The Cost of Spectacle

 By Shamus Jul 30, 2008 138 comments

This post is for developers, investors, and publishers of A-list games. (Or is that AAA titles? Whatever. “Games on the shelf at Wal-Mart for $50″ is a more accurate descriptor but it’s kind of verbose. Sort of like me.) I know I’ve got at least two or three of you in my audience, hiding amongst the crowd of regular gamers, indie developers, and my fellow curmudgeons. I’m going to have another go at talking you out of your obsessive pursuit of graphics, which at this point makes Gollum’s pursuit of The One Ring look lackadaisical. I realize this is a hopeless task, but it’s no less hopeless and unfulfilling than trying to keep my humble hardware up to date in the face of your skyrocketing system requirements. And since I’m not having a good time I might as well drag you along with me.

If you’re one of those people who is unable to tell the difference between spending money and making fun games then you’re excused. Go back to developing your juvenile plotless cookie-cutter tech demo and don’t trouble yourself with this business.

In the 1980′s, while I was still fantasizing about becoming a programmer and trying to figure out how to kiss girls (or maybe the other way ’round) your average videogame development team was A Guy. Sometimes larger teams might include His Buddy. As we entered the 90′s and the age of Doom we saw team sizes swell to numbers that occasionally made it feasible to play a little doubles tennis. Not that anyone had time for that sort of thing. A few years later and development teams could, if they ever went outside, possibly fill the positions in a baseball diamond. A few years after that and we had teams of 20 or more people and something strange started to happen. Games started getting shorter. When Max Payne blasted his way onto the scene everyone pointed at his short little 10 hour game and giggled. 10 hours? Who is going to pay $40 for a ten hour game?

Well, all of us, eventually. If we’re lucky. But now we can look back fondly at those days. Teams are still getting bigger and games are still getting shorter. It now takes a hundred people to produce content that offers even less gameplay than Max Payne did. Oh yeah: And development time has increased as well, so not only are you paying a lot more people but you’re also paying them for a lot longer before you actually get your game.

This is not a good trend and it should fill reasonable developers with apprehension, because it can’t keep going like this. The number of PC gamers hasn’t really gone up all that much. You’re still aiming for that 4 million units target you were a decade ago. To put it another way, you’re now funding teams five times as large for twice as long to sell shorter games to an audience that is roughly the same size. You can quibble with these numbers if you like, but the trend is there, and it’s visible. If I’ve overstated or understated the problem by some margin it doesn’t really change that fact the PC Gaming is seeing an unsustainable escalation of development costs.

An example might be useful.

In Wolfenstein 3D, you can fire up the level editor and make a single room in less then a minute. In Doom you might spend ten minutes making a room. Around the turn of the century you might spend a couple of hours on it. Last I heard it now takes several people (usually a mapper, a 3D modeler, a texture artist, and possibly some sort of scripting person) working together for a couple of days to make that room. Yes, the room is very realistic and cool looking, but it takes 72 man-hours to make the damn thing.

Each new graphics generation requires more development hours to exploit it. The jump from 2D spites to moving 3D characters was a pretty compelling one. The leap forward in lighting technology that give us flashlights actually added something to the gameplay. But adding another lighting pass to make sure a doorknob can support multiple specular reflections? Improving the shading and density of foliage by 25%? Are these really worth the development time and the upgrade cost for the user? How many of those customers would you lose if you didn’t take the next step? What if you just stayed where you are right now from a technology standpoint, instead of adding another 50 people or another six months of development time to your game? Sure, you wouldn’t have the latest graphics, but how many sales is that going to cost you? I hear people claim that they can’t attract gamers without the next-gen graphics, but… when was the last time anyone honestly tried?

I don’t know what the hardware breakdown is out there. How many PC owners have which graphics cards? Now, your first answer might be to jump over and have a look at the Valve Hardware Survey. “Oh look! An overwhelming majority of users have NVidia 6000 series or better!” It really gets on my nerves when you do that and if I could I would whap you on the head with this copy of Game Informer I keep handy for when I need a good laugh. That survey is for Steam users, and therefore mostly people who already own Half-Life 2. Which is exactly the problem you keep running into. You keep aiming your game at the same fragment of the potential audience.

Like I said, I don’t know the breakdown, but if it’s not a bell curve I’ll eat my keyboard. I’ve heard that nothing makes a presentation seem professional like a good chart, so with that in mind I give you this:

graphics_cards.jpg

Maybe that wasn’t as professional as it could have been. At any rate, you keep aiming your games so that users need the female terminator to run the game well, and a T-1000 to run the game poorly. This leaves out all those people in the middle, who are happy to spend a million billion dollars on Peggle and re-skinned Bejeweled clones. I can hear you arguing, “Oh Shamus, those people are all boring and stuffy and wouldn’t want our videogames. Also I need to be hit in the face with that magazine again.” How would you know they don’t want your games? You’ve never made anything that they can run. They haven’t rejected you, because you’ve never given them the chance. By the time Joe Average has hardware that can run your fancy-pants game, it’s long gone from stores and replaced by newer games he can’t run. Keep in mind that most of these peggle-players have no clue how to use torrents. You keep aiming your game at this tiny, pirate-infested group and wondering why sales are so small.

(Also note that a lot of people in the middle are former PC gamers, who did the math and realized that could take the graphics-card money and put it into a console instead of mucking about inside of their computer every eighteen months. Those people aren’t against PC games, they just don’t have any available. With a few exceptions.)

Case in point: Note how World of Warcraft is at least two graphics generations out of date, and yet Blizzard had to buy avalanche insurance just in case their pile of money falls over. Their game looks like Lego Middle Earth and they are kicking your ass. Part of the reason is because their game will run on almost every battered laptop and second-hand computer on the planet. Your customers, on the other hand, need to blow a couple hundred dollars every other year just to run your games poorly.

As far as making a game fun, graphics spectacle is the most foolhardy and inefficient way to spend your money. The fancy visuals are exciting for the first few minutes, but then the user becomes acclimated and desensitized to your razzle-dazzle and they’re left with just the gameplay to entertain them. And gameplay is the one thing you keep cutting to pay for the graphics. That’s like cutting off the top of your head because your high heels make you too tall to fit through the door.

