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Death to Good Graphics!

By Shamus
on Wednesday May 20, 2009
Filed under:
Video Games


I just want to point out that another installment of my weekly column went live at The Escapist last Friday. I didn’t link it at the time because the site was inaccessible to me. They were in the midst of some hardware upheaval, the emergent result of an upgrade of some sort. I thought I’d let that business calm down before I tried to send you in that direction. The column is about the self-destructive pursuit of graphics, and what I think developers should be doing instead. In order to make up for the lateness of the link, I am linking it an unprecedented eight times in this paragraph, so that you’ll be able to find it easily.

Also, I want to congratulate The Escapist on the new site design. Some people have groused about the layout in the past, but I think this new thing they have going is, in youngster parlance, “totally sweet”. If this were the 80’s I would pop my collar, put on some awesome shades, and declare the site to be “rad”. I may even go so far as to say it was bitchin’, and I’m sure you know me well enough to realize I don’t make such unqualified appraisals of excellence lightly. But there it is: Bitchin’!

I love the new Stolen Pixels index with the little comic thumbnails. There is something compelling about seeing those little windows into the comic that makes me want to click on them and see what they say. Then I remember: I’m probably already familiar with said contents.

Anyway, Death to Good Graphics!, and so on.

Comments (43)

  1. Kevin says:

    I’d like to check it out. Do you have a link to that site somewhere?

  2. A fan says:

    Hmmm.No, It seems that he forgot to put the links.Oh, well.I suppose that it’s similar in content with another rant on this site on the same subject.

  3. Derek says:

    I have managed to find several links to the article. There’s one here, as well as one here. If neither of those work, you should also be able to get there from here. I haven’t actually tried it yet, but I believe that this link will also work.

  4. froogger says:

    I could find the article myself, but I’ve lost the link to Escapist, and I’m too lazy to google. Pls post a link already!

    (edit) Thanks Derek, I’m sure I can figure it out from there.

  5. Mari says:

    Unlike these goobs ;-) I read it Friday and kept waiting and waiting for you to post the link here so I could tell you how awesome it was.

  6. Patrick says:

    Shamus, THANK YOU!

    The constant graphics push has ticked me off time and time again. I can run Doom 3 and Quake 4. I don’t have a prayer of running anything new these days, but all in all, the super-duper graphics don’t add much anymore. I could maybe go one more graphics cycle, but I see no reason to do anything beyond that: another cycle or so and we’ll be in “huge and fully-generated city-scale worlds indoor and out” territory.

  7. OverlordDan says:

    Great advice, as always. Reminded me of an article I read;

    Think you might like the guy, you make a lot of the same good points.

  8. Henebry says:

    Well reasoned. One thing I love about Shamus’ rants is his use of “you” to address the industry as if it were an old friend with a girlfriend problem.

  9. Saint Rising says:

    I’ve been playing the Monkey Island games lately. It’s a bit sad that a game that’s older than I am with old graphics can have a better story and be entirely more clever than most of the stuff they’re making now. It really is saddening how much is spent on graphics.

    And the new site layout is, indeed, bitchin’. *pops collar and puts on shades*

  10. Krellen says:

    Unfortunately for us, Shamus, game developers want the approval of jaded graphics fetishists far more than they want to make awesome games.

  11. K says:

    “I am linking it an unprecedented eight times in this paragraph, so that you'll be able to find it easily.”


    Edit: An on the topic of the… erm… topic: I could not agree more.

  12. Nathon says:

    Grammar police time! I don’t know if you can edit these things after they go up, but on the second page “forth” should be “fourth” and “run smoother” should be “run more smoothly”. Smoother isn’t an adverb.

  13. Sigma says:

    The Escapist refuses to load for me, anyone else have this problem?

  14. Angie says:

    Great column — I completely agree. I don’t care about the lastest graphics bling, hate being forced to upgrade my system just to play a new game that’d be just as good without said graphics bling, and in some cases the extra-special super-duper graphical wow makes the game harder.

