At the 2007 Montreal Independent Games Summit, a panel of industry experts brought together A2M creative director Patrick Fortier, who also worked on Myst IV: Revelation and Splinter Cell: Conviction in the same capacity at Ubisoft, joined Ubisoft creative director Clint Hocking, Beenox creative director and A2M vet Thomas Wilson and EA senior producer Oliver Sykes to discuss the implications for content in this latest generation of video game consoles.
How important are graphics and realism? Has the Wii changed the industry forever? How has next-generation technology raised the bar for content -- and will it drive the development of real emotional experiences through gaming? The panel enjoyed lively discussion and debate on these issues and more confronting a new era in gaming.
Graphics And Sales
One big question confronting the panel: is there a perception that great graphics and realism equals higher sales -- and do games with unique graphics sell badly? Is there room for art direction for more than futuristic soldiers?
Said Hocking, "One thing we could consider is that with the creation of a new generation, marketing tends to focus on realism, because Joe Average can look at a picture of Madden and say, 'thatís better than last gen and closer to real'. You canít do that with Okami." He added, "People need to need new consoles or weíre all out of business, and it comes with a built-in benchmark for realism."
Continuing the comparison between realism-heavy games and Okami Sykes noted that when looking at one of the former, people understand it more readily. He said, "You see a guy with a gun and you understand more than a yellow blob or a wolf with a spinny disc. When you sell new consoles you have to go with a concept people understand."
Adds Wilson, "Thereís a need for that kind of material. If a guy in a shiny suit with a gun sells, thereís no reason why it shouldnít happen. Itís the unfortunate side effect of sales."
"Itís been true of all consoles," agreed Fortier, "the leap between Mario and Super Mario Bros, thereís always an interest in 'where can graphics go?'"
He continued, "Whatís happening with the Wii and the mass market, thatís showing the alternative, that there is a market out there for people that arenít just interested in that Ė weíre trying to do reflections on doorknobs, but this family playing with Wii was happy to see clouds moving, and leaves on the trees."
Wilson admitted that guys with guns make for cool subject matter, but, "What I wish we could see is an effort to bring up new art directions Ė take influences from paintings, look at a movie like What Dreams May Come, almost like touching paint."
"There's some promise of that in this generation," said Hocking, referencing the Street Fighter IV trailer. "Who knows if itíll actually look like that, but the way theyíve given it an artistic style means theyíre using the tech to do more than [adding] more polygons."
Continued Hocking, "The question is, are people going to use the new technology to find alternate ways to complete with each other, rather than purely technology? Maybe in the next genís launch titles, people will say, ďWeíre not going to have better cars than PGR or Forza." It wasnít us that made the Wii; hopefully we'll find a way to do that rather than ĎNintendo saving usí."
Opined Fortier, "Weíre still tantalized by the potential Ė the closer we get the more weíre going to get tired of it. Sometimes thereís just a period for things Ė Sin City, 300, movies like that where the work has been done over 15 years ago by Frank Miller, people just now are having a taste for it. People are opening their minds now Ė there are phases like that, and thatís starting to happen in our industry."
It's About The Gameplay
Sykes stated that games like Halo and Gears of War have clear objectives and beautiful, polished graphics, but, "Whatís happening now is everyoneís wanting to play games that 'play well.'"
Citing the rise of the DS and Wii, Sykes said he hopes that trend will cross over into console games. "It would be nice to see that kind of attention to gameplay. Thatís where people need to focus their attention, rather than super-realism and dazzling," he added.
Noting the commercial success of the DS over the PSP in the handheld market, Wilson recalled, "everyone thought the DS would get destroyed. It has nothing to do with the graphics, itís about the gameplay experience. With next-gen consoles, people are going to be looking for the graphics, but what sells well is the experience."
"I donít think the graphics in Halo 3 are that great," Fortier interjected, "but they wanted the multiplayer co-op, the online play, so they made that compromise there. They were quite moderate, and concentrated on replay and things that make a difference to the gameplay experience."
