Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Graphics or Gameplay

I loathe dichotomies, because it seems to me that usually the things we see as opposed are more complementary than we think.  Opposition itself is a kind of relationship, after all, and a close one at that.  Up and down, I am fond of saying, are a lot closer to each other than up and penguin are.

Given my distaste for things which are allegedly, but not actually, "mutually exclusive," you may not be surprised to learn that I believe that good games often have both good graphics and good gameplay.  Often, in the modern gaming world, it seems to me that you get one or the other; the development team blows its budget on good graphics designers or good game designers, but rarely both.  And, what's more, even if they want to do both, hardware may not be up to the challenge.  Really good gameplay - and especially a strong AI - might take up too much processor power and memory to make it possible for really nice, anti-aliased, 3D, shiny graphics to be feasible, even on a super-machine.

Of course, my natural position is to reconcile the paradox of gameplay and graphics by pointing out that graphics are a part of gameplay.  It's easy for a gamer to get caught up in thinking about the graphics as being icing on the cake, but graphics go beyond what's happening in the center of the screen.  The UI (user interface) is a part of graphics and gameplay, for example.  The PC (player character), if there is one, should look good, but also serves a the vital gameplay function of telling the player where he is.  That maybe goes without saying, but I think that many in the gaming world - or at least game players - have largely forgotten about the importance of functionality in graphics.

The dragon on the menu screen might be a bit much
To me, then, good graphics are functional graphics.  Age of Wonders may not be the flashiest, most beautiful game every made - and no wonder, since it's some 10 years old now - but the graphics are extremely functional.  The player can tell, at a glance, what his army's composition is, where they are on the map, where the nearest towns are and how big those towns are, and even how much income those towns have in the form of farmland.  All of that is modeled in 2D sprites, of course, but the advantage of 2D sprites is not to be ignored: they free up processor and memory resources for other things, like running the AI.

In the modern computing world - as we've gone to multi-core processors - this is even more important.  A game like, for example, Elemental: War of Magic (in many ways a spiritual successor to the Age of Wonders series) is modeled in 3D, but with low-intensity graphics and the option to play on an essentially 2D cloth map.  The relatively non-taxing graphics, compared with multi-core, threaded processing support allows the AI to run in the background (to plan its next move) while the player is playing.  Hence both a better AI and quicker turn times, both leading to improved gameplay.

I want to talk about four games I've played recently, and how they manage the graphics / gameplay issue.  All four, I think, do a good job (if for different reasons), and all four are from genres I prefer: rpg, strategy, and simulation.  I'm not going to bash graphics-happy, but fundamentally crappy FPS games (oops, I just did), or lament about how they are destroying PC gaming or how gameplay is dead or anything like that.  No, all four of these games are contemporary, and while they may not sell like the flashier, more braindead fare that even the least game-happy of you hear about (games like Call of Duty, Civilization Revolutions, or World of Warcraft), they are an indication of the way in which PC gaming is improving, even in the face of graphics-first consoles.*

* This isn't totally fair either.  While AAA titles on the consoles certainly tend to be dumbed down, there are also fantastic innovations happening on XBox and PS3.  Games like Flower and Flow, for example, are fantastic implementations of console technology.  Likewise, small developers like Penny Arcade are making hilarious and amazing cross-platform RPGs.  Not everything on console is FPS or the latest Madden game.

Avencast: Rise of the Mage

Wandering the Kyranian Wastes in search of demons
Avencast is an action RPG made by a very small team of programmers and artists.  The voice acting is mediocre, the story is a bit predictable, and while the graphics are nice enough, they're not going to blow anyone away.  What makes Avencast good, then, is its gameplay.

I'm not an action RPG buff by any means.  Generally speaking, the "action" there means no thinking, no strategy.  It means clicking on enemies to kill them, over and over and over.  That is still true in Avencast, to a degree, but not in the way you're used to if you're a Diablo fanatic.  Rather, in Avencast you are - not surprisingly - a young Mage, and your endless clicking casts a variety of spells, ranging from the tactical (freeze your opponent for no damange) to the devastating (unleash a meteor shower on your foes and wipe them all out).

The spell casting system is fun, because it's all key-combination based.  Rather than queuing spell one to the "1" key, and spell 2 to the "2" key, you press a combination of movement keys in succession, and then cast the spell.  This feels a bit more magical - if only marginally so - than many similar games.  Taking into account the motions, tactics, and vulnerabilities and resistances of your enemies, you have to be careful about what spells you use when, meaning the gameplay isn't just hack and slash.