    I remember when they released the patch to Morrowind which, among other things, added a gosh-wow mirror effect to the surface of the water. I thought it was cool for about five minutes, until I realized that I couldn’t see into the water anymore. :/ Before that patch, one of my main sources of income as a baby character was pearl diving. I could walk along the shore, watching for kollops, then dash into the water and check for pearls before the slaughterfish had digested too much of my entrails. With the mirror effect, though, whatever was under the surface was just a bare shadow, and sometimes not even that depending on the lighting. [headdesk] Who the heck thought that was a good idea? It was pretty, yes, but not terribly functional.

    Angie, looking for someone to stabinate

  15. Zel says:

    It should also be noted that a company that focused 99.9% of the development to the 3D engine can still come up with better story, pace or staging than most games of the same genre. Look at Crysis, sure it’s mostly known for its technical prowess, but I actually enjoyed the story and the gameplay more than Call of Duty 5 (which didn’t have to reinvent the wheel as the 3D engine is the one from CoD4).

    I somewhat agree with your point in the article. However, I don’t think companies should stick with their own engine for 10 years or so. Doom3’s engine was made by a genius the video game industry counts few of. The fact that it still looks good today (even though a little low-poly) is mostly thanks to the global lighting system that all games now have included. Compare any generic game from 2004 to another generic one that came out last year and it’s pretty obvious the quality change is very noticeable.

    That said, I think most dev studios should not make their own engines. Why not have a few talented ones (Id, Crytek, Epic, Valve,…) focus on the graphical engines of the generation and then have them license it to everyone else. We’ve started seeing this with the Source Engine, and mostly the Unreal Engine 3, but I’ve heard the latter is very difficult to use and that Epic may not provide all the support needed. If they were to provide both a good engine and quality tools to include/use it without many problems, it would mean better graphics for the game, full use of the latest 3D hardware (or not, good engines are scalable), and reduced development time and costs.

    I’m surprised to see so few games use an external graphics engine. I’ve heard Crytek sells its engine to government or military agencies, but I’ve never seen one used in another game. Is it so expensive that designing your own and suffer from the comparison actually costs less ?

  16. Yar Kramer says:

    Heh. A great example of what Shamus described is the Source engine — still going strong, and it runs on my slightly-newer-than-XP-SP2 laptop! (Mind you, while Valve does have some good ideas as far as actual gameplay goes, they still seem to do things by trial and error, in a “Let’s see what happens if we try this idea … whoops, nope, none of the testers liked it” way rather than formulating some actual good theories about how to make good gameplay and basing the trials on that.)

    Regarding the comment in another post about the open-source release of Doom 3’s engine: It made me consider the possibility of 3D roguelikes, if we’re going to talk about procedurally-generated levels …

  17. Robyrt says:

    I hate to go against the gamer blog credo that Graphics Fanboys Ruined My Story Games – but I find myself increasingly requiring pretty graphics for me to enjoy a game. That means either a unique art style that ages gracefully, or super maximum realism with triple bling mapping.

    I think I’ve stumbled into the Uncanny Valley. Old DOS games are fine. Anything I can run at 1920×1200 is fine. But a game circa 2004, with soldiers’ angular helmets and less-than-silky animations, just makes me want to pop its modern counterpart into the drive instead.

  18. Daemian Lucifer says:

    “Yes, there are mainstream game reviewers out there who are obsessed with graphics and spend their non-gaming hours masturbating to the NVIDIA product catalog. They will indeed give you a hard time because you’re not using the next-gen bling mapping. I’m sorry about those guys. But for what it’s worth, some reviewers won’t do that, and I think consumers will be happy to pony up for your game as long as its fun.”

    Saddly,you are wrong here.I remember reading user reviews for fallout 3 when it came out,and was astonished by how many people gave it 3-6 out of 10 because its graphics is “old and crappy”.Its not the reviewers that want these things,but brainless customers that foam over shiny pixulz!!1!

