Last week, Crytek announced to the world that graphics make up 60% of a game. Their reasoning was that a game was mostly a visual media that relied on immersing players into an environment by providing more realistic and stimulating visuals. I was extraordinarily disappointed that this was the stance a developer would take on the graphics vs gameplay issue, but also proved something that I had suspected about the gaming industry for a while now.
It has become a trend lately for people to downplay the love for older games. Whenever there is a topic or comment about how great a game from the 90's is, you can be sure that someone will respond with contempt, pointing the finger at "nostalgia" as the reason for why ANYONE could love that game. My thought has always been that game development changes over time. Note that I say "changes", not "improves". Many seem to assume that things only improve with time, which is not always the case. The primary focus in game development changes over time, and old developers (the people, not the studios) leave and retire, while fresh blood takes over. A new team of people can make an incredible impact on the direction that development can take. Hence why games today can often feel drastically different in tone, theme and atmosphere than they did 20 years ago. Just look at Rare... I would bet money that the minds behind Rare 20 years ago are no longer with the developer.
Crytek revealed something about the focus of today's developers. Developers today pump a ton of their resources and attention into making a game look great. Far more than the games of the past anyway. The technology is better, and the process behind making a game look stunning is easier. The technology alone is enough to change how developers approach game design, never mind the shifts in the industry that have taken place over the last 13 years. Some of the biggest complaints I hear about games today are that they are not difficult enough, feel shorter and lack soul. I feel that I have had an idea why that is, but have been unable to really explain it properly until Crytek came along and said all of this.
Before I explain exactly what this theory is, let me explain what game design means to me. When a game is being conceptually planned, design comes into play by building world and levels on paper, sketching out the story and making decisions about various thematic and atmospheric elements. When the game is actually being built, these design decisions come into play through proper management and a team that is able to work out all the details involved in creating a coherent world that feels alive. For me, game design is all the stuff behind moving a space marine around a battle station blowing up aliens, and not actual action itself. The right music to accentuate the mood the scene is going for. An atmosphere that drips with personality, and reflects the theme as well as the moment, be it action packed, mysterious or ambient. It is more than just a pretty visual that conveys information to the gamer. It is the overall presentation that draws the audience in and makes them love the world of a game, and this is dictated entirely through design.
Today, it is apparent that most games try going for "style over substance". Why should a developer pump resources into world design, and all the intricate details that encompasses, when they can just make their world look amazing instead? Why does a world need to be created with care and attention to detail when a realistic backdrop and some fancy looking trees are just as effective in the eyes of a gamer? A good coat of paint can make even a badly built house look decent. Gamers surely won't be able to distinguish between a well crafted world and a good looking world when they are too distracted by the pores on their characters skin, and the insanely good shadow effects in the jungle valley below them. Right?
Well actually, this does seem to be the case. Gamers today DON'T notice how terrible world design actually can be today, if the game is dripping in beautiful imagery. How on Earth did games manage to suck people into their worlds in the past? The visuals were so ugly and unrefined! World design is how. Developers didn't have the fancy technology and resources they have today. In order to get people to buy into their environments, they had to have top notch world design to make up for the very unrealistic visuals they had to work with. Games had worlds dripping with personality and atmosphere, and were expertly crafted. There was a science behind it... talent and attention went into making those levels so fantastic. And all of that without the super engines behind games today.
I will use Twilight Princess as a small example of comparison. Now do not assume I find Twilight Princess to be bad. I enjoyed the game for the most part, but there is a common complaint about the game that I hear often. Many believe that the overworld is far too empty for its own good. Believe it or not, but there is actually more to do in the overworld of Twilight Princess than there is in Ocarina of Time. However, Twilight Princess has an overworld so much larger than Ocarina's, that the result is that it feels much more lifeless and empty. Somewhere in the development of Twilight Princess, a design choice was made to make the game bigger and more beautiful that other Zelda games, and the result was a massive overworld that had alot of empty space between things, all for the sake of having a world that looked and felt more beautiful and realistic. This was mostly an unnecessary decision, in my opinion. Ocarina of Time didn't need to look realistic and provide huge environments to achieve its goal. All it needed was a great atmosphere and tight world design that drew the gamer in.
Don't get me wrong. There are some great games out there this generation that defy the new standard in the industry and prove to have great design. I also realize that Crytek is just one developer, and their statement does not reflect the industry at large. Especially since their games have been known to be visual benchmarks in the industry. With their notoriety in the industry as a developer that emphasizes on amazing visuals, how seriously can we take their statement about what is important in a game? Crytek is speaking from a limited point of view, that is mostly incompatible with the video game medium as a whole. After all, while the word "video" is in "video game", so is the word "game". For all the visual stimuli needed for a game, just as much player input is needed as well. At the very LEAST, it should be 50% visuals, and 50% input to qualify itself as video game. But we all know there is so much more to it than just that, even with the shift in the industry towards fancy graphics. What we should hope for, and demand from developers moving forward, is to not let visuals be the easy way out for making a great game world, but to be a part of that game world. Imagine what could be accomplished if developers didn't pump 60% of their attention and resources into visuals, but instead had all the great world design and atmosphere evident in older titles, and imbued the new technology and visuals with that same approach to design. We could perhaps enter a new golden age of gaming.