If you would just take two steps back from that accursed bleeding edge and aim for the middle of the bell curve you would discover that:

  1. You could work with a much smaller team, paying fewer salaries.
  2. Since you’re not re-writing your tools and changing your art pipeline every time you start a new game, development time will be shorter.
  3. Your artists will be more productive since you won’t be snatching away the tools they understand for newer, more complex tools. You might find it to be a little easier to make longer / deeper games.
  4. You’ll have a far larger potential audience.
  5. You’ll have fewer support / QA issues because you’ll be building on established technology instead of working the gremlins out of the new stuff.
  6. Better framerates, faster load times, quicker installs.

Even if none of those Peggle-playing goofs embraced your game, you’d still be better off because you spent a lot less money to sell to the same group of gamers you’ve been dealing with for years. You risk so much money on your new pixel shaders, but you’re not willing to risk spending less and see if you can still get the usual suspects to pony up?

I realize I just summed up using a bulleted list, but let me sum up again, just to make absolutely sure I’ve driven my point home: You can spend far less to make a game with more value that can offer a better play experience to a larger audience with less pirates.

And now let me sum up my summary, for the benefit of those in marketing: You can spend less money and make more money.

Me? I’m saving up for an XBox 360. You guys are driving me nuts with this business.

A Hundred!2018There are 138 comments here. I really hope you like reading.


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  1. Sitte says:

    Nitpick, sorry:

    Was shocked to see the author of DMotR talking about someone named “Golem”. Who’s that?

  2. Shamus says:

    He’s someone with which my spellchecker was unable to help.

    Also: Fixed. Maybe.

    At least I didn’t write about Boreomere.

  3. Paladin109 says:

    *takes a bite…chews thoughtfully…and immediately reaches for {insert beverage here}*

    Hmm…hint of cayenne…touch of onion…very bold statement…what, this isn’t the chili cook-off?

    I still like your ‘extra-spicy’ flavor of late…

  4. Dan Bruno says:

    “Sure, you wouldn’t have the latest graphics, but how many sales is that going to cost you? I hear people claim that they can’t attract gamers without the next-gen graphics, but… when was the last time anyone honestly tried?”

    Well, there’s World of Warcraft, as you point out, but I think the more dramatic answer is “in the console industry.” As you’re probably aware, the Wii is beating the pants off of the competition with hardware that is significantly underpowered when compared to the PS3 and Xbox 360.

    Granted, there are other factors at play besides graphical fidelity, but there’s clearly a market for games that don’t push hardware to the limits. A developer that’s earned its customers’ trust with good games — as Nintendo has, or as a PC dev like Blizzard has — will make money hand over fist.

  5. Adam says:

    Shamus.. tell me how you really feel. Better yet, thanks for stating what I have been thinking for the last few years.

  6. Sitte says:

    This was fantastic.

    While reading it, I kept seeing the Zero Punctuation animation of it in my mind and hearing Yahtzee read it in his ultra-quick & ultra-condescending voice.

    This is great on its own – don’t take the ZP comparison negatively.

    Also: 2 Ls, I think?

  7. Shamus says:

    You’re trying to murder me with my own shame.

    Fixed. Maybe.

  8. MRL says:

    Hm. Thanks for (inadvertently) reminding me of another reason I liked WoW – simple, unrealistic (cartoony, even) but fundamentally well-made graphics (except for the appearances of pretty much any male who’s not an elf, dwarf or goblin, for some strange reason).

  9. swcrusader says:

    I think some games graphics have really added to the game itself. I will never forget getting out of that boat at the beggining of morrowind and going slackjawed at how beautiful it was. That said nobody seems to optomise games any more, and you’re right about consoles. I’m one of those former pc gamers that traded it all in for a console. That said the release of Diablo 3 and Starcraft are getting me itchy to plonk down some real money for a new laptop. If they released d3 on console I would forget about it.

  10. Chris says:

    Someone mentioned the Wii, but a perfect example on the 360 also exists. I purchased Earth Defense Force 2017 the day it was released for the Xbox 360, which was $40 new (as opposed to the standard $60 price). The game’s graphics are pretty poor. Environments and terrain are covered with bland textures, the animations on some of the models look awkward, and the only reason the robotic enemies look so good is because you can see the cheap shortcuts they took. They applied a reflective setting on their 3-D modeler and used the bloom effects built into the 360 dev. kit to the max.

    Overall, the game looks like shit, and it’s certainly lacking in the A.I. and physics department.

    The game has enjoyed a reasonable amount of success, and I have yet to meet someone that has played it that disliked it. Why? Because sometimes all you need is a game where the premise is “you fight off giant ants, spiders and robots with weapons like a rapid fire rocket launcher. That’s right, a rapid fire rocket launcher”.

    I love games like CoD4 and Gears of War, but not every game has the budget or ability to achieve such awesomeness. Sometimes, you just need a game that is stupid, stupid fun.

  11. Viktor says:

    Me? I’m saving up for an XBox 360. You guys are driving me nuts with this business.

    Is that true? You’ve finally come over to the dark side? Dang. Pretty soon, the only people playing any PC games will be the pirates.

  12. Ian says:

    Nice, and I agree wholeheartedly.

    You might also want to include games “journalists” who almost without exception mark down titles with “out of date” graphics.

    FUN! IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE FUN!! THAT’S IT! THAT’S THE ONLY CRITERIA THAT ACTUALLY MATTERS!

    .. and breathe ..

  13. Jeremiah says:

    There was a point in the past when I was the type of gamer riding the right-side of that graph and I spent an inordinate amount of money on a desktop. To give you an idea: I bought just about the best money could be 3 years ago and I can still play most games on their highest settings (most recent examples being BioShock & Gears of War 2); and that’s with no upgrades.

    But, I’ve seen the error of my ways. I much prefer to stay in the middle-ground from now on. I’ve always liked story and gameplay over “OMB uber-pixels”, which makes me wonder why I spent so much on the beast (at the time) of a computer.

    Anyhow, great as usual. Hopefully developers will realize they don’t have to ride the bleeding edge to keep customers.

