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A look at Crytek's stance on Graphics

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.

Regarding the Use of the Word "Overrated"

Imagine this scenario: A bakery on the corner of a street begins selling batches of cookies derived from a never before seen recipe. The cookies are an immediate success among the town's population; it is not uncommon to see a line winding out the door and around the back of the bakery. People just can't get enough of these delicious treats. It doesn't take long for word of these heavenly morsels to spread like wildfire. Within weeks, the bakery is featured on the headlines of every newspaper around the country. To put it lightly, the cookies are an absolute sensation.

Line of Happy People

Can all these happy faces be wrong for liking cookies?

But down the street from the bakery, a particular man does not seem too keen on these cookies. He has surely had better before, he tells himself. In fact, these cookies are not very good at all! Why, I don't know how anyone could like these cookies! They are awful and everyone should think they are awful, and anyone who doesn't is wrong!

The man proceeds to stand on the corner of the street where the bakery stands, and shouts out at the people in line. "These cookies are bad! They are receiving a reception FAR too positive for their own good! You all should be ashamed for having such bad taste! In fact, most of you are probably just in line because the bakery's advertisements tricked you into buying more of those awful cookies! You all are sheep!"

"These cookies are overrated!"

I am not a blogger. In fact, this is my first blog, and I really don't intend on making any more. However, this is an issue that seems to crop up more and more despite how often I try to battle it, and now here I am standing on my soapbox screaming at the general public, telling them that the use of the word "overrated" is wrong. I won't presume that this discussion will change everyone's minds, nor that it will make much of a difference in what I see as a sea of ignorance. But it is a way to collect all my thoughts on the subject in an organized manner.


"Overrated" is an overrated word

Let us begin with a definition to ground our understanding of the topic at hand.

Overrated: "a calculation that results in an estimate that is too high"

Or in other words, something that is not deserving of the praise and admiration it has received. In other words STILL (if you need more clarification), something that is loved by many but shouldn't be.

It is a word thrown around in blogs, forums and comment sections far too often. Whenever there is an article, video, topic or discussion regarding something successful, you can be damn well sure that SOMEONE is going to come marching in with a holier-than-thou attitude and throw out the word "overrated" at some point. The discussion usually goes in one of two directions at that point: people begin shouting matches about the "objective" merits of the said game or movie, or people then begin to list off all sorts of things THEY think are overrated. Both paths eventually meet up again in the end with people insulting each other. The few voices of reason in these discussions are usually drowned out by all the directionless, misguided noise, or become targets themselves.

The fact is, there is no objective way to rate a game or a movie or a song. It is ALL subjective. Even if a developer looked at every online discussion for every game in history and used all of the data they collected to create the PERFECT game, by all "objective" accounts, there would still be some people out there that just don't like it very much. Why is that?

Much like the cookies that the imaginary bakery on the corner sold, there will always be some people that just have different tastes. The angry little man from the beginning of this blog was wrong, but not because he didn't like the cookies. He had a different criteria of what made a cookie delicious or not. When he bit into that cookie, it tasted nothing like what other people proclaimed it to taste like. To him, it was disgusting. But his reaction and outlook towards others was childish, and that is what made him wrong.

Crying Child

Keep whining about how you thought "The Dark Knight" was overrated

Clearly the cookies were widely enjoyed. For a majority of people, they were delicious treats. The bakery did SOMETHING right for all those people to wait in line so long for a taste. But according to the man, those people are all wrong! Their tastes must not be refined! They have never tasted a GOOD cookie if they like the taste of THAT. In that man's mind, only his tastes were of value. He did not understand that others may not perceive things in the same way that he does, or even taste things in the same way. He was so busy telling everyone how misguided and wrong they were to stop and consider the possibility that maybe it was HIM that was misguided.

When discussions erupt over whether or not the latest blockbuster movie is good or not... whether that old classic video game is extraordinarily respected or outdated... whether the latest pop song is catchy or annoying... no one every stops to think that others do not think or enjoy things in the same way as they do. Take Ocarina of Time, a game that has seen critical and customer acclaim as well as commercial success. In short, it is one of the (if not THE) most praised game in the industry's history.

