The End of the Eye-Candy Arms Race

Danc over at Lost Garden has an interesting post (in a multi-post series) analyzing the development model currently favored by most game studios. Lots to read in there; he does a good job of explaining how/why studios are pouring ever-more funding into licensed IPs, art, and “more of the same technologies”, why studios think this is actually a good risk-reduction strategy, and how this arms-race will hurt everyone in the long-term.

Juxtapose this with the latest unhappy news: a survey found that 80% of teens intend to cut back on time spent playing video games, and 70% said they are “losing interest” in games altogether. (Oddly, the survey-taker calls this a “stabilization”, since last year 75% of teens reported declining interest in games. Why does this fail to make me feel better?)

The Sky Isn’t Falling Just Yet

Before this turns into another rant about the creative crisis facing the game industry (and yes, I buy it to some extent), let me note a few things:

  • Teens are notoriously fickle creatures, and the lull between consoles was bound to turn their interests elsewhere. If some great games hit the shelves soon, I suspect teens will snap back to attention. And the novelty of the Nintendo Revolution may have a profound impact, too. Plus, this whole thing smacks of “new year’s resolution syndrome”… I’m going to cut games and get more exercise this year. *grin*
  • A large percentage of people in the industry now recognize that stagnation is a problem, and are actively working to correct it (if you don’t believe me, you didn’t attend GDC.)

More importantly: we’re going to hit a temporary-but-significant plateau sometime soon, if we haven’t already. Video games are reaching the uncanny valley, and more juice isn’t going to help in the short-term. The fight over eye-candy will wane. Middleware, huge asset libraries, and user-generated content will solve part of the problem. Shifts in consumer expectation will solve the other part. When that happens, marketing and the quality of gameplay (including new game mechanics, AI, plot, etc) will become even more important than they are today.

Let me be clear: I’m not predicting the end of technological progress. Computing technology is going to keep getting better and better and better, until our great-grandchildren (or maybe our children?) are having immersive, fully-believable virtual sex with the future equivalents of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. But there are usually pauses in between every major technological leap. For a little while to come, we’re going to be stuck in gaming worlds that look insignificantly better than those soon to be unveiled on the Xbox 360 and PS3. They might include more people. They might have better AI. They might make more intelligent use of user-generated content. But the graphics just won’t wow like they used to.

History As A Guide

Does this sound unreasonable to you? If so, let me direct your attention to two markets: computers and mp3 players. Not coincidentally, the company currently making waves in both is none other than Apple, which has excelled not via power, not via distribution (at least, initially), but via style and function. This is only possible because computers and mp3 players have reached the point at which more power isn’t terribly useful (at least right now). You only need so many gigabytes of song storage. You only need so much speed to run the spreadsheet, browser, or mail client of your dreams. When hardware limitations cease to provide reason to upgrade, what’s that leave you with? Vanity, my friends. Brushed aluminum, perfect form-factor, exceptionally-designed software, and a marketing campaign so cool it causes frostbite.

Oh, I can hear the skeptics among you shouting: there’s no such thing as too much juice — not even for just a moment! We’ll find out soon enough. Coincidentally, Apple just released its new Boot Camp software for OS X, which enables you to boot Windows XP on new Intel-based iMacs. Games like Doom 3 and Far Cry appear to run just fine, despite the fact that Macs are generally less powerful than comparable PCs. More than one journalist is speculating on PC gamer defections to Mac now. (I don’t imagine a massive shift occurring, but it will be interesting to see how many people do jump ship to Mac over the next few years.)

Mac tangent aside, I think a pause in the eye-candy arms race is finally in sight. I don’t know if it will start now or in five years, and I don’t know how long it will last, but before too long you’ll see consumers treating games the way they treat their iPods. All that will matter is the design quality and the marketing. Ultimately, great graphics do not necessarily equal great fun. Until the next major technological shift, anyway. Then it starts all over again.

There was a time when a movie would sell just because it featured sweet special effects. Those days are over now. Games are next.

(PS. And yes, as my regular readers already know, this is further indication that I think Nintendo will kick serious butt in this next generation of the console wars. We’ll see if I’m right.)

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