Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Graphics vs. Gameplay

We've all seen the popular argument furiously typed by forum members everywhere: "Gameplay > Graphics!" But is that really true? Is a game with bad graphics but good gameplay really so much more redeemable when compared to a game with good graphics and bad gameplay?

In a certain sense, absolutely. It's why games like Super Mario Bros have held up so well. They excel so much at simple, addictive gameplay that their aged appearance suddenly becomes less important. Even though a game like Guitar Hero really isn't much of a technical showcase, it's so fun that it can stand the test of time regardless.

However, in another sense, absolutely not. It's why games like Forza 2 and Halo 3 are already being criticized for having less-impressive-than-expected graphics, and these games aren't even finished yet. It's why a game like flOw that has impressive visuals but mediocre gameplay and has been compared to "an interactive screen saver" can still garner favorable opinions.

Killer7 is a game that relies solely on presentation. The story, visual style, and sound were so much the concern to Suda 51, the game's director, that halfway through development, he apparently was still "unsure" about what they'd decided to make of the gameplay, and it definitely shows in the final product. The gameplay is basic and flawed, but the game looks phenomenal.

Yet, if "gameplay > graphics" is true, then surely this game should have automatically garnered horrendous review scores the likes of which no one had seen before. It should've been crucified. But alas, it did not. Reviews were mixed, yes, but Killer7 is either a rule-breaker or an exception.

What Constitutes "Good" Graphics?
Condemned: Criminal Origins is a very good example to demonstrate what "good" graphics really are and should do. In that game, it's all about the mood and atmosphere and creeping you out before all of a sudden some crazy-ass motherfucker comes running out of the shadows with a lead pipe screaming bloody murder. Graphics are a huge part of that kind of game and they exemplify why we need so-called "good" graphics.

We need to define what actually makes "good" graphics. "Good" graphics are not just eye candy, but actually serve a purpose. In Condemned, they immerse you in the world. In Burnout, they show where to go and any obstacles you need to be aware of without thought. In Resident Evil, they frighten you and make you dread going around the next corner.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, gameplay can also serve graphics. With killer7, the gameplay was not the main attraction, but rather the story and presentation. Design choices like running on rails promote a focus on the graphics and allow the player to experience the game rather than merely play it.

How Important Is Art Style?
Regardless of what machine a game is running on or how many polygons it pushes, inevitably it all comes down to art style. While The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has aged considerably since its release, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker still looks amazing and will continue to look amazing for years to come, all thanks to the phenomenal art style.

WarioWare: Smooth Moves is a great example of a terrific art style. The simple, fun gameplay is paired with graphics that are often so basic that you have to wonder if they used Microsoft Paint. This overly simplistic art style actually goes a long way in enhancing the gameplay and charming the player. The whole thing is totally bananas, but it works.

There aren't many games with a more distinctive art style than Okami. You may know it as "that weird Japanese water-paint wolf game." And you may be right. It's impossible to discuss Okami without gushing over how gorgeous it looks. Without that art style, Okami would've merely been labeled a Zelda clone and fallen into obscurity. Instead, it's regarded as a work of art, and for good reason.

Drawing Conclusions
Many people claim that great graphics are not important to a game's quality. They claim that gameplay is all that really matters, but they aren't thinking things through. They regard games as singular, mindless experiences without any concern for what effect the presentation has on the overall game. Games are complex experiences that require gameplay, graphics, and sound design to all do their part to create a cohesive and memorable experience.

Simply put, both graphics and gameplay have equal importance to a game.


  1. I can't agree more with what you said on art style, but...

    Gameplay = Graphics?

    That's...well, retarded, if you ask me. Sorry to burst that bubble.

    Graphics add to a game, yes, but you don't need good graphics to make a good game.

    If your statement were true, then older games would have worse gameplay somehow.

    It would mean that as games aged, their gameplay would wither. But that doesn't happen at all. Quite the opposite--the gameplay that's good lasts, and art style that's good lasts. Art design can add a lot to a game, but art design doesn't equal gameplay.

    Some games ARE more about presentation, like God of War, which has those "Cinceractive" segements which don't really constitute as action gameplay so much as reflex button presses but look amazing, and, when placed in the right sections, add to the presentation and in turn make the gameplay flow smoother and with more energy.

    To me, and most consumers at large, graphics don't matter near as much as gameplay. The sales of the Wii and DS are proving that.

    But ignoring graphics is foolish, too. What it comes down to is making sure all of the elements of a game come together well in their design--even limited technology can still produce beautiful results when in the right hands.

    Look at the soundtrack to Megaman 2 or the visuals of Okami.

  2. By "Gameplay = Graphics," I didn't mean literally, like they depended upon one another. I simply meant that, in terms of importance, they are on equal grounds. I take a firm stand that both are just as important in a game.