    ‘Course, I’d say some of the blame lies with the video card makers, too. One version to the next is so different that games almost require being written with specific hardware in mind, or at least patches to make certain cards work. If cards would work more similar from version to version, developers could aim at the middle of the road and the hardcore gamer folks could get their shiny-new-pixel-bling-mapping-EXTREME cards and ramp up the quality as high as they want without worrying about hardware compatibility.

  14. Cineris says:

    World of Warcraft wasn’t two graphics generations out of date when it was released. Or even one generation, really. But they went with a stylized look that has aged pretty well. Team Fortress 2 is also pretty liable to age well, in my opinion, just because they set out with a visual agenda other than photorealism.

    CounterStrike 1.6 is the true game that will run on every laptop. I think CounterStrike Source fairly recently overtook it in player numbers, but I’m not 100% sure. XFire regularly lists World of Warcraft as the “top played” game (as ranked by XFire users time spent logged in to the game), with Call of Duty 4 second place. Gamespy doesn’t list World of Warcraft, but Half Life (including CS1.6 and TF1 and a billion other mods) and Half Life 2 are the #1 and #2 games on their ranking, respectively, followed by COD4.

    So, far as I can tell, the market isn’t really determined so much by graphics requirements as by what’s good, and what everyone else is playing. COD4′s graphics requirements aren’t trivial, but it’s one of the most popular PC games out there.

    Anyway, today’s level editors can make Wolf3D or Doom-level visuals just as quickly (if not moreso) than before. You COULD limit yourself to cubical rooms with flat textures and a few sprite decoration objects… But, well, I think your game would have to have something truly amazing to convince someone to buy it. People’s expectations are higher, and even budget titles have to go up against games like Fear and Prey sellings for peanuts these days. Even if your budget title isn’t going to try and compete on the level of graphics – Are you really going to get voice actors and script complex cutscenes for your game? ‘Cause even though you can say a game can tell a really good story and be compelling… Things like voice actors, complex cutscenes, and good facial animation are great storytelling devices that won’t be available to you.

  15. SolkaTruesilver says:

    Sitte, I though EXACTLY the same thing. I discovered ZP in the last few days, and it seems that Shamus has.. (how can I say it?) grown something of his way. Shamus, however, goes to the core idea while ZP simply review games (and SOMETIMES goes to the core).

    Anyway, while I enjoy that tone, Shamus, I hope we will be able to find back the man (sometime) who was less.. spicy? :)

  16. I am reminded of when I first played Doom3.

    Initially I was uttering all kinds of “ohhhs” and “aaahhhs” as I admired the pretty colors and the nifty lighting.

    After a few hours I stopped noticing the pretty shadows as a niggling sense of “sameness” slowly overcame me.

    After about 5 hours of play I was so damn tired of the monster closet and the predictability of the game that I completely gave up and never completed it.

    It’s like dating an attractive but vacuous woman. Yes, she may be nice to look at, but eventually you’re going to want to have a conversation with her. After a while you’re going to get tired of her staring at you blankly when you ask for her opinion on Kierkegaard.

  17. Illiterate says:

    Shhh.. Shamus, if they stop the upgrade treadmill, I won’t be able to buy last year’s hardward dirt-cheap and play Pharoah on it.

    Funny the wii was mentioned, I was thinking about Z:TP while I was reading this.

    Here’s hoping D3 with it’s effectively 2d gameplay runs on old hardware.

  18. Dave says:

    The HW industry also drives game development. Once SW developers can’t justify a game even after taking NVidia’s, Microsoft’s (perhaps), and Intel’s marketing dollars, that’s the end of the bleeding-edge PC gaming industry.

    Then the Peggle crowd can have the whole segment, and that will presumably be a boost for the indie devs who can afford to put out these kind of games, and have a good infrastructure in place (BigFish, etc.) to distribute it.

    It’ll be good news for the evolution of consoles, I think. They’ll presumably add more of the PC features that gamers need – quick alt-tab(esque) web access, more storage/removable storage, moddability.

  19. Illiterate says:

    ah, it appears putting in a homepage sets the “moderate me” flag. apologize for the re-post, Shamus. I’ll stop putting in my stupid blog address if that’s the cost of participating
    Shhh.. Shamus, if they stop the upgrade treadmill, I won’t be able to buy last year’s hardward dirt-cheap and play Pharoah on it.
    Funny the wii was mentioned, I was thinking about Z:TP while I was reading this.
    Here’s hoping D3 with it’s effectively 2d gameplay runs on old hardware.

  20. Shuggah says:

    Amen! Keep on preaching that sweet truth, brother! My 2004 relic of a laptop with its integrated radeon 9600 level graphics card runs WoW at a playable rate, but pretty much everything beyond UT2k4 lags, stutters or plain refuses to even run. The market is full of games I would find enticing if only they didn’t require me to drop another fifteen hundred euros on new hardware every year. It’s sad to see that my former favourite pastime has been pretty much priced out of my reach.

  21. Kleedrac says:

    I couldn’t agree more Shamus! One of the WORST trends in PC gaming (in my humble opinion anyhow) has always been the “pretty” shooters. Right now it’s Crysis a game with a higher graphics setting they haven’t released because the computer powerful enough to play on that setting doesn’t bloody exist yet :P There is nothing about that I think is good for the industry. And there are far more examples than WoW but you are correct for using it as most in the gaming industry think WoW is some backwards acronym for “Money Generating Machine” Well done Shamus … well done.

  22. Illiterate says:

    Seriously, do I need to start logging in to stop being moderated?

    Shamus, I’m not trying to be a jerk, please feel free to delete this, hit me at “the dot illiterate at gmail dot com”, let me know what is causing me to be moderated.

  23. JohnW says:

    Note how World of Warcraft is at least two graphics generations out of date, and yet Blizzard had to buy avalanche insurance just in case their pile of money falls over.

    LOL!

  24. Drew says:

    You know how when you fire up games nowadays, there are 35 splash screens before the game starts, indicating every layer of publisher and developer and producer of the game? Regardless of how annoying that is, I’ve noticed that the last few games I’ve fired up have included nvidia as one of the splash-screen companies. That means the graphics card companies are paying for game development, specifically in order to sell new hardware. If someone else started funding this stuff in their stead, we might see some games that don’t require the latest-and-greatest, but I’d imagine anything nvidia sponsors is going to be required to push the envelope, so they can sell some more cards. This has got to be part of the problem.

