21 September 2010

Breaking a Visually Art-Centric Generation - by Len de Gracia

      Posted 09/18/10 01:54:00 pm  

I was driving back home from work earlier when I decided to drop by an IGDA casual meet-up. I figured it was a good idea since I too belong to the same industry.

Discussions with other game developers eventually led to a rather interesting subject which I probably subconsciously thought about a while back but never found the time to write about. It began with the subject of game conceptualization.

I can understand completely that with the influx of technology, competition between game developers have tightened to a level where the quality of art influences greatly the size of the market a product is bound to attract. I can see that a lot of people can get drawn to the "wow factor" of awesome graphics.

On the other hand, I can also observe a distinct quality drop when it comes to content, specifically on immersion, replayability, mechanics and story. It seems like these days, the primary focus becomes only that icing which if taken off yields a rather uninteresting foundation.

It's funny how we can look back to the predecessors of our games today and completely remember the experience they've given us. Think about those 16 bit games, the dos-based Prince of Persia that kept us glued to our seats for hours. I remember how my siblings would run off to the nearest dot matrix printer they could find just so they could churn out walkthoughs.

The appearance of those old interactive forms of media may be forgotten, but it's the extraordinary experience that they poured into the lives of gamers that made them timeless classics.

I remember running through "Final Fantasy XIII" a while back. The art was simply beautiful, almost flawless. Squaresoft/Square Enix has always managed to pull off incredible cut scenes that generally inspire people to finish their games for.

However, although I was mesmerized for a time over even their in-game assets, I also found myself getting a tad bit bored. I could continuously and thoughtlessly click a button and it was very possible to complete mission after mission by just doing that. I found myself rather detached from the characters for some reason.

Meanwhile, I could also recount an experience but this time with "Heavy Rain". Just watching the preview for its gameplay made me want to buy myself a PS3. Well, not just me, I think I head three others say the same thing.

I'm generally a sucker for movies which probably makes me biased to Quantic Dream's approach, but even the demo on its own was incredibly stimulating. There was a time when we decided to play it for the first time at around three in the morning and everyone was just screaming with excitement whenever a fight scene would occur. It was a controller-breaking experience that I will forever remember.

These are just aspects that separate a good game from a great game. When developing one, a lot of us tend to forget one fundamental saying: "Form must always follow function." To stray from that runs the risk of yielding just another box on the shelf. I personally believe that just like movies, games must be able to capture their audience on a personal level, a crucial ingredient to very immersive hours.

A game can boast of a hundred hours worth of play time, but to what point if the user can be tempted to try out something else?

The market is already saturated as it is. Competition is everywhere. Piracy is everywhere. How do you draw people in so well that they'd keep playing your product and not be persuaded to check out a different game box?

The answer is applicable to a lot of life's predicaments actually. We can draw an example from a basic unit in the industry--- a modeler searching for a break into a company. He submits a really sleek car model. The construction of it is polished in every way, but here's his problem: there are about a thousand artists out there who passed the same thing because they all thought that it looks pretty. Conceptually though, there's a higher chance for him to get in if only he modeled a broken down 60's truck, because it sets him apart from 90 percent of the car reels out there.

I also recall a talk that I attended when I visited Singapore a year ago. There was a speaker from Pixar, an animator who decided to share the style he applies to his output, a theory that some of you might find useful. It works along the same lines. Pixar has this thing for animating objects and making them endearing in a very subtle way.

How do they do this? How do they leave this invisible imprint? They make these objects act like human beings. Dug, the dog from Up speaks not only speaks in English but he also talks in a manner that mimics a dog owner. The cars from "Cars" drive along curved roads in ways that Physics wouldn't normally dictate. They bend to roads like human drivers would instead of being pulled by centripetal force.

The greatest part of immersion is based on dissecting human psychology.

So returning to the subject of this post, there are so many graphically superior games out there that are being released every year. The competition gets even tighter with artistic skills leveling up after every iteration. Technology can only do so much to market a product. At the end of the day, it's the mind supported by the eye that wins the race.

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Patrick Coan
18 Sep 2010 at 7:12 pm PST

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