The current generation of consoles is nearing the end of its life cycle and, unless your name is Nintendo, you're probably working on ways to ramp up the graphical capabilities of your next generation system. For many gamers, graphical prowess is synonymous with a console's desirability, and companies like Sony and Microsoft are certainly listening. In fact, it's not entirely inconceivable that consoles and PCs will be able to deliver picture perfect renderings of reality in the relatively near future. But is that something that gamers actually want? Are ultra-realistic graphics really what console developers should be striving for?
At its core, this question is really about hardcore vs. casual gaming. Realism is something that only hardcore gamers are terribly concerned with, and very few of those players are staying ahead of the curve. Take Battlefield 3, for example; the only people who will be able to experience BF3's insane realism are PC gamers who have spent hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on a powerful gaming rig. And, unfortunately, these players make up a tiny minority of the overall gaming market.
Nintendo is actually the only console developer who has fully embraced this less-graphics-intensive future and started focusing their attention elsewhere. When the Wii was released, its hardware was paltry by industry standards, but it outsold the 360 and the PS3 for years. Nintendo effectively changed the way consumers thought about gaming, and forced Microsoft and Sony to get in line. And, if you think about it, it really did take a new mentality on the part of the consumer to fully embrace Nintendo's revolutionary thought process.
Since the early days of gaming, players have been conditioned to value a console based on the its technological qualifications rather than its innovation. The main difference between the NES and the SNES was the graphical capability (sure, they added a couple of buttons to the control pads, but it would be a stretch to consider this an innovation). The same goes for the Master System Vs. the Genesis, the PlayStation Vs. The PS2, and every other system that's been popular enough to spawn a sequel. But it seems like we've almost reached the ceiling on what graphics can bring to the table. In fact, if Nintendo has taught us anything, it's that gameplay trumps all. Think about it this way: Can you name another branch of the gaming industry that is as concerned with realism? So why do graphics play by different set of rules?
Everything in the video game world is supposed to be a caricature of reality, even when we're meant to take it seriously. Explosions are always bigger, weapons are always deadlier, men are always manlier, and women's breasts are always cartoonishly oversized. But if console developers continue to overemphasize graphical realism, is it possible that we might lose sight of what makes gaming fun?
Taken to its logical extreme, this question is patently ridiculous. No developer is actually going to create a game that attempts to photographically mirror reality, just like Activision isn't going to release a CoD title that perfectly emulates military service. People don't actually want to play game like "Battlefield: Boot Camp Paperwork" or "Call of Duty: Ditch Digging in the Desert." The same is true for realistic graphics. People don't care if Snorlax has perfectly rendered fat rolls, they just want to trap him in an impossibly small spherical jail cell.
However, if developers were finally able to achieve perfect graphical fidelity, it's probably safe to assume that politicians, parental groups, and religious organizations would increase their objections accordingly. The only thing more offensive than beating up a prostitute in Grand Theft Auto is doing it in a game that's so realistic that it looks like you simply videotaped yourself beating up a prostitute.
Also, there would undoubtedly be some type of major controversy surrounding the portrayal of women in these photorealistic games. Men have a long, regrettable history of treating women with as little respect as they can get away with. And they can get away with anything when there are no actual women involved.
In a 2009 interview, the founder of Epic games speculated that developers are only about a decade or so away from photorealistic graphics:
"We're only about a factor of a thousand off from achieving all that in real-time without sacrifices. So we'll certainly see that happen in our lifetimes; it's just a result of Moore's Law. Probably 10-15 years for that stuff, which isn't far at all. Which is scary — we'll be able to saturate our visual systems with realistic graphics at that point."
Obviously, the type of technology that it will take to produce ultra-realistic graphics will probably creep into existence at some point, but that doesn't mean that it will overtake the gaming industry. The fact of the matter is that the majority of gamers just don't prioritize graphics over gameplay.
Blizzard has repeatedly stated that World of Warcraft's graphical engine is horribly outdated, yet WoW continues to be one of the most-played games on earth. Counter-Strike was released over a decade ago and it still draws over 50,000 players at any given time. Mobile phones, which are typically very limited in their graphical capabilities, are beginning to eat up a gigantic part of the gaming market.
Even though the graphics are a big part of the industry, they certainly don't trump the other aspects. After all, if I'm playing a game on the PS3 that looks like it belongs on the PSOne, I'm less likely to chuck it and find something else if the gameplay is solid.
CCC Contributing Writer
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*