Monday, January 12, 2009

Games Don't Need Better Graphics

It's just January 12th and I think we've already got our first nominee for understatement of the year, courtesy of Microsoft's Robbie Bach. In an interview with the San Jose Mercury News (which I found via this story at Edge Online) on the topic of Microsoft taking their time in preparing for the next next-gen of consoles, Bach is quoted as saying, "Just coming up with something that's faster and prettier isn't going to be sufficient."

Not to be snide, but: ya think? Nintendo has the least powerful console in the "current" gen and not only is it clobbering the 360 and the PS3, lifetime it's going to outsell the PS2. Not many would've predicted that three years ago.

Truth be told, I actually think Microsoft has done pretty well with the 360. Yes, it's louder than Jack Black doing -well, anything, I suppose. Yes the power brick is more cumbersome than a bowling ball. Yes, Microsoft never should've shipped a version that didn't include a hard drive. (And said hard drives are still overpriced when bought separately.) And yes, for at least the first two years the console was a red ring of death waiting to happen. (I've had two of them fail.) On the other hand, it beats out every other console I've ever owned where it counts: 1) It's got the best video game library of any of the current consoles 2) its iteration of Xbox Live offers the best overall online experience. Neither of these things has much to do with the fact that it's capable of generating prettier pictures than the original Xbox.

The idea of more power and better graphics has driven the game industry for as long as I've been a gamer. Google up some screenshots from an Intellivision game and it's not hard to see why. But I think in the past 5-10 years we've finally reached the point where new graphical innovations (actual visual 3D excepted) offer less and less return on investment. I mean yeah Madden '09 looks better than Madden '03. Oblivion looks better than Morrowind. And Halo 3 looks better than Halo. Has the fact that these games all look better made any of them more fun to play? (Hint: Maybe a little. But not really.)

It was one thing when we went from 4-color CGA to 16-color EGA to 256-color VGA, etc. It was another thing when we went from beeps and bloops to stereo sound to full on digital surround sound. The move from 2D sprite graphics to 3D modeled graphics was huge. For almost the entire history of electronic gaming, better graphics have lead to better games. This is the first generation where I don't think that holds true anymore (or at least it's less true). The games that are better on a 360 or PS3 (and not all are) aren't better just because they offer better graphics, it's because they offer better gameplay independent of how nifty the visuals are. Hell, one of my favorite games of last year was by far the least attractive (Mount & Blade).

So, yeah, given the amount of money spent on this gen with questionable returns, it should come as no surprise that Sony and Microsoft are in no big hurry to spur on the next one. What's the point? Barring a visual revolution like true 3D, how much better can our games look?

So what will the next gen, when it eventually comes, have to offer? You don't have to be Stephen Hawking to know it'll still be about power (processing power, that is). The thing is, historically most of that horsepower gets devoted to better graphics. I think on the next go 'round that's going to change. Yeah, true 3D is an intriguing possibility. We're starting to get hints at events like CES that this is where the players in this biz want to go. After the Wii's success they'll certainly be looking at more innovative ways to interact with a console.

That's all well and good, but what I'd like to see the next gen of consoles do is make it easier for developers to develop smarter games. How? I have no earthly idea. I'm just an anonymous slob who can write in complete sentences (most of the time). But whether it's in shooters, strategy or sports, our games need a serious IQ boost. I mean sports game AI is just embarrassing sometimes. We don't need God Rays at Ford Field nearly as much as we need the AI to recognize when it needs to use a timeout. And does anyone think RPGs like Mass Effect or Fallout 3 wouldn't benefit from combat AI that doesn't make it look like battle plans were drawn up by Donald Rumsfeld?

Yes, a lot of that is on the developers not to cut corners, but one thing I've seen a lot of defensive developers say in the past few years when confronted with the notion that their games boast Forrest Gumpian AI is that by the time they got done making things look good, there wasn't a whole lot of processing power left in the console to give them any gray matter. If gaming is really going to evolve beyond the current status quo, that needs to change.