But it mostly is.  I don't think Avencast is a great game, by any stretch, but it's a good one.  There is one thing that is great about it, however: the graphical rendering of spells.  Spells in Avencast look great, but, beyond that, they look how they should.  That's an important distinction.  Many magic-based games have generic spell effects that do little to differentiate a fire spell from an ice spell, or a shielding buff from a stat-raising one.  In Avencast, on the other hand, every single spell looks exactly right.  Your fire-wall looks like fire, and then when it gets upgraded to be half-fire, half "soul magic," it retains its fire billows but blanches to a white, soul-magicy hue instead of red.  The aforementioned meteors hit randomly in a wide area, and where they hit randomly really matters.  Sometimes they miss, and you can tell.  The quick, "oh no I'm about to get hit" shield that you can cast blocks incoming attacks or effects for exactly as long as it is visible.

All of that sounds like a no brainer, but not all games do it.  Avencast does it so brilliantly that, in the rare event that you fight another mage, you really feel like you know what spells the mage is casting (even if you've never seen the spells before) simply from the animations.  That's a good use of graphics to improve gameplay.  Attractive and functional is the right combination.

Europa Universalis III
China has always been huge
Paradox Interactive recently released a 5th expansion for Europa Universalis 3, a game that has been around since before I graduated from college.  Indeed, "Divine Wind," the newest add-on, is the second since Europa Universalis Complete was released.

Though still in need of patching, Divine Wind improves the graphics of EU3 considerably (if subtly), and also adds even more depth to what is already one of the deepest games there is.  I've written about EU3 before, but to summarize, it's a grand strategy/simulation game based upon the history of the world from 1400 until the mid-19th century.  The player leads a historical world power starting any time during that period (and ending any time), and plays without victory conditions, in an attempt to mimic or distort real history by expanding, fighting wars, engaging in diplomacy, colonizing, getting caught up in the reformation, and so on.

What makes EU3 so impressive is how much is going on in the background.  There are literally hundreds of nations, each with their own AI plugging away and making decisions.  The computing power needed to pull this off means no fancy 3D graphics.  But, as you can see in the screenshot, the game still looks attractive - if you like nice maps, anyway.  Armies and navies are easy to command, and indicators pop up to tell you which provinces are doing what.  Perhaps most useful is the menu system - which hardly looks or feels like menus at all - that you use to manage the nuts and bolts of your empire / merchant republic / monarchy / tribal despotism.  Information on your current ruler and heir is presented succinctly and conveniently, hiring new advisors is made easy, with all the information you need on one page, and managing your economy - while an art that takes practice - is only hard because of the game mechanics, and not because of the interface.

EU3 has one of the steepest learning curves of any game I have every played.  Indeed, I have owned various versions of it for almost four years now, and I'm still learning to play.  Only recently, for example, have I fully understood the drawbacks of expanding (the hit your research takes, for example, with more provinces, especially those that are of a different culture).  But one thing is clear: the folks at Paradox chose gameplay first, and then chose graphics that are not bad, but rather that complement that gameplay and are immersive to the armchair-leader who is more fascinated by changing borders and movements of armies than by individual soldiers wiping their noses.

Football Manager

Football Manager is probably the best selling simulation game in the world.  You may not have heard of it, because it's huge in Europe and relatively small in the USA, where soccer is still a fringe sport.  But a recent interview with a SEGA executive in Game Informer would let you know that FM is in the same stratosphere as the Total War series in terms of profitability.  Which, if you consider how soccer-happy Europe is, should come as no surprise.  Who, after all, doesn't want to manage their favorite sports team?

I'm still playing FM 2010, despite the release of FM 2011, because I'm still wrapped up in a career I started in the earlier game.  As you can see, I'm currently coaching Canvey Island, a small English semi-professional team.  The screenshot comes from inside a match against Dartford, and while the majority of the game takes place in a menu-driven, text-based interface, this, I think, is the heart of Football Manager.

