Shamus has another great article up:
While he states things a bit more… vitriolic than I might, I wholly agree with the sentiment. Those of you who know that I’m an artist in the game industry might find that a little odd, so I’ll elaborate.
Why do Pixar movies regularly beat out Dreamworks offerings? Both produce well crafted visuals, employing bleeding edge technology. They do have slightly different target audiences, but the visuals are comparable. Monsters vs. Aliens has a character that could pass as Sully’s cousin (from Monsters, Inc.). Kung Fu Panda is perhaps the most Disneyish of Dreamworks’ lineup, as it shows a great degree of restraint and respect for the source material, but it doesn’t really offer a visual enhancement over Ratatouille or Monsters, Inc. (and some of the most visually striking sequences are the “storybook” bits that aren’t in the “full real world 3D” style).
The beating heart of Pixar’s success is the story. Solid characters drive the story. The visuals are just a means to an end. They look great, certainly, but without the lovingly crafted stories, Pixar movies would be little more than tech demos. Dreamworks is just as technically visually adept as Pixar, but their storytelling leans more to the armpit than the heart. As a result, they don’t enjoy the same level of success as Pixar, either critical or monetary.
The beating heart of a game is the fun factor. If a game looks gorgeous, but requires clinical insanity to appreciate the gameplay, it’s not much of a game. If the development budget of a game is largely bent to serve the blingy visuals, something else is getting cut, and more likely than not, it’s the stuff that actually makes the game fun (or stable).
Look at some of the most popular games out there:
Peggle is extraoridnarily low tech visually, but still has a ton of players. Ditto Bejeweled or the like. They aren’t ugly, and they have competent art direction to make them visually appealing, but first and foremost, they are fun to play. This is a big part of why handheld gaming is so significant in the industry, and why “casual” gaming and short session gaming is closer to the future of the industry than Gears of War 5.
World of Warcraft isn’t the most visually attractive game out there, but solid art direction and savvy scalable art assets are layered on top of a game that is fun to play (at least until you’re burnt out). Age of Conan has detailed art and plenty of eye candy, but just isn’t as fun to play as WoW, according to many. (I don’t speak from experience on that; AoC isn’t interesting to me, but there are those who I respect who like it more than WoW, like Openedge1.)
Uno on XBox Live has sold a few copies, and Castle Crashers is a critical and monetary success, despite graphics that aren’t appreciably advanced beyond those of a decade ago. People still play Settlers of Catan, even online, or even Risk or any of its derivatives, and they are far from pixel-shaded DX10 monstrosities.
The priority in game design should be giving the player the chance to have some fun. I love making pretty visuals as much as the next guy (and I was trained to make Pixar-level visuals; I can *do* super high end with the right tools), but constantly chasing the bleeding edge of visual prettiness means making sacrifices in time and monetary dev budgets that more often than not, could be better spent making the core game experience better, whether that means more iterative design with ugly graphics (to see if the thing *plays* well) or more features, less visual creep.
Yes, that may mean fewer artists in the industry, so I may well be shooting myself in the foot on that, but I really do think that the health of the industry depends more on making greater *games*, and not on making prettier games. If you can do both, that’s great, but if there has to be a choice made (and there usually is), even though I’m an artist, I’ll always side with making a better game.