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Opinion: Video Games And The Graphics Plateau
Opinion: Video Games And The Graphics Plateau Exclusive
August 19, 2008 | By Brandon Sheffield, Staff

August 19, 2008 | By Brandon Sheffield, Staff
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[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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I think that we have already reach the "graphics plateau" for the movies... Some years after Jurasic Park.

But for the game, we have not reach it yet, partly because new tech and more powerful computer and console also mean new and emergent gameplay.

Take games lile Suppreme Comander and Crysis for example, these game offer something new in term of gameplay (huge map) and on the experience side (awesome ambiance) that would not have been possible with a ps2.

And when we are talking about AI, physic... Certainly, we will have cool emergent gameplay that will come from thins with the ps4, ps5 cycles...

And for the blue-ray, Carmak recently say that he need it for his new Rage game.

Rolland Waters
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Graphics for me, personally, have definitely hit a plateau. I've been around real-time 3d as we know it today since the mid-80's, and every few years we've had the next great thing:

* near ground imagery (i.e., not just for flight sims)

* large numbers of moving models

* small ground polygons with cut & fill roads

* the first 3D smoke ... that was cool!

* dynamic terrain: blowing up houses, digging in the dirt

* weather effects, including the wind blowing the weeds

I look at the two primary consoles at I'm like "meh" ... sure, it's detailed, but the lighting effects are flat and it's polygons for the sake of polygons.

Next-gen effort has to be aimed at AI, and game design to take it to where you can actually construct or destroy the environment as a primary element of game play.

It'll come, and graphics will be part of it. But graphics won't drive it.

Aaron Casillas
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Ninjas please! I know a team or two who have the talent to bring any machine to its knees!

Jamie Mann
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Exclusivity: hardware differences have been purely semantical since the Dreamcast faced off against the PS2: it took years for games on the PS2 to squeeze a significant boost in game rendering - and it's debatable as to whether or not this gap could have been narrowed by the DC if there had been any continued investment in exploiting it's hardware.

Exclusivity is about content, not technology.

Focusing on graphics as a driver for newer hardware is also missing the point somewhat: newer games are offering more physics, better AI, larger worlds, more content - let me know when someone backports WoW or MGS4 to the PS2, yes? It'll be interesting to see how Dead Rising works on the Wii - the interviews I've seen seem to hint at more focused, smaller environments - no mowing down hundreds of zombies in your car! At what point does the "average user" decide to not bother playing the cutdown version?

(it's also worth revisiting the recent Gamasutra article on frame rate measurement - modern AAAA games are still running at 30fps, not 60. All that horsepower has to be going somewhere...)

Blu-ray: this has failed, mostly because there's no real driver for people to upgrade their existing media collections, unlike the switch from VHS to DVD, where there was clear physical and presentation benefits. It makes sense as a storage medium, but that's about it.

The PC: citing Crytek as an example of piracy woes is somewhat disingenuous: they released a game with stupidly high system requirements and then wondered why sales were so low. It's easy to blame piracy (and to be fair, it will have played a part), but targetting a small and specialised market is never going to yield high gains.

Beyond that: I'm not sure where gaming is going on the PC. There's obviously the MMORPG genre, and a lot of casual gaming - plus a healthy indie scene - but WoW and the Wii are chewing up a lot of both. Regardless of piracy, there's also the issues of visibility and pricing amid a sea of similarity, much of which will be cheaper or even free.

Tech Junkies: It's true that the hardware manufacturers are the key drivers behind sales of new technology. However, it's also true that they need to evolve to match the advances in technology elsewhere. HDTVs highlight old game's graphical shortcomings (especially the PS2 with it's high poly counts and low quality textures), while users find themselves wanting to access media and the internet from their couch - not to mention playing games online!

Also: I'm not sure what "cover mechanics" is meant to mean, but UI improvements have been constrained by the need to work within SDTV resolutions and the relatively lack of clarity forced onto consoles with analog video outputs (e.g. SCART, SVIDEO, phono jacks). There are ways to improve the situation, but the fact remains that SDTV resolution constrains UI development (e.g. the Wii's web browser), and HDTV resolutions require more horsepower than the PS2 or Wii has to offer. Similarly, persistant worlds come at a cost - more memory and processing power is needed, or you just end up with GTA-style vanishing cars - and those cars which don't vanish all look suspiciously similar...

So, while I'll agree that the PS2 and Wii are "good enough" at the moment, I'll also point out that the PSX and Dreamcast were good enough for a time after the PS2 came out. It's not just about flashy graphics: there are gameplay elements (AI, physics, network play, audio processing, etc) which cannot be produced on older hardware - at least, not simultaneously. This is where the power of the new hardware comes into play.

