Tynan Sylvester has a really incisive opinion piece up at Gamasutra illustrating a fundamental disjunction between what developers look at in a game and what players look at. The gist of his piece is that developers often focus on “scaffolding”: the mechanics and code that underlay the game world. Meanwhile, the players consider mainly the “masonry”, that is, the experience of the game world itself. The not-so-subtle point here is that many of the minds behind games have put their creative focus on the wrong thing.
The developers of Crysis and like games, as well as the graphical powerhouse consoles, succumbed to the tyranny of precision, the mindset dominance of quantifiable fidelity. The simple fact is that the graphical capabilities of hardware and software are easily measured, in terms of resolution and framerates and numbers of polygons on screen at a time, and it’s easier to improve something if you know how to measure it. Unfortunately, creation of these super high-definition visuals takes a great deal of effort and expense, and ultimately it doesn’t help that much. What players really want is an experience that feels real, not an image that looks real. Experiential fidelity, unfortunately, can’t be quantified, and it’s difficult to plan hardware (or even software) that creates it.
The success of the Wii and DS, however, suggest that good feel can be, if not created by hardware, at least encouraged by it. It’s too simplistic to try to explain this success by saying that these platforms “tapped into another market”. If that’s so, then we must ask why they tapped into that other market. The answer is that these systems create an experience that the user can relate to, despite their shortcomings in terms of graphical excellence. The remote and stylus are very intuitive control devices. As a result, the player can interact with the game worlds easily, and often exactly in the way he expects to, rather than pressing buttons on some bizarre alien boomerang. Although the Wii and DS may not be great scaffolds, they allow for some great masonry.
I don’t mean to say that graphics don’t mean anything. However, though they are the most easily measured aspect of a game’s performance, they do not define what makes a great game. It is the experience that matters. The graphics help create the experience, but even the best graphics in history cannot rescue a game that has lousy audio, an idiotic story, or nonsensical mechanics. Nor am I trying to sell coding short: lousy coding can ruin (or almost ruin) an experience easily. The point is that the creative focus of hardware and software developers should always be on the experience to be created. Everything else must flow from that.
You should check out Sylvester’s website, by the way. He’s got some really interesting stuff up there. I particularly liked his piece on Hitman and his article on substance and style in game design, although I disagree with some conclusions of the latter.