Ocarina of Time

Would you get angry if someone told you this was the best game ever made? Children would...

It is safe to say that ALOT of people like this game. But enough about the game, let's talk about all those people that love it. They are a varied group, ranging from the nerdiest of Nintendo fans to the most casual of gamers. Even my grandparents like the game, and they don't play games all that often! In short, it is a game that garnered so much attention and love in its day, that even non-gamers have heard about it.

For someone just entering the Zelda series, that is quite the reputation that the game must live up to. It is very likely that expectations are not met by people who play the game for the first time after all these years. This becomes ammo for those that would put the game down. "Nostalgia" they say. This word is one of the weapons they use for invalidating the opinions of so many people that like the game. Though the entire topic of nostalgia is a topic that could be covered in its own blog, I will mention three things that come to mind when this word is thrown around. Firstly, why is nostalgia such a bad thing? Secondly, it does not negate the initial success of the material in question. Lastly (and more closely tied to the main point), who are they to tell others the reasons someone does or does not enjoy something? Everyone has their own reasons and tastes. Using "nostalgia" as the blanket reason for why people still praise something like Ocarina of Time is a lazy and arrogant argument. Speaking of arrogance, let's return directly to why nothing that has been made before or hereafter can ever be "overrated". Yes, even you Justin Bieber.

Justin Bieber

Less overrated than you might think

Everyone has their own unique personality. Despite how "dronish" some may seem to others, each and every person has a unique combination of likes and dislikes. A "personality fingerprint" if you will. If there were only two people left on Earth, they would be able to find something to disagree about. That is the nature of human beings. Is someone wrong to have their own unique tastes? Not at all, it is a natural part of being human. Quite frankly, it would be a terrible world if everyone shared the same views on everything. More peaceful perhaps, but also much less exciting.

So when someone calls something overrated, I take it personally. Even if I don't particularly like what they are calling overrated myself. I have spent alot of time in my past on online message boards defending games I myself loathed from people that would call them overrated. As an example, I will let it be known that I hated Mario Galaxy. I thought it was too easy and it just wasn't very fun for me. But I do not think for a moment that it is overrated. I understand that I am in a minority when it comes to this game, and I will not pretend that I have some kind of special insight that allows me to see the game for what it truly is. I don't. It resonated with them in a way that I can't imagine. The majority that love this game enjoyed it, and for that it most certainly deserved all the acclaim it received, my opinion be damned. The game did something right, and I just don't share the same tastes as those people.

Super Mario Galaxy

The best game I ever hated

Essentially, what someone has said when they declare a game to be overrated is that the personal likes and dislikes of a large number of people are invalid. Each and every person that likes Ocarina of Time, or Final Fantasy 7, or Transformers, or Two and a Half Men, or Justin Bieber does so for their own reasons. They are not "wrong" for liking it, just as someone is not "wrong" for enjoying the taste of a cookie. They are not "sheep", and they do not have bad taste. But there are people out there hell bent on telling these people how wrong they are. Justin Bieber makes songs that are specifically tailored for a younger audience of the female variety. He is also nothing new. The Backstreet Boys did it before him, and Boyz II Men did it before them, and Elvis Presley did it before them. For those of us that are older... Bieber isn't SUPPOSSED to appeal to you guys. It was meant to appeal to teenage girls. And as long as music sounds appealing to the beholder, it has done its job.

The very nature of the word "overrated" is contradictory to its meaning, and only the arrogant use it. If it was rated well by many people, than many people enjoyed it. But if it's overrated, than all those people... were wrong? The word only makes sense coming from someone who thinks they are better than everyone else. Some people tend to feel threatened by the success of things they don't like. This is a phenomenon that I simply cannot begin to understand, but as a teacher, often observe among younger generations. Whatever the reason, it is an angsty and immature response to material that should just be ignored by rational people. If you don't like something, you don't have to associate yourself with it! Acting better than others by telling them how much more refined your tastes are certainly isn't going to win you any cookies from anyone.