  25. Nixorbo says:

    This is one of the things I prefer about console gaming as opposed to PC gaming. For console devs there are set boundaries they have to work within. The only boundaries for PC devs seem to be whatever they decide to set for themselves.

    Why is this a problem, you say? PC devs strike me as Tim Taylors. “What do we need to do to make our game better? Add more power, ar ar ar!” They move from The Next Big Thing to The Next Big Thing, pushing the boundaries without ever stopping to maximize the abilities of The Average Joe, what’s already within the boundaries.

    Meanwhile, console devs have hard limits. The Next Big Thing only comes around once every 7-10 years. To make their games better they must work better, figure out how to do things better. Eventually they begin to maximize the potential of the existing hardware (see the difference between Halo and Halo 2 for an example. Like night and day).

  26. Maddy says:

    Bleeding-edge hardware requirements are just part one of why I don’t buy games for my computer. My other computer activities don’t require fancy graphics or a fast processor, so I am loathe to upgrade.

    Part two: I used to buy games for my computer. Thanks to OS and hardware upgrades, I can’t play those any more. I know some people say “but once you finish the game, who cares?” but I’m the kind of player who takes forever to finish a game and then likes to revisit parts of it, explore it, try weird stuff, etc. When I buy a game, I want it for a LONG time.

    Meanwhile, there are old Atari 2600s that still work. Not that I want to play that version of Centipede again, but the point is, if you buy a console game you can play it now and you can play it forever (or for a lot longer than you can play a game you bought for your PC).

    Part three: I work on a computer all day and well into the evening. Last thing I want to do is spend a couple more hours playing on it too. I might kill time with a game of Spider between meetings or something, but that’s as much as I’m willing to do. Granted, playing on the TV isn’t a lot better, but at least it’s a change of venue.

  27. K says:

    Well spoken, I could not agree more. Yeah, I recently played through Mass Effect. In 15 hours. That seems kinda short to me for the most hyped “Epic” RPG right now. Sure, I can run around and do a hundred boring Fed-Ex quests on the same boring, empty planets (with beautiful skyline) to produce another 30 hours of “entertainment”. Or I could play a game like Zelda, Links Awakening, which took me at least as long the first run through AND IT WAS ON THE GAMEBOY which has less ram than I have L1-Cache on the graphics card alone.

    Yes, Mass Effect looked brilliant. I even cared for that for like twenty minutes. And then I turned down all details (which made the game look about as pretty as Half Life ONE), so I could play it at a decent framerate.

    I also like the dating analogy. Games are like Women. Those that are extremly pretty spend all their time and effort on becoming pretty and staying like that or else they wouldn’t be. And those are horribly boring. Hell, they are not even better in bed. :P

  28. Rick C says:

    You can spend less money and make more money.

    What’s going on, here? Are you trying to apply economics and the Laffer Curve?

  29. Mike says:

    Quite frankly, while Bioshock is beautiful, I can’t play it for more than an hour at a time or I get nauseous. If there were an over-the-shoulder mode it would be MUCH better.

    And I’m one of the guys that dropped $7k on an ass-kicking system back in 2005. Dual 6800 Ultras in SLI! FX55! TWO GIG RAM! Whoa.

    Nowadays, I can buy a better system off the shelf at WalMart for under a grand. *sigh*

    But it still plays most games just fine. City of Heroes, everything enabled, 1600×1200, no problems. Even Bioshock at that res is playable if I drop the realistic shadows and reflections. Except for the dizzines and nausea, of course.

    They need to stop making things so realistic and start working on ways to make it less sickening. :)

  30. Avaz says:

    Interesting.

    Firstly, interesting because I wholeheartedly agree with your rant, Shamus.

    Second, interesting because this rant, for the first time, seems less “spicy” as some are prone to calling it. I actually thought this rant was calmer.

    That said, however, I reread it and laughed out loud because I, too, heard Yahtzee’s voice rambling it. Funny stuff. :)

  31. Spider Dave says:

    I think it’s about freaking time PC games started pushing the limits of their imagination instead of their hardware. The only game recently that has caught my eye as something I’m looking forward to is Spore. Most of everything else is more “meh, it’s been done.”

    To any game developers who might read this, here are some games I would like to see:
    A Sandbox RPG. The game that gave me the best taste of that was Gothic, but I think it can be done better. And by god it doesnt have to be Medieval Fantasy, you could do pirates or sci fi. GO crazy, do something new for a change.
    Or better yet, an online D&D-esque game (though not necessarily d20 by any means.) Multiplayer in the four guys and a DM sense. It would be wonderful. I love MUDs but I wish they had objectives and plot and all that.
    ADVENTURE GAMES! Point and click. No need to push graphics at all. Think Monkey Island, the White Chamber, stuff like that.

    As Leslee Beldotti pointed out, games are like women. Pretty ones are nice to look at, but at the end of the day the one you really want is interesting, fun, and with a lot more to her than “Look at my nicely rendered curves!”

    Excuse me while I go play Earthbound.

  32. Derek K says:

    “You might also want to include games “journalists” who almost without exception mark down titles with “out of date” graphics.”

    No freakin’ kidding.

    “Cons: Looks like it was made in 2006.”

    Uh, yeah, that’s actually okay. We haven’t discovered a new dimension since then, or anything….

    Re: Consoles:

    Yup. My cycle is generally to get the new console about a year after it comes out, play it for some time, and let PC games build up. Then I buy my PC used/at the Dell outlet – it’s about a half to a full generation behind, but it can play all the games that came out during the year or three it took to get there just fine, with the benefit of knowing which are actually good, and having a thriving mod community if applicable. There’s no point in getting cutting edge, especially when 3 years old is still new to you….

  33. Jeff says:

    @Spider Dave:
    Have you heard of Neverwinter Nights?

    The thing about graphics is very true, too. You only notice graphics in the beginning, after which it’s all gameplay.

  34. Cineris says:

    Side note: I think one big hope for the whole two-or-three-generations-behind game development is mobile platforms like the DS or PSP. I think the agility you can see with these is part of why you’ve got some interesting non-mainstream ideas (Phoenix Wright?) cropping up on these platforms but not on the bigger consoles.

