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Column: 'Blogged Out: Decade Of Graphics'

In his latest 'Blogged Out' column, veteran UK writer Jim Rossignol takes a look at the world of developer blogging, with words this week from David Thomas and the Terranovans.
Welcome to 'Blogged Out', the news report that looks at the world of developer blogging and the conversations being had with the community at large. This week: the trouble with graphics and the trouble with college kids. The Graphics Are The Gameplay Over on the games commentary site Buzzcut, blogger and columnist David Thomas has been arguing that games might as well give up in their attempt to create wonderful looking CG worlds, because Hollywood is, he believes, always going to do it better. Just one look at the canyon scene from Pixar's Cars, Thomas argues, gives credence to the idea that games might as well concentrate on what they’re good at: being filled with play. “What this means to video games is this: Games cannot compete on a visual basis anymore. Hollywood has arrived to create more interesting visual worlds, and people will be as happy to explore those worlds from an inert and non-interactive theater seat as they are from the business end of a joystick or keyboard. We may not have over-estimated the potentials of interactivity. But it seems sort of obvious that we have overestimated how much interactivity people need when it comes to experiencing new worlds. Just ask Disney on this subject. They’ve been shoving millions of people down rail tracks through fantastic worlds for 50 years without much of a worry about interaction. And the lines just get longer. “Over the next ten years, World of Warcraft and whatever comes after it, wont grow because it looks more wonderful. No, it’s going to have to be more interesting, more complex and give players more reason to, well, play. Unfortunately, with all the traffic around the “HD era” I suspect that developers and publishers will step off onto the wrong foot this generation, and stumble badly before they realize that the future of games is in play, not in pushing more pixels to an HDTV screen.” Thomas certainly has a point: games cannot compete with films on the basis of visuals alone – the fiasco that was the early CD era demonstrated that with its string of awful interactive movies and streamed data. Games are about play, and that's a crucial thing for developers to understand. But I’d take issue with the idea that pushing more pixels onto the screen is intrinsically a bad idea or a waste of time. The thing is this: graphics quite often are the gameplay. It is through complex visual models that the ideas that many developers want to convey are going to be delivered, and so it’s only by creating more complex visual worlds – by delivering more pixels to the screen – that they’re able to achieve the kind of play they want. World Of Warcraft might not have gone for photo-realism, but there was a very real sense in which the game could not have achieved its numerous ambitions if it had not had the graphical capabilities that it came out with. It wasn’t just about looking pretty, it was about creating an explorable world that is seamless and highly detailed. And that depended on the graphics being up to the task. To take another example: would the clever physics gameplay of Half-Life 2 have been quite as lauded if Valve hadn’t spent as much time making the Source engine look as pretty as it does? Or another: would Outcast have had the same scale and intricacy if its developers hadn’t decided to use Voxels in an era before graphics acceleration cards? Or would Max Payne have been as much fun without the particle effects that unfolded spectacularly during those slo-mo dives? My point is that while it’s easy to conjure up a dichotomy of graphics and gameplay, the truth is often that the two are often inseparably linked. We can’t expect developers not to use the tools at their disposal to create ever more beautiful worlds, but we can expect them to be enabled and not restricted by these technological developments. Ten Years Young Elsewhere on the web, there was more musings of the game kind over at Terranova, the academic blog that deals with gaming. With the news that a large number of the regular posters have written papers for an academic journal published by the University of Southern California, one Terranova reader comments: “WoW addicted college students attempt to con someone (who?) into thinking their actually doing research instead of wasting time playing a game. My question is, in what way does "studying" WoW prepare a student for life after college?” By helping him ace the interview for that gold-farming job he’s going to go for after graduation? In all serious though, Mr Terranova Reader, isn’t at least slightly heartening to see all that ‘wasted time’ inspiring something a little edifying, like literate and insightful essay writing? Anyway, the Terranovans also point out that Meridian 59 is now ten years old. Yikes. [Jim Rossignol is a freelance journalist based in the UK – his game journalism has appeared in PC Gamer UK, Edge and The London Times.]

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