Maximum fun: Do graphics matter as much in the next console generation?

By Erik Christiansen

Originally published at https://tech-bytes.net on September 14, 2020.

The launch of a new console generation is so very exciting. It’s one of the few things that genuinely makes me feel like I’m a kid again. Even if you’re not a gamer, new console generations are important milestones in the computer industry because they often bring cutting-edge and innovative technology to a larger number of people. This upcoming generation is no different from all the amazing new CPUs and GPUs provided by AMD, solid-state storage (SSD), faster memory, and (hopefully) faster load times. Graphics certainly get better with each generation, but does the increased graphical fidelity and realism matter as much in this generation? I hypothesize that it doesn’t. I believe we’re reaching a plateau of “maximum fun” (or fun saturation). What I mean is that more detailed graphics and higher resolution textures won’t necessarily lead to better gameplay at least for the time being. Rather, game fluidity as a result of higher frames-per-second (FPS) and good game mechanics are better indicators of a game’s replay-ability over time.

The focus of this generation

For tech enthusiasts like myself, reading about new computer hardware and architecture is titillating. This happens whenever there’s a large leap forward in any computing device, and it reminds me of the PlayStation 2’s launch in 2001 when I was 12 years old. (Actually, that was better because there were no toxic user comments in those days.)

So much of the focus on new consoles is graphics. But, this time around there’s a bigger narrative about native 4K gaming at 60 FPS. It’s interesting because 4K gaming isn’t something you get with a new console automatically. Many people will have to upgrade their TV to get this experience.

In a 2017 article, The Verge reported that 4K gaming wasn’t the correct target, and I’d argue that this is still the case. On the PC side, only a tiny percentage of gamers play in 4K. Targeting 120 FPS and aiming for better ‘fluidity’ over resolution makes more sense. The graphics overhead to run native 4K is immense, and if you don’t believe me read Gavin Stevens’ Twitter thread on the Xbox Series S and X.

PlayStation 2 and controller
PlayStation 2 and controller
The Playstation 2 launched October 26, 2000 and went on to become the greatest selling game console of all time.

Maximum fun?

“The name of the game is the game.”

That’s a famous quote from Nintendo. It means that what sells game consoles are games, not frivolous features or specs alone. The Nintendo Switch, during it’s three and a half years of existence, has sold 62 million units, and it’s a far less powerful console compared to even the current generation of competitors. Nintendo does its own thing, not unlike Apple, because it has games. It has some of the most iconic game franchises ever. So games matter and I’d argue it’s the most important factor.

But, at this point, all the consoles have good games. Sony has many more exclusives, but Microsoft has bought many studios (a very impressive roster in point of fact). Regardless of which platform has the most exclusives, there’s a good roster on every platform which is a win for players.

As I stated at the start, 4K gaming and graphical fidelity, like all previous console generations, has been a focal point. But, I don’t think this matters as much anymore.

I’ve attempted to chart Fun (Y-axis) vs Realism/Fidelity (X-Axis). Realism is on the X-Axis because it tends to get better over time. Now, this is biased and my view. It’s not scientific. Rather this is an illustration of my point that we’ve arrived at “maximum fun.” Not only do I suspect that graphical details and texture quality is going to plateau this generation (and has been for some time), but adding better graphics to the mix will have a minimal impact on the quality of our games.

My argument is based on gameplay mechanics combined with “good enough” visuals. Early 3D games (PSOne, Nintendo 64, Saturn, etc.) don’t hold up well over time. The visuals are muddy. The frame rates are terrible. This is a generalization, of course. Games like Super Mario 64 hold up better than say, early first-person shooters. Why? I’d argue that realism wasn’t the only driving factor. Super Mario 64 looks awful compared to Mario Oddessy on Nintendo Switch. But, 3D platforming game mechanics haven’t changed drastically. The controls are more responsive today, but it’s surprisingly close. Playing 007 GoldenEye vs Halo is a big difference. There are so many gameplay mechanics — and so many more controller buttons — that we take for granted. Some of these include using the top triggers for shooting or dual analog sticks.

For many years graphical fidelity and game mechanics were advancing in tandem. Now, game mechanics have remained largely the same for a couple of generations. Graphics continue to get better and I love that. But, I do notice that 360 and PS3 era games hold up much better over time than a game from the PSOne/N64 era. Games from the sixth generation of consoles and afterward seem to have more staying power. This is very similar to 2D games from the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis days. Those 2D games were the pinnacle of 2D, and the classics from that era (Super Mario World anyone?) are still a blast to play. Once 2D game mechanics were perfected, it didn’t matter if the developers were able to double the detail of the characters of the worlds. The games were already responsive.

Another way to put my argument is this: Game playability over time could be phrased as an equation. Again this isn’t scientific. The equation could be “game longevity = game mechanics + graphical fidelity over the player’s expectations relative to current industry standards.

For now, I think we’ve arrived at maximum fun. Graphical fidelity will not make games more fun. We’re here until new game mechanics change the game.

