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02/18/2007 - 02/24/2007

Graphics, Schmaphics

February 23, 2007


I'm also a cartoon in real life. There's a great short interview with Mark Morris of Introversion on Next-Generation this morning. You'll recognize Introversion as the creators of Darwinia and DEFCON (check out the demos) -- the company is another example of a small developer who's making some great things happen.

In the interview Morris argues that the drive for photorealistic graphics is dragging the game industry down. I don't agree 100%, because I think there's some value in creating realistic, visceral worlds that people can immediately relate to and disappear into. But I definitely agree that the game industry assigns way too much value to the realism of the graphics -- and let's face it, you and I are guilty as well. When we flip through a magazine, browse a website, or skim the boxes on game store shelves, we tend to react immediately to the "gorgeous screenshot." Yes, I'm guilty.

But photorealism comes at a price. Creating worlds as detailed as real life requires an army of artists, modelers, and animators. Realistic graphics take a long time to build, eat up tons of disc space, hog system resources, and cause long load times. And then there's the impact on gameplay: cluttered maps make it harder to focus on what's important, like enemies. But most importantly, creating high-end graphics costs a lot of money. It's the main reason developing games is turning into such an expensive proposition, which is why game publishers are sticking to "safe" games like sequels or licensed properties.

Stylized Graphics vs. Photorealism

What's the alternative? Stylized graphics can be a lot less resource intensive and still make an impact with players. Morris's own company, Introversion, is a poster child for creating really outstanding worlds that look great even though they didn't use up a lot of graphical resources. Check these demos out for yourself:

  • Darwinia: A TRON-like electric world within your computer, Darwinia is uniquely beautiful.


  • DEFCON: Reminds most players of the nerd classic 80s movie War Games, although I like to pretend I'm looking at "the big board" from the Dr. Strangelove movie.


  • Fortunately Morris isn't alone in realizing this. Nintendo decided to step off the treadmill with the Wii: the focus of this console clearly isn't graphics. Another great example of doing more with less is World of Warcraft. The graphical engine for WoW runs on even low-end PCs. Go ahead, fire it up, and look carefully at the world. The characters themselves are built with a lot of polygons, but the world they live in is surprisingly low-tech. The design style is more like an illustration come to life, more like a fantasy painting that you can explore, than a realistic world. You don't notice that the buildings are low-polygon because they're so stylized. The result is a beautiful product that probably doesn't strain your PC to the breaking point the way Vanguard does.

  • Fire up the World of Warcraft Free Trial!


  • There will always be a place for photorealistic graphics... But obsessing over them has a real cost to the gaming industry.

          -Fargo

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    Posted by at 11:24 AM PST
    Edited on: February 23, 2007 11:25 AM PST
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    Why Don't We See More Indie MMO Developers?

    February 22, 2007


    I'm also a cartoon in real life. [Digg this story here...]

    They're called "Boutique Developers," small development studios with big dreams. They show up at the Game Developer's Conference every year, asking hard questions during the panels: "How can we do this on an indie budget?" "How can we leverage the community to manage our forums, since we can't afford a huge community staff?" etc. etc. The big industry players quietly shake their heads, convinced you can't build an MMO on a budget, spouting reasons why you shouldn't even try.

    Fortunately for the little guy, there are always counter-examples. One of my favorite MMOs in recent years was the very clever, and continually successful, Puzzle Pirates (go ahead and download the Puzzle Pirates client - it's free to get started). There's also RuneScape, which has a staggering 140,000 simultaneous users as I write this early on a weekday morning. Small developers can definitely find their own groove, if they're smart about it.


    Puzzle Pirates was a completely realized MMO world built by
    a small team. Can others do the same?

    Various companies are trying to make it possible for the little guy to compete. Two months from now the first annual Indie MMO Game Developer Conference will kick off. Then there's Multiverse, which gives developers a free MMO client/server platform to develop on (Multiverse makes its money later on, once developers start collecting subscription fees.)

    Show me the money!

    But the biggest challenge that small MMO shops face is simply getting funding. Few publishers will pony up for a small developer assaulting this very difficult space. That leaves venture capital (VC) -- individual investors or investment groups. In years past, VCs didn't know what to make of the online game space and few put money into it. Nowadays, thanks to the the enormous success of World of Warcraft and the crazy level of hype for Second Life, more people with money are beginning to take notice.

    Venture Capital isn't always "good money," though. For one, these investors expect a return right away, and it can take a long time to develop a solid MMO (releasing early is a disaster, even with a big-name franchise). For another, these investors may not understand the online space, and might have unrealistic expectations. It can be bad news all around.

    Why bring this up? Another startup is tossing its hat into the ring, this time led by Ultima Online veteran Anthony Castoro. The company is called Heatwave Interactive, and it's kicking off business in the Austin area. Read the news here at GameDaily. Castoro talked about the tricky subject of funding in his personal blog, where he gets into even more detail if you're interested.

