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Opinion: Video Games And The Graphics Plateau

In this already-controversial editorial, Game Developer EIC Brandon Sheffield argues that the success of more technologically modest systems such as Wii and PlayStation 2 means that "...the era of graphics wars is gone, for your average consumer."

August 19, 2008

5 Min Read

Author: by Brandon Sheffield, Staff

[In this editorial, originally printed in Game Developer magazine and already causing much debate on online messageboards, editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield questions whether oft-theorized "graphics plateau" has already occurred, as supported by the continued success of graphically modest systems such as Wii and PlayStation 2.] Developers and journalists alike have talked about the inevitable point past which graphics do not matter, and the focus turns to gameplay. The question I pose to you is -- has that already happened? Were we just not listening? I was considering this when confronted with a few facts from Japan, firstly. The most popular “modern” consoles there are the DS, the Wii, and the PSP. None of these consoles have the graphics push of the big boys, as we know. Further, Koei recently released Dynasty Warriors 6, “exclusively” for PS3, but due to fan reaction, subsequently ported it to PS2. Atlus is still releasing its largest product, Persona 4, on the PS2. In the U.S., the DS is doing famously, the Wii has sold like gangbusters, and PSP hardware (though perhaps not official software) is doing quite well. The PS2 still has the largest installed base in the country. Now, does that mean the Xbox 360 and PS3 are doomed? Certainly not. But I propose the possibility that PS2 and Wii-level graphics were and are enough for the average gamer. Whither Art Thou, Exclusives? Metal Gear Solid 4 was a big console mover for Sony, and the game sold over a million copies worldwide. But how integral were the graphics and tech to that experience, really? Granted some scenes would have been different, but are graphics the reason anyone played that game? If MGS4 had been released on PS2, how many copies would it have sold? Certainly not less, and quite possibly more. This comes to mind especially now that Square Enix announced during Microsoft’s E3 press conference that it would be bringing the next full stop in its Final Fantasy series, XIII, to the Xbox 360 day and date with the PS3 version in North America. The hype of exclusivity, or even special graphics hardware features has essentially come to naught. The phrase “only on PS3” means even less now than it did then, before we really knew whether SPUs were magical fairies that could handle all our various processes. Now that we know we can make essentially equivalent products across both of the high-end consoles, and indeed on PC, that rhetoric starts to fall by the wayside. I want to reiterate that I am not proclaiming the death of the next-gen console. But I do think that the era of graphics wars is gone, for your average consumer. Would anyone have complained, really, if GTA IV had been released on PS2 or a machine with similar graphical fidelity? I doubt it -- everyone would have been able to buy it, play it, and like or dislike it as much as they did the 360 or PS3 versions. Graphics don’t make that game fun, and it is not nearly the best looking game on either the 360 or PS3 -- yet nobody minds. The fact that Rockstar is releasing a GTA on the DS only pushes this idea further. What Of Blu-Ray? Blu-ray won the high-definition media wars -- but what does that really mean? A recent Gamasutra commenter noted that traditional media formats, from music to movies, are all quickly shuffling online. Sony has effectively won a war that is no longer being fought. It’s been demonstrated time and time again that the mainstream user is willing to watch streamed videos of movies on YouTube, or torrent them on The Pirate Bay, or even download them at only slightly lower quality on legitimate portals like you see on the Xbox 360 or Netflix. Again, the high end isn’t going to be supplanted by the low -- there are people who want the highest definition everything. But there are a lot of people for whom it’s just not the largest concern anymore, especially as the market broadens. And Then The PC? I’ve made much ado about the potential of the PC to retake the mainstream market recently, and I won’t fully retread old ground here, but I will reiterate the fact that the casual PC market is booming, while developers like Crytek feel they can no longer play to the high-end PC consumers, as the market simply isn’t there (or when it is, it’s through piracy). The PC is the place where this postulate holds the most water. The majority of gamers on PC these days do not need the highest-level graphics. World of Warcraft is a great example, and the multitudinous casual games only put mortar on the bricks. Tech Junkies Who is pushing this graphics and tech thing anyway? Really, isn’t it just the people who want to sell tech? While the core will always care about graphics, I don’t think the average consumer does. The average consumer doesn’t complain about the graphics on the Wii, because they know what to expect, and understand the approach. The best innovations today are coming in terms of gameplay implementation. Cover mechanics, intuitive UI and HUDs, natural in-game tutorials, and persistent worlds are just a few examples. All of these things can be done on the two most recent generations. While the tech of the PS3 and Xbox 360 certainly make streaming and seamless worlds much easier, a lot of this can be done to users’ satisfaction (please note the words “to users’ satisfaction” here) on the lower-end. It turns out the average consumer of today does not necessarily want a Ferrari hooked up to his or her entertainment system, to paraphrase our production editor Jeffrey Fleming. The average consumer is content with the Toyota Corolla of video game systems, and for that reason, I propose that the war of bigger and badder graphics can safely end, and we can finally focus fully on continuing to push gameplay to the fore.

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