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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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