    In older games, you have to take into account that those graphics were good for their time, and they were more about being "functional" rather than "pretty."

    (By the way, thanks for all the comments. :) I really do appreciate it.)

  3. I think in the end it all depends on "what" kind of graphics. Graphics for me are very important. Eye-candy, and usually, resolution, is not.

    For example, 2D graphics are completely different than 3D, and as such, actually add a lot to the gameplay.

    But, as someone else said, "it would mean that as games aged, their gameplay would wither", which is for me complete cr*p.

    In older games, graphics were good for their time. So? Does this mean that, as 'graphics' become cooler, those games will become less fun? It is like, as time passes, those games are modified (to a 'less' fun extent), but obviously they are exactly the same.

    What did I say about 'resolution' before? Well, there is a large difference between a model (human) made of boxes that looks cartoonish and one with a low-poly count.

    However the difference between a low-poly and a high-poly just won't add to the gameplay so much as before. It is all about the art-style. Of course it would be cooler, but not as much as going, for example, from 2D to 3D on most games (I still enjoy Starcraft, it's the same game btw).

    Yes, we also have to take into account the design of the game -- where it's placed, the mood & atmosphere, etc.. these things are very important and I have to say, sound is the most important there.

    I only want to say that, as long as games aren't modified (especially not by time anyway), then I see absolutely no reason for 'old' games (by now) to have a less appealing gameplay than back then. All could happen would be some other game, with the same gameplay, and better graphics, to be 'cooler', but the gameplay of the old one would be the same.

    The most important part of graphics, physics and sound is to make up the atmosphere and add you into the game. However, "precise" shadows, extra-high texture resolutions or polygons just don't help for the atmosphere at all. This is what I call eye-candy and is the part of graphics that makes it not contributing to gameplay at all.

    I think the idea behind 'good' graphics is for them to make you believe in the game, and perhaps use your imagination a bit as if you're in there. So graphics (and sound!!!) are good, but a fine line is set between this and eye-candy.

    But I would never choose graphics if it compromises gameplay in any way.

  4. Wow, can't believe that last comment slipped through the cracks. I feel like I would've responded to that.

    Regardless, I'd just like to re-iterate what I meant by "gameplay = graphics." I didn't mean that they were absolutely, 100% dependent on one another and if graphics aged, somehow gameplay would magically age as well, though that's what everyone assumed. I really don't see how people would jump to that conclusion, though running with that, I could totally point out that gameplay ages as well, making some games a lot less fun than they used to be.

    But here's what I really meant by the statement:

    Gameplay and graphics are both equally important to me. Yes, gameplay is always a priority, but so should graphics. That's a big reason why I have such a problem with the Wii- I like good graphics, and I'm not ashamed of it. Beyond eye candy, it helps me stay immersed in the world. A game like Assassin's Creed is the perfect example of that. Assassin's Creed has gorgeous visuals and looks fun to boot; I wouldn't sacrifice either of those. The gameplay looks really fun and the graphics are amazing, which should go a long way into making me feel like I'm a part of the 12th century Crusades.

    But applying that to an old game like many people tried to do... I have plenty of fun with old games to this day. Games like Smash Bros. for N64 have aged graphically, yeah, but they're still fun as hell to play. Punchout! for NES is still fun to play. They haven't gotten any less fun just because the graphics don't hold up, but it's definitely something I've noticed and it's certainly not doing the game any favors.

    Hope that helps people understand.

  5. I'm actually doing a podcast tonight on this specific subject. And first of all, I would like to thank you for putting the time and effort into really thinking about this and putting it into words.

    I believe that Gameplay vs Graphics is definately an important discussion to have between all gamers. My personal opinion on this coincides, for the most part, with the original writer here.

    Gameplay is important to every game as what other point would there be to a 'game' if not for immersive gameplay.

    Graphics, on the other hand, I believe is also important to the gameplay. If a developer/company does not put enough thought into what type of art style would best suit the game and the atmosphere you are trying to represent. Another point would be the importance of how much graphical output is being produced (for computer gaming especially) if the graphical output is too high, then the gameplay suffers due to lag or overburdening non-high powered video cards.

    In essence I believe that attention to both details (along with Music; i do have to agree with you there Anonymous) is key to the success of any and all games.

    -Darkhawk of Fail @ Podcast

  6. Nonsense argument that they are equal. If that were true, then people would only play newer versions of games with better graphics which any idiot patently knows is false.

    Ask yourself this : Which is imperative to having the program be a game? If it were the graphics alone, technically 3D Studio Max would be the best game ever.

    Any game is *enhanced* by good graphics, but without gameplay is nothing more than a shiny ball in digital form. And even that is more fun than some games that prioritize graphics. Fun is fun and there's a reason people still play and buy retro systems and games.

  7. Well, there is a reason why some people play roguelikes.