Given the same gameplay with so-so graphics, testers might give a title a 7. But by improving only the graphics, the same testers might say a game "played so much better." So do graphics matter?"
"Itís an easy sell," said Sykes, articulating the popular opinion, "If a game looks good it certainly must play good -- unfortunately, after playing some of the recent slew, I donít think the attentionís been put in the right area. Some of the games seem purely like a sales tool when you actually play them. The Call of Duty 4 box says 'most realistic shooter Iíve ever seen' -- well thatís well and good, but how does it play?"
Wilson added, "Part of the experience in some of these games is related to the level of detail. Yes, it can influence a score. If itís all related to putting a player in a lush jungle and making it feel like heís totally there, itíll put an influence over a player. If the graphics werenít there, it wouldnít be the same."
Fortier offered, "Itís not necessarily because of extra realism, so much as extra polish."
"We're getting into a bit of a problem that graphics are superseding the play," Sykes reiterated. "Assassinís Creed is a technical marvel. The worlds youíre in are incredibly realistic -- but I lost interest after two hours, because to me there was no real substance and nothing to get completely and utterly lost in. The shell of the game was the selling point; the experience as a whole was the less than the sum of its parts."
The Online Standard
What about networked gaming? Has the new condition of multiplayer online modes being ďstandardĒ improved the gaming experience -- or are online features hurting the single player experience?
Sykes said he didn't think the single-player experience was suffering. "If you look at Halo and Call of Duty 4, itís 'long enough' -- but if you want a single player experience, thereís Assassinís Creed or Mass Effect. There's a polarization of games now -- most people donít play Gears for single player. It's similar with Halo. Games are either very much aimed at either single or multiplayer; there doesnít seem to be anything that does a wealth of both."
Adds Sykes, "Portal was absolutely perfect. It was like Saturday morning fun Ė got up, played Portal, had lunch. Iím playing Mass Effect now -- 15 hours in, screaming at the television to get to the point!"
Said Thomas, "Thereís things happening where publishers say multiplayer is a requirement, but if games tend to be focused on single player, you shouldnít try to jam multiplayer components in it. You can totally hurt a game in the process. When I go online with games like Halo, I pretend Iím a hardcore gamer, but I always get my ass kicked, because these people just seem to be crazy players. Theyíre so good Iím not having any fun going online. Part of the online experience is bringing me away from it."
"No doubt that online gaming is an accelerated natural selection," said Hocking. "Thatís just how it works, thatís what itís trying to be, thatís what it is. I donít see that it should be any different. Itís not fun to play a highly competitive online racing game where youíre not good at it and other people arenít good at it; itís not fun. Yes, matchmaking can group people into categories, but itís never perfect. The gameís always going to try to make you better."
Noted Sykes, "My Xbox is my main way to keep in contact with people back in the UK. That's a valuable tool, especially with co-op play. You can just enjoy what the game has to offer."
"Having Xbox Live Arcade as a medium for those kinds of games is fantastic," agreed Fortier. "When we all got 360s at work, none of us were talking about the games, we were talking about going online, and achievements... it adds a lot to the experience."
But Wilson feels there's something missing from the achievement point system. "The producer at Activision already has 30000 points --I play a lot of games and Iím only at 10000," he said. "But if you could do something with those points, it would challenge me to do more. That's one thing thatís lacking from it."
The Wii Effect
How has the Wii changed the game industry? Will motion control be a standard in future consoles, and has casual gaming damaged the industry as we know it?
"'Has it changed the games industry' is too broad," said Hocking. "Itís changed a lot of games that get made. Without those controllers, those games wouldnít get made -- but I donít know if itís changing the industry. Far Cry 2 is not competing with Wii at all. It doesnít change how I do my job, or the games I design."
However, he allowed, "Itís definitely changed some of the business models Ė Ubisoft has a 'games for everyone' initiative Ė making much more accessible games. Ubisoft has made hardcore games for the past 5, 7 years. I donít think itís changing the lives of individuals too much, maybe it just makes [the industry] bigger."