Xbox Series S (finally) and the competition

So IF I’m correct in my hypothesis that we’re approaching a level of saturation of “fun” concerning graphics, this might explain Microsoft’s current strategy.

Multiple hardware variants are common in the PC industry. It’s common in the console gaming industry as well, but not at launch. The so-called “1.5” generation (or revision) typically launches somewhere in the middle (or last third) of a console’s lifecycle. In this generation, Microsoft is releasing its lower and high-end systems at the same time. Why? During the leaked Xbox Series X/S press event, Liz Hamren, Head of Platform Engineering and Hardware Microsoft, said that high prices at the start of a console generation were a barrier for many players. She also said that after examining trends in silicon development, they realized that decreasing costs wouldn’t come like in previous hardware generations. Despite all Microsoft’s hype around the Xbox Series X native 4K gaming, they know that A) resolution isn’t as important as fluidity (frames per second) since many people don’t have a 4K TV and B) price matters a lot. The Xbox Series S is an outstanding value regardless of its potential limitations. Microsoft didn’t anticipate a global pandemic, but the situation has put major financial stress on consumers so a budget console at launch is probably looking even more appealing.

My prediction is that this generation games will look better, but the jump in graphical fidelity will be lower than average. But, thanks to faster storage and more RAM, these games will be much more fluid with a higher percentile hitting the 60 FPS and above.

What’s the most played system in my house or my friends’ houses? Every time I ask someone the answer is the same; it’s the Nintendo Switch — a modified Android tablet. Great games, the ability to play games on a TV or mobile, and “good enough” visuals make it the winner. I bet Microsoft saw this and thought “how would our business look if we launched a console at the same price as the Nintendo Switch that still had 4x the graphical power of our current system?” Whether Nintendo directly influenced them from the start is irrelevant. I think their unbelievable success with a technically inferior product shows that $500 systems aren’t necessary.

The Series S won’t win over people who’ve bought into the Playstation ecosystem or who adore their exclusive games. But there are always more new customers than the old ones. For parents, $299 looks a lot better than $499+, especially when a $10 a month subscription through Xbox Game Pass gets you over 100 awesome games to play. How much are individual titles going for? $60 or $70 each?

In a YouTube live stream, Linus Sebastian pointed out that as a kid he didn’t actually “own” that many games for the Super Nintendo, but had a few mainstays and rented the rest. There’s no more Blockbuster anymore, but Microsoft’s “games as a service” model is filling that vacuum — allowing you to pay a subscription that provides access to over 100 titles but is still much cheaper than one-off rentals. Again, the “name of the game is the game.” They might lack big exclusives — for now — but launching with a collection like that plus being backwards compatible with thousands of previous-generation games is compelling.

Nvidia’s new graphics card announcement is also relevant to this console generation. These PC Cards are expensive, but Nvidia is becoming much more competitive on price. Their “low end” RTX 3070 will retail for $499, and PC Gamer puts that into perspective.

“The new Nvidia Ampere cards have finally been unveiled and the RTX 3090, RTX 3080, and RTX 3070 look like absolute monsters. Even the lowest spec, lowest priced of the second-gen RTX cards can outperform what was yesterday the fastest consumer graphics card in the world…”

- Dave James , PC Gamer

Consoles are always graphically inferior to PCs for gaming. That gap has also narrowed. Sure, you’ll get slightly better textures and frame rates playing Doom Eternal on PC than Xbox One X, but the difference isn’t massive. Even a “high-end” $500 console is significantly cheaper than a “low-end” $1000 gaming PC. A friend of mine alerted me to Nvidia’s strategy — arguing that it was to compete with consoles, not their PC competitor AMD. I think he’s right.

What to expect from the gaming industry moving forward

I love high-resolution graphics and texture detail. New console launches take my mind off the frustrating pandemic and uncertainty. Technology never loses its muster and it’s infinitely fascinating. I can still remember playing Metal Gear Solid 2 (thanks parents) on Playstation 2 in 2001 on a CRT TV in glorious 480p resolution.

I recently unboxed that PlayStation 2, which was in storage at my parents’ house and booted up that same game. The 8 MB memory card still had all my saves! Those game mechanics hold up well. Also, the game is so smooth and “appears” to run at 60 FPS — a huge feat for the time. Playing the original Shadow of Colossus, by comparison, wasn’t such a great experience. The game’s frame rate dropped into the 20s. It chugged. The game mechanics are fine but the controls aren’t responsive. All these games have lower polygon counts and muddy textures compared to today’s standards. But, the games that are fluid and maintain good mechanics hold up best over time.

I think all these companies know that graphics are going to plateau and that game mechanics are more-or-less perfected. The next big leaps in graphical fidelity are another generation away. Game mechanics won’t change drastically until we have new input methods or until virtual and augmented reality are mainstream. There’s always a market for enthusiasts who want to push the limits of their systems and play at “max settings.” But I don’t believe that’s what most players are looking for. If you look past the enthusiast market, I’m betting that these days, maximum fun at maximum value is going to win out. “The name of the game is the game,” not the graphics.

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