“Good gameplay matters more than good graphics.” We keep saying it, and it’s true, for the most part: The simple, angular shapes that build Tetris are universally recognized and loved, whereas even the most wonderfully built character model probably wouldn’t garner a second look from the mainstream.
But while in our heart of hearts we understand that gameplay matters more than graphics, we can’t help but steal a very intense look at the earliest visuals that accompany a game preview, including still pictures in a magazine, and/or videos uploaded to the internet. We’re even apt to judge a game or the worthiness of a new console via these early glances. For shame. Still, human nature can’t be helped: We like pretty graphics, and we cannot look away, nor can we resist chattering about them. Similarly, even though the Bible says “Don’t be a jerk to your neighbor,” and we say “That’s a good idea” in our sane moments, excitability has a way of driving us to run our keys down the side of our neighbor’s car.
A good-looking game is far more apt to draw us towards it, and there’s no doubt that graphics matter. However, graphics also mean different things to different kinds of gamers. It’s not simply a question of, “How pretty can I make my game look?” Developers also have to ask, “Do my visuals suit my game? My audience?” And, in some cases, “How do I bring this beloved 2D retro character into a 3D world without totally massacring his/her personality?”
Zynga, for instance, utilizes big-headed, doe-eyed cartoon characters that have become iconic thanks to the company’s “Ville” series of games. Not only does that art style make it easy to pick out a Zynga game from the heaving sea of Facebook-based social games, but the simplicity of the graphics makes it possible for Zynga’s social games to run on the perpetually low-powered rigs that line every office wall in the United States.
When Mario made the jump to 3D, Shigeru Miyamoto and his team had to solve the problem of bringing Mario’s colorful environments to a flat, sparse world of polygons. They succeeded enormously, and to underscore what a big deal that is, consider all the beloved 16-bit mascots who sickened or died during the transition to the third dimension.
In the same vein, we identify a game according to its surroundings. What if the next Mario game was drenched in brown and grey (and devoid of a bizarre plot that involved restoring color to the Mushroom Kingdom)? People would become justifiably upset: Mario is a series we retreat to when we want bright, happy visuals bursting with imagination. What if the next Crysis game forsakes realistic visuals in favor of cartoon visuals with bright colors normally reserved for a clown’s undergarments? Again, people would become confused and irritated, and rightly so. A change in visuals can be jarring, too: Consider the Mass Internet Freak-Out of 2001, when Nintendo unveiled the cel-shaded visuals for The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker.
We definitely like visuals that are pleasing to the eye, and we’re not very fond of big surprises when it comes to graphics. Graphics will always matter–though modern visual design is far more than a race over which company can map the best pores and slickest sweat (do we really want to watch Mario drip?) Nevertheless, the core rule of game design–“It’s Gotta Be Fun”–trumps graphics every time. We’re far more likely to give a pass to a dull-looking game that’s fun than we are to a great-looking game that’s boring.
Ideally, every game should play brilliantly and look simply dazzling.