Also, while the Wii has proved that 6th-generation graphics are good enough for casual gamers, there's a joker in the pack. As far as I can see, Wii game sales are driven by gimmicky hardware (steering wheels, the Wii Fit board, the newly announced motion sensor - even the Wii itself, if you include Wii Sports): the attach rate when hardware bundled games are excluded is appalling - though the swathes of shovelware may not help.

Josh Oakes
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I believe with video games, it is reaching that plateau. Now a days, it’s more about the type of content and experiences a game can bring that would catch my attention. I believe the video parody makes a good point. Personally, I would rather watch a low res video (YouTube) of something that interests me at the moment then to watch a high rez version of something that doesn’t spike much interest. For example, comparing the entertainment value of a tree image of supper high rez detail and color to a tiny video of someone being airborne kite surfing during a tropical storm.

Jeremy Hayes
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I stopped caring about the graphics war a long time ago. As long as the graphics complement the game design, then I'm happy. The tail should not wag the dog (e.g. Crysis). Personally I think the real untapped frontier of game development lies in AI. Unfortunately it continues to elude us.

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It might as well be the industry has reached a plateau. There is of course improvements to be made. BUT: will the average consumer care? To answer this question, of course we need to research the average consumer. For what I know, he is becoming older, more feminine and more casual.

What do these people need AI and graphics for? Why should they care? Graphics are something to brag about to your 14-year-old friends. Sophisticated AI is for experts...

What matters is game concepts - just as they always did. Monopoly did not need graphics, Karaoke doesn't etc. etc.

I believe the "woah - I didn't even think thats possible" times are over. We can improve the interface a little, but I doubt the average person needs more than Wii Motion Plus. After all, only mario can jump real high - you cannot motion track this 1:1 so whats the point in even more sophisticated interface mechanisms. Instead concentrate on building good control metaphors that are immersive and easy to understand so THE AVERAGE CONSUMER can pick up and play! :)

Julien Tremblay
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I have to respectfully say that I completely disagree with the entirety of this publication.

As game developers, our job is, and always will be, to 3R (Re-invent, Re-define and Re-fine) our products. We're creating an entertaining software to be enjoyed by our target, the player. If you just contributed importance to gameplay rather than graphics, then you've sadly been misled until this morning.

The part talking about handheld consoles in Japan being a big part of sales is due to the fact that transportation is a huge part of the Japanese culture.

People travel often, and need to entertain themselves while doing so, hence the steep sales. Handhelds are not doing better than any current and last-gen consoles, there is simply market for everything.

The possibility of PS2/Wii graphics being "OK" for the average gamer is true today, but in a year or so, they will crave for a different experience. I'm pretty sure no one wants Mii-shaped characters for the next 30 years.

The quote "Graphics don’t make that game fun" is totally untrue. Graphics in a game are the "visual" tool you're using to create your emotion to the player. Sound is the auditive experience, while the controller (plastic guitar for Guitar Hero, Wiimote, etc) is your physical experience medium, and so on. All those tools packed together are what create the experience. One of those elements failing and you lose the player's immersion quickly. Everything is important. Graphics don't make the game fun solely by itself, but hell, it contributes in a very important way.

I don't see why we should content ourselves with what we have right now and not push the experience further. The game industry has always been - and will probably always be - an evolving and changing medium.

Music has been using the television to create music videos, adding more flavor by visual entertainment while you listen to your favorite song.

And why is there a paragraph about Blu-ray, which is a physical format, being compared to digital distribution? If there is the exact same YouTube but in HD, and people have the right equipment (fast ISPs), it will win over the SD YouTube, that I can guarantee. Next time I checked Pirate Bay, it had an HD-specific section so people can find content in HD instead of jaggy SD.

As for Crytek feeling they can no longer play to the high-end PC consumers, if they don't do it, someone else will. In my opinion, we still have a LONG way to go with the machines that drive our games, especially visual representation. Who knows when the television will evolve in a fully 3D environment? When that happens, I'm positive that horsepower will be an issue to be resolved.

Whatever medium falls behind, we need to upgrade it to follow the latest trend for the player's maximum satisfaction. I think we're simply not using the horsepower we're being given to full potential, but limiting ourselves to the 2D screen.

Anyone that has experience FF7 when it came out, it was a masterpiece; a gem. The FF7 tech-demo showed for PS3 literally shocked me during a few seconds until I remembered it was only a demo, not a remake of FF7 with next-gen graphics. Start a poll on who would like a contemporary remake, and let me know the results...

No, not ALL consumers want a Ferrari, because they can't afford it! The money spent by casual gamers, by individual, on games is very small. Games is not a casual gamer's priority. It's a part-time hobby. It's only normal seeing people spend little money on what they allow little importance to. If cars aren't my primary passion, and instead a method of transportation, Ferrari is out of the question for me...

