Tuesday, May 17, 2005

One Giant Leap for Technology, a Small Step for Gaming

First off: Three words for Rockstar Games: "Get off it."

Everyone knows you're going to make GTA for whatever systems you think will sell the game. In fact, looking at the list of games for PS3, it reads like someone cut and pasted game titles from the PS2 launch and added one to the sequel numbers. But the best is this: "Namco showed this. Konami unveiled that. EA showed video of this. And Rockstar noted that they will make Grand Thef Auto for the system."

I could say I'm going to make Best Game Evar for the PS3, and you couldn't dispute me at this point. This is all hype, people. Sure, some of the stuff looks great, and there's loud, pumping music, hot chicks, etc. In the end, nothing they show you now has to come out. It's all hype. They want the journalists to go to their little booths and say, "OMG, I know I said Xbox would be the final word in gaming ever, but seriously, I really mean it this time with the PS3!!!!1" They want to keep the console wars going. Because this hype is free advertisement for them. Which is fine. But man, it takes balls to say, "Yeah, we're making GTA for this" with nothing to show for it and pass it off as a hype point for the system. If the industry is a homeroom class, Rockstar is that arrogant football-player prick in the corner who keeps scoring big with one play and who thinks people would pay $2 to drink a glass of his piss.

Anyway, that's not the rant I wanted to put up for today. It's like an extra bonus rant. Good for you.

When you had a 486 with Windows 3.11, you likely had a word processor. When you had a Pentium with Windows 95, you had a word processor. Now we have P3s and P4s with Windows XP and Word 2000/XP. The processors have grown exponentially. But notice that the word processors don't work monumentally better than they used to.

There's something in computers that I call the "resource footprint" because I can't be bothered to find out what it's really called. The resource footprint is a measure of how much of a machine's resources it uses up just being on. In the case of PCs, while PCs have become tons more powerful over the years, common applications like email, web browsing, and word processing haven't really changed much. A large part of this is the huge resource footprint needed for the newer versions of Windows and other "important" background programs leaving less room for the improvement of other programs.

For consoles, the resource footprint is small, but there's a similar thing in games. I'll call that "Flabbadeedoo," since I'm making up terms. The flabbadeedoo is the amount of system resources a game uses up just being "marketable": high-powered graphics and animation take up most of this, but so does voice-over and detailed sound. Flabbadeedoo is the resource footprint a game leaves for these things that improve the underlying experience of games and make them more likely to sell but that don't necessarily contribute to making a better game.

Let's take a look. We had loading times on Playstation, with its extremely crappy CPU and low RAM and slow CD-ROM. We have loading times on PS2 and Xbox, as well, with their much faster and more powerful systems. With all the bluster about how powerful systems are, the levels aren't that much bigger, really. And in Halo 2, you still do the same thing you did in Quake: Run around, shoot stuff, blow stuff up. Sure, they added in a little Twisted Metal, and the voice communication is nice in multiplayer, but really. We're on a gameplay innovation treadmill, and meanwhile, technology expectations are driving up game costs and forcing developers to sacrifice gameplay to make room for pretty colors.

Not only is the flabbadeedoo getting larger to nearly negate the larger system resources of the new consoles, but the leap in payoff for that flabbadeedoo increase is getting smaller and smaller. With the jump from SNES to PSX, we got true 3D, polygons, textures. From PSX to PS2, we got better lighting and gameplay graphics that looked like PSX pre-rendered movies. From PS2 to PS3, we get... what? You can see skin rippling on a boxer's face when he takes a punch? Where's the gameplay improvement in that? How does that in any way make my boxing game experience markedly better?

With that processing power, they could make a 1st person game with no damage HUD. Maybe the screen blurs dynamically as you take more and more damage. Maybe you begin to see flashes of things in your "peripheral vision." Maybe you can look down and see your clothes ripped and the skin underneath torn open. Maybe when your hand or arm is broken, you can't wield the heavier weapons. That sort of thing seems far more immersive to me than a monster glistening 17% more than before.

Instead, as the system resources grow, the flabbadeedoo grows to match. Fight Night Round 3 will use up so much more of the system's resources to make sure that the guy's face flaps appropriately when punched that the growth in system resources is nearly meaningless to gameplay. So much extra work and resources for such a small payoff. Wouldn't that processing power be better spent on physics or AI, especially in adventure and action games?

So. Less flabbadeedoo, more useful gameplay innovation. That's all I ask.