue for those kinds of developers. Whether they will come to our rescue or not, I doubt, but don't underestimate what a force they can be. Not only do they explore branches of gaming that can be later implemented into larger budget games, but they create experience for the developers who will go on to larger houses.

I think we're beginning to see a little bit of a power shift in game development. Publishers became so powerful because highly creative companies with the business sense of dodos would sell away their intellectual property at the first sign of a bunch of Zeroes. Over time publishers could pick and choose from the ones they want and basically kill the value of these ideas and the companies behind them. Now I can see independant companies holding onto their ideas. Some are getting some business sense, others are simply exploring alternate distribution routes but publishers are noticing.

As developers business sense grows and they make smarter choices, collectively they gain power, their creativity can pay off and they can make more lucrative deals with publisher without giving away their IP like they used to. Publishers just dont know how to be creative. They'll slave out a developer to produce an interesting title as long as it's marketable. The big guys aren't doing as well as they used to because the market isnt swallowing the gerbil pellets like we used to. We might get to see a little expansion of creativity, a little happiness coming from the developer side of the industry, and maybe the companies that actually MAKE EA's games will be able to have their logo's on the boxes too.

I made a bad judgment in letting myself get drawn into the innovation debate which I tried to avoid in the article. I shoulda let you have that one instead of arguing against it, because, truth be told, what I really care about is a good game that engages me on multiple levels. While I praise Nintendo for being innovative, part of my argument is that innovation alone doesn't cut it. After all my short list of games that affected me over the past year doesn't include a Nintendo offering.

In the end, I want good games. If something innovative I haven't seen before comes along with a good game, all the better. Guitar Hero is just DDR with a new controller. WoW is Meridian 59 four generations removed. Civ IV is, well, 4. And so on.

Let me just ask you this: do you think there is room for a better blend of attention to gameplay and attention to graphics as an overall trend in the industry? I do.

Its not bad, its just not as provokative as typical Ely article. We've been over this before. The release of Oblivion doesnt add anything new to the same old arguments.

I've become my own worst enemy. So much for my article next week: Seriously, WTF Is Up With Duke Nukem Forever!

Would you rather have carte blanche adorations?

Your article needs mind boggling graphics if the gameplay is stagnant =P

Would you rather have carte blanche adorations?

I wasn't reacting negatively. I was trying to be gracious in accepting criticism. It may not have come out right.

Ah, I get it now. I totally read that wrong. Or maybe its just someone pissed in my cornflakes this morning. *shrugs*

I think the point is that as long as the industry allows repeated failures to side step and get promoted to newer greener pastures, nothing will change. Sometimes the music industry is very unforgiving and yet its still possible for a comeback after refocusing, recapturing your soul and working your ass off like you want it. Its what makes all the difference.

The video game industry lets you repackage greatest hits albums over and over again on media from 45, to 8 track to cassette to cd to mp3. There are too many safety nets for creatively inept chimps.

Elysium wrote:

Let me just ask you this: do you think there is room for a better blend of attention to gameplay and attention to graphics as an overall trend in the industry? I do.

Hhhmmm I think this is the exact direction Nintendo is going with the Revolution isn't it? Less focus on sweat programmers and more focus on gameplay right? Last time I checked they are even upping the horsepower 2-3x.

Wow, looks like you guys have had time to cover all the angles. Good show, good show

Let me just ask you this: do you think there is room for a better blend of attention to gameplay and attention to graphics as an overall trend in the industry? I do.

Increasing the art departments budget is much safer investment than playing around with new gameplay. I think part of the reason why Nintendo didn't go with a system that can match the PS3 and Xbox 360 is that if they did, publishers would be more inclined to do direct ports of their games and only tacking on support for the innovative controller. That and the bottom line.

Good article. I remember back to the PSP V. DS debate and I'm going to make my nextgen prediction: In Japan the Revolution will out sell the PS3. I think it won't do as well in the states since our gamers are really into the GANGSTA HIPHOP SHOOTER of the week. After working at Gamestop for the past few months, I really am not part of the mainstream gamers anymore.

Brilliantly written as always!

IAfter working at Gamestop for the past few months, I really am not part of the mainstream gamers anymore.

Oh ,you poor SOB. You have my sincerest sympathies.

Elysium wrote:
IAfter working at Gamestop for the past few months, I really am not part of the mainstream gamers anymore.

Oh ,you poor SOB. You have my sincerest sympathies.

I know that you're not the best person to bitch about that too...

Good read, and an interesting take on the next-gen situation. Normally, although my eyes want an XBox, my wallet makes me a Nintendo man, which isn't to say that I've missed out on fun for it; I get some pretty decent fun for my buck. After reading this, though, I've got to say that looking at past trends makes me turn towards Sony. Back in its heydey, The PS2 had more than enough graphical clout, and even now there are titles that spark my interest through sheer ingenuity. Looking back, I guess the reason I hadn't noticed this before was that such a ridiculously large number of games are released for the PS that unless I attention is focused directly on it, it's easy for the interesting titles to be washed away in all the crap. This has got me looking forward to the PS3.

Too bad I could never afford it