    What is needed,I think,is a step away from prebuilt levels.Spore,for example,offers so many interesting planets,levels and creatures because it uses procedural instead of prebuilt graphics.Instead of graphic artists,we need graphic coders.Let the machine build levels on its own,randomly or semi-randomly.That would easilly turn those 5 hour games into 40+ hour ones.I mean,sure,you cant expect to have a random placement of houses in some french village in WWII,but you dont have to draw every single couch and speck on the wall in each and every one of them.

  19. radio_babylon says:

    it wouldnt take much to have improved on the old site design… so yeah, its better, but… bitchin? i think theyre at least two iterations away from bitchin’… finding a better use for the right column than the tower of mini-banners would get it to half-bitchin. learning how to make a resolution-independent design that doesnt leave over 2/3 of the browser window as wasted space would get it to full-bitchin… not that i expect that, since it seems to be an art that was lost sometime around 1998.

  20. Sheer_FALACY says:

    New graphics is the best way for a new game to differentiate itself from old games. If your game looks better than a game made 4 years ago could have looked, your game doesn’t face competition from 4 year old games. Sure, maybe they’re better games, but you have something they don’t.

    That said, the issue is probably going to resolve itself in FPSes, at least. There isn’t a whole lot of improvement possible at this point, no matter what graphics cards and processors are doing half a decade from now. The amount of reality (also known as “brown”) that you can put into an FPS now is staggering.

  21. BarGamer says:

    I just bought Overlord 1 for $7. It’s pretty old, and hilariously fun. Granted, it was Nintendo-hard at times, but hey, that’s what we have Gamefaqs for, right?

    Take Blizzard games, for example. You can run their games on a variety of machines, but they can also benefit from the bleeding edge of graphics cards. Their games are almost synonymous with “good times.” As a result, they’re a multi-billion-dollar company, they write their own release dates, and they still have the respect of their customers. What other game company out there can say the same?

  22. briatx says:

    Excellent article.

    You’re right that sticking with the same engine for several years should give a developer the ability to put out better games more quickly and cheaply.

    Which brings us back to the Gamepunx masterpiece:

    Half-Life 2: Episode 3 – Seriously, Valve, what the Hell??

  23. chabuhi says:

    Call of Dury: World at War is the perfect example. I burned through this in three sittings (not long ones) on the normal difficulty setting. Yes, a higher difficulty level might mean a longer game, but I don’t think that equates to more or better gameplay.

    So much input for graphics and little else. I love eye-candy as much as the next player, but it has definitely gotten to be a bit much.

    I wonder, however, how much of it is developers holding back content for DLC and milking the revenue stream?

  24. Nefrai says:

    Great article, I fully agree. I love graphics, but I noticed as I was playing Crysis…after I stopped drooling and could see past the graphics, I wasn’t really having any fun.
    Dev’s spend so much time making it pretty and using that alone to sell games, everything else suffers. I would be totally happy if they just used the Unreal 3 engine for the next 8 years. Or heck, even the “aging” Source engine.

    One of my biggest gripes with PC gaming (I’m an avid PC gamer) is the fact they always move to new tech before they learn the old tech. Stick with one engine for awhile. Learn it, make games less buggy and have them run smoother. At this point I think graphics have reached a peak for awhile. Let’s learn to refine what we have and make quality games.

    I remember how the visual jumps used to be amazing: Nintendo classic to Super Nintendo. WOW! Then from that to N64/Playstation 1. Huge! Dreamcast is really the last time I’ve seen grahics make that kind of leap. Dreamcast looks aged now, yes…but compare the PS1 to DC, than DC to PS3. The gap has shrunk a lot. The DC is 10 years old and I still think it looks decent.

    This is also why when people laugh at Sony for saying they make “10 year consoles”, I’m actually hoping they mean it. By then there will be no excuse to have any games on PS3 running lower than 1080p, and a crisp 60 fps. Also the tech will be cheaper to work with, meaning longer games and more risk taken with games.

