Standing on the Precipice of the Graphics Cliff

Humanity has an insatiable desire to push forward. A new technology is unveiled and immediately is pushed as far as it can go as fast as possible. Cars become more streamlined, powerful and fuel efficient every year. The once humble cellphone is now a centerpiece of many lives; an all-in-one personal robot assistant that we would be lost without. Medical technology has turned many invasive procedures that required weeks of recuperation into simple, routine operations that require minuscule incisions. Yet there’s often another side to the coin. The internet connected the world and empowered many, but it has also allowed the unscrupulous access to new ways to prey upon their fellows. Video games have come an incredibly long way since their humble beginnings, but is this for the best?

As with many I began my gaming days in the pixelated treasure that was the original NES. Praising it now may seem like applauding a caveman for discovering that wrapping himself in animal skins kept him from freezing to death, but at its release it was a visual powerhouse compared to the Atari and various other home gaming options of the day. Since then it’s always been a question of “what’s next?” In the early days, titles were generally short on story and sold their appeal by being fun and looking cool. Various techniques would be employed by developers to stand out; the Final Fantasy games sacrificed animations for your foes in favor of giving them a more striking look. Computer games incorporated clay-mation or even used live actors for cutscenes. Eventually true 3D graphics came on the scene. My first foray into the non-flat was the original Quake. I marveled at my ability to lob grenades onto higher levels and leap down to assail unsuspecting foes. Yet in this revolution may have been sown the seeds of gaming’s downfall.

We’re racing towards what I have come to call in my mind ‘The Graphics Cliff’. Each individual video game represents a certain number of hours of time spent on creating and polishing it to its ultimate state. With every subsequent generation of consoles the bar is raised; we expect more. More features. More style. More polish. As a result games are getting bigger and taking more money to make. I bought an Xbox fairly late into their existence and as a result I had an incredible wealth of options of games to buy for extremely low prices. I’d walk into Gamestop with a pittance and walk out with two or three solid titles. These days I don’t even bother looking anymore. Checking the shelves I find I know everything that’s been released and I’ve either already played it or don’t care to. The pressure on the industry to continually one-up each other has pushed many smaller developers out of business; it seems every year there’s another studio or branch of a larger studio that shuts its doors.

A prime example is the defunct 38 Studios, the ambitious project of former Red Sox player Curt Schilling. Kingdoms of Amalur was far from a failure in every sense except financially. While in many ways not revolutionary, it was a solidly enjoyable game that borrowed all the right cues from existing games and had a very fun style that channeled the slightly cartoonish air of World of Warcraft. Few first time developers have quite so proud a showing, but soon after its release the company closed their doors. The true strength of modern video gaming lies in the complexities of gaming design. Many of the features that make our current titles so appealing; cover mechanics, horde mode gameplay, etc; would have been possible on a Nintendo 64 level of graphics. There is no stronger example that I can make than Skyrim. I’ve always had something of a love/hate relationship with the Elder Scrolls series. Before launch I check screenshots, ooh and ahh over the beautiful vistas and eventually line up to get my copy. Then I start playing and well before finishing the main storyline I discover that underneath the polish, they haven’t done much to change the gameplay since Daggerfall.

There’s still a niche for lower budget studios out there. We here at Games Abyss love indie games and quirky studios, but there used to be a solid middle ground, the territory of developers who clearly focused their efforts on making a fun experience, even if the storyline or voice acting fell short of the work we’d come to expect from the powerhouses of the industry. The industry is allowing itself to be pushed ever closer to a point where only franchise entries will survive, because those will be the only ones with guaranteed selling power. I’m not against franchises; I happily snap up the newest iteration of my favorites, but the costlier it becomes to make video games, the less innovation we’ll see. In ten years will we miss the next Borderlands or Bioshock simply because it won’t be able to compete against Assassin’s Creed 9 or Call of Duty 16? My hope is no, that things are simply shifting, but my heart (and my thumbs) fear what the future may bring.

Written by Associate Writer Will McCool.

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