Tank Made of Paint

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One of the most frustrating things about computer games is the common focus on graphic fidelity without matching high fidelity mechanics, interface, and characters. There’s a good overview of the problem over there. I’d like to add a few points.

Graphics are like paint. A good coat of paint does wonders for a project. Paint can really solidify a design, whether code or concrete, into something stunning. Paint takes “machined” parts and turns them into “finished” ones, ready for assembly. Paint can turn a car into a statement, an expression!

But don’t build an engine out of paint. Also, you probably shouldn’t paint the steering wheel or the dashboard. And the tires, leave those raw. Okay, this metaphor is getting stretched, but you can see where the mechanics, interface, and emotional traction of a game come in. The visual presentation is important, but you’ve got to have the other elements as well.

Ideally, you’d have everything. A sports car, beautiful, responsive, powerful, and easy to drive. But we can’t all afford sports cars, and sometimes you just need a dump truck or a bland minivan. Games that focus on graphics, like a VW Bus with a custom paint job, are great. Plus they make a fantastic first impression. You can’t see the engine of the car, but you sure can see the paint job.

This is probably the reason for fidelity mania in the first place. Polished visuals work great in marketing, in getting people to buy the game. You look at a cinematic quality screenshot and think “wow, it looks like real life!” and the implication is “it must play like real life too, this will be great!” But if it doesn’t, all those expectations will sour into feeling cheated. At least, that’s the way I feel.

You have probably seen a car with spinner rims. Imagine if that car was filled with leering hoodlums, rattling like it was about to fall to pieces, and pouring chocking black banks of smoke from the exhaust pipe. Do the spinners help them out? Surely you think more of them for their flashy attention-grabbing visual representation! At least they made the effort to look nice.

But (and this is where I’m expressing my preference) I’d prefer to drive a tank. A tank’s paint job is utilitarian, cheap, unimpressive. But a tank has a killer engine, a powerful tactile interface, and more traction than anyone knows what to do with. I want my games gripping, complex, powerful, and visually utilitarian. In fact, the paint job on a tank can get quite scuffed during use (as procedurally generated visuals will do) and still run just fine. The paint isn’t the point. The point is the firepower (“firepower” doesn’t have a place in the metaphor, but the phrase sounded cool when I said it at the end of this paragraph).

So, I appreciate a good coat of paint, and good visuals as well. Probably not as much as the next guy, but that’s fine. Just be sure to keep the visual considerations out of the interface, the emotional traction, and for goodness sake don’t put paint in the game engine!

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