Graphical comparisons are nothing new to the video game world. I remember Mario Kart commercials for the SNES and the fight with SEGA over “glass processing” (whatever the heck that was). The battle between consoles over which system has the best graphics will always be with us. But does it even matter? Given that boosting up resolution and max frame rate can actually hinder performance, is having the highest graphical capability really that important?
The real question is: Who cares when it comes down to the differences between the graphics in a game or console? Generally speaking, I think the console war over performance and side-by-side comparisons of games is pointless. Most people are purchasing a console based on brand loyalty or price, with very few consumers riding the fence until they see which system squeezes out the most resolution and frames per second. And as pointed out with the link above, that isn’t always giving the user a smooth performance anyway. To put it succinctly: pushing a system to its limits with resolution and frame rate might get you 60 frames per second at 1080p, but when the graphical intensity forces the game to dip into 30 frames per second, it’s very noticeable and not enjoyable. In any case, I want to leave behind the console debate because I think it’s fruitless, and just focus on the subject: do graphics matter in video games?
The size and scope of the Minecraft community is almost unfathomable. When I checked the stats on Minecraft’s website as I wrote this it said that 18,611,584 people have bought the game and in the last 24 hours, 12,723 people bought the game. Re-read that if you need to really digest it. In just 24 hours almost 13,000 new customers purchased a game that has graphics no better looking than original Nintendo games like Mario and Zelda. Why do so many people play Minecraft? There are a smattering of reasons that many game makers would love to crack and channel for future sales, but I think the following things are ways newer games can focus less on graphics and more on experience. So I’m going to spend the rest of this post talking about what makes for a good enough experience to, like Minecraft, put graphics in the back seat.
Accessibility and Freedom
These two go hand in hand because the accessibility of the game along with the freedom to do whatever you want allows almost any level of player to give and get as much as they want. A casual gamer mom can sit down after a long day of chasing toddlers and build and explore to the level that she’s comfortable with while the hardcore basement dweller can recreate an entire landscape or scene from his favorite movie. I’ve already written about how when used improperly, freedom can actually hurt the quality of the game. So I don’t think the answer to a successful video game is to dumb down the graphics and tell the user “Just explore or something”. The identity and purpose of the game has to be firmly established, while making the engagement level free and accessible enough to have a broad and involved audience.
Yes, that’s right, an oxymoron, how helpful! Diablo 3 is a good example of what I mean by, “simplistic complexity”. The movement and leveling mechanics are simple: fight through dungeons and get experience to level up your character. The gear and skills, however, are as complex as the user wants them to be. You can engage with the gear with as must depth as you want, checking stats, ability effects, and buffs, comparing and swapping to ensure you have the best build at the present moment. Or you can just wear and use what has the best main stat. And the same applies to your skills, you can swap and change skills to have fluidity as you fight or just pick the ones that you like the most. This type of system isn’t easy to develop, especially considering Blizzard was able to continually improve it by building on the previous Diablo titles. I do, however, have a few ideas on how some “simplistic complexity” could be implemented and built.
In any simple side-scrolling button masher like Castle Crashers, you could add optional depth for those that want it. Remember, accessibility and freedom are important equally because you don’t want to make a game that should be easy to play too complex for some to figure out, but you also don’t want it to be so simple that other players are bored. For the casual gamer you could have the traditional push-push-push combo style; just press B three times and it automatically escalates the combo and damage with each subsequent hit. The younger or less adept player enjoys seeing their character do awesome things without needing to string together long combos or moves. For the more adept player, you could offer a variety of combos that end with super moves. Each button could represent a style of super: stun, damage, ignite, and health steal. As the character levels up each of those super moves could have their own options, like choose to stun one enemy longer or instead stun a group but for a shorter duration. This creates more depth beneath a simplistic fighting mechanic and genre, allowing casual and hardcore gamers to engage at a level they enjoy. Now, all of these combos and super moves would still be accessible to the casual gamer, they would just happen automatically, so they are able to experience the same dynamic fighting system without the frustration of combinations that may be too difficult for them. “But wait”, you say, “why would the hardcore gamer even opt for the manual controls?” Simple. They would get damage bonuses from properly ordered combos as well as receive achievements. These are things the casual gamer is less interested in, so you are giving both types of gamer entry points into the game.
Simple Weapon System
Another way to add depth beneath simplicity would be to have the option for a simple weapon system in any RPG style game. Imagine playing Borderlands or Diablo for the first time. All the weapon stats can be daunting and sometimes even exhausting. The player leans forward, slowly whispers out loud, “DPS… What’s DPS? Adds 2 to strength, adds 1.5% chance of magic… oh who the heck cares!” Even as an experienced gamer, I sometimes just want to pick up some cool weapons and gear, travel to an open area, and go to work on some enemies. So if you layer the game properly, a casual gamer can pick the simple weapon system that just shows them attack speed and damage, giving them just enough information to make an informed decision. The more experienced player could use the complex weapon system which would show buffs and all extended stats. “But wait”, you say, “why would anyone want to bother with all the extra stats?” Well for starters, most fans of RPG games comb over stats with regularity, so they would naturally enjoy the extra information. And secondly, certain buffs would be related to other gear used, incentivizing the player to equip the right kind of gear to achieve maximum damage output and defense. This complexity beneath the simplistic system of fighting and equipping gear would allow players all along the spectrum of skill and experience to enjoy the game.
I thought we were talking about graphics?
The reason I outlined ways to add simplistic complexity to games as well as freedom and accessibility is because I think these are far more important than forcing developers to come up with newer and better looking games with every release. Focus on what a game offers in the realm of the experience and you just might build the next crummy-looking-pixel-world hit.
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