Hooray for scoring goals

In any sports simulation, the match or game engine is what makes the thing go.  It's all well and good to have a solid high-level system, but if the games themselves are unrealistic and clunky, the game falls short.  Bowl Bound College Football, for example, had an intolerably bad play-calling system.  Most EA games, as another example, are horribly unrealistic, and thus make bad simulations.  Current online games like those at WhatIfSports are great because of the competition inherent in facing other humans, but their match and game engines are extremely opaque, entirely textual, and not very accurate.

Football Manager is in a class by itself, then.  While it's not perfect, the match engine is ever-improving, and what's best about it is that you can watch, as you coach, your players actually execute your tactics.  Now, for a non-European the learning curve here was very high, because I had to learn soccer tactics first, and then I had to learn the game, but over time I've come to see what a brilliant engine FM has.

Now, Football Manager currently does support 3D rendering of matches, but I choose not to use it.  I do lose a little in terms of seeing who really tripped who (circles don't do a good job of indicating who's on the ground), but I stay with the 2D view for two reasons.  First, it's a lot easier to survey the entire field, so I know not just what's happening on the ball, but what my, for example, left back is doing while my striker moves in to score.  Second, the 2D graphics are better than the 3D ones anyway.

Football Manager's 3D graphics are choppy and clunky.  Watching them, I feel like I'm playing a soccer simulation game.  The 2D graphics make me feel like I'm coaching a soccer team.  Odd?  Perhaps, but I think it gets to the deeper point: graphics, in a game, are not a substitution for imagination.  I can suspend disbelief a lot easier with circles running around, because I know it's an abstraction, than I can with clunky 3D models that don't really look like people, but look enough like them to ruin the abstraction.  Immersion doesn't just come from pretty pictures: even mere text can do the job, and 2D is sometimes better than 3D.

Distant Worlds

2D + Space = lots of ugly stacking; also, amazing gameplay

 Last but not least, I want to mention Distant Worlds, a game that is so massive, so complex, and so wonderfully fun that it could only work in 2D.  Huh?  Look at it.  It's ugly.  The ships are small, the space station looks horrible, and the planet is bland.  The space looks empty, and everything is so dark.

Distant Worlds is a classic "don't judge a book by its cover" kind of game.  The screenshots look unimpressive, but the reason the game looks so flat is because it has to, because in 3D it would be nigh unplayable.  Whereas with other games we've discussed here there's a kind of interplay between sacrificing graphics for gameplay, in Distant Worlds there's actually a synergy.  Simply put, there's so much to do in DW that 3D graphics would only disorient the player, making an already complex game needlessly more complicated.

What makes DW special?  Scale.  In a way, this is almost EU3 in space, only with ship design and without historical basis.  DW takes place in galaxies ranging from the hundreds to the thousands of stars, each of which has planets or asteroids that - if they are not inhabitable - may have resources vital to the success of your empire.  Indeed, economics drive DW, but they do so in the background.  In a fantastic innovation, Codeforce - makers of the game - set up an automation system that takes care of huge swatches of your empire for you.  No matter what, there is always a civilian economy that runs in the background of your military empire, collecting and exchanging resources, migrating between planets, and even visiting resort bases.  But you can also let the AI take care of research and/or ship design and/or fighting wars and/or engaging in diplomacy and/or espionage and/or construction and/or colonization.  The result: an incredibly complex 4X strategy game (that runs in real time, no less, though it can be paused) that is easy to learn because you can simply automate anything you don't want to worry about.

And, above all, the game looks right.  It's easy to tell where your ships are, which colonies are yours, what kinds of ships you're using, and even how much commerce is going on (if you choose to let the game display civilian ships; which makes the game run very slowly on large maps).  Above all, though, the abstraction of playing in 2 dimensions - instead of the 3 of, for example, Sword of the Stars - prevents the player from getting disoriented, and allows for seamless zooming from one side of your empire to another to address whatever problem might arise.  In short, the graphics may not look like much, but they're supremely functional, and they're supported by such in-depth gameplay that they're almost irrelevant.

In summary, then, graphics do not make the game.  Or, rather, graphics are how the player and the game interact, but they need not be fancy or high tech to do their job.  Indeed, sometimes 3D is less immersive than 2D.  Sometimes more flashy and fancy takes away from good gameplay.  In PC gaming, in particular, it's important for developers and players to remember that the more complex interface (keyboard and mouse versus controller) and the more powerful hardware allows for games that are deeper, more engaging, and, ironically, maybe less pretty than games made for the consol.  Kalos and agathos aren't always the same thing.

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