  25. james says:

    OOh! you mean we might start having games again, rather than incredibly accurate simulations of real life?

    Really, if I want to go driving I’ll go and get in my car, and I just can’t bear to play yet another first-person shooter or Pro Evolution Basketball 2009 (where 2009 is not the year, but the release number ;) ).

    This is why I like more of the Wii games, they’re silly and try not to take themselves too seriously.

  26. vdgmprgrmr says:

    I believe a more contemporary word would be “pimpin’.”

    Or… maybe… I think “ballin'” may have taken it over.

    Either way, “bitchin'” was pretty much phased out by around 2002, I think.

    You might also want to note the odd grammar of those two terms as well. For both, if you want to imply that they are the most of either, you’d say, “pimpinest” or “ballinest,” not “most pimpin'” or “most ballin’.” And a person who is “ballin'” would be a “ballah.”

  27. ZzzzSleep says:

    Quoth Yar Kramer:

    Regarding the comment in another post about the open-source release of Doom 3's engine: It made me consider the possibility of 3D roguelikes, if we're going to talk about procedurally-generated levels

    Have you had a look at Vulture’s eye?

  28. vdgmprgrmr says:

    ZzzzSleep, I think he meant, like, first-person 3d roguelikes. With all the fancy blingmapping and such.

    This is actually a dream of mine. I’d really like to see Rogue on the engine used for Oblivion.

    It is one of my two goals in life: 3d FPRoguelike, PG city+zombies. If I make those two things in my entire life, I am complete. (Well, actually, there’s a couple other things, but those two are near the top.)

  29. Yar Kramer says:

    Heh, yeah, vdgmprgrmr was referring to what I was talking about. The inspiration for that line of thought was actually when someone mentioned playing DoomRL shortly after I read the “Doom 3 engine open-source” comment. Not that I have a huge interest in roguelikes themselves, especially games which seem to be textual “I Wanna Be The Guy”s like Nethack, but the concept, along with that of procedurally-generated content, tickles my “Iiiiinteresting!” bone.

    That said, vdgmprgrmr, if you do make procedurally-generated zombie-shooter, and it’s as fun as Left 4 Dead, I’ll totally play it. Imagine an AI Director which would not only place items and enemies, but also design the level. And actual level design would consist of putting together some set-pieces, and a bunch of rules (“the first 20% should be in an apartment building, then the next 30% should be street-level, then a set-piece interior of a warehouse with a Crescendo event, etc.” and buldings should be THIS big, with THIS many windows etc) … I have my own ideas for faking this using the existing engine, but lighting would be a problem.

  30. Broc says:

    I must admit I do not agree with Shamus in this case. I think today’s market has games for every single taste and budget.

    For example here are games I recently played and greatly enjoyed:

    – Braid
    – Castle Crashers
    – GTA IV
    – Lord of the Rings Online
    – Prince of Persia (the new one)
    – Plants Vs Zombies

    They all share a common trait: they all have great graphics and it all benefits them. However they also have great gameplay, which I agree they would be nothing without.

    They don’t all cost the same tough, don’t last as long, didn’t as much manpower to develop. But this variety keeps me buying them.

    One other important thing to note is that I could of course have bought GTA San Andreas instead of GTA IV or The Two Thrones instead of Prince of Persia. But I didn’t at least in part because I had played GTA Vice City and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. I feel the updated graphics added the plus value in immersion that I needed to make these games feel fresh. I was ready to pay for that difference. Just adding more and more features wouldn’t cut it.

    As for interesting new ideas without the obsession of graphics these games still exist and I named only a few at the begining of this post. Not counting the fact that many many games from previous eras are still available and cheaper than ever.

    In short, I feel there is nothing to complain about. Variety is what keeps this industry, like many others, alive. We need the indie, original projects and we need the big budget, hollywood blockbusters, in my humble opinion.

