The real cost of polygons

2013-02-24

Here's a headline that should sound familiar to any gamer: Visual Effects Industry Does a Disappearing Act. The closing of an award-winning studio soon after launching a highly-grossing game is already a staple in the world of gaming. And while it's easy to blame Hollywood accounting for the phenomenon, there is another thing that computer games and movies have in common, and which keeps pushing development costs to ever more absurd heights.

A few days ago, Sony has unveiled their next generation console, to doubtful reactions from bloggers, to put it nicely. (One article I've read was full of profanity.) And I couldn't help but notice that according to all of these articles, Sony equates the future of gaming with more polygons. More... M-m-more polygons... Revolution! (Insert electronic music here.) More emotion in games? Just add polygons! New experiences? Same treatment!

The problem with that is twofold.

First there's the fact that in a game, like in a movie, the quality of the computer graphics cannot supplant the lack of a good story, or interesting characters. Nor can it create these ingredients if they're missing. Did you watch Inception just to see Paris fold up on itself, mindblowing as it was? Did you watch The Incredibles for the artwork?

Did you cry when Grace died in Avatar?

See, human beings have a limited attention span, either individually or collectively. Focus too much on one thing, and you won't have much attention left for anything else. In their chase after ever-better visual effects, movie and game creators alike are getting further, not closer, from creating well-rounded works worthy to be called Art.

Which brings us to the second problem: costs don't scale linearly. After a certain point, it's not equally easy to improve each aspect of a movie or game. You can cut 80% of the writing effort, and not get more than a 20% improvement in the graphics department. Moreover, due to the law of diminishing returns, this ratio is only going to get worse the more budget you pump into SFX.

Who cares? Avatar still made a shitload of money.

Yes, yes it did. But at tremendous cost. And imagine you're a producer -- therefore in it for the money -- and you're going over the balance sheet trying to see which of your creative departments have given you the least return on investment...

No, it's not fair. Especially since it was most likely the producer who insisted on overly expensive special effects in the first place. But there you have it. The race after ever more polygons at the expense of everything else may not lead us to a new videogame crash (that much should be obvious by now), but that's small consolation when a developer's reward for pushing the state of the art once again is to be let off... just like last time.

Unsurprisingly, Sony is betraying their desperate need for more developers, whom they are trying to woo with more freedom than ever. An easy to work with Intel architecture? A self-publishing platform? Where have I heard that before?

Tags: , .