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The tech arms race in AAA - and why I'm abandoning it

After realizing that the specialized skills I had spent years developing were largely irrelevant to making good games, I had to go through the uncomfortable process of rethinking many of my previous assumptions.

(This post was originally published on my personal blog.)


When I was 13 years old, my dad finally fulfilled my dream of owning a PC. He brought me a woefully underpowered 10MHz MHz 8088 box, but with an upgraded VGA card and a color monitor. I was too excited to care about the comically mismatched package: I could finally play games in my own house, just like many of my friends and cousins were doing.

Unfortunately for me, I couldn't find that many good games to be played on that machine. This was already well into the 90's, and all the games that were coming out then needed a faster processor to run. After quickly getting tired of Tetris, Prince of Persia, the very early Sierra adventures, and unable to afford a better PC, I found myself playing less games and instead browsing magazines or visiting friends with better PCs, to get a glimpse of the latest games I couldn't run. Those games were impressive at first: I'll never forget seeing Doom run for the first time.

The magazines I was dedicating a lot of time to reading also came with a huge amount of full page ads, showcasing the latest processors, video cards, hard drives. Their message, combined with the overall tone of the reviews and other articles I was reading at the time, was clear: You absolutely need the latest hardware or you are missing out on games. How could that be false? I was seeing it first hand: I was stuck with a weak machine, and as a result I couldn't play any of the great looking games my friends were enjoying.

The possibility space enabled by my original PC box was pretty limited. By possibility space, I'm referring to all the potential games that could run on the hardware, whether those games were actually made or not. On that computer all games were very simple 2D games, with very few sprites on the screen, usually played on one static screen at a time. While there is still a huge amount of games that could be made within these constraints, the overall space is small compared to what today's hardware has enabled.

Funnily enough, some 3D games did run on that ancient PC. They ran terribly. I vividly remember Test Drive 3:

The first 3D game I played. I didn’t care whether it was any fun.

This kind of primitive 3D graphics ran on that computer at around 5-10 seconds per frame. Yet young me was still having actual, non-ironic fun. Not with the game (it was unplayable), but with the glimpse of what "actual" gamers get to enjoy. My enjoyment of it came because I was cheating the possibility space enabled by my PC. I got to "enjoy" something *better*. I was right at the edge, and even a little bit beyond, of the possibility space my PC offered, and it felt great.

All these experiences led me to conclude from very early on that good games live right at the edge of the possibility space. "If a game does not take advantage of all the processing power, it must not be good, or at least not as good as it could have been", I thought. It was a fundamentally wrong conclusion that would take decades to be challenged.

What I was blindly ignoring back in my teen years was games like Elite, Ultima IV, Zork, MUD - games that fit just fine on the tiny possibility space my original PC enabled. I didn't know about them, and my overall environment didn't encourage me at all to seek them out. I was instead encouraged to seek the latest tech fix, and in my mind, that would automatically give me the optimal gaming experience. As a result, I missed out on one-of-a-kind, ground-breaking gaming experiences that could have helped me better understand what actually makes a good game early on.

Fortunately, later on, with an upgraded computer, I was exposed to games that I kept playing for a long time, not because of their tech specs, but because they were fun. Games like Civilization, Warcraft, and Master of Orion. But even as I was enjoying those games for their gameplay, my tech bias still creeped in. While playing Warcraft, I couldn't help myself thinking "How much better would this game be if they had thousands of units on the screen?” In my mind, the lack of more units on screen was always caused by a tech limitation. The only valid reason why they don't have more units is because they can't technically achieve it - if they could, the game would automatically be better off for it. The perfect balance of number of units with the amount of things a player's human brain could possibly track at any given moment was completely lost on me. So even though I enjoyed those games for their gameplay, I was still not truly understanding what made them so good.

