Graphics vs. Gameplay

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Graphics vs. Gameplay

From classic text only games to modern realistic interactive stories, the video game industry has grown immensely since its inception.  But, what makes a good video game?  A good video game is one that is fun and entertaining.  Developers achieve this by designing fun and challenging game play, not fancy graphics alone.  Graphics play a major role in games, especially with modern games, but a game will not succeed on pretty visuals alone.

So what exactly is game play?  That is actually a hard concept to accurately put to words.  “Game designer Sid Meier’s famous definition in Game Architecture and Design is ‘a series of interesting choices.’(Adams 9)”  I’d have to say that’s a pretty good way of describing it.  Game play is how a game plays, or how it feels to play it.  The gameplay can be smooth and flow nicely or it can be awkward and choppy; usually due to the design of the controls.  According to Earnest Adams, who wrote Fundamentals of Game Design, “an ugly or awkward video game is a bad one, no matter how innovative it’s design or impressive technology.”  Game play is also a set of challenges that the player must accomplish in order to be rewarded in some way, or to complete a goal or objective.  For example, in Super Mario Bros. Your main goal or objective is to save the princess, but the challenges that make up the gameplay consist of getting through the levels and avoiding enemies, hazards, and not running out of time.  These challenges combined together made for a very fun and successful game.  Who hasn’t heard of that plumber?

Graphics on the other hand, are everything that the player sees on the screen.  Graphics give a visual representation of what’s happening in the game; the characters and the environments all make up the graphics.  Developers have come a long way since the days of looking at shapes moving around on the screen.  Today graphics take up a major portion of the development of a game.  You no longer have to use too much imagination when looking at the character you control, because you’re given such a realistic avatar.  Environments are painstakingly detailed and immersive, and animations look fluid and realistic.

So after explaining all of that, I believe that modern day video game developers have the formula wrong.  As I mentioned before, developers spend a large amount of time and money on cutting edge graphics and visuals, I think too much.  Sometimes it seems that by having flashy graphics and trailers, they think it will draw us gamers in to buy the game.  For the most part it’s true.  I know a lot of people who buy games solely on looks alone, and they are usually disappointed or bored with the game pretty quickly.  I think this is wrong, developers should be focusing a little less on visuals and pay more attention to how the game plays.  Basically make it fun before making it pretty.

Indie game developers are independent developers who are usually one person or a small team of people who make games for little to no money.  These guys have the right formula.  Generally indie games have simple or retro style graphics, and this is either by choice because they like the style, or because they don’t have the money or the talent for fancy graphics.

One developer that I believe got the formula right for a modern game goes by the name Notch.  This man created the game Minecraft.  It is an indie game that has just blown up in popularity with no advertising.  The game became popular by word of mouth, and from people making youtube videos about it. The game’s website has a stats page that is updated in real time and shows the amount of people who have signed up on the website and the people who have bought the game.  At the time or writing this there are 16,086,829 people who have signed up, and 4,006,372 people who have bought the game.  (minecraft.net)

Minecraft is a sandbox game that pretty much lets you do whatever you want.  Most people find it appealing because it lets you be creative.  Everything is made out of cubes, large cubes, and that is all that the graphics are.  It kind of reminds me of Legos.  Imagine looking at a world with mountains, oceans and forests, but made out of large cubes.  Two cubes stacked on top of each other is about the same height as your character.  Everything, the ground, trees, flowers, water, clouds, animals, and even yourself is all made out of blocks.  The textures on the blocks resemble the graphics from the 8 bit era of gaming back in the 80s.  There are lots of large pixels, but I think of it being more of a style than a lack of graphical ability.  It’s got that classic gaming feel to it.

The point of this game is simply to survive.  There is a day and night cycle and at night, monsters spawn.  The collection of monsters include, creepers which are monsters that blow up and destroy anything around them,  skeletons who shoot arrows, spiders, zombies, and recently added, enderman who wander around and only attack if you instigate them.

