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Art in games. Is it important?

He’d heard quite a bit about the new game. Call of the Booty, they called it. A fresh take on an open world of swashbuckling pirates with naval battles, island crook-ery, and just a hint of rewarding nudity making for a compelling buy.

Or so they said anyway.

Should be fine, he said to himself as hit the install button. The game had been on iOS for a while now but was only just making its way to Android. And word on the grapevine said there would be significant differences across both platforms…

“Oh well, can’t judge without actually seeing it now, can I?”

The download animation sped through, a 250Mbps connections keeping the process short.

Installation complete. A permissions screen, a loading screen. Same old, same old.

“But wait a minute, why does this look like a game straight out of 2011? What’s with the uninspiring design?”

Urgh, he’d been had. Should have stuck to well-known titles; Six Guns was half a decade old but still managed to look much better than this!

Time to apply for a refund.

Urgh!

| Note that the above scenario is completely hypothetical and does not carry the privilege of bearing a “Based on a true life story” tag. |

 
75% of gamers say visuals played a large role in making their buying decision.

Visuals are, without a doubt, the most important aspect of a video game. Sure, hardcore gamers like to say otherwise.

“It’s all about mechanics, bro!”

“Gimme’ good gameplay over visuals any day!”

But available data proves that “say” is where all of that usually ends. Mere talk. And talk isn’t exactly the most expensive thing around; only a select few gamers actually vote for their opinions with their wallets. It’s why FIFA—the game, that is, not the mostly corrupt organization — has outsold PES every single year for the last decade, even though PES lovers swear by the ultra-realistic gameplay.

“Well, that’s nice and all but the Master League menu still looks absolutely nauseating.”

Can’t polish a turd and all that. Of course, FIFA’s dominance is influenced by a number of nuanced factors but the game’s advantage in visual refinement over PES is the biggest item on the list.

There’s also the obvious fact that all historically acclaimed games have been visual masterpieces of their generation. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, God of War 3, and The Last of Us are some of the biggest titles in the recent past and they all had one thing in common; game-changing visuals, pun absolutely intended.

On the mobile front, games like Clash of Clans and Candy Crush are considered the most commercially successful titles and while the addictive gameplay and mechanics may be the biggest reasons, you’d also be hard-pressed to find games with such pinpoint user interfaces.


The commercial success of a game is almost always proportional to how good it looks, but you probably already knew that.

The One That Visuals Made

Avatar debuted in cinemas in December 2009. It went on to make well over two billion dollars at the global box office, the most of any movie ever made. Having a massive “Directed by James Cameron” plastered across every ad helped, no doubt, and the movie itself wasn’t bad. But that’s the thing, it wasn’t really good either.

Most would consider the plot of Avatar to be bland and the very definition of forgettable, with few to no elements having any influence on current pop culture. And yet, Avatar sits at the head of a table of movies that include titles in the Star Wars and Marvel franchises. Commercial monoliths, the lot of them, and all having way more cultural relevance than Cameron’s masterpiece.

Why, one might ask.

Visuals. If there’s one thing Cameron’s commercial magnum opus can be lauded for, it’s how much it pushed the entire movie industry forward. Avatar was the first of its kind to offer a complete 3D experience, and it introduced major innovations to the movie industry—and the video game industry, by extension. It’s why we got to see Thanos drag down the surface of a moon in crystal-clear high definition, and also why the scene of Ellie kissing her new girlfriend in the new The Last of Us 2 trailer has such an effect.

Movies aren’t exactly the same as games—although titles like Heavy Rain and Detroit: Become Human have attempted to bridge the gap—but both are ultimately still visual experiences. And Avatar proved that with a powerful enough visual spectacle, the world would be left with no choice but to pay attention, and pay attention it did.  


The One That Visuals Failed

“A bold step backwards,” Gamespy’s review read. “Worst user interface in a PC game since 1998.”

Final Fantasy XIV was always destined for greatness. A direct successor to the Final Fantasy XI that was released in 2002, the MMORPG had fans of the franchise panting in anticipation, and one would have expected it to take a leap off a giant steel beam and smash all Final Fantasy sales records on the way down.

Apparently not.

The game was released on Windows in 2010 and went on to be hailed as one of the worst games of the year. It’s not every day you see a game perform so horribly that the studio’s CEO issues an apology and promises never to repeat such a heinous crime, but Final Fantasy XIV managed to check all those boxes.

The Square Enix title itself wasn’t all bad. At the very least it was better at being a video game than Avatar was—at being a movie. And yet one went on to be the highest grossing product in its industry, while the other was banished to the back of the public’s mind by an incessant stream of gomen’s.

Visuals killed Final Fantasy XIV; in this case, the game boasting of one of the worst user interfaces ever seen. You know, just like the Gamespy review above said.

Why Visuals Are Important For Your Game

If the “video” in the term “video game” wasn’t overt enough about it, it must be pointed out that games are, first and foremost, visual concepts. A few games have managed to become commercial juggernauts without any of the next-gen graphical experiences offered by the competition but even those have offered something….different.

Minecraft didn’t achieve renown for its graphical prowess but it still offers a sound, soothing visual experience. The sort a gamer gets used to—a statement best evidenced by the game’s ridiculous sales numbers.

Human perception is most influenced by visual stimuli, with audio a not-so-distant second. That in mind, it’s no surprise that most recent GoTY winners have offered an edge in the looks department, with titles like Bloodborne, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild all offering spectacular visual experiences from different viewpoints.

Look no further than the acclaimed Grand Theft Auto series for a nigh-perfect juxtaposition of the effect of visuals on sales. The GTA franchise has a peculiar feature, sales-wise: All games in the series have gone on to outsell their predecessors. With the obvious exception, of course, being the almost-forgotten GTA IV. The successor to the expansive GTA San Andreas failed to beat—or even reach—the heights attained by its predecessor. While GTA IV was plagued by a number of issues, few would argue the fact that the game had one of the most uninspired graphical themes in the series. It would be a tad facetious to claim that underwhelming sales of GTA IV were caused by its looks, but that was, undoubtedly, a factor at play.

A more relevant example at the moment is Epic Game’s Fortnite, launched in 2017 at the height of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds’ (PUBG) powers. Less than a year after, the former has over twice the player count of the latter, in a nigh Myspace/Facebook-esque flip of the table. So successful has Fortnite being that its producing studio could opt to go independent with the game’s launch on Android, free from the shackles of Google’s app store.


One notable reason for Fornite’s rise to the top of the battle royale scene in such little time was the game’s visual aesthetic. Opting for a cartoony graphical element over PUBG’s 3D, mainstream style, the game managed to appeal to a demographic disenamoured with the latter’s visual take. Having better optimization and subjectively more fun gameplay mechanics also helped. Probably. But that’s a story for another day.

The concept of visuals has a far-reaching definition, from the simplest textures to painstakingly crafted animated sequences but eye candy is, after all, eye candy—and some extra visual spice is always welcome. Feel free to laugh at the effect a more intuitive HUD could have on a game, but do so at your own peril.