Added Fortier, "The evolution is from the Wii itself, not just the controller. You could make hardcore games with that controller. Itís games like Wii Sports I can play with my grandma, nephew, cousin Ė that is changing the industry, where thereís another outlet for other kinds of products."
He continued, "The Wii controller is perfect interface to get them interested and democratize the experience; it's part of a bigger thing Nintendo is doing to the industry. I canít get my dad and my mom to play Galaxy, but I did get them to play Wii Bowling, and get them to think about buying a Wii."
Said Sykes, "One of the things that amazed me about the Wii was seeing people laugh doing something, and that sense of bringing people together and removing that layer of abstraction. Put a 360 controller in my momís hands and sheís like a rabbit in headlights. I think Nintendoís approach is incredibly smart; it brought games out of the 16-year-oldís bedroom."
"I was having fun at having fun," agreed Wilson. "Thereís something new there. I forced my family to play these games to see how fun it can be. Before, playing all night with my parents would never happen. Whatís sad is whatís happening now Ė the game needs to be released on 360, PS3, PC, and Wii. Itís not a matter of thinking, 'whatís going to be the Wii experience.' Weíre now seeing average ports. Games coming out on the Wii need to be solely designed for the Wii."
Stated Hocking, "I have to point out that Guitar Hero, Dance Dance Revolution, and the Wii players arenít 'playing games'. This isnít mass-market, this is like eating caviar. I donít consider myself a caviar eater, but Iíve had it. It doesnít make me about caviar, it doesnít broaden the caviar market."
He continued, "Itís great that theyíre playing games, but I donít want people to play games every March. I want them to be as engaged by gaming as I am by films, or books, or anything else. Not saying anyone shouldnít play it, but I donít think itís changing the experience. If thatís the point, isnít just another sales strategy?"
Said Fortier, "The Wii is a foot in the door right now, and thereís an opportunity to grow on that and offer new experiences. Beyond the novelty, people are interested in new things."
Agreed Hocking, "I just hope it becomes that. They talk about marijuana as the gateway drug, I hope the Wii is the gateway console. I hope someoneís grandmother gets bored of playing Wii Tennis and moves to Zelda, by herself, even if she struggles with it and you have to help her, I hope she appreciates whatís amazing about it."
Fortier wasn't so sure. "I donít know if sheíll ever play Zelda, but Nintendo isnít churning out Wii Sports 2 and Wii Sports 3, and they can do Brain Age or Nintendogs. Theyíve shown they can do it with the DS -- if they can keep doing it with the Wii, we can have opportunity to do the Wii-specific content Thomas was talking about, and open the gateway."
Said Thomas, "Over all the game developers conferences we always see conferences related to getting the female market interested -- and itís kind of funny because all of these people have these theories, and meanwhile Nintendoís making Nintendogs and just doing it."
Will graphics continue to advance in this console generation? Does increased graphics and processor allow for previously-impossible innovations in gameplay?
Said Hocking, "I think it broadens what we talk about when we talk about gameplay. Holding a character in your arms with graphical realism might not be gameplay -- but it changes the experience of play radically compared to some faceless guy with no emotional resonance."
"There are ways to think about this, both completely opposite," said Sykes. "I can understand Clintís point, but I cried when Aeris died in Final Fantasy 7. Iíd spent 60 hours with this character."
"But a processor didnít do that," Hocking pointed out.
"Iím just saying itís not something new," said Sykes. "...[There are] things like Half Life where youíre completely immersed even though Gordon never says a word."
Said Fortier, "When someone started tagging it, 'the next generation,' thatís when everyone thought, 'we canít do anything the way weíve done it before!' Itís opened doors to make us try new things and new ideas just because itís a 'next-generation title'."
He continued, "Even this Christmas, the quality of the games this year Ė it's Xboxís third Christmas, and thereís a big difference between what I saw the first Christmas and today. [The first] PlayStation was about 3D, PS2 was about making it look smooth, and this gen is about what can we do [to create] more complex game experiences."