Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

The Problem with Programmer Graphics…

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 8, 2011

I saw this on my calendar the other day. I can relate.


For many (most? all?) people, failing to obtain a minimum threshold of quality – or even failing to match the particular style they prefer – causes this sort of reaction. They’ll never look past the graphics to see the game underneath. Actually, that’s true of awesome graphics, too. Sometimes they are used to disguise the fact that the publisher is selling the same game they’ve been selling to customers for years.

The big-budget approach is to just make the most mind-blowingly awesome visuals possible, throwing time and money at it so that it will appeal to almost everybody. And you have to admit, it’s working. Games are mainstream now in a way that they could never be in the 8-bit era, and a big part of it is the more realistic (or at least more appealing and… comprehensive?) graphics. But for indies with shoestring budgets and tight schedules, it’s not quite so easy. And some people will be turned off no matter what you do. And I think a lot of it is just whatever you are used to.

Me? I grew up in an era where those of us who played games had no problem looking at a collection of a few dozen pixels that resembled nothing so much as a bipedal duck and letting our imagination see a dragon. I don’t know if I could do that today, though. But maybe I can. After all, I’ve played my fair share of Minecraft and VVVVVV…  And I don’t have much problem with other the “8-bit” style some indie games have adopted. There’s a difference between quality and pixel resolution.

Maybe it just means my standards are too low (though even I have my limits), but I’m pretty happy with being able to do that.

Filed Under: Art - Comments: 13 Comments to Read

  • Andy said,

    For me it’s about style and design. I think the Batman: Arkham Asylum games have fantastic graphics in a technical sense (and the first game at least – I haven’t played the second yet – is excellent), but I confess that I think the game’s character and location designs are really ugly. Grotesquely overmuscled, out of proportion, grubby and seedy-looking…I would have favored a more classical comic book-like approach to the graphics (pity that so few seem to like cel-shaded graphics…).

    I really like the retro look in games if I think it’s used creatively and isn’t just retro for the sake of it.

  • Groboclown said,

    One of the better set of games to come out recently that does a great balance on this is “Revenge of the Titans” (and the other titles by Puppy Games). 8-bit feel with modern style.

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    I’ve noticed that graphics sometimes tend to be an excuse for people. They might have decided that they don’t like an indie game (maybe because it’s indie and therefore can’t possibly be fun in their opinion), so they use graphics as an excuse.

    For me, personally, I can enjoy a great game with terrible graphics, as long as the graphics don’t actively make the game worse (indistinct graphics giving muddled feedback, for example). After a while, the graphics become background noise to the real feature: the gameplay. I still spend hours playing classic games and seek out indie games without the prettiest graphics available. But, several people dismiss older games, usually citing graphics as a major concern without even trying the game.

    My perspective.

  • jzoeller said,

    I haven’t seen that dragon in a loooong time.

  • Modran said,

    What Sir Psychochild above said.

    Disjointed thoughts ahoy.
    I tend to get into long winded arguments with people that tell me a game is crap because of bad/dated/not-to-their-taste graphics.

    But I’m trying to improve that. I know that a friend and I now describe Minecraft as “It might look terrible but…” because if we start with that instead of surprising people when they’ve been enticed enough, it softens the “blow” for many people, enabling them to see past that.

    I can understand that people like the pretties. But when someone tells me that Deus Ex (the first one, that I finished only days ago) is crap because the characters are blocky, it irks me. And when that someone tells me that he loved the game when he played it years ago, but now considers it crap because it’s not beautiful, weeeeell, I’m pretty happy I’m not wearing purple shorts or I could start smashing things…

    I still look at them graphics, but I also found many a times where I couldn’t recall how something looked. Only what I did at the time. And what I felt.
    It’s the anti-uncanny valley, it’s what Scott McCloud describes in Invisible art: when things are not accurately drawn, the imagination picks up and add things, make them beautiful and perfect in your mind, instinctively (which might be the reason I’m terrified in Minecraft at night). After a certain point (around the bottom of the valley), a point we have already reached in modern games, things are so accurate that you only concentrate on what’s wrong (like faces in Oblivion).
    And then you forget everything else, cause damn, that’s one ugly motherkisser !

    Maybe, in part, that’s why the “8-bit” type is coming back. Because it speaks to the dreamer, the child in some of us. We can populate those worlds with our phantasms.

