Spot On: Do better graphics make for better games?

Rand Miller, Will Wright, and Jordan Mechner discuss (and question) the role high-res graphics play in the development of richer, more rewarding games.

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A trio of proven game design talent participated in an Nvidia-sponsored event at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, last Thursday night. Ostensibly, they assembled to discuss the positive impact hardware manufacturers such as Nvidia have had on game designers intent on providing richer and more immersive experiences for gamers. But the session turned out to be more diverse than merely a paean to the scientific community of Silicon Valley engineers that has devoted itself to building faster and more powerful GPUs.

The panel of designers--The Sims and SimCity architect Will Wright; The Manhole, Myst, and Riven creator Rand Miller (pictured above); and Prince of Persia and Karateka designer Jordan Mechner--presented ideas that simultaneously praised the progress made in the past decade and cautioned against relying solely on the bells and whistles those faster GPUs provide.

After about an hour of grazing on food, wine, and dessert, as well as playing on some classic arcade and home console systems (attendees had their choice of 1987’s Food Fight on an Atari 7800 ProSystem and Karateka on an Apple II Plus, among others), Nvidia's spirited CEO, Jen-Hsun Huang, bounded onto the stage to call the 500-plus attendees to order. He introduced the topic, “Then & Now: Computer Graphics in Games,” as well as the evening's panel and panel moderator, GameSpot founder Vince Broady.

Huang's opening remarks recalled his fondness for the arcade quarter-stealer Asteroids--not only as a fun game, but also as a "good alternative to dating." More seriously, he qualified the GPU business as one that drives the art, craft, and now big business of console and PC gaming. "In 1993, investors didn’t understand the benefit of appealing to the gaming audience with a 3D graphics solution," Huang reminded the audience. As proof of gaming's ascendancy as a business model, he noted that Madden 2004 grossed $100 million in its first three weeks at retail--verses the $84 million the movie Seabiscuit grossed in the same amount of time.

Huang played it straight as he mentioned a study that asserted that doctors who played three or more hours of video games a week made 30 percent fewer mistakes in laparoscopic surgery than doctors who didn’t play games. To an already chuckling audience, Huang pondered aloud if the research may not have been funded by Electronic Arts, but he left that question unanswered.

Then it was on to the panel, with each designer opening with a 10-minute presentation of his game design history over the past decade or so, focusing on how their games' graphics had evolved. Will Wright (pictured in the second of three screenshots) broke from his own repertoire to compare 1980's Flight Simulator with the current iteration; Rand Miller walked attendees through his own lyrical opus from the storybook-like game/poem The Manhole, to the then (and still) shockingly seductive images of Myst, to the smoothly textured Uru; and finally, Jordan Mechner's own walk-through compared gameplay of the Apple II version of The Prince of Persia with the current PS2 version (with markedly more "aahs" coming from the audience while the highly pixilated first-generation Prince ran, jumped, and sparred. Mechner included the charming moment when the original Prince encounters, is challenged by, and then jumps through a full-sized mirror. More "aahs.")

Broady then engaged the panel on a number of questions that dealt with general issues relating to game design, team management, the industry at large, and the impact high-res and 3D graphics have had on each panelist's design goals and methods.

Often in the same breath that panelists praised high-res graphics as being pivotal to the growth of the industry, panelists addressed the need for game designers to engage players via less technical means. "The secret weapon is interactivity," said Will Wright. "It doesn't really matter what graphics you map on top of [the game]." Wright added, pointedly, that he doesn’t equate high-end graphics and photo-realism with a good game. To muffled laughter, he added, “Movies have had it for a long time, and there are still plenty of bad movies.”

Mechner (pictured in the third screenshot) compared the learning curve required of game designers adapting to leaps in game-development technology to what was required of film actors and directors when that medium went from silent movies to talkies. Referring to actors afraid of bumping into elaborate audio paraphernalia and also directors who were less inclined to use sweeping camera movement for fear of upsetting microphones and other voice pickup devices, he said, "Full-motion video can be a weight," and, "3D can also be a problem."

For Miller, leaps in technology, while tempting, provided a hard-to-hit "moving target"--the programmer's dilemma of not knowing what the prevalent system specs will be at the time a game is eventually released. "The geek side of me says 'more, more, more,'" said Miller. "But the guy trying to hit the moving target says 'stop.'" Mechner quipped in response, saying, “I’m from the ‘stop already’ school.”

Ultimately, the evening's discussion came down to the question posed by Mechner midway through the evening: “Where is the joy, and can boosting hardware increase that joy?”.

“We draw every little blade of grass, because we can,” said Miller, apparently unconvinced such allocation of team resources is absolutely necessary. And Wright, again, reiterated his overall recipe to making great games--a less-is-more approach to leveraging and relying on graphics to drive the user experience. ”I think more from the inside out... Give the player something to work with,” Wright said.

By evening’s end, the double-edged sword of high-res graphics--presented to the game development community by cutting-edge technology companies like Nvidia--was put back in its sheath. The panel's final conclusion: Use high-res graphics as a tool but not as a crutch. And never forget to use the ancient tools of storytelling that can entice an audience, regardless of the accuracy of a physically correct blade of grass or forest of trees. Wright encouraged the audience to recall that "a level of physical abstraction invites the use of imagination" and to put that knowledge to good use, in tandem with the newfound tools of computer graphics technology.

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