    I don't see the situation changing in the future. Building an online game is a dangerous business -- it's filled with pitfalls. On the plus side, small companies are more agile than large ones, and better able to innovate since their costs are lower. I think there will always be room for boutique developers to come in and create something awesome, but they've got to be twice as smart as a big developer. They have to come up with clever game designs that can be developed cheaply, they have to get on the market as quickly as possible, and they have to figure out how to do it with just a handful of people. It's possible... but it takes some special chutzpah.

    What do you think? Mail me!

    Digg This!

          -Fargo

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    Posted by at 11:12 AM PST
    Edited on: February 22, 2007 11:32 AM PST
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    Let's Learn Something from Board Games!

    February 21, 2007


    I'm also a cartoon in real life. Game Designer Steve Meretzky posted this great essay on GameDaily yesterday afternoon, and it deserves a read from any gamer. Meretzky's created some of my all-time favorite adventure games, including Planetfall and (with Douglas Adams) Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

    [I'll wait here while you go read it. No, go ahead. No big. I can wait. I've been meaning to cut my nails for a while, they're lookin' kinda hoary. What? Done already? Where was I?]

    Granted, Meretzky's analysis isn't news. Yes, big budgets are causing publishers not to take risks. And yes, the gaming industry is pre-occupied with flashy graphics. Even Meretzky's solutions aren't new ideas: everyone agrees that publishers should set aside some money for experimental projects, and everyone (especially me!) hopes that the independant gaming scene can unlock gaming's potential in the future.

    But Meretzky's inspiration -- board games -- deserves a closer look. Because it's inspiring. Board games are a terribly limiting medium: they have to be built with the minimal number of pieces, the rules can't involve too much math, they have to be wrapped up in a couple of hours, they have to be between 2 and 8 players, they have to fit in a box, etc. etc. etc. Despite this, and despite a smaller market, the industry continually comes out with wildly innovative ideas that appeal to lots of people.

    Take, for instance, one of my favorite board games of the moment: Betrayal at House on the Hill. Every game the players generate their own map, and at a random point in the game, someone triggers off a "plot" that suddenly pits the players against each other in creative ways. It plays out differently every time. If someone can figure out how to make that happen with just cardboard chits, how come we can't do that with video games? We've got processors and RAM and stuff! It strikes me that the frontier is wide wide open.

    I don't think meaningful game experiments require huge teams of programmers and artists to make things happen. My favorite counter-example these days is The Ship, which started as a mod for Half-Life and is now a standalone game. A small team created a very new and original game experience. It can be done, and I bet some of the people reading this (yes, you -- you're the most connected people in gaming!) can make it happen.

          -Fargo

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    Posted by at 10:50 AM PST
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    True Tales of Buying a Wii

    February 20, 2007


    I'm also a cartoon in real life. Ladies and gentlemen, gather 'round the Internet. Turn down the lights and put the children to bed, because this is scary, scary stuff... and it's 100% true.

    Months after the release of the console, it's still hard to find a Wii in stores. A friend of mine -- we'll call him Bob -- decided it was time to get his hands on one. So he starts calling around. And calling around. He was coming up empty. Couldn't even find so much as a controller. In frustration he asks one store: "Do you know who might have one?" And he gets the tip: "Try the K-Mart." The K-Mart in the sketchy part of town.

    So he calls the K-Mart in the sketchy part of town, then asks the guy in the electronics department. Bob waits on hold. And then the K-Mart guy picks up from another line and whispers into the phone: "Yeah, we got one left. Come up to the counter and ask for me, then ask for 'The Package.' How fast can you be here?"

    The answer to that question is twenty minutes. So there Bob is, walking into the K-Mart in the sketchy part of town, asking for the dude at the electronics counter, and then -- honestly this story is true -- he asks for "The Package." The electronics guy lifts up his head in a kind of conspiracy nod, then disappears into the back. He returns with an unmarked brown paper bag and hides it under the counter while ringing up the sale. He barely even opens it to scan the barcode.

    Bob begins to get suspicious. 'Hold on a second,' he thinks. 'This guy could be selling me a bag of bricks.' He asks to see it, and the guy behind the counter looks around, then brings the bag up over the counter and opens it just a little bit, so that Bob can verify it's actually a Wii box.

    Suspicion now turns to paranoia: why all the secrecy? Now Bob looks around and sees all these people milling around the electronics department, who are all looking at him. The electronics guy hands Bob his receipt. "Head straight for the door," he says. Bob starts walking for the exit... and three of four of the people milling around the electronics department start to follow him. They follow him into the parking lot.

    Bob is fumbling with his keys, doing what he called the "Willy Wonka walk" to his car. He hurls himself into his car, slamming and locking the door. People are still looking at him. He tears off for home.

    Once he gets into his apartment -- again I'm not making any of this up -- he's so worried he might have been followed that he hides the Wii under his couch while he and his girlfriend went out for dinner. Only later that night does he feel comfortable enough to bust open the package and enjoy the delicious Wii action.

    There you have it kids. Remember: when buying your Wii, be sure to call ahead. And wear a disguise.

          -Fargo

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    Posted by at 9:43 AM PST
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