Visual Quality Is Losing Its Relevance In Game Design
Graphical prowess has always been at the forefront of game development. Little wonder, consumers tend to gravitate toward games that are visually appealing. That is, until Android, Apple, and Facebook entered the market.
Development costs for casual games have taken a nosedive this past decade as a result of a trend that open source and “freeware” started in the late 20th century. Nowadays, options like Steam, PSN, XBLA, and even other open source platforms have quickly gained in popularity and the necessity for amazing graphics has been loosened in modern gaming as a result. No longer does a title need to have state of the art visuals and a vast majority of today’s games have seen a revival in focus on playability. Whether easy to master or nearly impossible to conquer, gameplay itself has taken center stage in both the casual and hardcore realms of the industry.
This isn’t necessarily a good thing for gamers. The gap between software sales of triple-A titles has widened as compared to the middle-of-the pack games we’ve seen in generations past. Although that can mostly be attributed to the rise in popularity of games like the Call of Duty series, other titles now cost nearly as much to produce and thus receive a much smaller monetary return. These days, it is almost a waste of money to develop a game without the intent to be a best seller. Instead, independently developed games with a much lower financial demand are now a lucrative alternative.
This has led to a drop in your average game’s visual quality, sans the need for the sometimes high price of implenting those high-end graphics. Many developers no longer see the need to focus on giving a game the best graphics in order to boost sales whereas in previous generations that was a major selling point. The audience they are catering to consists of a growing group of people who may have only begun gaming. As an added bonus, hardcore gamers are also looking to pocket-sized gaming on their cell phones which now contain a huge library of titles to choose from.
The market for mobile gaming has grown immensely. So much so that it has been blamed for lackluster sales on Sony and Nintendo’s own portable systems. The demand for high-end graphics in mobile gaming has taken a hit as a result. While the 3DS was never intended to give players the graphical punch that Vita or even PSP would, it still provided its own brand of visual candy, 3D illusions aside. Gameplay on all mobile platforms takes center stage, probably since they are inherently unable to provide the graphical quality that PCs or consoles can. The handheld formats are where these new ideas are almost exclusively found. These gameplay innovations, while incredibly entertaining, tend to lack a certain visual appeal that is a must for gaming at large to continue to thrive. Without those blockbuster, graphically impressive titles, games would become simple diversions as opposed to the gigantic industry it is today. The benchmarks they set are key to video game evolution.
An influx of artistically unique games are now commonplace across the board. Art style has become the answer to financially risky, triple-A budgets. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White witch has been heralded for its anime look. Journey took a more environmentally-stylistic approach and was also praised for its style. Even games like Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, which takes pages from old-school, 8-bit beat-em-ups, has been given many nods for its presentation. Immersion in games is, perhaps now more than ever, influenced greatly by what our eyes are presented on-screen. The Jet Set Radio series’ original entry was released in the the early 2000s, boasting a rather new concept of Cel-Shaded graphics. Onimusha used a similar style and for the time, its visuals were top of the line even though they are cartoonish. But that was over a decade ago.
Great graphics aren’t dead today, however. There is still room for photo-realism in gaming. Killzone 3, whose graphics in the final version didn’t quite reach the quality of trailers during the game’s original reveal, still packs a major punch and are some of the best seen anywhere. The Last of Us, assuming it looks like the videos and screen shots that have been presented by Naughty Dog, further blurs the lines of realism seen in games. For those opting out of photo-realism, cinematography is used. The Uncharted franchise and God of War series are both prime examples. What you see isn’t trying very hard to be real. Instead, the presentation is set forth with diverse camera-angles, gorgeous backgrounds, and flashy set-pieces. Some games such as the Final Fantasy 13 series seem to take the best of both worlds and are universally praised for it, even if other areas receive a healthy dose of criticism.
Future generation consoles seem to be boasting a significant boost in available RAM which is pre-loaded memory, available for on-the-fly computations. The speed of that memory is also seeing a significant increase, comparable to that of high-end PCs. The PS3′s RAM speed clocks in at around 16 gigabytes per second compared to PS4′s estimated 170-196 gigabytes per second. This COULD mean that future console games (and, in turn, PC games as well) see a much greater emphasis placed on graphical power with real-time rendering becoming a much more lucrative approach to game design. Could we see a resurgence in video game graphics as a result?
The short answer is, probably not. More often, developers will likely focus on the expanded limitations of more powerful machines for implementing gameplay features or other technologies such as Playstation 4′s GaiKai streaming. Furthermore, Sony has expressed considerable interest in indie development and even game development in general. One of their top selling points upon announcing the PS4 was a focus on developers. In the weeks following that announcement, those developers have responded favorably across the board. Innovation seems to be the way of the future and the vision of developers – and hopefully publishers – is only going to be expanded in the coming years.
Of course we still see a healthy dose of games that utilize the graphical capability of the machines they run on, and perhaps we always will. But the days where their importance dictates what we play are long gone. Today, many companies are using those smaller, less explosive-looking games to fund their bigger projects, which end up being financial gambles by themselves. Fewer and fewer games are pushing the envelope of what our TVs feed our eyes. Those that do still set benchmarks that their gaming successors will shoot for, keeping graphics at least somewhere in production priority lists. As visual realism in gaming peaks, there is no doubt that art-style will take center stage at some point, further supplementing the diversity seen in game design today. Signs of that are now apparent and artistically appealing games will continue to find their way into our homes and onto our televisions.