Is the era of high-end graphics no longer relevant?

Eye candy loses its lustre

Like a lot of older gamers, my poison of choice is PC games – and those games don’t need to be spring chickens.

I’ve been hiding from the snow all winter by battling the Danes and the Mongols across a frozen Europe in Medieval II: Total War. That this game was released in 2007 bothers me not a jot. It flies on my PC with nearly all the effects turned up to 11, and it’s still stunning.

Similarly, a friend stopped by at the weekend with a copy of Crysis he’d picked up in the sales. Soon we were marvelling at the dappled light on the forest floors, a perfect illusion of sunlight filtering through the destructible canopy above.

“Turn around!” I suggested after my friend’s particularly sharp sprint through the undergrowth, and sure enough the disturbed ferns were settling into position in his wake. Marvellous and, again, over two years old.

Admittedly Crysis is a special case – with its bleeding-edge technology it was some months from release before it became playable on the average new PC. And we’d patched it, too, which might have added some extra flourishes. But the point stands – unless you’re 15-years old or a games developer, great graphics in PC games no longer go stale faster than fresh fish.

As someone who lived through the three years that separated pseudo-3D Doom from look-anywhere 3D Quake (via spin-anywhere Descent), it’s hard not to be taken aback by this slowdown in the rate of PC graphical advancement.

The phenomenon has already been seen on console, too, with Nintendo twice releasing underpowered but cheaper machines that rely on software quality and controller novelty to step off the visual hamster wheel.

I even thought of it when I saw footage of Gran Turismo 5 the other day. In my head, it just looks like Gran Turismo always did. Yes, it’s easy to see the difference between the new game and its last outing way back in 2005 on PlayStation 2 if you compare two screenshots, let alone two videos, but who plays a game with one eye on a screenshot?

Gran Turismo’s ‘Look at that!’ days are behind it.

The not particularly revelatory observation that graphical advancement has slowed down has a few important consequences.

For starters, it supports the whole second-hand game sale business that has become so crucial to High Street retailers. If older games looked embarrassingly bad, they couldn’t still be sold 12 months later. But they don’t – to the average eye they look fine.

Or think of browser-based casual games, like PlayFish’s Word Challenge on Facebook. Word Challenge runs on any half-decent personal computer, and as far as the audience is concerned, with its music and snazzy alphabet-based special effects, it’s just what such a game should look like.

We take this for granted, but even five years ago what jogged along on one PC might have crawled on another. And with the tapering off of visual advances, browser-based casual games no longer look like the poor, destitute relation that Web games did a decade ago.

If the hardware cycle is ‘over’, I’d even pin that on the state of game graphics, too. If a console maker could deliver the same sort of step-change that PlayStation 2 represented over PlayStation, it’d be easier to justify the vast cost of a bespoke chipset and the equally huge marketing spend required to launch the new machine.
But the graphics won’t deliver a step-change, and so perhaps the hardware can’t be justified.

Don’t get me wrong – you can’t skimp on graphics. But now that you can credibly buy it in, actually winning through graphical technology is a race left to maybe half a dozen studios in the world.

Instead, it’s adding innovative functionality enabled by internet connectivity, new controllers, or user-generated content that represents the low-hanging fruit for developers looking to get a few strides ahead. Realtime Worlds’ APB is a great example of a sufficiently stunning looking game that is innovating wildly through the internet, rather than the graphical fireworks that set apart the new shooters of yesterday.

There’s even the possibility that game developers could raise their sights to the other side of the uncanny valley, and push on with better character animation, AI and storytelling. Those are truly hard problems, but the de-escalation in the graphical arms race has produced a peace dividend in the form of freed-up resources to deploy on gaming’s other challenges.

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