  31. MadTinkerer says:

    “You could be pumping out games based on 2004-level technology and produce something that’s commercially viable, attractive to look at, and relatively cheap to produce. (Cheap compared to chasing after the next engine, anyway.) I suspect that with strong art direction and experienced artists you could actually get another five years out of that 2004 technology before you absolutely had to move to a new generation.”

    Shamus, you’ve been playing Left 4 Dead. I know it’s really well done, but don’t you realize that it’s running off the Source engine? Source IS incrementally improved 2004 tech. Valve are way ahead of you. ;)

    • Shamus says:

      MadTinkerer: Actually, L4D runs off of SE2, which is pretty different from the engine that murmurs beneath the hood of Half-Life 2. (There is a clear and deliberate compatibility break and a step up in system specs between the two.)

      But SE1 had a good run. HL2, TF2, Portal, and the Half Life 2 episodes all ran on variants of the SE1. They did fully exploit that tech before moving on.

      Both Valve and Blizzard are sensible about their approach to graphical evolution, and they do quite well. Lots of other companies are exceptionally foolish about it. Which is why I wrote the article. :)

  32. MintSkittle says:

    Eh…I wouldn’t say the new site design is better, just different. It always bothers me when people change up a website’s design, and I don’t know why.

    Your article is still spot on though.

  33. Mentalepsy says:

    While trying out Crysis, the whole time I was thinking “Well, it looks nice, but it doesn’t look nice enough to warrant the frame rate I’m getting.” I can’t imagine what the engine was wasting so much time on, because I sure didn’t see much justification for it on-screen.

    As far as I’m concerned, a game my PC can handle easily is much more graphically pleasing than something it can’t. The new game has to be run at a lower resolution with smaller textures and shadows turned off, and it still runs like crap. The old game runs without a hitch at the highest resolution with everything turned on, making it much more pleasing to look at. Besides, frame rate is king, in my eyes – I’m looking at a moving, interactive image, after all, not a screenshot gallery. Fluidity of motion is vital to the overall visual experience.

    Unfortunately, we can’t just dial back the tech level a few years and have a 2009 game look and run like a 2005 game on an older machine. If you turn down the graphics settings, it runs like a 2008 game and looks like a puddle of mud.

    Thankfully, as Shamus has pointed out before, we’ve been at a sort of plateau in recent years. I bought a mid-range PC for gaming about a year and a half ago, going for affordability over raw power, and it hasn’t really showed any signs of aging yet – I can pretty much pick up anything off the shelf and not worry about being able to play it. If this were 2002, my 2000-era PC would probably be struggling to keep up.

  34. Martin Annadale says:

    I agree with Shamus 100%. Before Shamus’s comment about Valve and Blizzard, I also thought about them. How massively successful they are (especially Blizzard) without riding the bleeding graphical edge. Starcraft 2 is a case in point. Practically guaranteed to be a massive hit, but Blizzard’s target pc for the game is any pc that supports Shader 2.0 (not 3.0 as all new games do these days). That basically means that even people stuck with older cards like geforce fx (your 5200 Shamus – unless you upgraded) will still be able to play it.

    Another symptom of this “graphical revolution” is the drastic “noobification” of games. Give any new gamer Planescape Torment to play (not even going to mention Fallout) and the poor sod probably won’t even be able to stumble out of the Mortuary. But back then any gamer could have done at least this simple task. We were trained to do it by game developers who considered us gamers as equals and allowed us to play their games. These days developers spoon feed us like little babies and the games play us.

    But back to graphics. One would think that developers would at least be able to see a winning formula in Blizzard, who do not ride the bleeding edge. Is it a lack of willingness to hire talent for the other aspects of game development (story, design, etc) that makes them push graphics so hard?

  35. Mayhem says:

    I remember even the Atari VCS (2600) had the same experience. The first games were very blocky, but by the time the end came, the graphics of the games were 10 times better, even by those primitive standards.