  35. Freaky Dug says:

    Even though these games with extreme graphics do look good, games with less demanding art-styles look better. If you look at Zelda: The Wind Waker on the Gamecube, you’ll see a game that has an art style that it’s hardware could do perfectly, so it looked great and it still looks great. TF2 is, I’d say, the best looking game in the Orange Box, because it isn’t going for realism, which we can’t reach, but a cartoony style, which we can.

    So, not only you spend less to make more, you can have worse graphics and make a better looking game.

  36. WWWebb says:

    Good points overall. But while bemoaning the shortness of games, remember that it’s possible to go too far in the “add content” direction.

    When I installed DOSBox last year, I pulled out some of my Wizardry/Ultima/Magic Candle/Wasteland games (yes, I have a floppy drive) just to see if they would run. They did, but I learned too things.

    #1- Looking at EGA graphics on a XYZGA (or whatever) screen is PAINFUL. It is either squeezed into a tiny 3 inch square on my screen or each pixel is 3 inches across.

    #2- I played the first hour and had a little fun with the character creation and early game. I briefly thought, “hey, maybe I should play through this again for old times sake.” Then I remembered that they all took almost 100 hours to finish.

    That was fine when I was a kid and could plow through that in a month, but these days that would take me 6 months. As a grown up, I just don’t have that time to burn, and 20 hours is just about right. Any longer that that and I’ll have forgotten the exposition before I get to the climax. To put it another way, I know you like open ended gameplay and exploration, but would you really have the patience to play World of Warcraft all the way through if you were the only person on the server?

    Going back to the development discussion, think about how long it would take to remake a classic like Wasteland with a modern game engine. Morrowwind was a tiny, tiny island compared to a lot of those games and filling them out would take forever. It would be like making a single-player World of Warcraft from scratch. The developers could never hope to recoup their investment.

    There’s a sweet spot somewhere in the middle. There just aren’t many games that hit it.

  37. Factoid says:

    I would like to point everyone to Twilight Princess:

    That game is:

    a) Quite long, especially by today’s standards
    b) Incredibly awesome
    c) Has innovative ideas about gameplay
    d) Uses last-gen graphics
    e) A massive hit both critically and in sales
    f) One of my favorite games of all time

  38. David V.S. says:

    I enjoy Thief 2 more than Thief 3. The graphics are not as pretty. But the missions are huge without mid-mission load screens, the maps better encourage and allow exploration, and the objectives and obstacles better encourage a problem-solving approach.

    This is even true of many of the over 700 fan missions, including a very professional fan-made expansion pack.

    To me, the main point Shamus made is about how complicated it is to do level editing. I expect a company that designed a robust engine (for shooting, sneaking, and shopping) whose level editor was easy to use (tools made common tasks quick) would earn a whole lot of money. And we gamers would see a lot of games in which developers could focus on creating a fun experience.

    Look at how many games are built of another company’s game engine even when that engine is not specifically appropriate!

    Does the Linux open-source community have this kind of a generic engine/editor?

  39. Andre says:

    Very, VERY well put, Shamus.

    Also, I really like this analogy: “That’s like cutting off the top of your head because your high heels make you too tall to fit through the door.”

    Also also, pretty apropos of you to use a picture of a Cylon that says “replaced by CGI”.

  40. wererogue says:

    Game dev reporting in:

    The problem is that unless you get some nasty bugs or bad optimisation, supporting the latest *graphics* isn’t really the biggest part of the workload. It’s pretty trivial from a code point of view, certainly compared to supporting whatever new feature the game designer wants *this* week.

    The technologies that *do* take a lot of time are the brand new, game-specific ones – flexible AI/animation AI especially. Also data mining, adaptable difficulty (which I hate with the intensity of a thousand suns, but that’s a whole blog post on it’s own), allowing your RTS to manage 3.2 billion units at once. Usually implementing a new shader or reflection generator is pretty much “write code into renderer” and go, especially if it’s hardware-supported.

    With that in mind, it can seem like a waste of time and resources to write the menus and repetitive implementations of older rendering tech as well, when it’s pretty quick to just use the latest one and stick with it.

    The place that pretties do take their toll is on the art team. They suddenly have to put more effort into each part of your assets, and if you don’t have enough artists, your project’s going to slip. Supporting older tech probably means that your artists have to spend more time on the models, or even do two versions – a lot of models now are pretty low-poly, but with bags of bump-mapping (dot3), so do you do a high-poly one as well for the old renderer? Then you have two versions of the assets, taking up space, both needing to be changed when the game design does.

    Most artists in the games industry WANT to make good-looking assets, so they’re pushing for you to support the new technology too. “Latest graphics” sounds good to management and publishers, so of course when you can’t give a reason why your game ought to look like crud, they’re going to want you to use newer techniques too.

    I think part of the reason that development time is longer for bigger teams is that when you had one guy in his basement, he knew what game he wanted to make. He knew what wasn’t worth doing, and didn’t do it. Now, if you even think about dropping a feature, publishers think about dropping your game. At the same time, the designer is sitting in his office with nothing better to do than think “This game needs more *features*”, and suddenly the feature set starts expanding. Once something’s suggested, everybody wants it in, and it gets wedged into the schedule and things start slipping. If you’re a development team working for a publisher, they’ll have their own opinions and desired features too, and you can guarantee that they’re adamant that the game has to have them.

    I don’t think that graphics are the biggest culprit for short games or long development times (unless you count “animation” as “graphics” – then they’re a bigger hit). But I do think you make a good point about target audience – the focus shouldn’t be entirely on high-end gamers.

  41. Maryam says:

    In addition to what Shamus has said, what I wish is that game developers would stop striving for realism. My interest in a game takes a big hit if the characters are an attempt to look like real people. I much prefer some sort of interesting stylized look. The uncanny valley has something to do with it, but it’s also because I play games to experience something different from reality.

    I’m no game designer, but I’d also assume that if you aren’t spending scads of time trying to make everything look realistic, you have more time to spend on designing the gameplay.

