Sunday, 25 July 2010

How important are graphics these days?

Pretty colours, shiny textures and looking good are things that games are always striving to be. New art direction, next generation this and high definition that are all buzz words generally used to describe the next big game coming to shelves and internet listings, but how big a part do these factors play nowadays?

It’s funny to think that once upon a time NES, SNES and N64 graphics kept us in total awe, and that Lara Croft’s second adventure had impressive features such as a moving ponytail. It’s understandable that as technology gets better, our expectations continue to peak and then go beyond. Is this still the case nowadays though?

Personally, it has been a very long while since I was completely blown away by the visuals in a game. Environments, atmosphere and design have made my trousers smile recently yes, but the actual technology that is meant to make things pretty seems to have hit a plateau. Graphics are starting to get so good, that a lot of the realistic games especially, are starting to look the same. I just feel that I haven’t been swept off my feet lately.

Perhaps it is that graphics are improving quite gradually now, and so between games it is hard to notice a difference until you start comparing what we had two years ago with the big releases that are coming out over the next few months. Maybe I’m just not as easy to impress anymore, having grown cynical with age and the below average games that I have had to crush underneath my uniform journalist boots.

I still remember reading reviews with checkboxes giving the game a rating based on its graphics. These days, when I review something with a strict word count, I hardly ever mention the graphics of a game unless it is something interesting. If the game’s visuals are refreshingly different and expertly polished, or to the other extreme, as appealing as a daffodil covered in hot, chunky vomit, then I will spray liberal amounts of happiness or bile at the piece as appropriate.

This is the thing though. With in-game graphics of bigger blockbusters all looking fairly decent these days, is it really justifiable to mention it as a selling point in the review? Good graphics these days just simply don’t differentiate you from the pack enough.

At university I wrote a piece about the future of games for a feature writing assignment. I interviewed the editor of the Game Career Guide, the lead writer of PS3 shooter Haze and a video game design student. I was expecting answers to come back about photo realistic graphics making games as life like as possible. Instead, I had three rather distinct answers about broadening the gaming audience, the price of technology lowering to make it more available to game developers, and improvements to make physics more realistic. As far as I can tell, all of these have been spot on so far.

I suppose casual games are another culprit for graphics not being pushed that hard, as the rather simplistic visuals that these games use are ideal for their target audience. You don’t need the drastic, over the top CGI from a Michael Bay film to try and make wiggling your arse to spin a hula hoop more interesting (then again, the prospect of Optimus Prime doing this intrigues me in mysterious and disturbing ways).

So will graphics make a notable leap forward in the future? I don’t know. Industry folk seem to say that consoles still have room to be pushed further, but then again they wouldn’t exactly turn around and say, “Yes, the Xbox 360 cannot do anything else and this is the best it will ever do.” Of course PCs are always getting more power pumped into them, but trying to take their games to consoles as well as desktop power towers does limit how far they can be pushed. Let’s just see what happens, eh?

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