  36. Jeysie says:

    I definitely agree with you. While the fact that most of the games nowadays are actiony in some way, with the more purely cerebral games getting shuffled to the wayside, is the biggest factor in why I don’t play modern games… the ever-rising minimum requirements and high prices for less gameplay are notable as well. And why waste $60 on 10 hours of gameplay, when I can buy 6 retro games for that amount that will have better stories, less-twitchy gameplay, and more content?

    And probably have more *artistic* graphics, for that matter. I mean, sure, the games nowadays have more realistic graphics, but if I want reality I can just look outside my window, y’know? Where’s the games like King’s Quest 6, Curse of Monkey Island, The Last Express, Grim Fandango, etc. that had graphics that were creative, colorful, and artistic? Even the games with more fantastical designs just don’t feel quite the same, since they’re offset by the “realisticness”.

  37. Shamus! I agree wholeheartedly and commented on the Escapist! So it must seem silly that I’d also comment here, but I figured this was as good a place as any to bring this up.

    While JRPGs aren’t a terribly popular genre to talk about these days among the Western gamer crowd, SquareEnix is a textbook case of graphics-bloat and budget inflation. Most of their games are also the source of all the really annoying stereotypes that most gamers think of when they think of JRPGs. And I dare say they’ve just about killed the genre in the West. Their latest marquee title, FF13, has been in development hell for half a decade now.

    On the other hand, Atlus has been making games with their Shin Megami Tensei 3-based engine on the PS2 well into the this-gen of consoles. And still are. (Are they the company you were hinting at when you mentioned the PS2’s lifespan?) Their Persona games, while niche, were a megahit as far as JRPGs go and their other SMT games have made a good showing. Persona 4 came out less than a year after Persona 3, riding on the momentum and goodwill brought on by its predecessor. Their games are fresh, interesting, and even a fair bit more challenging than the typical JRPG–their graphics are also known more for art direction than brute technical force. Only recently has Atlus decided to step up to the current generation of consoles and financially I’d say they’re in a better spot for it.

    Contrast this to SquareEnix’s flagging fortunes and it’s easy to see that your point applies just as much overseas as it does here.

  38. Broc says:

    Mayhem said: “I remember even the Atari VCS (2600) had the same experience. The first games were very blocky, but by the time the end came, the graphics of the games were 10 times better, even by those primitive standards.”

    Yes, but the video game industry then crashed, in big part because people were getting uninterested and needed a bigger improvement, which came later in the form of the NES.

    Jeysie said: “And why waste $60 on 10 hours of gameplay, when I can buy 6 retro games for that amount that will have better stories, less-twitchy gameplay, and more content?”

    You are completely right. But people that do pay 60$ when the game comes out support the industry and you can always buy the same game a generation later for 20$. Heck, in many cases you really don’t have to wait that long to get recent games at bargain prices (I just got Mirror’s Edge for 20$).

    I really don’t think the improvement in graphics is taking anything from anyone. Some companies are foolish and invest too much in one single big next-gen game, of course, but many others develop indie or small games, develop for the Wii and PS2, etc. I think the industry needs this variety.

  39. Yar Kramer says:

    For those of you pointing out the exceptions like Valve and Blizzard, I feel the need to say that the whole point of exceptions to the rule is that they are exceptions: most people do things the opposite way.

    That said: I’d just like to point out that I have some notes kicking around for an interactive fiction game — that is, a game with no graphics whatsoever. ;)

  40. Mayhem says:

    Broc said: “Yes, but the video game industry then crashed, in big part because people were getting uninterested and needed a bigger improvement, which came later in the form of the NES.”

    Actually, it crashed because, unlike today, you didn’t need the licensing of the system’s creator to make a game for it. Anyone could make a game for the VCS and, at the end, there were tons of cheap, crap games flooding the market. No company who made a good game could get enough shelf space to financially support it’s existence. Nintendo was smart and made third parties get their ok on a game before they allowed it to be published.

  41. Don J says:

    Ironically, when I tried to read the article last weekends, The Escapist appeared to be down, and NONE of the links worked. I felt like maybe one or two more might have helped…

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