Graphics and Games, “what if” and relativity

These days games are still improving their graphics and everybody involved is doing their best to produce better visuals every year. New GPUs get released on a regular basis, new console generations have much more graphics capabilities than the previous one and developers are doing their best to make games look more realistic by using better textures, shaders, animation, higher poly-counts and more.

graphics now
So…expensive (and pretty)

So far, we didn’t reach a limit yet. Games still don’t look like real life and although it’s become much harder and especially more expensive to create the best visuals possible, we’re still making progress. Slower progress than 20 years ago, but still progress. When (or if) we finally hit the limit and if it’s photorealistic graphics or something else and what will happen then, we don’t know.

I propose a different scenario: What if graphics in games had already reached their limit long ago? Imagine if SNES 2D, Saturn 2D, PS1 3D or PS2 3D would have been the best we could ever dream about? I would like to explore that idea further.

graphics 16bit
Final Fantasy VI, SNES,1994

Now, when I first stumbled over this thought in my head, I thought “Wow, if all the processing power and budget we have today didn’t go into the graphics, but into the content, we’d have amazing worlds, concepts, AI…things we can’t even dream about now.” But then it dawned upon me: If graphics didn’t evolve the way they did, the whole market and industry would also have changed completely.

Games these days reach a mainstream audience, precisely because of the graphics. Sony entered the console game, due to the failed deal with Nintendo to create the SNES CD addon. And suddenly everything changed.

So if 2D graphics of the mid 90s would have been the absolute best we could ever develop, games would probably never have had the audience they have today. With that, they also wouldn’t have the budgets they have today. Without the giant budgets of today, nothing would actually change. Of course there would be evolutionary steps in terms of content, storytelling, usability etc., but we would never have the $265 million budget that GTA V had. Ever!

So my dream of a hand-crafted, Daggerfall-sized world died quickly. But it’s fun to dream and a world where todays programming skill, creativity, design knowledge and multi million dollar budgets would contribute much much more to the content is very interesting.

Graphics: What is “good enough”?

The other question is, how good is “good enough” in terms of graphics. Undoubtedly, a certain level of visuals clearly improves the experience of the game. Let’s ignore the “This PS3 game looks like PS1, I’m getting eye cancer from this garbage! 0/10!” people, that clearly have no idea what they’re talking about.

graphics 3dfx

What’s “enough” is first of all depending on the current level of technology. When DOOM was released, people couldn’t believe their eyes, they never saw such realistic and smooth visuals. This was surely the future! A couple years forward, we got Unreal. Oh my god, look at those effects, those textures and architecture. Reflections on the floor? That’s crazy! DOOM looked like garbage in comparison. But DOOM³? Holy sh*t! Dynamic shadows and texture shaders! Unreals blocky crappy low res low poly graphics are an insult at this point. And today? Doom³? Don’t make me laugh…

Of course we would always like better graphics, but what’s the best of the best is usually “good enough” for almost everybody, because we can’t really imagine any future development. We can dream of more realistic graphics, but what we have “now” usually looks “really good” and only in hindsight do we see how bad that level actually was, compared to current visuals. So “the best graphics” are a very important factor, but on the other hand it can be anything as long as it’s the best we’ve seen so far.

Another factor for “good enough” is the genre itself. Different genres always had different standards for graphics. You don’t need bleeding edge visuals for a turn based strategy game. They’re nice, but for the players the UI and depth of gameplay is much more relevant. Other genres however try to copy real-life scenarios as realisticly as they can. Racing games for example. Here the visuals are more important and should be as good as possible. But of course if the best graphics we had were on the level of “The Need for Speed”, people would be happy.

Graphics TNFS
Look at the beautiful landscape and realistic interior

“How can you be happy with that sh*t? Look at Forza 6!” some people might say. And you’re right, Forza 6 makes TNFS look like a preschooler’s crayon drawings. And surely Forza 6 looks “good enough”. Forza 5 as well. Forza 3+4 have aged a little bit already, you can’t really enjoy it anymore, can you? Forza 1+2 don’t fare so well, they look really bad, right? But guess what, when Forza 3 came out, people drooled over the graphics and of course condemned previous generations for their shitty graphics and all of the sudden you can’t play it anymore. It’s all relativ to the current maximum.

Lastly the whole thing is different from person to person. While some people have insanely high demands on graphics and complain if the NPCs shoelaces are too low-poly, there are also people who care less about visuals. Usually the last group are either older players and/or people who prefer genres with lower demands on the visuals.

Recently there have been more games that are going for either a retro look (future article idea, I both love and hate that style) or just try to achieve a certain art style, without focusing on high end visuals, often because of budget constraints, but not always. To me that shows visuals are getting to a level where they are universally “good enough”. The visual jump from PS3 to PS4 was far less impressive than that from PS2 to PS3 and it’s going to be even harder from now on.

I’d like to see the graphics become an artistic choice. They already are to a certain extent, but for the most part, the demands for “high quality” visuals are very tough and I hope one day more people will recognize that a “Final Fantasy VI” has beautiful visuals, even today.

I don’t want to excuse crappy, lazy visuals. A lot of the “retro style” 2D games these days don’t look good. Not because the low res 2D is outdated, but because they’re just not that well done and 16Bit 2D games 20 years ago actually looked better. No, I still want competent graphics, I just don’t want to measure them relative to the current top end graphics on the PC or to a lesser extent PS4/XB1.

And of course all of that is assuming the actual game is solid. You can only polish a turd so much. Small indie developers these days are much more limited in their ability to create stunning visuals due to financial limitations and small development teams. Probably, a number of these developers would remain active if we had another video game industry crash like we had in the 90s. And then we probably would, at least for a while, have somewhat of a limit in terms of graphics. Nobody would be able to come up with tens of millions of dollars for a budget and huge teams couldn’t sustain themselves, because there wouldn’t be a big enough audience to support the expensive game development.

But for the most part, there’s no reason to complain. Sure the market is flooded with yearly rehashes of the same mainstream AAA titles with great graphics (that will be outdated in a few years) from the usual suspects. But for quite a while now, we’ve been able to get more independently developed titles, with focus on gameplay and innovation than ever, because the resources are that much better than just 10 years ago.

Still, I’m looking forward to the future of graphics in games and although I don’t care much for it, it’s interesting to see where it goes. Virtual reality is having a comeback, after the first hype and subsequent miserable crash in the mid 90s (anyone remember the Forte VFX-1?), and once prices drop, I’ll be sure to check it out.

What’s your opinion on graphics in games?