In order to survive the night you need to gather some supplies and build a shelter.  To gather supplies you would go out and explore the world.  You can chop down a tree with your bare hands to collect wood, which can be crafted into wooden tools, such as a wooden axe, pick axe, shovel and other things.  A crafting table has to be made first in order to craft objects.  The purpose of the tools is to make collecting resources faster and easier.  Eventually you will collect enough of one resource to place blocks down in a way that makes a shelter.  After closing yourself in, there isn’t much to do except listen to the monsters outside moan and growl while looking for you.  So you can start digging down into the ground with the shovel you made until you hit stone.  You switch to your pick axe and keep digging.  Eventually you will dig into a cave which provides you with new opportunities.  There are resources and ores that you can’t get to above ground and also there are monsters there day or night.  The game goes on from there, in any way that the player wants it to.  Most people spend the nights collecting resources and mining while spending the day improving their house, exploring the world and also building random structures to show off to friends.  There have been some pretty amazing things made by people who have a lot of free time.

Building and creativity is one of the biggest reasons people play this game.  There is actually a version of the game that you can play called creative mode.  In this mode the only thing you do is build and create whatever you want with the blocks that are found in the game.  There is almost no limit to what you can build in the game.  You just have to be a little creative and adapt its design to be built entirely out of cubes.  For example, it’s very difficult to build anything rounded, but that hasn’t stopped people from making globes and other rounded objects.

Minecraft’s success has been as result of having fun and addicting gameplay.  Nobody plays the game because of the graphics alone.  The graphics look like they could be from the 80s, all pixilated and “blocky.”  The game has everything that makes games fun. It has survival, building, being creative, collecting, adventure, suspense, almost unlimited replay value and most importantly, the freedom to do whatever you want.  No two people with have a similar experience, and this is because there is no right or wrong way to play the game.

I don’t think that Minecraft would be the same game with better graphics.  It would lose that Minecraft charm.  The building would be far more difficult.  I’d imagine there are only two ways of making the graphics better.  One would be to make everything in the world smooth, and take away the whole concept of blocks and cubs, but that would be completely changing the game.  The other way would be to make the textures on the blocks look realistic, but then that would just look funny, seeing a cube of realistic looking grass painted on the sides.

I remember watching the trailer for this new game that was coming out called Final Fantasy XIII.  It completely blew me away.  It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  The graphics and visuals were the best I’ve seen for the current generation thus far, and I’ll admit, that was a large part of why I picked up the game.  The other part was that I’m a bit of a Final Fantasy fan boy.  Final Fantasy VII being my favorite.

I watched and read a couple mixed reviews so I decided to buy it used.  For the most part I was disappointed.  Yeah the game does look amazing, you can see every strand of hair on the main character, Lightning’s head, but it’s just not that much fun.  The game couldn’t keep my attention for very long.  A few times I had to kind of push myself to continue on with the story.  The story is pretty interesting and the characters are probably the best part of the game, but that is not enough.  The game has to be fun along the way as you make your way through the story.  If the player wants to know what’s going to happen next but doesn’t want to play through the level to get to the next advancement in the story then the developers have done something wrong.

The gameplay is very different from the past games in the franchise, but this isn’t always a bad thing.  Sometimes it’s good to have something new instead of doing the same as the last five games, but in this case it is bad.  The game takes a lot of bad rep for being very linear. Meaning you can only go in one direction with the story and the paths you take.  Also, it feels like you just keep going down hallway after hallway.  The game actually gained the nickname: Final Hallway XIII.  Most people don’t like this because they feel like the game is limiting them or telling them they can only do things one way.  One of the other differences is the fact that you only control one character during battles.  The character will change depending on what group of characters you are controlling and where you are in the story.  This makes the player feel like they aren’t really in control of their party.  You can change these things called paradigms, which are like battle tactics, if you want to be aggressive and offensive, or defensive and protective, but that is really your only control over the other characters.  They do their own thing.  Even with the main character that you control, there is an option to just auto attack, which will line up attacks for you based on the enemy and the situation.

The gameplay really makes me feel like the developers are just holding my hand through the game saying go here or do this, and then saying good boy, here’s the next part of the story.  I don’t want to say that they made the game too easy, there are some challenging boss battles, and you need to know when to use the right paradigms, but I can’t help but feel like I’m being walked through the game.  I think that the game being so linear makes me feel like this.

Final Fantasy XIII is a perfect example of a game that has amazing and high quality graphics, but isn’t very much fun.  The game was pretty successful; lots of people bought it, but I think a major portion of the people were disappointed.  Graphics may sell a game, but they do not alone make a game fun.