  42. Spider Dave says:

    @Jeff:
    Neverwinter nights couldnt do it for me. It was too clunky and too restrictive. What I love about RPGs is freedom, and NWN lacks that. I think a game more like Oblivion could come closer to the mark, if it were done properly. As Shamus has said, d20 doesnt really work in computerised gaming. I just want that D&D feel.
    Check out this awesome post that expresses how I feel.
    http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=945

  43. Oleyo says:

    This made me think back to all the games that I was totally sucked in by. None were what you would call graphical powerhouses, but they actually used the most advanced graphics engine on the planet; our brains.

    Our brains are too adaptive to be wowed by graphics for more than a few minutes. However, they are so powerful that I can sit at a table with two or three buddies and nothing more than some sheets of paper and dice and take part in an amazing adventure.

    Immerseive game play allows our brain to conjure up the gameworld, while broken gameplay, or weak story rip our brains out of our willful suspension of disbelief, regardless of graphical refinement of the gameworld.

  44. Alex says:

    “Me? I’m saving up for an XBox 360.”

    Might wanna do what my friend did: Save up for two. Just in case the worst happens. Apparently a Microsoft product is prone to killing itself for no reason. Who’da thunk it? <_<

    -Factoid:

    Other than (b) and (c), I think you bring up a good example. Although (e) is only (e) because IT’S A ZELDA GAME. ;)

  45. Benjamin O says:

    I was just talking to a friend about the game I would make if I had the time/money/ability. I have the idea. Here’s the problem–it’s now a LOT harder to get into it. When you are just learning how to make a simple game for a simple environment, its easy. Try to make a game for a 3D world, and suddenly it takes a lot of work.

    I don’t have the time/money/ability.

  46. MRL says:

    @Alex:
    I’m going to take the quicker route and just save up for a Wii.

    Hey, when XBox comes out with a game that doubles as a fitness coach, let me know – but Wii Fit will do me a heck of a lot more good right now than Halo.

  47. Matt` says:

    “Immersive game play allows our brain to conjure up the gameworld, while broken gameplay, or weak story rip our brains out of our wilful suspension of disbelief, regardless of graphical refinement of the gameworld.”

    *Agrees with that guy*

    No matter how pretty the game looks, if it does stupid things because it’s poorly designed, then it’ll seem crappy.

    Conversely, a well designed game with graphics that are just “good enough” (read: can be produced by old hardware) will be fun to play and seem like a great game, even without epic graphics or realism.

  48. Gbyron says:

    One word: Crimsonland.

    Me and my 64Mb Graphics Card salute you and head off to blast some .

  49. McNutcase says:

    The thing that always gets me is how much less useful these ultrashinies are. I quit the treadmill back in 2005, by the way, but even back then, I was noticing that you can’t freakin’ SEE anything. It’s all shades of brown, or grey, or bluish-grey, and the bloom is turned up so high that you just can’t tell what the crud anything is meant to be. Yes, bloom is nifty, but it should be kept for where it’s realistic: coming out of low-light areas into brighter ones.

    Or are publishers convinced that we all go to the optometrist’s office daily for those dilating drops?

  50. Dys says:

    In some cases, graphical quality adds to a game. It’s largely to do with the immersion factor, and not related to technology so much as design. A good piece of art it won’t ever look dated.

    Another factor to consider is that, given the prior existence of games like Half Life, a developer working on a new game can either try to use the same tech and beat the design (think about that for a moment), or go for the advantage of new technology.

    Simply put, in the games market you are competing with everything ever released. You can either try to fight the best games ever made, on their own ground, or you can take the one advantage they cannot have. The new tech.

    As for the development time vs game length argument, I strongly suspect there needs to come, soon, a revolution in games development. Some form of extra level whereby the devs do not design the game, but instead design the tools which design the game. You have made posts before on procedural content, so I expect you know what I mean by this.

  51. Tejlgaard says:

    I agree that cutting off old computers is silly if you don’t need to do it for your game; but then, _you actually need to_, contrary to what you imply here.

    Let me illustrate what it’ll be like if you set the system reqs too low:

    Lets say we want to make a new game with low reqs based upon how old games did it.

    For CPU’s which you will support if you want reasonable AI, for example. Hitman 2 would be a perfectly good benchmark for reasonable AI. That had a minimum of 450mhz, so lets be generous and go for 750 for our test platform where we will guarantee that the game will work.

    Secondly, you need to decide on some level of graphics. Do you want 3d graphics?, Or can you do with sprites?

    Worms 2 had sprites and was a reasonably pretty and had reasonable audio, so deciding on that is perfectly fine. That’s a direct x 5.0 card, if memory serves. That’s a Riva 128 card, so again, let’s be generous and go for a Riva TNT.

    Now that we have a Riva TNT, pentium 3 750mhz, and oh, lets say 128 megs of ram, we can start working on a game that everybody who’s bought a machine in the last 7-8 years will be able to run.

    Only…oh. The machine doesn’t have the guts to run our AI scripts because we’ve gone ahead and written them in Python. Well there’s nothing to do, let’s crack open the manual for Ascii C, and convert to that…sure, the code will take up many more manhours to write and require considerably more experienced employees, be harder to maintain, and will be like chaining a rock to our leg when we want to develop our next title, but there are bright sides too.

    Bob is an australian customer who ventured into sidney one day, after finding an 8 years old computer at the scrapheap, to visit an EB store and purchase a game. Why, he will certainly be able to play our game because we invested that extra time, money and manpower. (this is not a dig at Australians, but examples become more vivid if I use stereotypes, so sorry if anyone takes offense)

    But then, none of the games at EB appear to have low enough system requirements, and the salesperson doesn’t know what a Riva TNT is, and she starts laughing when bob says Pentium. The bright side is, there is a slim possibility she points bob to our game anyway, and he picks it up. The more probable outcome?

    Bob visits a friend who goes to the underdogs, downloads 50 games, burns them on a dvd, and gives them to bob who now has more games available for his platform than he’ll be able to complete before the system gives up on him. He won’t ever get around to our game.

    Catering to bobs demographic with new games is nonsensical.

    Unless you’d like to cater to people who specifically enjoy casual games (where the older languages and API’s will arguably be less of a problem) and are stuck on old platforms that can hardly even run youtube, there is no positive aspect to developing for systems which are more than 5 years old. None.

