I'm writing this little blog as a sort of response to another developer's blog: since I thought he had an interesting point to make, I hope anyone who missed his post will take a minute to read it.
Eddie Cameron says "I Want Ugly" in his recent editorial, but I think most of the people who read his post would agree that what he really wants is not Ugly, but Beauty--more specifically, he wants that elusive species of Beauty that we call "Art".
As always, Beauty and Art are definitely in the eye of the beholder, but there is one feature that everything truly beautiful must possess: it must be unique. Nothing can be called Beautiful which is common and generic; the best you can aspire to without uniqueness is something "Pleasant". By extension, nothing can really be called "Art" with the capital A if it lacks originality (another word for uniqueness). The best you can aspire to without originality is "profit".
It's actually quite interesting that Cameron chose two screenshots of women to illustrate his point about the lack of style and originality in modern game art. "Beauty" in modern gaming art has come to be defined very much by the lowest common denominator. No one aspires to Art, because they are much too busy seeking profit. The greatest possible mass appeal = no dangerous risk. No one wants uniqueness or originality. Orders from on high are to stick with "pleasant", and reap your profit.
My point here--and I'm going to assume that Cameron agrees with me in general--is that creating art with no other goal than to hit the broadest possible demographic inevitably creates generic crap. Too much "pleasantness" bores the eye. Modern game art aspires to nothing more than repeating what is done-to-death and therefore "safe". Generally speaking, when people crow and beat their chests over the graphics in a game, it's not because they've created a unique art style or a boldly original vision. It's because they've managed to polish the same old turd with a few more pixels and a new lighting effect.
My opinion? Developers who reach for this particular brass ring are always going to fall short of greatness. Just as women who get surgery to look more like Barbie always fall short of "Beauty".
On the other hand, I can also tell you exactly why so many developers will always "play it safe". It's not necessarily a matter of personal inclination or a lack of real artistic talent--some of the artists working today simply cannot get paid to achieve their real potential. They produce this generic "pretty" art over and over for the same reason that so many women working in Hollywood have surgery on their bodies and faces: their agents insist that they tow this line, or be dropped out of the system.
The fact is, most Hollywood agents have absolutely no appreciation for authentic Beauty. They want to make a buck and they want all their bets to be safe. They keep a paranoid eye out for every snotty remark and critical stab at their clients, no matter how insignificant, mean-spirited and untrue, and they actually believe that this crap has some kind of validity. They'll tell a woman who's 5'9" and weighs 120 pounds that she's getting fat. They'll tell a beauty pageant queen that she needs a nose job. Their greed and venality have evolved into a form of insanity.
The equivalent bottom feeders in the gaming industry are the producers and publishers who are absolutely terrified of the public. Every snotty illiterate dig written by some anonymous thirteen-year-old mouthbreather on a Youtube comment string is The End of the World. The Powers That Be are so focused on getting their profit that they lose all perspective. All Mongo has to type is "ur game luks like crap" for these guys to whizz their business slacks.
One of the nice things about working for an independent developement studio is that you can win free of this particular hamster wheel from time to time. Over the years I've heard plenty of complaints from people who don't like the graphics in our games, particularly the bold use of color or the fact that different races have different aesthetics for their ships. We've also weathered plenty of waspish whining about the use of humor in our 2D art or the comic books style of our old splashscreens.
It's a beautiful thing to be able to ignore all that garbage, and to keep doing what we actually want and intend to do rather than being generically "pleasant". Our games have no trouble finding an audience, and whether people think they're Ugly or Beautiful, at least they don't look like yesterday's leftovers warmed over with a new shader.