  • Felix Pleșoianu said,

    I’m with Andy there: it’s the style that matters, not stunning detail. Ask any pro artist, you’ll get the same answer. True, in games (as in webcomics) I often come for the graphics. But I never stay for the graphics. Those get old easily. Gameplay endures.

    (Obligatory shameless plug.)

  • Xenovore said,

    I’m definitely a graphics snob: I’m a very visual person and part-time artist as well, so I like things to look nice. I don’t necessarily need the latest, shiniest photo-realistic graphics (although I do appreciate them), just consistent, good-looking artwork.

    Brian, I agree with you to a certain point — game-play is certainly king — but for me, if a game’s graphics are dull, glaringly ugly, and/or lack consistency, then it’s going to take some incredibly amazing game-play to make up for it and keep me playing. The problem is: in my experience, if the graphics are sub-par, the game-play usually is as well. (Of course that goes both ways: I’ve played some games with quite beautiful graphics, but the game-play was too boring to keep me playing for more than 5 minutes.)

    At any rate, the quality of the graphics sells the game. For example, if you’ve got 10 bucks to blow on a RPG, which are you going to buy, A or B? Yes, these are different styles of RPG; Avencast is more action-oriented, like Diablo. But personally, based on the screenshots I’ve seen… I really want to play Avencast; I don’t ever want to play Darklight Dungeon. (Well, maybe if it were free… well, even then, ugh. No thanks.)

    (A corollary to this: If the UI is crap, no amount of nice graphics and/or game-play can save the game.)

  • Silemess said,

    I hate to say it but I’m going to go with honesty. Yes, graphics is important. I always try to preach “See past the skin, look for the personality.” But it’s the looks that get the hooks.

    Sometimes you’ll hear of the gem of a game that’s a sparkling personality. Something that peaks through despite the graphics, Dwarf Fortress is my big marker on that score.

    But there are few games that show how shallow I am. I tried to play the original Deus Ex a few years ago at the advice of a friend. Try as I might, I just could not get past the archaic setup and presentation. I’m sure it was a better game than some of the “new” games I’ve picked up, but it just didn’t have the spark to get past the surface.

    I keep swearing I’ll not weigh them simply by looking at them, but computer games developed as visual medium and it is by that standard that they get prejudged.

  • skavenhorde said,

    For me gameplay is much more important than graphics. I’m an oddity it seems, but I’ll play everything from ASCII roguelike to the latest “shiny” like Crysis 2 with Nvidia’s 3D Vision. As long as the gameplay is fun then I’m happy.

    There is one exception to this and that is if the graphics are inconsistent. I’d rather have ASCII graphics than inconsistent art styles. However, it has to be REALLY bad to affect me if the gameplay is well done.

    Pretty much all the games released now look great to me. I read these threads on how Skyrim looks dated and I think they’re nuts. It looks amazing, but pretty much everything released by the AAAs since 2000 looks great, to me. I can’t tell what these people are talking about.

  • Mart said,

    The way I see it, good graphics can enhance an already great game, but a poor game can never be saved by good graphics.

    Not sure if I’ve speaking for everyone, but I started playing PC games around 1996, so that’s how much graphics I can tolerate. I’m sure Might And Magic 1 is a pretty good game, but I can’t get past the interface and graphics, since my first M&M game is M&M6. I also grew up on a diet of Baldur’s Gate, BG2, Fallout and Fallout 2. But I don’t think I’ll be able to play Wasteland. Rudimentary DOS graphics already existed in 1996, so I can’t stand ASCII graphics. I can’t play vanilla Dwarf Fortress at all. My mind just can’t interpret those symbols quick enough.

    I guess I’m just stuck at the point where I started out. My brain won’t be able to process sub-1996 graphics too well.

  • Karry said,

    Graphics are mostly irrelevant to me, i cant run any new games in all detail anyway, so there. Bad graphics i can tolerate. But when someone *hint hint* releases a game with a UI so horrible and repulsive, that it seems he didnt play any games since the 80’s – THAT is an unforgivable sin.

  • Wolfos said,

    I have no problems playing Minecraft or something, but Morrowind… Now there’s an ugly game!
    Some games just don’t age well…

  • Skip week « No Time To Play said,

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