Give Me Liberty (II): Why the graphics race sucks.

Part two of the “Give me Liberty” series: A collection of thematically unrelated posts about stuff involving the word “liberty”.

Now, this can hardly be connected to a post about our political and personal freedoms, but, as I said, it is all about the word “liberty” with no relation in topic. You guessed it. Well, maybe you did not, but I will just claim you did. It is about Grand Theft Auto, which often takes place in a fictional adaption of New York City known as “Liberty City”. Especially the latest part of the main series, GTA IV. Now, while GTA is a game I love as it is an excellent way to kill time, aggression and pixel people, this somewhat recent entry has been pissing me off when I tried to play it. The reason: its HD-ness.

Now, my general anti-HD position might be seen by some as an attitude against technological progress. I am not asking for that. What I am asking for is merely not to demand cutting-edge technology for something as simple as a video game or a movie. Granted, HDTV is becoming affordable now, but I still do not see a reason behind making a major purchase of a new TV set, my old one is still working perfectly fine, for some increase in detail I do not actually notice. I do not know about you guys, but I am still one of those old-fashioned people who focus on the action, not on whether faces have full detail in a crowd scene, blood spray has full detail in a violence seen or… You catch my drift, I hope, I do not want to go into stuff like porn right now.

The same happens with video games. As you might know if you have read my older posts, I am a somewhat proud owner of both a DS (whose recent GTA rendition, Chinatown Wars, by the way surprised me positively) and a Wii as my current-gen video game hardware. Both use relatively dated technology and instead focus on affordability and advancements in other areas, such as opening up new ways of accessibility and immersion through the use of innovative touchscreen and motion controls, respectively. The same can be said about my main PC, from which I am writing this post. I have deliberately decided against cutting-edge technology back then, opting for an AMD Athlon 64 X2 4800+ (2×2.5 GHz) and a GeForce 8500 GT, because “it was enough”. Not for modern games, apparently.

What for? The visuals of San Andreas are, at least to me, as appealing (or, thanks to me not being able to use full detail, even more) than those in GTA IV (<3 motion blur). No, the game was designed from the ground up for HD consoles XBox 360 and PlayStation 3, the latter famous for its hepta-core (actually octa-core, but only 7 of the 8 processors are available IIRC) Cell über-processor. As such, they did not worry about compatibility – the PC version is, after all, just a port. So they could afford including detail players notice, if sensitized for it, in the first few minutes of playing, when they discover everything, and that is it.

This leaves us in a position where we need the newest, most powerful rig because of features that we do not even notice once we have really gotten into the game. A mid-range PC struggles to run the game at minimum detail level, while the predecessor looks prettier and runs better. Rockstar has managed not to acknowledge those who do not want to spend lots of money on gaming hardware. I say “managed not to” instead of “failed to” because that is the problem in entertainment nowadays: they can afford that. There are too many of you who gladly swallow the HD development. Have you thought about the consequences? I am not talking about misers like me not being able to enjoy the same games as you, I am talking about the larger-scale consequences: By supporting this development, you are encouraging an increase in it.

How long will you be able to keep up in the HD race? It will last until you barely can. You have all seen the hubris the video game industry is capable of. I can just say “Sony E3 2006”. Do you remember? “PS3 is “for consumers to think to themselves ‘I will work more hours to buy one’. We want people to feel that they want it, irrespective of anything else.”” (Source) – and the famous “It’s probably too cheap.” line. Go ahead and upgrade without question when a game requires that – the power demand will continue growing.

But this affects not only the hardware, but the software as well. More aesthetical design requires more design work. Some games are already close to operating with a movie-like budget. Game development becomes more expensive. This will hurt in two ways. First, it inflates the price of the actual game. But there is another, hidden consequence. If those high-budget games are to set the standards, what will become of indie developers? I am glad that the greatest indie games use innovation combined with the simplicity of Macromedia Flash (I know it is owned by Adobe now, but I prefer to think of developers), for this will save them from this disturbing development and simultaneously slow it down – for a while. But it is evident that they will not be able to compete in the “regular games” market.

Is this the development you want?

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