Unlike graphics, gameplay is timeless.  A game that was fun 20 years ago is still fun to play today.  However, 20 years ago the graphics looked amazing, but do they still look amazing today?  Probably not.  The same thing is going to happen with games from this current generation.  Eventually, our children will be looking at the games we play today and go “wow, you guys played games with terrible graphics.”  Graphics do not age well and this is because they are constantly being improved.  A game’s graphics alone will not make a game last for very long because in a short amount of time, a new game with better graphics will come out and take its place.  What will make a game last for a long time, and keep people playing it, is the gameplay.  More specifically, fun gameplay.  An example of this is the game StarCraft for PC.  This is an old real time strategy game that came out in 1998, and is still considered today to be the best and most perfectly balanced game in its genre(us.blizzard.com).  To this day people still play this game competitively.  Why has this game lasted for so long?  Its unmatched quality of gameplay.  The graphics had nothing to do with this.  They may have looked good back when it was released but they can’t compare to the sequel, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty’s graphics.

If we go back to the time when graphics were nothing more than dots on the screen, or for some games it was just text, we will see many examples of game play being more important to a success of a game.  Back before there were consoles, or even arcades, games were on mainframe computers at colleges and universities.  Spacewar! was a game created by Steve Russell, Martin Graetz, and Wayne Witaenem at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1962 on a mainframe computer (pdp-1.computerhistory.org).  It was a simple two player game where the object was to fire a missile at the other triangle on the screen, which represented the other player.  There was an asterisk looking object in the middle of the screen that had a gravitational pull.  It provided an interesting challenge in controlling the ship.  If your ship touched the star it was destroyed.  There were also dots scattered around the screen that represented stars in space.  There were no menus, intros, or even music; just fun and addicting game play.  It was simple but very well done.

I’d have to say that the recently released The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has the best of both worlds, graphics, and gameplay.  The graphics are very well done, very detailed and really make you feel like you’re in the game.  And as for the gameplay, it is fun, addicting and very rewarding.  I haven’t been able to put it down since I bought it.  Skyrim is an open world, action, first person role playing game.  It’s open world because the game lets you play it the way you want to.  There is a main story line but you may chose to follow it, or simply ignore it and venture off into your own story.  You could play the game for hours and hours without even starting the main story.  First person describes the point of view that the player plays the game through.  The game is meant to be played through the eyes of the character you control but the point of view can be changed to third person, which places the camera behind the character.  Role playing means that you are taking on the role of a fictional character.

The developers, Bethesda Game Studios, for the most part did everything right when developing this game.  They started with the gameplay and made it the way it’s supposed to be, fun.  Then, they added in the stunning graphics.   The pretty graphics to me is just the icing on the cake.

So many current developers are too worried about making lots of money on their games that they concentrate too much on making the game look pretty because that, unfortunately, is what sells games most of the time.  They focus on this so much that they often don’t give the gameplay enough attention, or they don’t test the game enough to find all of the bugs and quirks.  Then they release it before its ready to meet the deadline, and then usually the game flops.  It’s unfortunate that this happens.  I truly believe that the Indie developers have the right formula.  They are into making the games because it is what they like to do.  Most of the time, they are not as worried about the money as big budget developers.    Developers in the game industry should learn some things from indie developers.  The success of a game in my opinion is based on how much fun and rewarding the time you put into playing the game is, not how many copies it sold.  Games are all about having fun, so why should anything else be more important when creating the game?

 

 

Bibliography

 

Adams, Ernest. Fundamentals of Game Design. Berkeley, California: Pearson Education, 2010. Print.

Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning And Literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Print.

Hartas, Leo., and Morris, Dave. Game Art. New York: Watson-Guptil, 2003. Print.

Paumgarten, Nick. “Master of Play.” New Yorker 20 Dec. 2010: 89-99. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 14 October 2011.

Terrell, Kenneth. “Playstation 2 Games Offer Power, and Some Glory.” U.S. News & Report 29 Jan. 2001: Academic Search Complete. Web. 14 October 2011.

“When Looks Are No Longer Enough.” Economist 10 June 2006: Academic Search Complete. Web. 14 October 2011.

“Spacewar!” PDP-1 Restoration Project. N.P., N.D., Web. 15 November 2011. < http://pdp-1.computerhistory.org/pdp-1/?f=theme&s=4&ss=3&gt;

“StarCraft” Blizzard Entertainment. N.P., 2011, Web. 15 November 2011. <http://us.blizzard.com/en-us/games/sc/&gt;

 

*This was a research paper I had to write in college.(2011)

-Wickk

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