    I can do the same math with a geforce 3 card from 01, or a geforce 4 from 02, and processors from the same time, and illustrate how developing for the old technology is more expensive and turns very little extra profit for a _huge_ extra investment if you want to do things as well as the big games from that time.

    You’d be stuck with old, outdated API’s which are harder to develop for, no tech support, and you’ll need to use archaic programming paradigms for managing CPU and ram capacity if you want to fully exploit technology from 02. And 03?, that’s 5 years old. That’s 10 months from geforce 6 country. According to this blog post, that clearly doesn’t count and thinking such thoughts deserves a whip from a magazine.

    My point is, you should not decide to use old technology, you should decide to simply _invest less_ in exploiting technology from any day or age, and instead rely on cheaper technical solutions (….usually that will not be older ones…..)

    Going for compatibility alone is very expensive if you want any sort of modern feature.

    But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t exploit new technology if it’s cheap to do so. Since everybody and his mom is switching to dual core, the majority of the market would be able to run hitman with its AI rewritten in python without a hitch.

    So invest in writing good AI in python, and do so for about 1/10th the cost IO invested back in 2002 in the same feature.

    Sure, your game won’t be able to run on a machine from 2001, and IO’s game is able to do that, but hey….that really is not that big of a loss. Bob can do without, he already has access to a huge, cheap catalogue.

    Don’t try to improve the AI using the new, faster processors. Simply try to develop the same quality of AI for less money, and allow the new, faster processors to give you a heel up.

    Plus, hitman 2 is 10 bucks on steam. You’d have to sell your game for the same price to be able to compete, if it didn’t have better features, and chances are, it wouldn’t have if developed with the same system req.s in mind.

    But yeah, in conclusion, I’m discussing “real, bought in a brick and mortar store” games here, not the casual stuff you can find on steam, at Neopets etc. For the casual stuff I’m sure you could probably come up with something that doesn’t require new technology.

    But the rest of the time, developing features that are as good as those found in other modern games is _harder_ on older technology, not easier.

  52. Fieari says:

    Shamus, what’s the chances that your overlords and masters at The Escapist would publish this article as a feature? I think it’s worthy of a larger audience…

    Funny how a few months ago, The Escapist wouldn’t have been a larger audience at all. But thanks to ZP and guys like you, it’s a runaway success these days.

  53. Ian B. says:

    I think I’m going to change my name to Ian B., since some smart alec above had the nerve to be given the same name as me. ;) I guess I could also be known as “that guy with the Shadow avatar” but whatever.

    Anyway, this rant was definitely necessary. Some people think I have something wrong with me when I start up things like Kroz, ZZT, and MegaZeux on my computer. The fact that those games have held my attention off-and-on since they came out (1987, 1991, and 1994, respectively) says a lot, I think. Anyone ever play Pyro 2? That game is bloody amazing and it will happily run on a system with an MDA. I like having a Crysis-ready computer for the rare occasion that a good game is released for it, but the only reason I really upgraded in the first place was because my old Pentium 4 just wasn’t cutting it for what I wanted to do anymore.

    It probably wouldn’t be so bad if the PC weren’t regarded as a “secondary platform” for most developers nowadays. The only real PC exclusives nowadays are indie titles and things like strategy games and simulation games (though those seem to be gradually making the move to consoles). I’ve definitely had my eye on more 360 games than PC games as of late.

    What doesn’t help are when companies like Crytek whine, bitch, and moan about piracy. Crytek recently announced that after the new Crysis game is released they are no longer going to be making PC exclusive titles due to rampant piracy. The fact that they made a game that will only run on 5% of the systems in the market and only run well on half of those systems pretty much means that their sales are going to be low as it is. Hell, I’ll bet even most pirates can’t run that damn game. Sure, it looks pretty (ridiculously pretty, even — screenshots don’t do it justice), but to expect a game that doesn’t run on anything to sell is just ludicrous, especially when that’s coupled with Crytek’s idiotic design decisions (like making games into stupidly difficult DIAS-fests even when played on easy).

    I’ve been paying particular attention to the indie and “casual” game developers as of late. Their titles are just better (and cheaper, too, which is a definite bonus).

    @MRL: “Hey, when XBox comes out with a game that doubles as a fitness coach, let me know”

    Dance Dance Revolution.

    No, but seriously, when I first started playing DDR I lost around 40 pounds in a month.

    If you want to invest a little more time into setting it up, you can always grab a soft pad, a PS2/Xbox -> USB adapter, and use StepMania (or In The Groove for PC…).

  54. John says:

    I believe this falls into a classic tech business category: companies who build what their developers want to build, rather than what the market wants to buy. Normally the boring business managers aim for the dollars, the exciting developers aim for the latest flash and sparkle, but the business managers pay the techies salaries and thus win the argument. However, in a subset of companies either the managers are techies promoted in defiance of the Peter Principle, or the owners/managers have been convinced that they can’t retain good talent without giving into their cutting-edge fetish.

    As supporting evidence, look at the failure rate of said companies.

    (full disclosure: software developer by education and early training, now manager seeking MBA)

  55. Factoid says:

    Sorry to double post…but Crysis gets kind of a bad reputation.

    It’s true that the story sucks balls, and no earthly computer can play it at full rez…but it does scale down reasonably well to play on most systems in that “geforce 6000 or better” category.

    It has an incredible UI and a few innovative gameplay features. The first half of the game is actually really fun…until they get to the story portion…at which point it gets linear and boring.

  56. Blackbird71 says:

    Well said Shamus, once again a well-placed jab at the state of the industry. Now if only we could draw the attention of those responsible a bit more effectively.

    Personally, my desktop is currently using an ATI X700 Pro graphics card. My wife’s computer has a GeForceFX 5200. Yeah, they’re a bit dated, but they work for most of what we play (I’ve even got an old machine in the corner with a Diamond
    stealth II for those times I crave a revisit of 7th Guest or Daggerfall). But this week I’ve ordered a new card (ATI 4850) and other hardware for a major upgrade. Not because I enjoy shelling out the money every 3 years for this, nor because I want those really cool graphics, but because I’m at the point where it’s even getting difficult to buy games a couple of years old that will run on my system. Chalk up a win for the graphics card companies! I think Drew (#25) hit the nail on the head there. If games don’t requrie bleeding-edge graphics, Nvidia and ATI won’t have anyone to sell their pricey, top-of-the-line hardware to, so it makes sense for them to promote resource-intensive games. It’s creating a market for their product.