There is no such thing as a permanent plateau, but only a temporary one. By the time we're done debating about this graphical plateau, we'll already need to catch up.

I think that theories like the "Graphical Plateau" are simply conservative. We should not limit ourselves to what we currently have, and always to try to find new methods of creating emotions in games. Graphics, like exposed earlier, are a big part of it.

In 1903, the Wright Brothers successfully flew with an airplane for the first time, and still today, 105 years later, airplanes have more horsepower, allowing them to break the sound barrier to get to their destination faster, in a safer and more comfortable way. But where can I find the airplane that takes me on a trip to the Moon? Then Mars? Let me hop in to see how Pluto is solely formed of Ice.

Evolution is part of the natural process of nature.

Now, give me an electric car that can fly please >.

Tom Caddick
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This article is quite misleading, in order to fit in this nice but idealistic view on the gaming world - and it's quite silly to be frank.

Firstly game consoles such as the Wii and the DS don't aim at the same demographic as previous generations. The recent change in success for graphically weaker systems doesn't stem from any sort of plateau in graphics but instead an altered focus in audience, as you well know. Although price is a factor that has also added to these console's successes. There could be an argument that consoles will slow the graphical development slightly in order to achieve a good price, but still considerably more software is sold on the xbox 360 than on the Wii despite the lower install base and this is Because of the different demographics.

A game like MGS4 Was in fact largely successful because it displayed quite possibly the strongest display of consoles technical graphics today. Yes, of course it would quite probably sell more copies on PS2, but again, you know as well as I do that this is because there are more than 12 times the number of PS2s than PS3s. It didn't show any large gameplay improvements and the story was just a slightly drawn out conclusion to what had gone before. A game that fits that exact description and follows many more similarities is Halo 3 - that game displayed very good graphics, but not spectacular (with better visuals having been displayed altready in games like Gears of War) and was judged by critics as very good accordingly.

The Wii sadly is not really turning out to be focusing 'fully on continuing to push gameplay to the fore' - but day by day, with the lack of strong games that are developing the genre from being just a sea of futile generic games (there are exceptions, but not enough) to something more, it is proving to be little more than a gimic. Games streching the industry into genuine artistic realms like bioshock or pushing new gameplay mechanics like portal are what is important, yes that can exist in any graphical guise in games like passage and braid, but they are mostly seen on the xbox 360 and ps3.

Michael John
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This is not new news. Jason Rubin (Naughty Dog founder) predicted it five years ago at GDC. Jason's point, and I think he's correct, is that while graphics continue to get better in absolute terms, the perceptual difference has lessened dramatically with each generation, and is now on a curve that approaches flat. So whereas graphics quality once had meaningful impact on the user's experience, it's now more or less background.

I take all of this as good news. It's a sign that at long last as an industry we're transitioning out of the technology business and fully into the entertainment business. Moving forward, what sells will be design, story, novelty, fun... games defined by flashy graphics (or the abovementioned physics or AI) are already more niche than mainstream.

Jaakko Saarenketo
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Dear Julien Tremblay,

‘Life evolves from the non- random survival of randomly varying replicators’.

-Richard Dawkins

You talk a lot about evolution and evolving. Evolution is about survival. In games industry survival would be making money, keeping your job, etc. If new games with improved graphics, as opposed to PS/2 & Wii graphics, were somehow more evolved, wouldn't that mean that they would survive (sell) way better. Perhaps making better (evolved) games is not as simple as one could think? The more I think about it, the comparison between MGS4 and tyrannosaurus rex makes sense.

You also compare games with music industry. Music videos made music industry indeed more commercial and therefore more profitable. However since 1982, few consumers have expressed their wishes for more than two-channel 16-bit PCM encoding at a 44.1 kHz from their CD's. No doubt music still has changed from those days.

Now for the most interesting part you said:

"No, not ALL consumers want a Ferrari, because they can't afford it! The money spent by casual gamers, by individual, on games is very small. Games is not a casual gamer's priority. It's a part-time hobby. It's only normal seeing people spend little money on what they allow little importance to. If cars aren't my primary passion, and instead a method of transportation, Ferrari is out of the question for me..."

That last line especially. Translated to gaming wouldn't it be: "If games aren't my primary passion, and instead a method of entertainment, HDstation360 is out of question for me..." The biggest feature of a Ferrari is that only the select few have one. How is that a desirable goal for a creator of entertainment?

Thanks for reading. I look forward to any replies.

Hoby Van Hoose
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I don't think games are even close to reaching a graphics plateau.

What might make one think that they have, is the reliance on graphics that most developers/publishers have taken on the games made for the "next gen" systems.. focusing on the graphics instead of the rest of the game.