Posted by: seanmalstrom | August 7, 2008

Brandon Sheffield declares graphics have become a commodity

Long, long time ago, games did not have music. They had ‘jingles’ when the game began, when the game was won, and when the player recieved a game over. Instead of silence, numerous sound effects went off such as even when the hero ‘walked’. Donkey Kong is a good example of this.

Someone might say, “I hear thumping in the background! See! That is the music!” That is the heart beat. Space Invaders popularized the ‘heart beat’ which got faster as the aliens got closer to drive player adrenaline. It really isn’t music. The year is 1981.

In the arcade version of Mario Brothers, the sound effects are plentiful. But there is still no music. Believe it or not, music was considered a ‘gimmick’ in video games at this time.

I believe music became seen as a staple to video games ever since Super Mario Brothers. The game wouldn’t be the same without the music.

While young kids today sneer at NES games and say the graphics haven’t ‘aged’ well, while graphics were a factor back then, the major change was music and video games. Music was a huge factor on the NES and companies like Nintendo even spent money putting chips into games to perform new music and sound effects. Music wasn’t a commodity then. It is no coincidence that most of the ‘favorite’ games back then had the best music.

A major difference (and this mattered) between the Genesis and SNES was the musical capability. Music began to reach the ‘good enough’ customer peak with the SNES.

And this is the Sega CD music. What customers could absorb was essentially already hitting it by the time of SNES. However, Genesis and PC-Engine both released dedicated CD attachments which were mostly used for sound and music (proving that music used to be a major differentiator in games at one point).

PC gaming’s history is trickier. Aside from the beeps and bloops, the first major music came from the introduction of the Sound Blaster and other similiar cards. Games such as Wing Commander had even individual ‘sound packs’ you can buy just so you can hear the Kilirathi scream.

Hmm, the music has aged very well with it. (I like mentioning Wing Commander since I see it as one of the top ten, if not top five, transformative games of all time. This is game that brought in the Cinematic Style.)

By the time games got to CDs, music became a commodity. Of course, music was important but it would no longer be a driving difference in technology.

When you ask someone about games such as Warcraft…

…or Command and Conquer…

…they will remember the music most of all.

Music quality did progress further. Surround sound, six speakers, seven speakers, and so on. Yet, none of this drove sales of the game as music had become a commodity. It is interesting that the game companies that made it big in that time period (the few that still exist) place a huge degree of polish and exactness to the sound and music quality of their games. Blizzard never focuses on having the best graphics. But an extroadinary amount of time is spent on sound and music quality as if it hadn’t become a commodity (which might explain part of Blizzard’s success).

While music had a shorter life cycle of being a differentiating factor in gaming, graphics too will become a commodity. Brandon Sheffield, senior editor of Gamesutra and Game Developer Magazine, wrote an editorial in the magazine trying to explain graphics have now become a commodity. Naturally, the hardcore went batshit insane and have even begun comparing him to me (you know you are hated when hardcore compare you to Malstrom).

What Sheffield is talking about is when customers are at a level when technology is ‘good enough’ for their needs. Just as music became ‘good enough’ long ago, graphic technology has now become ‘good enough’ for most customers. In other words, no one is going to buy a game because of ‘new graphical features’. Sure, there is a minority who thinks it is not good enough, but that is the minority. Why chase after a minority where costs increase?

This level that a customer’s need is ‘good enough’ and the products have begun overshooting that is the very basis of understanding disruption. This allows another company to focus on another value that needs to be worked on (such as user interface) and, viola, user interface replaces graphics as the differentiating value of video games.

The process of a value, such as graphics, or music, or something else becoming ‘good enough’ for the consumer and another value is focused on is the natural ebb and flow of industries. So why have the hardcore gone batshit insane? What exactly is their problem?

Hardcore aren’t really concerned about graphics or even ‘core’ games. What is really driving the hardcore insane is the ridiculous notions of ‘art’ they assign to games such as the Metal Gear Solid franchise. They don’t percieve change as natural industry change. They percieve change as a THREAT to VIDEO GAMING ART. Yes, they are that deluded. And who defines ‘video gaming art’? Why, the hardcore, of course.

Many people would look at Wii Sports as more ‘art’ than a game like Metal Gear Solid.

“No!” scream the hardcore. “That is not possible!”

The hardcore only defines video game art through a cinematic lens. They can’t imagine art in any other way. But mothers seeing the family play together, as many as four generations surrounding the little white console, means more to them than any ‘cinematic’ game ever could. “But how is that art!?” It is not unlike those famous paintings where nothing is uniquely special about it except that many generations surround the dinner table or the child or something like that.

Casual gamers is a code word for saying ‘crummy customers’, which every disruption begins. Crummy customers will soon be seen as ‘regular’ customers. Do you know what this will do to your definition of ‘art in video games’, Mr. Hardcore?

It means what and how we define ‘art’ will change. This means what you considered ‘art’ was never truly ‘art’ at all, at least, not until the definitions change. And as the industry is reformatted and the market grown, rest assured the definition *will* change.

When that day comes, when the definition of art of video games becomes percieved to be something other than ‘cinema’, that will be the day when the hardcore scream louder than they ever have before. It will be the Great Meltdown. (So far, we have had minor meltdowns. As we approach That Blessed Day, the meltdowns tend to increase in intensity as we slowly approach the climax.)

Poor Hardcore! They thought Next Gen would look like this:

Instead, it is looking like this:

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