At the 2007 Montreal Independent Games Summit, a panel of industry experts brought together A2M creative director Patrick Fortier, who also worked on Myst IV: Revelation
and Splinter Cell: Conviction
in the same capacity at Ubisoft, joined Ubisoft creative director Clint Hocking, Beenox creative director and A2M vet Thomas Wilson and EA senior producer Oliver Sykes to discuss the implications for content in this latest generation of video game consoles.
How important are graphics and realism? Has the Wii changed the industry forever? How has next-generation technology raised the bar for content -- and will it drive the development of real emotional experiences through gaming? The panel enjoyed lively discussion and debate on these issues and more confronting a new era in gaming.
Graphics And Sales
One big question confronting the panel: is there a perception that great graphics and realism equals higher sales -- and do games with unique graphics sell badly? Is there room for art direction for more than futuristic soldiers?
Said Hocking, "One thing we could consider is that with the creation of a new generation, marketing tends to focus on realism, because Joe Average can look at a picture of Madden
and say, 'that’s better than last gen and closer to real'. You can’t do that with Okami
." He added, "People need to need new consoles or we’re all out of business, and it comes with a built-in benchmark for realism."
Continuing the comparison between realism-heavy games and Okami
Sykes noted that when looking at one of the former, people understand it more readily. He said, "You see a guy with a gun and you understand more than a yellow blob or a wolf with a spinny disc. When you sell new consoles you have to go with a concept people understand."
Adds Wilson, "There’s a need for that kind of material. If a guy in a shiny suit with a gun sells, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t happen. It’s the unfortunate side effect of sales."
"It’s been true of all consoles," agreed Fortier, "the leap between Mario
and Super Mario Bros
, there’s always an interest in 'where can graphics go?'"
He continued, "What’s happening with the Wii and the mass market, that’s showing the alternative, that there is a market out there for people that aren’t just interested in that – we’re trying to do reflections on doorknobs, but this family playing with Wii was happy to see clouds moving, and leaves on the trees."
Wilson admitted that guys with guns make for cool subject matter, but, "What I wish we could see is an effort to bring up new art directions – take influences from paintings, look at a movie like What Dreams May Come, almost like touching paint."
"There's some promise of that in this generation," said Hocking, referencing the Street Fighter IV
trailer. "Who knows if it’ll actually look like that, but the way they’ve given it an artistic style means they’re using the tech to do more than [adding] more polygons."
Continued Hocking, "The question is, are people going to use the new technology to find alternate ways to complete with each other, rather than purely technology? Maybe in the next gen’s launch titles, people will say, “We’re not going to have better cars than PGR
." It wasn’t us that made the Wii; hopefully we'll
find a way to do that rather than ‘Nintendo saving us’."
Opined Fortier, "We’re still tantalized by the potential – the closer we get the more we’re going to get tired of it. Sometimes there’s just a period for things – Sin City, 300, movies like that where the work has been done over 15 years ago by Frank Miller, people just now are having a taste for it. People are opening their minds now – there are phases like that, and that’s starting to happen in our industry."
It's About The Gameplay
Sykes stated that games like Halo
and Gears of War
have clear objectives and beautiful, polished graphics, but, "What’s happening now is everyone’s wanting to play games that 'play well.'"
Citing the rise of the DS and Wii, Sykes said he hopes that trend will cross over into console games. "It would be nice to see that kind of attention to gameplay. That’s where people need to focus their attention, rather than super-realism and dazzling," he added.
Noting the commercial success of the DS over the PSP in the handheld market, Wilson recalled, "everyone thought the DS would get destroyed. It has nothing to do with the graphics, it’s about the gameplay experience. With next-gen consoles, people are going to be looking for the graphics, but what sells well is the experience."
"I don’t think the graphics in Halo 3
are that great," Fortier interjected, "but they wanted the multiplayer co-op, the online play, so they made that compromise there. They were quite moderate, and concentrated on replay and things that make a difference to the gameplay experience."
