We’ve been here before, more or less, at the start of every generation…
I sort of began feeling sorry for some people over the weekend.
The sorts of people usually I’d rather see mocked; those who value technical excellence regardless of content, or quality, because technical prowess is somehow greater in their minds than what a game actually does. And so it has been with Mario Kart 8; with no review embargo, publications have for the last couple of weeks been allowed to do their bit in pushing the hype-train for the latest Nintendo kart-racer to near stratospheric levels. And make no mistake; reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, citing the gorgeous graphics, inventive tracks and polished mechanics as a subtle but significant leap for the now-twenty-year-old franchise. There has been a swell of support for Nintendo and the Wii U as a result, with many commentators across the world acknowledging their desire to purchase a Wii U to experience this game.
Of course, some people are party poopers.
Actually, that’s being unkind. EuroGamer’s Digital Foundry took a more in-depth technical look at Mario Kart 8; as it has done for so many games, putting it under a microscope the size of Hubble and delighting in pointing out the games flaws and faults. And of course, it found them – that’s what they are paid to do, after all. It’s hardly a surprise that when you’re actively looking for something to criticise, you’ll find something even if you have to admit outright that what you’re doing amounts to nitpicking.
Digital Foundry found some arguably minor foibles, too; the game isn’t the 1080p we’d thought, and it doesn’t have post-processed AA. However, it was worth pointing out that such revelations are a surprise when the game looks utterly gorgeous even with those issues. It came as a surprise to even the technically-adept that Nintendo had managed to sneak one by them; hardly much of a criticism as a revelation that in an era where 1080/60 is supposed to be king, and change the world, sometimes a quality game can pretty much distract from these technical failings. One of the other problems it found amounts to little more than an AI issue; in single-player, framerate can drop to 59fps, but this isn’t seen online. The summation is that it is likely a slight conflict with the AI opponents, and something that should be possible to iron out with a small patch. Nintendo is notorious for clean code, so it shouldn’t really take them too long to find the core of the problem and fix it up, and then we’re back to the full 60fps.
Even in closing, Digital Foundry admitted to actually expecting better from Nintendo; perfection, even. Finding issues like that within a Nintendo product isn’t what they expected at all, but they admitted that the game is still fantastic in their opinion, going as far as to admit that from posting the article, the rest of their weekend was to be spent playing the game, and this time – as gamers, as fans, and not as technical arbiters of truth and justice. One may even argue that’s no small praise.
Of course, the end result was typical and familiar to me; and it’s not just been Mario Kart either, but a wide range of previews and releases across all platforms. “Oh this is stupid, why isn’t it 1080/60 what are developers playing at why am I not getting my moneys worth WHY HAVE I BEEN LIED TO WHERE IS MY 1080/60?!”
This is where I want to sit these people down and have a warming heart to heart. I know. I will hold your hands, and look sympathetically into your eyes. I KNOW.
I’ve felt your pain before. I’ve felt it, generation after generation. Promises that can’t be kept. Games which are never as good as you’re promised. Features which vanish into the ether, never to return. The history of each new generation is littered with half-baked half-truths and the remains of promising material that never quite managed to shine in the way they were meant to. We saw this with the PlayStation 3; with trailers that turned out to be little more than computer-generated hogwash; bullshots of the highest order. The XBox 360 came with promises of revolutionary new ideas, and yet for the most part, those revolutions that did appear were swiftly soured by lackadaisical implementation and a community that simply couldn’t be controlled. Both aforementioned consoles promised backwards compatibility; a function that rapidly dwindled in importance alongside the realisation they could just resell you a port, and earn money from it. The Wii promised a revolution in controlling games; and for all it did right in the first year or two, for all the games which really did show off the practicality of the Wii Remote, we watched aghast as time went on, and more and more developers ignored the good implementation in favour of either ignoring it completely, or phoning in the support in some way.
