Better Art Beats Better Graphics

evolution-of-mario

A couple of years ago, I decided I wanted to learn to draw better.  I picked up some basic erasers, a cheap sketchpad, and three grades of pencils.  Essentially, I had could produce one shade of light tones, one shade of middle tones, and one shade of dark tones with the tools that I had.  I stuck with those tools for a while, building up my skills.   I largely ignored any sense of color variation and shading, and just used the light pencil for basic sketching and detailing, the mid-pencil for tracing over my sketch lines and making them more visible, and the dark pencil for areas that were supposed to be black.  My drawings remained pretty rudimentary, limited by both my selection of pencils and my uses of them.

One Christmas, a friend of mine gave me a set of shading pencils as a gift.  Ten pencils of progressing gradients from 2H (relatively light) to 8B (really, really dark).  At first, I had no idea what to do with them.  I had no idea how to properly work shading into my pictures, and just drawing minorly different shades of lines didn’t seem that useful to me.  I kept experimenting, though, and once I learned how to properly use them in my drawings, well… I essentially went from drawing like this:

Death and Bunny

to drawing like this:

Unto the Breach

in a relatively short amount of time.  Those pencils not only gave me different shades to work with, they allowed me to use different techniques, to truly advance my artistic skills.  Sure, I could have just used them as I did my old pencils, and my pictures would have been a slight bit better, but it wasn’t until I started using them to do something new that I truly reached the next generation of my work.

The recent launch of the Xbox One and the PS4 has given me cause to reflect on that.  Just like I was when I received those new pencils, game designer should now have access to more tools to create their art than ever before.  Yet, if they just keep doing the same things with them, like if I had just used those new pencils for drawing lines, the eighth generation of consoles will be totally wasted.

Graphics get a lot of play when talking about, well, pretty much any console advancement, for solid reasons.  Evaluating a game’s worth solely by its graphics is about as dumb as evaluating an actor’s skill solely by how good he looks.  After all, I’m not the world’s greatest actor, am I?  However, there’s no denying that graphics have a universal appeal and can be markedly impressive.

Thing is, graphics are only as impressive as the work that they are used to produce.  The PS4 may be able to show 16 million colors at once, but if all of them are brown your game’s just going to look like a piece of crap.  Good graphics cannot stand alone; if you want to make a game’s visuals truly engaging, art style is key.  Graphical power is just a tool, like a pencil, to adequately display your art.

You could have the best graphics in the world, yet if your settings aren’t vibrant, your characters aren’t visually interested, and your cutscenes aren’t expressive, what is it even work.  A bland, drab landscape is never going to be interesting, no matter how high you turn up the fidelity.

Graphical power is just one more tool in the artist’s workstation.  In and of itself, it’s next to worthless.  It’s only once you learn to use it, once you’re able to add to your designs rather than simply doing what you’ve always done in higher resolution, that you’re truly creating better visuals.

As proof, I’m going to take a page out of Mental Gaming‘s book and show you some landscapes.  All of these are from games on non-HD consoles, yet the artistry on display on these makes them much more visually interesting than anything you’re likely to find in Battlefield Duty 8: Call of Honor 2 or whatever.

Xenoblade Chronicles-screenshot stolen from gamingenthusiast.net

Xenoblade Chronicles-screenshot stolen from gamingenthusiast.net

Baten Kaitos Origins

Baten Kaitos Origins

Final Fantasy X

Final Fantasy X

Okami

Okami

Shadow of the Colossus-Stolen from psxextreme.com

Shadow of the Colossus-Stolen from psxextreme.com

The Line that Needs to be Drawn: The Used Games Issue

xbox-one-1-620

Sometimes, I wonder what the future is going to think of this decade.  We’re only three years in, and we’ve already had so many high profile fights about the nature of intellectual property in our new technology, and that’s not looking to change anytime soon.  America’s existing intellectual property laws are antiquated and in desperate need of updating, yet said updating could easily trample all over the consumer’s rights, as demonstrated by both SOPA and the recent Xbox One debacle.  This is an issue that we’re going to see rise up again and again in the coming years, and we’re going to need to be vigilant to ensure that the rights of ourselves as consumers are being respected.