Given the same gameplay with so-so graphics, testers might give a title a 7. But by improving only the graphics, the same testers might say a game "played so much better." So do graphics matter?"
"It’s an easy sell," said Sykes, articulating the popular opinion, "If a game looks good it certainly must play good -- unfortunately, after playing some of the recent slew, I don’t think the attention’s been put in the right area. Some of the games seem purely like a sales tool when you actually play them. The Call of Duty 4
box says 'most realistic shooter I’ve ever seen' -- well that’s well and good, but how does it play
Wilson added, "Part of the experience in some of these games is related to the level of detail. Yes, it can influence a score. If it’s all related to putting a player in a lush jungle and making it feel like he’s totally there, it’ll put an influence over a player. If the graphics weren’t there, it wouldn’t be the same."
Fortier offered, "It’s not necessarily because of extra realism, so much as extra polish."
"We're getting into a bit of a problem that graphics are superseding the play," Sykes reiterated. "Assassin’s Creed
is a technical marvel. The worlds you’re in are incredibly realistic -- but I lost interest after two hours, because to me there was no real substance and nothing to get completely and utterly lost in. The shell of the game was the selling point; the experience as a whole was the less than the sum of its parts."
The Online Standard
What about networked gaming? Has the new condition of multiplayer online modes being “standard” improved the gaming experience -- or are online features hurting the single player experience?
Sykes said he didn't think the single-player experience was suffering. "If you look at Halo
and Call of Duty 4
, it’s 'long enough' -- but if you want a single player experience, there’s Assassin’s Creed or Mass Effect
. There's a polarization of games now -- most people don’t play Gears
for single player. It's similar with Halo
. Games are either very much aimed at either single or multiplayer; there doesn’t seem to be anything that does a wealth of both."
Adds Sykes, "Portal
was absolutely perfect. It was like Saturday morning fun – got up, played Portal
, had lunch. I’m playing Mass Effect
now -- 15 hours in, screaming at the television to get to the point!"
Said Thomas, "There’s things happening where publishers say multiplayer is a requirement, but if games tend to be focused on single player, you shouldn’t try to jam multiplayer components in it. You can totally hurt a game in the process. When I go online with games like Halo
, I pretend I’m a hardcore gamer, but I always get my ass kicked, because these people just seem to be crazy players. They’re so good I’m not having any fun going online. Part of the online experience is bringing me away from it."
"No doubt that online gaming is an accelerated natural selection," said Hocking. "That’s just how it works, that’s what it’s trying
to be, that’s what it is. I don’t see that it should be any different. It’s not fun to play a highly competitive online racing game where you’re not good at it and other people aren’t good at it; it’s not fun. Yes, matchmaking can group people into categories, but it’s never perfect. The game’s always going to try to make you better."
Noted Sykes, "My Xbox is my main way to keep in contact with people back in the UK. That's a valuable tool, especially with co-op play. You can just enjoy what the game has to offer."
"Having Xbox Live Arcade as a medium for those kinds of games is fantastic," agreed Fortier. "When we all got 360s at work, none of us were talking about the games, we were talking about going online, and achievements... it adds a lot to the experience."
But Wilson feels there's something missing from the achievement point system. "The producer at Activision already has 30000 points --I play a lot of games and I’m only at 10000," he said. "But if you could do
something with those points, it would challenge me to do more. That's one thing that’s lacking from it."
The Wii Effect
How has the Wii changed the game industry? Will motion control be a standard in future consoles, and has casual gaming damaged the industry as we know it?
"'Has it changed the games industry' is too broad," said Hocking. "It’s changed a lot of games that get made. Without those controllers, those games wouldn’t get made -- but I don’t know if it’s changing the industry. Far Cry 2
is not competing with Wii at all. It doesn’t change how I do my job, or the games I design."
However, he allowed, "It’s definitely changed some of the business models – Ubisoft has a 'games for everyone' initiative – making much more accessible games. Ubisoft has made hardcore games for the past 5, 7 years. I don’t think it’s changing the lives of individuals too much, maybe it just makes [the industry] bigger."
