April 19, 2019

What Is the Value of Visual Effects for Games?

Game Development

Ara Jam

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What Is the Value of Visual Effects for Games

Over the past 15 years, games have undergone tremendous improvements. The solo-developers who would produce early games in their garage have given their place to multimillion studios with thousands of crews, with titles that cost hundreds of million dollars for development and marketing.

Yet, the battle for profitability is a very challenging one, especially for game developers. Last September, renowned studio TellTale Games shut down due to declining sales. Yet, raising the price for games makes them unfeasible, and studios have to deliver better and better quality as the horsepower of PCs and consoles increases, while still maintaining the $60 limit. It’s worth noting that one of the reasons behind TellTale’s fall was the use of old technology that wouldn’t serve it well for future titles.

It comes down to this: studios have to offer better quality with every game, or they will not only lose the market; they will need to shut down.

The building blocks of game development

The idea behind every game is based on one following pillars:

– The story;

– The gameplay; or

– The technology

In some games, the primary focus is on telling the story. Masterpieces such as Silent Hills, The Walking Dead and What Remains of Edith Finch are such examples, and the story element is so good that even shortcomings in the gameplay can be neglected.

The “gameplay” element is unique to games. Movies share the story part with games, and even the technology part (in terms of CGI), but no movie can offer gameplay. By gameplay, the historic example is Tetris. There is no story there, nor a fancy technology; yet we have a game that has attracted millions of playing hours over the years. The modern example is Fortnite; a new Battle Royale genre which made Epic Games the forerunner among video game studios.

The third pillar is “technology”. Games are computer programs, so technology is an inherent part of every game. Yet, game programming is extremely difficult: contrary to movies or animations where visual effects can take years to render, games have to render everything in sub-seconds. And those who manage to push the limits in technology win a big deal. The classic example is Diablo, where Blizzard used 3000 sprites to render the main character. It was a smart move; by spending most of the CPU power on the protagonist, the players would get better overall gaming experience.

Of course, newer games completely push the limit. Red Dead Redemption 2 and God of War are great examples that combine all three elements: they have a great story, fun gameplay and stunning visual effects.

The importance of the tech element

One aspect that separates games from movies is the reusability element. Games rely on a “game engine” that drives the software, provides the gameplay and renders the scene. Once the game engine is developed, the rest of the work is to build extra levels or content for the game; the hard part is over. That’s what allows “modding” games; even players are able to extend the game.

Subsequent versions of a game are typically always more advanced; the developers not only reuse the game engine – but they also improve it. This is a factor that not only improves the end game but also offers a very cost-effective way to do that.

Of course, what a game can do is limited by the underlying hardware. Gaming consoles have typically offered an advantage, allowing developers to max out their creativity. But each console has its own programming procedure, so developing a game for Xbox, PC and Playstation essentially requires three times development.

Recognizing this problem, developers built cross-platform SDKs such as Unity and Unreal Engine. These platforms not only allow developers to build once and deploy across several consoles, but they also enable development for mobile devices; an area which has its own challenges in terms of CPU and memory, as well as screen size. While there will still be a need for fine-tuning for each platform, the work is reduced by 80-90%, offering another tool for developers to expand their reach and earn more from their work.

Finally, the graphics of the game speaks a lot about what you might expect from the actual gameplay. Poor graphics translate to low efforts on game development. Unlike movies, which might take 2-3 hours max, games can consume hundreds of playing hours. The visual look of the game offers the first impression if the game is worth our time.

Luckily, with platforms such as Unity and Unreal Engine, a lot of the hard work is already done. Developers can focus on the artistic part, while many visual effects and game mechanics come built-in with the engines. Telltale was also going to ditch their old engine in favor of Unity before it was forced to shut down. For them, the switch would have required a lot of extra work, as they could not transfer their work to the new platform without recreating everything from scratch.

That is another plus of using these platforms; they ensure you are always current.

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