Next-Gen and Diminishing Returns
Creativity leads to good concepts, which lead to good art, which produces a good game. Generally speaking, of course. Sometimes creativity evokes nothing but a gimmick. Realism leads to proven concepts, which can lead to good art (but usually doesn't), which produces an uninspired game. The recently released Perfect Dark Zero is a great example. Everything is shiny, and I mean everything. It would seem that in striving for realism, the team over at Rare didn't have the chops to make it happen. There wasn't good art or art know-how to back it up, but because the Xbox 360 afforded them the ability to light things in a certain way or build characters with normal maps, they still utilized those effects. As a wise man once said, “Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.” But it may not be the fault solely of Rare's art staff in this case. When you're pushed to make something look “next-gen,” you're inevitably going to be pressured to use graphical techniques which define the capabilities of the new system, whether they actually work for your game or not.
I don't want to be alarmist, as it's really too early in the generation to count on the real quality stuff to come out. It happens with every console cycle, but the balance of art and diverse genres with graphics and “safe” genres seems to eventually even itself out. I merely propose this as a warning that developers need to be a lot more careful with how they construct their games this time around or we're going to end up with plastic, awkwardly-animated characters and either boring or over-saturated environments. I say that we need more imagination, as well, but don't try to drag down the fantastic with the “real.” The last thing we need is a fur-shaded Sonic the Hedgehog, which looks more like a singed fur ball than his classic design. Sure Sonic doesn't look much like the real animal upon which he's based, but he's not supposed to. Let the unnatural be its unnatural self!
The wild card here is ultimately Nintendo. The rumors of a system not much more powerful than the GameCube means that it will likely not have to contend with the same kind of issues that the PS3 and Xbox 360 will. On the flip side, though, the technology found in the more powerful next-gen consoles, if harnessed by a capable developer, can create solid and creative new experiences which will transcend all of the inevitable dreck that will appear on the market.
In the mean time, it's a waiting game. I can only hope that my doom and gloom won't actually manifest itself, but as games become more expensive to produce, some companies may be willing to take fewer chances, which further marginalizes more creative genres of gaming. But developers, publishers, and gamers be cautioned: don't let this generation slip through your fingers by forgetting what is truly important to creating a good game.
1/12/2006 Cavin Smith