Added Fortier, "The evolution is from the Wii itself, not just the controller. You could make hardcore games with that controller. It’s games like Wii Sports I can play with my grandma, nephew, cousin – that
is changing the industry, where there’s another outlet for other kinds of products."
He continued, "The Wii controller is perfect interface to get them interested and democratize the experience; it's part of a bigger thing Nintendo is doing to the industry. I can’t get my dad and my mom to play Galaxy
, but I did get them to play Wii Bowling
, and get them to think about buying a Wii."
Said Sykes, "One of the things that amazed me about the Wii was seeing people laugh doing something, and that sense of bringing people together and removing that layer of abstraction. Put a 360 controller in my mom’s hands and she’s like a rabbit in headlights. I think Nintendo’s approach is incredibly smart; it brought games out of the 16-year-old’s bedroom."
"I was having fun at having fun," agreed Wilson. "There’s something new there. I forced my family to play these games to see how fun it can be. Before, playing all night with my parents would never happen. What’s sad is what’s happening now – the game needs to be released on 360, PS3, PC, and Wii. It’s not a matter of thinking, 'what’s going to be the Wii experience.' We’re now seeing average ports. Games coming out on the Wii need to be solely designed for the Wii."
Stated Hocking, "I have to point out that Guitar Hero
, Dance Dance Revolution
, and the Wii players aren’t 'playing games'. This isn’t mass-market, this is like eating caviar. I don’t consider myself a caviar eater, but I’ve had it. It doesn’t make me about caviar, it doesn’t broaden the caviar market."
He continued, "It’s great that they’re playing games, but I don’t want people to play games every March. I want them to be as engaged by gaming as I am by films, or books, or anything else. Not saying anyone shouldn’t
play it, but I don’t think it’s changing the experience. If that’s the point, isn’t just another sales strategy?"
Said Fortier, "The Wii is a foot in the door right now, and there’s an opportunity to grow on that and offer new experiences. Beyond the novelty, people are interested in new things."
Agreed Hocking, "I just hope it becomes that. They talk about marijuana as the gateway drug, I hope the Wii is the gateway console. I hope someone’s grandmother gets bored of playing Wii Tennis
and moves to Zelda
, by herself, even if she struggles with it and you have to help her, I hope she appreciates what’s amazing about it."
Fortier wasn't so sure. "I don’t know if she’ll ever play Zelda
, but Nintendo isn’t churning out Wii Sports 2
and Wii Sports 3
, and they can do Brain Age
. They’ve shown they can do it with the DS -- if they can keep doing it with the Wii, we can have opportunity to do the Wii-specific content Thomas was talking about, and open the gateway."
Said Thomas, "Over all the game developers conferences we always see conferences related to getting the female market interested -- and it’s kind of funny because all of these people have these theories, and meanwhile Nintendo’s making Nintendogs
and just doing it."
Will graphics continue to advance in this console generation? Does increased graphics and processor allow for previously-impossible innovations in gameplay?
Said Hocking, "I think it broadens what we talk about when we talk about gameplay. Holding a character in your arms with graphical realism might not be gameplay -- but it changes the experience of play radically compared to some faceless guy with no emotional resonance."
"There are ways to think about this, both completely opposite," said Sykes. "I can understand Clint’s point, but I cried when Aeris died in Final Fantasy 7
. I’d spent 60 hours with this character."
"But a processor didn’t do that," Hocking pointed out.
"I’m just saying it’s not something new," said Sykes. "...[There are] things like Half Life
where you’re completely immersed even though Gordon never says a word."
Said Fortier, "When someone started tagging it, 'the next generation,' that’s when everyone thought, 'we can’t do anything the way we’ve done it before!' It’s opened doors to make us try new things and new ideas just because it’s a 'next-generation title'."
He continued, "Even this Christmas, the quality of the games this year – it's Xbox’s third Christmas, and there’s a big difference between what I saw the first Christmas and today. [The first] PlayStation was about 3D, PS2 was about making it look smooth, and this gen is about what can we do [to create] more complex game experiences."