I’m going to level here; the last significant changes in how I played games came in 1996 as we pushed into fully three-dimensional space; as the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation dropped Mario 64, Tomb Raider, Spyro, Mario Kart 64, Crash Bandicoot, Banjo-Kazooie, Resident Evil and more on us, I was constantly and immeasurably blown away with each game I got; even two-dimensional games appeared crisper, sharper, more detailed and more impressive, like Alundra or the joie-de-vivre of the cast of Grandia . The jump from the SNES and Mega Drive into this brave new 3D age was enormous; with it came new genres, new franchises and new faces to fall in love with, and the sense of scale was simply beyond our wildest dreams. Some say you had to be there; I was, and I promise you, after Mario 64 and Tomb Raider, even I knew the genie was completely out of the bottle and would never go back. That revolutionised gaming; it opened up a whole new world, a whole new dimension, a whole new way of seeing games. Sega, who had arguably pioneered the shift to 3D in the arcades, simply failed to push out anything at the time to capitalise on the huge shift. In some small way, it was Sega’s downfall to not jump onto the bandwagon sooner than it did – although as a parting gift for the Saturn, we got the utterly sublime NiGHTS: Into Dreams, so it wasn’t all bad news!
Visuals have of course improved significantly – as they would always do and always have done, and as power elevated, we saw some more genres pop up; open-world sandbox, survival gaming, horde gaming and such forth. But for a while, the genre-pool has stagnated; power increases, but the way I play games isn’t and hasn’t changed significantly for almost twenty years. It’s still controller in hand, or keyboard and mouse, and for all the effort and all the pioneering efforts, it has been incredibly difficult for the industry to push beyond those limitations; each attempt has been met with an almost stony silence, and each attempt now to interpret a genre is falling into the trap of copying what others do, in order to maximise revenue.
Each new generation since has started with us fawning over graphics; oh how pretty, how wondrous, how amazing and all the rest of it. Very few initial launch titles ever went on to have major success; always the bridesmaids, but never brides. Yes, we get disappointed eventually; we can’t run from the problems forever, and as the Internet is now, it’s hard for some not to shine a spotlight on something and then take a powerful magnifying glass in hand, to somehow find a blocked pore or a faint wrinkle. But that’s games for you. Not all creations are equal. Not all games are equal. Not all art is equal.
So, we’re somehow shocked to find that actually, 1080/60 isn’t any more likely this generation now than it was last generation; whose fault is it? Well, let us level here; it’s no-ones fault. It was possible last gen, has been possible on the PC, but not every game has it. 1080/60 was this generations most fundamental misstep; to promise a huge change to how games play out technically, and still find itself tangled up in every other complication that comes with making video games. Admittedly, if games looked exactly like last-gen games, then okay, the power on offer might have elevated games to 1080/60. But the visual upgrade requires more power, more processing, more GPU and more memory. After you’ve spent that extra power, it’s not surprising that some games are finding themselves unable to achieve 1080/60 with any reliability, often having to compromise and even find strange new resolutions in order to get the most out of the graphics. The huge jump, visually, has come at a huge cost – the extra power added to new consoles has been completely consumed already, leaving us arguably with not a lot of room for extra embellishment.
That said, for graphics fans the world over, it must be said that the visual jump we’ve seen already is MASSIVE. And I don’t mean that in a half-hearted way; for my criticisms of InFamous: Second Son, and they are numerous, I can’t argue it’s a breathtakingly beautiful game. I see The Order: 1886, and okay, it looks like a gothic Gears of War clone. But visually, it rocks my socks off. Super Mario 3D World and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD (1080/60 but it was a Gamecube game originally, so that shouldn’t have been a monumental challenge on newer hardware!) have been utterly mesmerising visually, and Mario Kart 8 – in spite of what issues it has – looks beautiful as well. I’m seeing the results of the new generation; I see the shift in graphics quality already, I see how far we’ve come and can only imagine what will happen a few years from now, as more developers get used to the hardware on offer and squeeze every final drop from each and every component. We may even find as time goes on, and developers get more used to what they’re doing and how they do it, that 1080/60 titles will become more common.
