Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Importance of Good Art Design in Games

Waaaay back in the long-forgotten archives--that is, my first post back in November 08--I mentioned I might occasionally review a book, comic or video game on this blog. That never happened. I don't know why. But anyway, the reason I bring this up is because I've decided to write something related to both games and art--graphics technology and art design in video games. It's a subject that's been bugging me for a while, and this is the main reason--games these days have tendency to look bland and uninspired and still require a ridiculously good computer.
It seems that over time, as graphics technology grew more powerful, many developers seemed to decide that their games didn't have to look "good" per se--if they slapped on some specular and dynamic lighting, they could make any piece of boring crap look photorealistic. This led to the rise of games like this--
This is ArmA 2, a game that came out in the recent months and is another victim of the Dirt, Camo and Concrete School of Game Design. Many recent games feature graphics with grey and brown as the predominant colors. Developers try to push that this looks "grittily realistic", but the truth is, the real world, even in a warzone, features all the colors in the spectrum. Before the age of fancy lighting effects (see the shadows on that soldier's pants? That kind of crap) developers actually had to find ways to make games look good without highly realistic effects. But before we move into the subject of games that actually fall into that category, I'd like to cover something else first.
Namely, the system requirements of PC games in recent years. You'll notice that the screenshot I posted up there looks less than spectacular. "What is this tomfoolery?" one might exclaim. "This scene is hardly phtorealistic!" And it's true. The ground is flat, there is a distinct lack of shadows projecting onto objects, and that tarpaulin or windscreen or whatever the hell that is in the back looks like it was airbrushed in Microsoft Paint. Plus, although you can't tell from the screenshot, the image is fuzzy, stretched, and pixelated, because I have to run the game at a screen resolution far below that of my actual monitor. This is what the actual game looks like:
So, shadows, and a higher detail tarp/net thingy. You'll notice it's still all grey, brown, and olive drab. I believe this is supposed to be on a sunny day too. So not only are the graphics rather uninspired even at high quality on an amazing computer, here's the kicker: even looking as crappy as that first screenshot did (the game was running at the lowest settings) it still never reached framerates about 5 fps. Imagine a movie with four out of every five frames taken out and you can imagine what this looked like. Everything was choppy and incredibly slow. Chances are good if I could turn off whatever that damn effect is that make that damn guy's pants all wrinkly, the game would run just fine and I would be able to turn on things like foliage and high-detail objects, which would make it look a hell of a lot more realistic than having a guy that looks like he's made of plasticine have wrinkly pants. The problem with modern graphics technology is that modern games are built with incredibly subtle effects that have a huge effect on performance.
Moving on. One might hink I just have a crappy computer--no, not at all. My PC is less than a year old with a setup that would put many computers to shame. Here's the evidence:
There! Doesn't that look amazing? In fact, the detail in the various objects makes it look close to realistic. Oh wait, the chick on the left doesn't have wrinkly pants. However, that's probably a small price to pay, considering the amount of work that went into the looks of this game. Half-Life 2 (which is one of the greatest games ever made) manages to draw you in to a quite believable world without the use and abuse of vertex shaders, antisoptric filtering, and excessive bump-mapping. (No I don't know what that stuff means either.)
You'll notice that the designers have noted the value of color--there are multicolored posters and sticky notes on the walls, the computer screen displays a shade of blue quite common on old computers, and there are those big giant glowing orange tubes of awesome in the back there. And this is in a game where the evil Universal Union, an interdimensional alien empire, is sucking Earth's resources dry and turning the planet into a wasteland. So it has more reason to be grey and brown than most.
The developers of HL2, Valve, knew how to make a game look good without fancy effects. This was also before most modern graphics technology--this game came out in 2004, five years previous to our mud-colored military friend above. The methods they used were new and revolutionary but also quite noticeable. They paid special attention to the texture of objects--I'm pretty sure that back wall was modeled in the game using an actual photo of a brick wall. That makes it look very realistic. In a modern game it would be just as likely that the game engine would render each brick artificially and individually, which would not look right at all. Likewise, although you can't tell in the screenshot, the motion of the characters was animated to look very human, based off of actual human movement. Combined with the intense detail in the faces of the characters and the impressive range of emotions they can show, the headstrong resistance fighter and the absent-minded scientist in this image feel far more human in-game than those rubber soldiers up there.
The difference between HL2 and ArmA 2 is that the developers of the former had to hand-design everything that went into their game whereas the developers of the latter had a computer do most of their work, generating shadows and textures. The difference is clear. ArmA 2 is designed to look good only with top-notch computers, and even then has an uncanny fakeness to it. Half-Life 2, due to the extensive work actual humans had to put into it, not only scales down far better on less-than-perfect PCs, it also manages to feel immersive and interesting, and draws you into a world that doesn't have to look like a photograph to make you feel like it could actually exist. Hooray for outdated technology.
There's one other category of games I haven't mentioned yet: games that don't even try to look realistic in favor of artistic design. Blizzard Entertainment has done this with the majority of their games. Observe:
No attempt at realism was made here. This came out the same year as HL2, so it was certainly in the developers' power to make this game look more realistic. World of Warcraft, despite its annoying addictiveness and its complete mutilation of the Warcraft series' storyline, looks very interesting artistically. The trippy elf city above is designed to look beautiful and impressive, rather than like it could actually exist. The features and stances of the characters are exxagerated and the foliage is oversized. There is also a ridiculous amount of detail, seeing as you can count the petals on the flowers and the swirly things on the woman's armor. The game boasts a very unique art style, and focuses on using color to bring about a certain association with each area of the game.
For instance, the kingdom of the above elves is filled with gold and bright colors which emphasizes their flamboyant nature. Even the sky is tinted a bright shade of yellowish-pink--no, of course the sky isn't that color all the time, but it's intended to make the elves look vibrant and slightly over-the-top in their natural habitat. Here's another example:
The orc city of Orgrimmar. The predominant colors are brown and red, which allows the player to easily associate with the orcs' fierce, tribal nature, as well as their desert habitat. Here's one more example:
This is the magical elf forest of Ashenvale. The other elves, the ones who have beards and druids and are purple and aren't anime-inspired like the first ones I mentioned. The developers used purple and teal--two colors found rather uncommonly in nature--not only to make the entire region look like a giant acid trip, but also to accentuate the fact that this is a magic forest. It didn't grow this way naturally, it got this way by being around the magic-using elves for thousands of years. So, Blizzard knows how to use color to their advantage. It's part of the advantage of games that sacrifice realism for art--besides just looking awesome.
Whew, that was a long post. I hope it made sense and didn't just seem like a big long rambling rant. Anyway, I say more games featuring artistry and attention to detail and fewer games featuring specular lighting and wrinkly pants.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Attempted Realism

\Well, my computer still has not returned from the dead yet, accounting for the distinct lack of posts, but like three people read this blog anyway, so I doubt anyone minds.
Anyway, I recently felt like trying a more realistic style. I'm still working on really getting good at drawing people, so I thought if I drew some actual people things might improve. Both images below were based off photos.
I decided it would be best to start with a self-portrait so as not to embarrass anyone else. Fortunately, it turned out remarkably well, in my opinion.
This one, not quite as well. I find that the smaller I draw people, the less detail I can add, the harder it becomes. Interesting. These are some of the students--as well as the teacher--from my Advanced Video class.

My computer should be back soon, and hopefully more posts will arrive.