Atomhawk Design director Cumron Ashtiani assesses the strengths and weaknesses of stylised graphics
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There once was a time when abstract characters and worlds were what the games industry thrived upon.
Gamers became absorbed in strange environments created in the wild imagination of artists and welcomed, as their on-screen alter-egos, some of the weird and wonderful characters that are still popular franchise icons today: Mario, Sonic and Zelda are just a few examples.
These stalwarts of the gaming industry are perhaps the unexpected successes of using cleverly stylised artwork to mask the deficiencies in the quality of the graphics that the hardware of the time could all too easily otherwise highlight.
Fast-forward a few console generations and we can see how the pursuit of photo-realism has to some extent taken over the industry. But in a new world of 3D cinema experiences and high definition TV, can the games industry genuinely continue to compete, and is this really the experience that gamers are seeking from it?
Of course stylised games have always maintained a market presence, but in the last couple of years, I for one have been very excited to see a shift in the photo-realism trend. It’s a change that at Atomhawk we’re increasingly noticing in conversations with both our existing and prospective clients, as well as in our appreciation of new titles now emerging.
Recently we have seen a wave of refreshing new art styles in game genres that have often been the homelands of photo-realism.
We’ve been surprised and exhilarated to see a more creative approach to FPS titles such as BioShock Infinite, Brink and Bodycount, as well as to third-person adventures like Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.
There are also titles like Saints Row: The Third that don’t follow the traditional description of stylisation, they are hybrids with a sense of realism but a priority for style. Finally there are some real pioneering titles like Limbo from Danish studio Playdead, and Journey from Flower studio thatgamecompany.
It’s the kind of trend that inspires us as a team of artists and makes us want to stretch our abilities in the pursuit of new and exciting creations rather than the artificial duplication of what we all already know.
If the titles referred to above are anything to go by, it seems that studios are starting to realise that the quest for photo realism is no longer an area worth trying to compete in. As console hardware, and middleware such as Unreal Engine, starts to create a level playing field, developers have to turn to creativity to distinguish their game from the crowd of others which have until recently all been chasing the same goal.
Graphics programming will of course always remain an important component in any game development, but the real competitive edge is now found in how awesome the creative ideas are.
How strongly these ideas will resonate with the imagination of the end user is of huge importance.
It’s not that I’m against photo realism. In some genres, such as licensed sports games, historic military games, driving simulators, players are seeking an experience which mirrors reality, effectively playing the part of a real person in a world that they want to feel familiar with. In these areas I have no doubt that further impressive strides into photo realism will continue to be made.
But what about those who are seeking an escape from reality in to a rich landscape where their own imagination can meet and enhance that of the artist creator? Who wants to play a fantasy game where the characters and environments are just the same as you can see from your living room window or on Google Street View? In my view, we all see far too much of the real world without having to look at it in our games in the form of photo textures and in game advertising.
In the current economic climate, photo-realism is also an expensive and arguably futile goal. Even in high end CG motion pictures, there is always an element of ‘Uncanny Valley’.
Just take the Matrix films for example. Even with budgets that still dwarf the cost of most game developments, Hollywood remains someway short of the ultimate ‘real’ fantasy experience. And of course, the more consumers see, the higher their expectations become and the more critical and demanding they get.
What we thought was pushing the boundaries in the ‘80s and ‘90s wouldn’t even cut it on children’s TV now. Or maybe the original ‘Wow’ factor of photorealism has waned and as we all know, gamers always want something new to blow their socks off. Could it be that we have all just seen a little too much of reality?