Gameplay or Graphics: Can one be enough for a game without the other?

by Charles D. (Cubits)


Gameplay is more important than graphical fidelity. It’s the phrase touted by every underdogging forum user in the face of technical superiority. It’s seemingly the company ethos of Nintendo. It’s what every PS3 or Xbox 360 fanboy wishes they could resort to when called out by a PC user.

It also happens to be true, but not with the sweeping generalisation many people seem to resort to. We’re currently in the middle of a shift between console generations. Nintendo has already laid their cards on the table, the result being a moderate rise of graphical prowess over the previous consoles coupled to a controller which has the innovation kitchen sink thrown at it.

The other consoles remain unknown quantities, with both Sony and Microsoft keeping tight lipped in their re-enactment of the Cold War standoff, each with their finger on the overclock button, waiting for the other to make a move (…or a kinect). The winner will come out with a slightly better power to price ratio, but ultimately both will take a hit.

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Meanwhile the PC sits on the top of its mighty pedestal, elitism pouring out of it from every duct and vent as several hundred Watts file in through one aperature. It knows that whatever the console makers do, they’ll never impress the master. Launch titles will get the Perfect Dark Zero treatment, a shiny coat of lacquer, and it will be several years until the nextbox gets its Halo 4. By that time PC’s will have twelve-way SLI, require their own power plant to operate, and do away with monitors in favour of neck spikes.

And yet, as every device on the planet marches forth to glory in ever increasing Definitions of the term High, mobile phones included, the distinctly “low-fi” world of indie gaming is also exploding in popularity. Ever increasingly we’re seeing small, progressive games with ridiculous concepts capturing the hearts, minds, wallets, and industry awards of gaming society. Meanwhile, publishers are crumbling, development costs are heading towards Formula 1 Racing levels of insanity (more on that soon), and ever more “particle-effecty” games are simply iterating tired gameplay ideas. So where does this madness lead us? First to the distant past, to last century, to the year 1999!

I was in highschool, I was a “nerd”, and I was developing mods for Half-Life. Modding was a staggeringly popular pastime; it would sell the population incredibly short to merely call it a community. The amount of original gameplay ideas to come out of that period, out of that single engine, defied belief. Counter strike was actually an incredibly original idea at one time, though that impression has probably been glazed from wear by now (much like Call of Duty!).  HL also gave rise to Day of Defeat, Natural Selection, Science and Industry, They Hunger, The Opera, The Specialists, USS Darkstar, HL Rally, and HL Paintball (*cough*), just to name a few for variety.

This fairly restrictive game engine had been twisted into making puzzle games, racing games, FPS/RTS hybrids with asymmetrical gameplay (nudge nudge, Nintendo), psychological thrillers, and a raft of meticulously crafted story-driven “total conversions”. All of these were made by regular people, in their spare time. Many of the excellent ideas introduced during this period of creative prosperity are still trapped in the past, while modern AAA titles fail to innovate with such freedom.

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Half-Life 2 launched in 2004, and the modding scene took a significant nose-dive. The massively more capable game engine made HL2 an incredibly engaging game, but development for it was prohibitively labour intensive for the weekend modder. Prototyping ideas became more difficult, and longer development times meant it was noticeably harder to keep a team together. Many planned sequels for the standout mods of the original game were scrapped in early development as a result. It was a real shame, as the bottlenecks of the original engine meant that HL2-based sequels would be able to push the gameplay ideas they explored much further, with possible industry-wide effect. We’ll never know…

This journey into my past brings us, none too succinctly, back to the present, and back to relevance. The Wii U presents several interesting opportunities for developers and gamers alike. The relative financial ease of access to the much improved eShop promotes indie support, and the gamepad’s fisher-price playground of interactivity has so much potential to spark innovation it should be deemed a fire hazard. Yet it’s the continued Wiimote support which has me fascinated.

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The Wii was terrific at redefining gameplay possibilities. Its unique controller brought depth, immersion, and accessibility to sports games and first person shooters in particular. It allowed for new takes on puzzle games, worked brilliantly for point’n’click, bore Red Steel 2, and saved the light gun genre. This was all in spite of the technical limitations of the console. The Wii was the HL1 of the last console generation. The Wii U is HL2 bar one important difference, the leapfrogging by the “next-gen” competing consoles will still make it the more accessible choice. It’s the best of both worlds.

I’m looking forward to Need For Speed: Most Wanted next month. It’s shaping up to be an incredibly feature-rich “port”, one which not only raises the bar for console graphical quality, but also leverages the unique hardware features to provide an expanded experience. I’m looking forward to a new Tiger Woods game from EA, should it ever actually come. The Wiimote defines console golf, and combining that with a view of the ball on the gamepad has been a dream of mine since the Wii U was announced. I’m looking forward to a multiplayer game which embraces the amazing “sword-slinging” of Red Steel 2. I’m looking forward to the definitive versions of games like Natural Selection 2 or Chivalry being on the Wii U due to the spectacularly apt control interface, rather than merely being a numbers game.

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The Wii was pushed to its limits to give us a taste of the Wiimote’s possibilities. Now Nintendo has the power to grow those ideas into larger, more filled out gaming experiences. Gameplay may be more important than graphics, but it’s always better to have both.

Written by Charles Duffield

Charles Duffield

With a background in Mechanical Engineering and Industrial Design, I enjoy tinkering with gadgets, and no game company does gadgets quite like Nintendo(es)!