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    GameGuy: The ďWho Counts Polygons?Ē Edition

    By Mark H. Walker

    I love Sandra Bullockís lips, F-14s flying wing tip to wing tip 20 feet off a steel-gray ocean, and Michael Andrettiís champ car scrambling for traction as it dives through Laguna Secaís Corkscrew. In short, Iím a visual kind of guy. My optical fantasies are not, however, confined to corporeal reality. The dark halls of Deux Ex trace a cold finger along my spine and the glistening hoods of NASCAR 2002 stockers drop my jaw.

    Yeah, Iím impressed by the way things look. Itís important to me --important, but not crucial. Unfortunately, thatís an emotion not widely shared in this industry. Seems to me development teams sometimes spend an inordinate amount of time beautifying their baby. Hence we get a large number of beautiful, yet mediocre, games (Can you say Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising?).

    How come?

    There are several answers. Hey, we all like pretty stuff. Thatís why Rosanne Barr never made it as a poster child. And that is a prime reason developers and publishers alike sink lots of time and money into their pixels and polygons. Face it, the visual and audio ambiance of Grand Prix Legends did much to throw you into the cockpits of those Ferraris and Lotuses (Lotii?). So too do the knotty yellow wisp-snakes of Baldur Gate IIís Entangle spell convince the gamer that Jaheira has in fact rendered her target motionless.Bottom line, graphics are one of the ingredients that create an immersive game world.

    Part of the graphical emphasis is our own fault. Since graphics are an important ingredient, we discuss them in the gaming press. And you can bet that anything that receives continuous coverage in the press is going to make publishers sit up and take notice. Flip to any review/preview (mine included), and youíll find a section on graphics. The same cannot be said for a gameís user manual, dialogue, voice acting, scenario design, or artificial intelligence (please donít email me with every exception to this rule that you find on the Internetís thousand-odd game sites), yet each of those is an important element.

    Both the visceral pleasure that graphics provide and their high profile are understandable justifications to dump time and money into pixels and polygons. Those, however, arenít the only reasons, there is one that is rarely discussed, one that few, if any, developers would admit. A reason so contrary to good game development that it might never occur to many gamers. The reason is simple: Making games pretty is easy.

    Hey, Iím not dissiní artists. No doubt making a characterís breasts so large that she becomes a pop star is hard work --ask any transplant specialist, but nearly every development studio has a core of proficient artists. The same canít be said for game designers; thereís a couple dozen on the planet --Sid Meier, John Romero, Tim Cain, and whomever else you like. Hence, when you donít have the design talent itís easier to concentrate on the eye candy.

    Not only easier to concentrate on, but easier to sell as well. Developers have to demo these games to their publishers --a.k.a. the people who pay the bills. Sometimes these publisher folks are gamers themselves and ask germane questions, other times they either have little experience in the genre or lack the time to learn what makes the game tick. So, what looks good is what sells good to the publishers, and what sells good is what garners the development time.

    By the same token, graphics are easy for journalists to evaluate. Whereas critiquing the combat routines of a role-playing game--orphysics engine of a racing simulation-- takes a considerable amount of experience, commenting on the fluttering leaves in the trees of the latest Test Drive offering takes no skill, just eyes. And make no mistake, in an Internet age, experienced gaming journalists/editors are a thinly-spread breed.

    So, graphics are king (or queen in Ms. Croftís case). Often for good cause --after all, they enhance the game, but just as often graphical emphasis --whether in a game or the review thereof-- is a result of developers and journalists taking the easy way out. When that happens we all lose, as long as game publishers think that high screen resolution means better gaming, weíll get a swarm of beautiful also-rans each year --games that might have been successful if less time had been spent on polygons and more on play. Because in the long run, despite graphicís glitz, itís the depth of play that sells games. After all, itís what Sandra Bullock speaks that counts... at least thatís what my wife says.

    © Mark H. Walker, LLC 2001

    Mark H. Walker is a veteran interactive entertainment journalist who has written over 40 books including his recently released Medal of Honor and Wizardry 8 strategy guides
     



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