"What does a great game look like?"
That's the question that game development veteran Brenda Romero asked herself during a talk at today's DICE Summit in Las Vegas.
If you ask 10 game developers, you might get 10 different answers. For some it looks like a work of art. For some it's a pile of money. For some, it looks like innovation, she said.
Before offering up her answer to "what does a great game look like?" she talked about the two measures of quality that games had when she joined the game industry in 1981.
First: the size of the game manual. If a manual was able to make the game's box feel like a ton of bricks, that's a good game. This assertion was met with laughter, from her and the audience, but there was definitely truth to it.
Secondly, and more to the point of her talk, were "amazing graphics." "Amazing graphics" were one of the two ways that players would judge a game's quality, the play itself be damned.
Having worked on Wizardry VII, an RPG that was critically-acclaimed, Romero recalled what she identified as a sea change in game visuals, brought on by Cyan's Myst and id's Doom. The advancement was, in a way, intimidating, in that those games had such an incredible emphasis on those "amazing graphics" (on top of good play).
"I remember seeing those two games and thinking the industry took a massive graphics leap," she said. "It felt like a bomb went off…that graphics were king."
She said players were coming to the point where if the graphics "sucked," they assumed the game sucked as well.
Romero confessed she did an experiment with her daughter, who was born in 2001. As her child grew up in a home of games and game creation, she made a point never to equate graphics with a game's quality. She wanted to see if play would speak for the game's quality.
It was Minecraft, with its blocky graphics, paired with incredibly creative play that engaged her children so positively, that proved to Romero that the idea of "amazing graphics = amazing game" is simply a sentiment imposed by a tech-obsessed game dev culture. "Once she got to Minecraft, graphics didn't matter," Romero determined.
So what does a great game look like, then? "For me, a great game is all about how it makes you feel," she said.
Even players who may have always cared about amazing graphics must realize that their imaginations supplement the experience. The halls of Zork and the house in Alone in the Dark are much more vivid in our imaginations than they ever were on the screen. (Just look at those old games that you loved that had "amazing graphics" at the time.) Players more accurately recall the wonderful feel of a "great looking game," than the actual graphics.
"Our memory and imagination of a game and how it makes us feel can alter our memory over time," she said.
Romero talked about a recent workshopping experience with young game designers, who she tasked to make a fully-functional tabletop RPG in two hours. She saw imaginations explode, and she saw intense creativity. The games weren't visually appealing…just some markers, paper, a few game pieces and some dice. But in their own special way, were "great-looking games."
So again - what does a great game look like? "For me, it's not on the screen, it's on the faces of players…being able to see them. And on the faces of game creators."
"I feel like the designer … and the player -- we're almost mirrors of one another, and there's this computer in the middle that acts as the border between the two."
"[Players] are a mirror of us, and we are a mirror of them," she said. "Ultimately, we are what makes a game great. And we are what great games look like."