Warning – this article may contain large doses of personal opinion and condescension!
Good games cost millions – in 2016 it’s expected to be like that! You can’t have a high-end game without a high-end graphics! What kind of shitty game is that, it looks like crap! I’m not playing games that make my eyeballs bleed! Wow, this looks / sounds so much worse than game XY …
You may have heard (or even said) any of these sentences before. Modern gaming and its rating consensus seems to revolve solely around how high the production values are. Does a game have kick ass sound? Is it fully localized and voice-acted by professionals? Does it use the newest Unreal™ engine? How many polygons are shown on-screen? Is the hair realistic? The list goes on and on, one “professional” article at a time…
The public opinion – and you
Of course this trend is somewhat understandable – after 30 years of gaming it’s gotten really hard to come up with new mechanics, yet alone define a new genre. As a consequence developers focus on the presentation to distinguish their titles, making production costs skyrocket into movie territory – as last seen by the recent example of GTA5 with 137 mio. USD. The risks of any AAA game failing usually entails hundreds of developers getting fired, which is why we now (instead of playable Demos) get to see trailers with meticulously directed content, photoshopped screenshots, review embargos and “Betas” which mainly are there to probe the general interest are only a few of the resulting newer forms of controlling the public perception of games.
Everyone making and consuming games seems to follow a new holy doctrine that enslaves us to evaluate games solely on their first looks and presentation. Forums and discussions are filled with stupid comparisons that seem void of any objective criticism. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a saying that also works nicely for games – though many seem to forget that. The tendency to look for good first impressions is not only a very unhealthy one for the industry as a whole, but also detracts the debate from more important things in a game: the actual GAMEplay.
Need an example? Alright – let’s have a look at “The Division” – an upcoming mixture of Shooter and RPG published by Ubisoft. Back at the E3 in 2015 people were confronted with pre-staged gameplay that showed nice-looking graphics but a barebone minimum of the actual game. Just recently the game just hit the “beta” stage, and people completely went mad on the graphics looking a lot worse!
Now let’s all take a moment and throw our hands in the air in disgust! Show some compassion for people feeling betrayed! Maybe you are among them? Ok then, go to Ubisoft and tell them how much you hate them, but don’t forget to get your copy of the game on your way out!
All done? Good!
The closer view
Alright then, let’s step back a bit from this situation and have a deeper look, shall we? First and most obvious observation: Yes, this was a marketing lie. The first E3 presentation most-likely was a highly predefined and staged experience, with maximum graphic settings, a potent machine working the magics and probably very confined levels that were especially tuned to deliver a maximum of fidelity paired with a solid +60FPS frame rate.
Is it bad that Ubisoft lied about their final product? Yes! Is it important? Nah, not really, because it’s a pretty obvious conclusion that the E3 version may not run as fluid on a magnitude of systems, so they had to optimize the product to run well with a wider audience. High-end games don’t sell well when they run like crap on most PCs. Furthermore it doesn’t mean that the game will remain in this state forever – a future patch or ini tweak might as well re-enable users with high-end machines to experience the game as they have originally intended. Of course Ubisoft doesn’t mention that, because marketing terms like “highly optimized for a wide range of PCs” barely resonate with an audience horny for graphics.
So that brings us to the second observation: how many people have talked about the actual gameplay of “The Division” instead? I’d wager and say: “Not too many, really”. A very loud majority solely focused the discussion on graphical fidelity, bringing out pitchforks and torches as the now nearly final product doesn’t seem to deliver anymore. However, what I consider the more important questions to ask are as follows:
What did the “The Division” Beta have to offer in terms of gameplay? Are RPG elements really a good idea to add to a shooter? In which ways did the game improve from the earlier E3 presentation? Was early feedback by the audience considered and even implemented? Can you see a clear direction where this game is going in 1 or 2 years?
Coming from this side helps yourself to distance from the actual presentation and look at what’s really underneath: the core mechanics. “The Division” was one of the few AAA-titles that made me curious at first, because it seems to combine genres of multiple worlds, fusing team-based shooter gameplay with the depth and loot mechanics of an MMO like World of Warcraft. Considering that I watched a lot of footage from the 2016 closed beta and came to a new conclusion, namely that this game will not be as important or relevant (to me) after all. Just by comparing the game with its earlier version and judging gameplay mechanics and improvements I can almost surely say that this fusion of mechanics does not work well together. “The Division” is a game that tries to combine too much at once: A loot system with both PVE and PVP to balance, cover based mechanics and aiming VS high-end weaponry and bullet-spongy enemies, the ability to steal loot from other players VS the temptation to cheat and duplicate. It will be an almost impossible feat to master and I would tip my hat on Ubisoft when they manage to launch this game with any major disasters happening.
The smaller world
So what does this trend towards “high-end” gaming tell us? Well on the one hand there’s a clear countermotion in terms of indie gaming visible. Single developers or smaller studios focusing on games just a small but ambitions. With their out of the box thinking or outstanding presentation those people manage to make sometimes higher than that of any AAA release with a marketing budget. Titles such as Ori and the blind Forest, Transistor or the recent Undertale manage to capture a huge audience and many game of the year awards just on top. They all have one thing in common: their success is clearly traceable to great game mechanics, not a huge marketing budget. Their failure will not result in hundreds of people income being at risk, but their success opens the path for a lot of similarly successful titles.
Big players like Microsoft and even the aforementioned Ubisoft seem to slowly get this trend as well. Microsoft even funded Ori and the blind Forest while allowing the developers to keep their artistic vision – it’s a synergy that clearly worked. And even Ubisoft is slowly trying out new ideas, as demonstrated in smaller productions such as “Child of Light” or the successful revival of the “Rayman” series.
All this teaches a valuable (yet not really new) lesson to learn: big games are not to be evaluated by the amount of revenue they generate but the experiences they give us to think about. Good games may feature polish and high-end graphics, but they don’t need to do! In the end it’s the quirky and different titles that stick with us for years to come, and I’m still thankful that many creative artists seem to think that way, keeping my favorite hobby as fresh as it has been 30 years ago.