My early obsession with technology largely shaped how I got into the gaming industry. For years I would teach myself programming, constantly working on some demo or prototype. But instead of looking to find any sort of fun in those prototypes, I was focusing on technical details like how many sprites I could simulate without the framerate dropping, or yet another infinite terrain demo. For some reason, the question of how to fill that infinite terrain with interesting things to do seemed less important than generating the peaks and troughs. I'm not quite sure why I had this ridiculous attitude. Obviously, I wanted to make games, and in a game, it's more important to do interesting things than stare at an infinite terrain. So why did I focus on the wrong things? It's an interesting question that I can't answer fully, but I suspect the answer is closely related to my tech obsession. Filling the terrain with interesting things seemed like the "easy" problem that could probably be done in a day. No, the "interesting" problem was how to use the processor efficiently to create a giant world, and then everything else would somehow fall together magically.

During my first years of working at AAA, this skewed notion of what’s important in good games was not significantly challenged. Both my studio and other studios I interacted with, at least their technical departments, had very similar ideas about the need to push hardware to its limits and drive technical innovation. The isolation between departments that tends to happen as team sizes get larger also contributed to this: I was mainly exposed to similarly minded colleagues, who viewed their job as making sure there is further technical innovation on each game. Making the game fun is some other department's job. As long as everyone does their job, the thinking goes, things will work out ok and the game will be better off on all fronts.

The first doubts

My "better tech makes better games, unconditionally" theory came under the microscope much later, from observations I made outside the AAA industry. If I had to point to a single moment where the theory started falling apart, it would be the Sims Social moment.

I always liked The Sims series, and played all the PC iterations up to the 3rd. In 2011, The Sims Social came on Facebook. I was never a big fan of the "spam your friends to progress" social "innovation", and the content seemed light compared to the PC versions, but nevertheless tried it and quickly saw a golden opportunity to introduce my wife to the world of the Sims. Since she likes decorating houses, it should be the perfect game for her, my theory went. It worked like a charm! Soon enough, she was running a full scale operation with her main Sim being helped by 3 other secondary accounts made for each of our pets. (An annoying hack to get around the atrocious, anti-social "help me out" mechanics of Zynga-style games).

The Sims Social

Very pleased with myself, I proceeded to Step 2 of my master plan: Introducing my wife to an honest to god REAL video game! The hard part was already done, there's no way I could fail now! Quickly, I brought out the big arguments.

"The Sims 3 is kind of like what you're playing on Facebook, but so much better in every way!"

"There are so many more options in house types, furniture, sims personalities, neighbours!"

"You can build multiple houses in many lots and walk around an entire town you helped create!"

"The graphics are so much more realistic!"

"It's 3D!"

There was no doubt in my brain: No rational person would ever prefer any aspect of The Sims Social over the Sims 3. So after the initial shock, I used my wife's immediate and unconditional rejection of The Sims 3 as an opportunity to understand a different way of thinking about games. Let's look at her arguments in detail.

"The 3D graphics are UGLY - compared to nice hand drawn 2D the Sims Social has".

I got that one immediately. Apparently, growing up with an obsession for 3D graphics had made me oblivious to all kinds of artifacts like polygonal edges, aliasing and texture stretching. And despite all the progress we continue to make, the free-form rotate/zoom camera ensures there will be angles from which even pretty games can look ugly. In contrast, a simple 2D engine and a good art director can create something really consistent and beautiful throughout, by using well established offline tools. And if the art style calls for it, the 2D engine can even use pre-baked techniques like soft shadows and detailed lighting that are prohibitive in real time for certain hardware. Simple technology, beautiful results. And what does a game like the Sims lose, gameplay-wise, by abandoning 3D altogether? Does the house really look that much better if you can rotate and look at it from all possible viewpoints? On the contrary - rotating and zooming the camera adds complexity and creates more potential views from which the art looks ugly.

The Sims 3

I really don't like that in most AAA studios, the decision to go 3D is pre-determined, instead of letting the team decide what makes sense for a given title. And this is just a simple example where pre-determined, "must-have" tech components take flexibility away from the team and add complexity.

