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What Games Are: The Power Conversation

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer and creator of leading game design blog What Games Are. He has recently moved into managing developer relations at OUYA. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Seth Godin told a story a few years ago about how a research team tested whether users really perceived a difference in the quality of Google vs. Yahoo results versus what they believed. The team performed some HTML jiggery pokery so that a user could type a search into “Google” and see Yahoo results, but they still appeared to be Google results, and vice versa. Then a test group of users was asked to try each engine and report which they preferred. The result? “Google.”

We’ve heard these sorts of taste-test stories many times before, about how aspects other than function weigh more heavily in the judgment of quality. They teach us something very human about reality versus perception, and how the marketing story of a technology is often its most important feature. It’s why aesthetics matter and also why key numbers and acronyms form the backbone of the conversation. The debate over whose tech is best, who has the most oomph and whose is the future is an important aspect of technology.

In the games industry especially so. There are few arguments more likely to get hardcore gamers agitated than who has the best “graphics.” This is not a style argument you understand, but rather an argument about realism, numbers of polygons, gigahertz and RAM. It’s an argument about the virtues of resolutions and screen size and benchmarks. Like watching car enthusiasts wax lyrical about the benefits of one engine over another, the power conversation in games is about groups of teenagers and grown men arguing over the perceived benefits of features about which they actually know very little.

I’m pretty sure that if a similar type of Google/Yahoo test were performed with console games using swapped joypads, the research would show the same kind of result. Tell them that they’re playing the PS4 version and hand them a PS4 joypad (yet actually have them control an Xbox One version) and they’d say it was best. Why? Because that’s what they have believed to be true since E3. Players would pick according to tribal loyalties rather than any tangibly noticeable difference.

Take, for example, the news that two top shooters (Call of Duty and Battlefield 4) are showing very slight differences in performance between the two systems. In one case one of the games shows almost imperceptible variations in crispness and some distance details. In the other, one of them is running at native 1080 resolution where the other is upscaling 720.

In raw physical terms it cannot be understated how much this news actually matters. Ultimately when playing either, the vast majority of players will have a perfectly grand time shooting up the world and each other with glorious visuals and sound. Indeed the apparent differences in graphics across platforms became meaningless years ago.

Since roughly around the time that Half Life 2 came out the differences have grown smaller as the budgets have escalated. So much so that these days it takes very zoomed-in shots of details to prove to the gamer crowd that yes, games are still getting graphically better. Details that a player will never likely notice while playing.

Yet in terms of the marketing stories, this sort of stuff is a big deal. On Reddit and forums like NeoGAF and you’ll find hundreds of pages of wild speculation about what it all means. The quasi-imaginary details that players think they can see feed into their emotional connection with both their games and their platforms, and justify their pre-orders. Nobody wants to be disappointed, everybody wants to make sure that their platform is the best, and a kind of circular logic takes hold between both console kids and PC fans who like to deride from above with a “we were already here years ago” haughtiness.

It may sound baffling to the outsider that this aspect of the conversation around games retains so much gravity, but it is what it is. It happens across every platform. The average smart device user doesn’t really know what a Tegra 4 is, nor an A7, but fans like to justify themselves in much the same way. It’s not hard to find arguments over whose retina screens are even-more-retina than others. People who think they know like to connect to their favorite in this way.

The important audience here is “those who think they know.” Professional designers and developers have usually worked on the inside of platforms long enough to perceive the gap between reality and ideality. Go ask many an iOS developer what they think of working on Apple’s platform and you’ll probably get a meat-and-potatoes answer about the cost of user acquisition and the pros and cons of Unity or Xcode. It’s all just chips and bits and bugs.

The people who get passionate about the power conversation have a populist understanding of the technology, whether in an amateur or professional capacity. They are the best-placed ones to speculate and dream about what their chosen device might do, but also what it means. In this way they sometimes equate the power conversation with the legitimacy of the medium. As games get more real and more cinematic (such as in the Battlefield footage) this equates to fulfilling the promise of video games. Or maybe, they think, it will one day.

Yet for many game makers, that tendency to draw an equivalence is increasingly a problem. Within the indie sector especially, the power conversation looks completely alien, yet overshadows much of what they are trying to do. There are increasing numbers of game makers that want to have a different conversation with players. They want to be able to make playing games a social topic, much as many other kinds of art are, but that’s hard to do when the much wider popular press tends to only hear the power conversation.

The games industry is never quite sure about whether it’s an entertainment or a technology industry and it straddles that divide uncertainly. Talking up the virtues of a technology can be a very powerful way for a game to get noticed. Enthusing about motion capture, say, or real-time physics and the virtues of clouds and super smart AIs regularly gains a lot of attention from various media outlets. It’s a conversation that never really dies because it’s the easiest one to have. Yet at the same time it’s limiting.

Beyond the Reddit wars and so on, the widely known story about games tends to be much as it has been for decades. It’s the occasional oohs and aahs over some innovations and the odd media furore over salacious content. It’s finger-pointing in the wake of school shooters. It’s game reviews appearing in the technology section of newspapers rather than their culture sections. And largely that’s because the loudest voices tend to talk in tech terms over everything else.

The kinds of games that the power conversation represents are the ones that many industry commentators find uncomfortable. It’s hard not to notice how many big games these days display their wares with gory head shot cut scenes and similar displays of ultra violence. Advocate journalists talk about how games have a sexism problem and then segue into lush graphical sequences that show ineptly written story sequences with violence against women. There’s a dimension to the power conversation that’s awkward and sometimes even ugly, and it gets in the way. So much so that some more radical designers believe that games as they are need to be destroyed to make room for something else.

Perhaps the power conversation will always be with us. Like watching the blockbuster end of Hollywood spend gargantuan amounts of money on special effects for movies that are soon forgotten, many of the games that seek to exploit the power conversation arrive with tons of fury yet signify very little. They are quickly forgotten. While we may wonder if the quest for ever-more-slight detail in graphics will ultimately prove sustainable, other conversations, like the ones that talk about games such as Gone Home, will continue to find their own way through. I like to think that the rest of the world is slowly starting to notice.