I personally think it is unlikely, however, because whilst it’s a wonderful ideal to aim for, video games are like food; the first bite is with the eyes, and if you can deceive visually, the first round is won – ask Gearbox and Sega about Aliens: Colonial Marines. The primary evolution from the perspective of components is going to be graphics, and making them look as beautiful and as realistic and as shiny and tempting as possible. We’ll carry on like this for another year or so before, eventually, we resign ourselves to this being it. It’s hardly the worst compromise in the world though; only the most attentive of attention-seekers will genuinely keep track of every fault, flaw and foible.
After that happens, hopefully we’ll begin to ask for more from our games on a base level; inventive gameplay, not shipping with catastrophic bugs, better patching, better management of resources, sharper controls and a more subtle and engaging form of post-game support. I’m of the mind that the reach for 1080/60 at a time when we have far more pressing matters in the industry to attend to was always a case of fireworks to distract the “Ooh, shiny” masses. It offered little more than a distraction to things like expensive digital releases, slow release schedules, microtransactions and general recycling of content. It worked – for a while – but the fireworks are over now, and as we turn to see what is happening behind us, we catch the industry rifling through our coat pockets for loose change.
What it does next? Well, I’m not entirely sure. I think as long as games look great and are fun to play, and not technically inept and borderline unplayable, that we could do a lot worse than where we find ourselves. Okay, it wasn’t the big revolution we were all expecting in some ways but as I said, the last big jump was into three-dimensions. For every angle that has been tried, we keep coming back to graphics and gameplay, and ultimately if that’s what really matters in our games, then that should take priority. Sacrificing content or game quality in order to get some Tantalus-inspired pair of numbers isn’t going to wash. Will 1080/60 eventually be a standard? No question. Will it be this generation? Somehow, I doubt it, until graphics reach a complete standstill in terms of improvement, extra hardware will generally always end up leaning towards improving what you see, rather than how you see it.
As for a revolution, maybe there isn’t one for now. Until we hit the levels of Better Than Life, or a Holodeck, games are sort of stuck where they are. Perhaps we’re just impatient that games still seemingly come with flaws, or that some games are just plain terrible however you look at them. After so many years, perhaps we just expect better?
One thing I’m sure about is that 1080/60 will go down as this generations opening faux-pas. A standard that simply was just a little beyond what we could currently achieve, an ambitious promise likely made with all the best intent, but more probably meant to drag us onto new consoles. Does this mean games will be boring? I doubt it. Developers will find games we want to play; make the best from what they have available, and give us dozens of memorable experiences between now and the end of this generation. They certainly won’t be ugly – the visual upgrade is already obvious for everyone to see. Will you notice the occasional dip? Unlikely. You’ll probably end up having to take the likes of Digital Foundry at their word, watching software-recordings demonstrate and pinpoint the issues. And if they still think the game is worth the time and money, you’d be hard-pressed to ignore them.
It’s not that 1080/60 doesn’t matter; but rather, it’s a goal. One we’re not going to see consistently across the board for a while yet. It’s something to aspire to, to aim for, to wish for. But it doesn’t mean any game that doesn’t meet either standard – or neither – is automatically “last-gen”. Racing and fighting games have been doing 60fps for years, after all. That’s hardly new territory for them. They may even eventually achieve 1080/60, long before other genres pushing new ideas and concepts roll up to join them.
Right now, at a time when sales are needed, the fight is between 1080/60 – a difference that some people can’t see – and next-gen visuals, which people will more obviously see. It’s a fight 1080/60 can only lose at this point in time; better it quietly retreats and bides its time, we will meet it again along the way but for the moment, it’s not AS important at this exact moment as other considerations.
But again, we go through something like this every generation. Promises not kept. Ideas not conceived properly. People overreacting. It will pass; we’ll be distracted by the shiny graphics, the big name games. In time, things will improve. But expecting it all handed to us right at the start of a new generation was incredibly unrealistic at best, and delusional at worst.
Let’s see what is to come. As disappointing as it is to let go of one milestone, there’ll be plenty more to reach for when E3 rolls around in a couple of weeks.