Just a couple of hours ago, the guys at Microsoft announced that they’re backtracking on the whole online check-in/used games issue.  They will respect the standard ownership rights over physical property, and they won’t require the Xbox One to be tethered to an internet connection to function.  And on a side note, that announcement is the first piece of Xbox One publicity that looks to have had the PR oversight Microsoft’s been so desperately needing since the console was announced.  This announcement is a very good thing.  However, stuff like this is going to come up again and again.  There are many corporations, especially among the largest in the game industry, who will happily use their power to force through wildly anti-consumer practices.  We’ve seen it often in recent years with the advent of particularly restrictive and invasive DRM.  Luckily, the Xbox One’s change in policy also helps to illustrate what exactly we need to be doing when our rights are challenged:  we need to argue, and we need to argue wisely, loudly, and consistently.

That’s really the greatest tool available to us as consumers.  There’s not much else we can count on.  We don’t have a consumer protection group specifically for video games, and general groups such as the Better Business Bureau have systems that are pretty easy for experienced companies to take advantage of.  And while the Xbox One’s policy would likely violate the 1st Sale Doctrine that Valve’s been accused of breaking all around Europe, we haven’t had enough high profile cases on it in America to get an accurate gauge of which way our courts would go.  Besides, we probably don’t want it to get that far.  If it became a major case, and the courts ruled against it, the game industry would likely be motivated to try and get the law changed in their favor.  Most of the other players in the entertainment industry would have every motivation to back them, and while the Entertainment Consumers Organization would fight against it, they’re really no match for the entertainment industry’s lobbyists.  And Congress doesn’t exactly have a good track record of valuing the individual citizens over the corporations.

So in a practical manner, we’re on our own.  However, as the Xbox One Retraction shows, we can do a lot on our own.  The internet gives us a lot of power to not only argue our point, but to be heard.  It gives us the power to hit these corporations both in the ego and in the bank account.  It’s what beat SOPA.  Through our strong, vocal, and consistent objections, we gave SOPA’s opponents in Congress ammunition and caused SOPA’s supporters to back down.  And it’s exactly what protected our rights here.  The Xbox One gave companies like EA, Ubisoft, and Activision Blizzard exactly what they’ve been screaming for over years, yet in the face of our opposition, they all left Microsoft to hold the line alone.  And make no mistake, we made a difference in that.  In spite of whatever official statements they may make, if we had let the used games issue pass quietly, these companies would have heralded the Xbox One used game policy as the game industry’s messiah.  It was our objections that enabled Sony to make such a huge statement out of simply keeping the status quo with their next console.  It was our making our intended consequences of this policy know that led to the fluctuations of Microsoft’s stock price that, although not exactly huge, still would have made the execs take notice.  So pat yourself on the back.  It was through our collective work that we were able to ensure our ownership rights go unmolested.

But this will come again.  It may not be in the same form as the Xbox One, but another company will come along with more power than goodwill and try to take more ownership rights away from us.  And we’ll need to handle it the same way as we handled this used games issue, and as we handled SOPA, and as we handled SecuROM.  We need to make some noise.  We need to make sure the companies attempting to seize our rights, as well as those who haven’t yet been informed, know that we’re angry and why.  We need to articulate our points in a reasonable and sensible matter, so that the heart of the issue is better understood by all.  And we need to do something the internet is horrible at doing, and keep the pressure on.  If we’re going to maintain our ownership rights over the physical pieces of intellectual property we buy, we can’t compromise on that.  We can’t get bored and leave the matter behind us, nor can we take small concessions in place of the rights we once had.  The internet age has given us more power than we ever had before in communicating with large companies, and these companies are listening.  Begrudgingly maybe, but they are listening.  We need to stay vigilant, and make sure that we’re using our ability to argue properly to uphold our ownership rights.