Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 3 (March 2001)

The Play's the Thing

By Evan Hirsch

In the computer game industry today, we hear much about "convergence," or the notion of combining film-quality imagery with the interactivity of games. But the reality of convergence still seems as elusive as ever-not because of a lack of graphics processing capabilities, but rather because of the way developers approach games.

To be fair, game development is a relatively young field, compared to other forms of entertainment. Indeed, storytelling has existed since the beginning of history, the film business is verging on a century of experience, and TV is halfway there. Yet despite the expectations of gamers, people forget that computer gaming is nearing its 25-year anniversary, and only 10 years ago did graphics in games start to have any real definition.

The new platforms-Xbox, PlayStation 2, GameCube-enable us to do more than ever before, a lot more. And the titles that have come out over the last year prove just that. Yet real convergence remains three to five years in the future. Sure, the first of these new games have demonstrated that they can support stunningly realistic graphics and can animate characters with amazing fluidity. I've seen believable effects such as motion blur, depth cuing, and even heat haze. But how does any of this make the game play more engaging?

Think back to the days of Pong: That single line of 10 pixels on a black background was whatever you imagined it to be, whether it was Andre Agassi at the US Open or just a paddle or wall that you moved back and forth. The graphics didn't matter. Despite its simplicity, it provided the purest level of game play.

At some point-between the time that users had to rely on their imagination for graphics in games and the last year or so-we began to throw all sorts of neat visual imagery into our games. As film effects matured, the trend to add eye candy intensified, simply to show off what could be done. As a result, developers forgot the amazing tricks they learned from the minimalism that was imposed by 2mb or 4mb of RAM. Instead, too many developers added unnecessary and distracting effects-overdone particles, lifeless character animation, cameras that create motion sickness-into otherwise entertaining games.

It's understandable that many game developers want to show off what they can do. In fact, much of the charm of the games business is that it's unlike the film business, in which animators generally get to work on only one part of a film or a single shot. People like game development because they often get to work on the entire project.

And herein lies the key challenge. While we can push all the polygons, particles, and lights we want to make convergence a reality, game developers need to learn what the film and broadcast content developers did long ago: discipline doesn't mean reduced creativity. Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should. Just because you can do motion blur, doesn't mean you should use it on your main character in every shot. Just because you have particles that do a great job of looking like smoke doesn't mean that there should be smoke in a football game.

The games business continues to show a 20 to 30 percent annual revenue increase, while film revenues are essentially flat. The reality is that for the games business to continue to grow, it must appeal to a wider audience, most of whom will be less forgiving of aimless and ineffectual imagery.

It's time to show some creative discipline and raise the level of the graphics we put into games. We have to stop adding features that only we care about and instead create those that add depth to the user's experience, even if to help the user build his or her own fantasy persona. As technologically limited as the folks at Pixar were in 1987 (compared to today), the animation in Tin Toy or Knick Knack never looked odd or excessive. The graphics served the story.

The convergence of believable imagery and interactivity is coming. But to get there, those of us in the gaming industry need to be more disciplined to do what the design calls for, not what we want to show off. We need to spend more time tuning game play, improving production values, and engaging people emotionally. We need to work harder to incorporate story arcs and depth into the interactive experience. More polygons, memory, and speed will always help, but now it's time to get back to basics and use our creative skills to do the job that no amount of hardware can do for us.

Evan Hirsch is Head of Visual Development for Electronic Arts Europe and a contributing editor at Computer Graphics World.