This culture of "3D makes things better" is so ingrained in some developers, that they’d never challenge it even when they have complete freedom to do so. From an interview with Faceroll games:   

"Clash of Clans is a beautiful game. I understand that using 2D sprites of 3D models allows the game to run smoothly on older devices."

Like young me, these developers would never even consider the possibility that the 2D choice was intentionally made to make the game better looking, easier to play, and even more fun. They think it must have been a decision the team grumbled through, because of technical limitations.

From the same interview:

"Also, the 3D approach allows us to do things that are not possible in 2D games. One feature that really impresses a lot of people is the ability to be able to rotate the camera around the base and the action. Aside from the strategic gameplay benefits, this feature gives the game an extremely immersive experience, almost like you are looking into a three-dimensional snow globe on your mobile device."

This is basically saying "The 3D approach makes gameplay better/deeper. I won't explain how. But it certainly is impressive. There are also strategic gameplay benefits, which I won't get into. Again, it looks really cool." This flow is very representative of other conversations I've had with technical people, over how specifically some advanced features will help gameplay. Very often, they won't.

"The animations are not as cute"

How can a few frames of cartoony animation possibly look better than 30 FPS, 4-bone skinned meshes with a skeleton that has at least as many bones as the human body? Easily. The abstract cartoon animation has a completely different frame of reference, and unlike the hyper-realistic version, is never compared to real life animations. The question of how to make an appealing/cute/memorable animation has everything to do with art direction and almost nothing to do with technical details. Creativity matters, knowing the audience matters, consistency matters, realism does not matter. 

"It's too complicated. There are too many buttons. And why do I have to go out in a city? I just want to make my own house pretty."

It's funny how much you take for granted in games until you watch a non-gamer try to rotate a 3D camera. And it's also funny how The Sims 3 trying to do everything (no doubt many man years of work), has turned away my wife as a potential player (and possibly many more). Sure, the extra features might be a response to the established audience's needs, and I have no doubt many people would similarly stop playing if the game became too simplified for them. But why can't AAA studios experiment more with simplified versions of their franchises, trying to appeal to gamers of different tastes? (No, the Sims Social doesn't count as experimentation. The decision to simplify was an attempt to take a quick profit by cloning Zynga, and was abandoned quickly at the first sign of trouble. Interestingly enough, the good looking 2D art style of The Sims, and even more of Simcity Social, were abandoned on mobile because there was no reference of a successful game on those platforms yet. So these two franchises naturally fell back to the AAA way of 3D graphics – which on mobile platforms are extremely ugly compared to their 2D social versions).

Strategy games and the “less is more” approach

Soon after, I started playing League of Legends. It was fun. It was also another clear indication of how wrong I had been when I was playing Warcraft so many years ago. While I was obsessing with numbers of units in RTS games, and thought the obvious way the genre can become better is to have more units on the screen, smart teams at DoTA and League of Legends distilled the experience to its basics and created a true evolution of the genre that has appeal not because it is using the hardware better, but because it removed all the complexity and doubled down on the essentials: simple, fun strategic gameplay that is made orders of magnitude more effective through their multiplayer and social nature.

League of Legends

This again led me to rethink my previous assumptions. Why are more units in an RTS game automatically a good thing? Sure, it might look spectacular, and it might create a sense of awe the first time someone sees a very large scale battle. But does it actually add something significant to gameplay, or something that will keep players playing for longer?  Isn’t it harder for the player to keep track of so many units, adding complexity and frustration?

I haven’t been able to find a good argument to support my old “more units is better” thesis. Very often, the assumption of tech-focused teams is that more units makes the game fun automatically and without further explanation. Here’s Natural Motion:

"We challenged the team with the following: Are you able to create battle scenes with thousands of characters on-screen at the same time, in real-time, with you having full real-time touch control over all of these troops, and make all of these battles resolve within thirty to sixty seconds?" Reil recalled. "And they said no, that's not possible." He laughed as he launched into the game. "Eventually we managed to get it to work."

The suggestion is clear: They just knew that having battle scenes with thousands of characters on scree

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