    Alas for me, consoles are not an option as an alternative. I don’t know why, but I have never been able to manipulate console controllers with any reasonable degree of proficiency. There’s just something about the way they’re rigged that runs counter to my instinctive motions I guess. That, and I find gaming from a couch looking at a distant TV screen makes me feel a bit detached from the game, as if it’s something I’m watching rather than playing.

  57. yd says:

    You complain about the HL2 numbers, but which runs on one of the more forgiving graphics engines I’ve played with. Sure, Valve is still trying to target the pretty colors crowd, but they do it without /forgetting/ the less upgrade happy market.

  58. Shamus says:

    I wasn’t complaining about the HL2 numbers – I was just saying that thinking that HL2 players = all PC Gamers is a rampant sort of myopia.

    HL2 is indeed about as flexible as they come. I can’t think of another game that scales as well. I grumble about Steam, but you just can’t fault them on game design.

  59. Eltanin says:

    In a way I dislike these posts. I mean, sure they’re funny, and that graph was simply awesome, but Shamus you’re just so damn right that it hurts. I mean it really causes me emotional pain. Why can’t game companies see it? What exactly is their problem? They clearly need a liberal dose of that magazine upside the head.

    Gah! It’s so frustrating.

    Thanks for being a voice of reason amidst all the sound and fury Shamus.

  60. Sitte says:

    In response to the “spiciness”:

    1) Is that usage common around the webernet? This is the first place I’ve ever seen it, and only in the past few days.

    2) In my experience, Shamus goes up and down in level of spice, just like most other writers (unlike Yahtzee, who stays at a 5-alarm NSFW level of spicy always). Check out old posts on Steam and Bioshock.

    3) Looking purely at the number of posts in the Rants category, I see that the end of last year was a slow time for the fury, so the last couple of months are definitely an upturn from there, but are about average compared to the first half of last year.

    4) Shamus has impressed me multiple times with his class. He has closed comments when things get too heated, edited his posts to tone down potential offensiveness, and (at least once) deleted a heated response he made when the offender apologized.

    5) http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=1300

  61. Anders says:

    Should there be some sort of revolution that overthrows this evil union that claims that graphics is everything I’d join up for sure. I’ve seen myself fall further and further from that with time.

    I’m blessed with a dead boring job that pays way to much so my system is way, way to the right of the graphics curve and I mostly use it to play two-three year old games that might be able to run at high resolutions but almost never even challenge my system.

    And when I see that the local PC Gamer has a full 8 page story on how AWESOME the new Crysis-MP game will look I’m not even interested (Oh, yeah. It will come with a new Trans-dimensional Lightning thingie-bob that you will notice a whole 0 times seeing as you probably will not stop to look on how pretty your enemy is being rendered when he is shooting you). To me the actual worth of a game is all in the fun and almost nothing of the fun comes from the graphics (as long as the graphics/artwork reach high enough to be nice looking, like WoW).

    I think I’ll continue to spend my money on games that promise lots of fun, usually Indie games, without the graphics in the future too but I’m afraid I do not really think that the big companies will stop equaling “graphics” with “good idea” seeing as it is a downwards spiral. The magazines write about how cool the graphics is, the companies makes them and those that don’t get’s bad scores.

  62. Laura F says:

    Hee hee, avalanche insurance…

    Your wordplay makes me giggle.

  63. Tejlgaard catches a lot of truth.

    Wing Commander vs. Lightspeed.

    Wing Commander barely played on a top of the line computer. Lightspeed played on anything.

    Or, the AI in Age of Empires vs. the, err, AI in Warcraft II.

    Though Ensemble makes a real effort to sell products that run on most computers.

    Game Magazines hammered Dai Katana as much over its graphics as its gameplay. That’s a lesson too.

    Though I agree, WoW has worked well, amazing what you can do if people aren’t able to pirate your game, and where that puts you in terms of the market you can sell to.

  64. Derek K says:

    “Some form of extra level whereby the devs do not design the game, but instead design the tools which design the game.”

    See, I know procedural design is all the rage now.

    I’m still highly unconvinced it will be a better game than one designed by a human. If you’re just rendering random mountain ranges to trek across, sure. If it’s a real place of use, a human is needed.

    Compare the dungeons of Zelda vs Diablo, for instance.

    @ Tejlgaard, Re: 5 year old hardware – I’m pretty sure that you misrepresent people with 5 year old hardware. It’s not Bob who found his computer in the scrapheap and wants to play X-Com. It’s people who upgrade their computers piecemeal, because they have 4 in the house that all need bumps, so computer A gets a new card, and then the cards all get an upgrade.

    I have 4 functioning computers right now – mine, my wife’s, my daughters, and a file server. I upgraded mine about 4 months ago, when I got a new job. I upgraded my wife’s about a year ago, when hers died. I upgraded my daughter’s about 4 months ago, when I got my new one.

    So right now, I have my machine (dual core, 3 gigs of ram, fair vid card), my wife’s machine (dual Xenon workstation bought off Craigslist) and my daughter’s machine (hodge-podge originally a dell machine). We all three would like to play games together. We can all play WoW. We can all play Second Life (although I try not to). We can all play Diablo 2, or even Team Fortress 2, for the most part (she can kind of play it, and doesn’t much like it). I would love to be able to go to the store and get a game that all three of us can play when it comes out. But that’s gonna be rare.

    Also, you suggest that it is nigh unto impossible to find someone that can code for computers 5 years old. Have you looked at the indie game community? Do you really think everyone has erased all knowledge of C++ from their brains at this point? There’s a huge supply of modules, even.

    Plus, you’re making Shamus’ argument: You can only find people who know the new tech, because that’s all that people want. If we weren’t pushing for the newest and greatest every single time a new game came out, it wouldn’t be hard to find someone that can code on a 3 year old engine, because they just finished a game on it last month….

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