Are Cutting-Edge Graphics a Double-Edged Sword?

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A while ago, the principal rendering engineer of Crytek, Nicolas Schulz, came out to speak about the current state of graphics in videogames, and how the gaming populace feels about it. “As opposed to the times of the original Crysis, we as an industry have reached a quality level now where it is getting increasingly more difficult to really wow people,” he said. “That said, there’s still enough areas to explore and we will definitely keep pushing the boundaries as much as possible.”

This is important to note as, merely a year and a half ago, the CEO of Crytek himself came out to say that graphics “make up 60 percent of a game”. So, if Crytek believe that graphics are a huge selling point of games, yet believe that it’s getting harder to amaze people with graphical prowess, does that mean videogames are doomed?

Well, no.

It only takes a scroll down the comments section (an action that is never recommended) to see what gamers really want from their games. People talking about this topic have a majority opinion that graphics aren’t, in fact, the leading cause as to why people purchase and play videogames. And I have to agree with them; it’s not the reason I do, either. So, if gamers are becoming more and more resistant to being “wowed” by graphics, what does that mean for the games industry?

The problem is, the graphical arms race is taking a toll on games as a whole. Companies are dumping more and more money into the development cycle of games, in order to keep up with the technology and produce the best graphics they can. A high-end studio releasing a game that visually looks like it came from the Playstation 2 will receive a lot of criticism. Therefore, companies are investing millions of dollars into single games, just to get it to the high levels of standards that are being held against them. The high budgets of these games mean the company can’t afford to take risks, and so they resort to tried and tested formulae to produce a blockbuster game. The result are games that might look great but feel bland, uninspired and a lot like other games we’ve already played.

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This is a race that indie developers cannot afford to participate in. When an indie company comes together—even if it’s a group of experienced programmers and designers making a game under their own studio—they do not have the budget or resources to keep up with the output a large studio can manage. A lot of indie companies, in the end, have to settle with graphics that are sub-par to the main industry’s capabilities. If the concept of graphics being a focal selling point is true, that would then imply that indie games do not succeed in the videogame arena. But we all know that’s not the case.

Minecraft went a long way to prove this. The game’s developer, Mojang, was recently snatched up by the gaming monolith Microsoft, for a tidy sum of $2.5 billion. It’s a price that a lot of gaming companies wished they could see in their lifetime. What is Mojang’s flagship game? A blocky, graphically-sparse game that won’t overclock anyone’s graphics card any time soon. And yet, this game was picked up for a vast sum. This is a game whose full release came in 2011, with a strong following even before its official release. Very rarely do people pay a gigantic sum of money to purchase a three-year-old game, but the reason the purchase happened was because Minecraft earned itself a huge following. On time of writing, it’s still one of the top 10 most watched games on Twitch.

In fact, if we look at Twitch even more, we can see similar trends appearing. The game that holds the top spot on Twitch for a huge majority of the time is the esports giant League of Legends. People do not play League to witness eye-popping graphics; they play it because they find the game enjoyable. The game itself is so entertaining, literally hundreds of thousands of people watch other people playing the game. Not just on peak times, either; League of Legends’viewership regularly hits six figures on any day of the week.

What other games have long shelf-lives on Twitch? Dota 2, Hearthstone, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, World of Warcraft and Starcraft 2 all hold current titles for being a long-lasting Twitch superstar, having a consistent presence within the site’s top streamed games. Occasionally, a newly-released game will appear to knock some titles down a notch, but will quickly vanish into obscurity, giving their spots back to the big viewer bases.

What’s the trend amongst the above games? None of them have the goal to amaze people with graphical integrity. None of them are eyesores, but they’re also not visual powerhouses designed to stun people with their might. They are games designed as games first and foremost. All people ask of their graphics is that they’re functional, and anything beyond that is a nice sweetener.

A game’s Twitch standing matters because games with a strong Twitch presence have a strong community. Games with a strong community have a strong fan base. Games with a strong fan base are what developers want because strong fan bases purchase DLC, encourage friends to play the game, and give the developer incentive to make sequels and expansion packs. Those are the kind of games that earn back the money lost in development, and leave a tidy sum left over to support more development and studio survivability.

Have you ever seen a game receive a wide, loyal fan base based on its graphics? Probably not—most fan bases congregate around a game that plays well, a game that keeps people coming back time after time to enjoy more of it. Graphical spectacles are only as good as the first time you see it. Games like Quake Live stay involving no matter how many times you play it.

It’s clear that, despite what you might see in comments and message boards, graphics aren’t the most important part of a game. Players want a game they can enjoy, and graphics aren’t the most crucial part of that. They want a game they can keep coming back to because of its solid design. Minimizing game design for graphics will only have a game forgotten after its initial release month, never to be played again.

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That doesn’t mean that graphics are meaningless when trying to sell a game. Take Cuphead, for example. That game had people talking about its graphical style a full week after its announcement on E3. The reason it caught everyone’s imagination was because it’s styled after old cartoons from the 1930s. Shovel Knight’s retro aesthetic was praised for staying loyal to a graphical style that’s 20 years old. People don’t need high resolution, realistic graphics in order to be “wowed” by them. Excellent art direction on a 2D graphics engine will turn more heads than a 3D game that’s simply maintaining the status quo of graphical quality. While stylised 2D games are still only as strong as how they play, it shows that you don’t have to drop millions into a game’s graphical capabilities in order to attract attention.

We’re at a time where people are becoming disillusioned towards graphical powerhouses. The grand graphical displays are beginning to wear off on the public, who are now seeing videogames for what they are—games, first and foremost. While gigantic budgets are spent on games that last only a month, well-crafted and engaging games live on for years after their release.

Crytek was right—audiences are definitely harder to “wow” with excellent graphics these days. But I don’t think that graphics make 60 percent of a game anymore. That 60 percent could be spent elsewhere—gameplay, story, improving net code, testing—and lead to a better game as a result. If they saw how many of their games sit barely played on a gamer’s shelf while they run through another round of League of Legends with their friends, maybe then they’ll see what really grabs a gamer’s attention.

S.E. Batt writes about games at his blog Digital Dreams. Follow him on Twitter @Simon_Batt.

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