Is it wrong, one wonders, to covet someone for their toned abs more so than their mental acuity? Some moralistic person will likely tell you so; the same way holier-than-thou gamers have historically chastened any who would openly show interest in a game, thanks only to its polygonal beauty. Those who don’t appreciate beautiful games are wrong; fancy graphics are terrifically important, if only because they inspire people to argue about their merit.
The success of a game relies on many things, not the least of which is brand awareness. Great brand awareness won’t save a game from being perceived as miserably bad (see: E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial) nor will it stop it from being an utter flop (see: E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial), but it can go a long way toward giving a game an extra chance of staying out of the bargain bin. Game producers have been acquiring brand awareness by purchasing expensive movie, sports or toy licenses for decades now. But licensing has dubious potential, at best. Yes, a football game with real teams has a leg up on an unlicensed game with fake ones, but a bad football game is a bad football game, regardless of the players’ uniforms.
Then, there are the big-budget advertising campaigns to get the word out, which everybody loves because they result in cool catch phrases. Remember those “UR Not E” advertisements for the original Playstation way back in 1995? They were cool, and surely expensive, yet couldn’t stop Battle Arena Toshinden from sliding into obscurity. Meanwhile, Virtua Fighter, a visually impressive yet virtually unadvertised game, lives on as one of the most popular fighting series of all time.
More recently, companies have turned to the disturbing trend of paying professional celebrities like Paris Hilton to pose for photo ops at launch parties. Anyone who thinks pictures of Paris holding her free Xbox 360 in any way made the console’s launch a success is woefully misguided.
So, we have three main techniques at getting the word out. While each can be effective, each has problems. Specifically, these techniques are very expensive and don’t do a thing to improve the quality of the game itself. Great graphics, while they may not come cheap, not only help a game generate buzz, but can help to improve its overall quality, as well.
A beautiful game constantly rewards you, the gamer, with new sights and visual experiences, encouraging you to continue your journey and get your money’s worth. Gaming is an adventure filled with obstacles and rewards. If a new visual reward, like an overwhelmingly massive boss or a gorgeous looking racecar, makes your eyes widen and your jaw slacken with awe, you’ll stick with the game to see what comes next.
Strong graphics help a game deliver a better sense of immersion, sucking you into the adventure. The ubiquitous “health bar” has been the bane of fighting games practically since their inception – an unrealistic on-screen indicator showing whether your character is 98% healthy or one pixel away from a KO. Great graphics, like in EA’s Fight Night, let a game ditch the health bar, instead rendering healthy fighters who look strong and weak ones who look ready to pass out.
Effects like this catch peoples’ attentions and make them want to know more, even non-gamers. Gaming can get complicated, but everyone can appreciate something that looks good, sounds good and delivers a compelling sensory experience. If you boast to your non-gamer friends about completing the Molten Core dungeon in World of Warcraft after an eight-hour marathon session, they’ll nod, put on their best fake smiles and start planning an intervention. If you sit them down and show them the sprawling landscapes and gorgeous designs in the game, they might just subscribe.
Great graphics grab your attention, and while other games will always raise the bar and make what’s beautiful today look ugly tomorrow, fleeting stardom is about all a game can hope for these days. Of course, truly great games require more than great graphics, and to put it rather crudely, a polished turd still smells pretty bad, but looking good never hurts. Don’t be ashamed of your aesthetic tastes; those who don’t marvel over great graphics are missing out.
Tim Stevens is a freelance gaming journalist. His work can be seen online at Yahoo! Videogames and the Global Gaming League, in print in metro.pop and Phuze magazines, and on TV on G4’s X-Play.