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Retro Shouldn't Mean Pixelated

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A few weeks ago, while playing through yet another batch of indie games, I realized that I had finally been elevated into ‘grumpy old man’ territory. Because I was looking at all of these great, imaginative, fun to play games and I found myself annoyed. Instead of enjoying the bounty of independent game development in front of me, I could only think, 'What are these idiot kids thinking?'

There are a lot of games today that have embraced ‘pixel art’ as the style of choice. Low color, blocky, detail-less objects on the screen that are often described as ‘retro’. The thing is, it’s not retro, not at all. Back in the good old days of 8bit gaming, game developers worked with what they had, and admittedly, it wasn’t a lot. 4 color sprites built in a 32x32 grid was as good as it got. They did some great work. But gamers and developers both wanted more. Thats why we went from 8bit to 16bit to 32bit and on. Thats why each year consoles got more powerful. Retro shouldn’t mean ‘blocky graphics with good gameplay’ Retro shouldn’t mean ‘blocky graphics with good gameplay’ Retro should mean good gameplay with the best graphics you can squeeze from the machine.

Two Tigers - 1984 - Bally MidwayLuftrausers-300x200




Every game doesn’t need to reach Infamous 2 or Titanfall levels of 3D open world grandeuer. But if you’re going to make a title, it should look as good as you can make it, whatever the genre. If you have a 2D platformer that has less frames of animation than Mickey’s Castle of Illusion on the Sega Genesis, then why? If you have a WW2 dogfighting game that is less graphically impressive than Two Tigers from 1984, then why? I no longer believe that it’s a style choice. And even if it is, it’s a style I’m not willing to pay for.  I lived through that time, and I waited patiently for games to claw their way out of the era of eye scorching, gaudy, 8 bit graphics. I have no desire to go back. And it also upsets me to have gameplay used as a scapegoat for poor visuals in a game. It’s not an either/or situation. There isnt a gameplay->graphics slider in a console. Hearing the words ‘we focused on gameplay’ makes me cringe because too often it means ‘It looks pretty bad, but if you can get past that it’s kinda fun’.



And don’t think I haven’t noticed the odd double standard the industry has when it comes to graphics. If you walk into one room and proclaim, ‘Graphics don’t matter! It’s all about Gameplay!’ You’ll get a round of applause. Walk into that same room an hour later and say ‘720p is good enough, we dont need 1080p graphics’ you’ll get booed into submission. There are sites that have spent pages on zooming in on screenshots to see if the anti-aliasing for Ground Zeroes is better on the Xbox One or the PS4. And then those same sites will explain how endearing and detailed the squares are in SuperMeatBoy.It’s enough to make your head spin.

say ‘720p is good enough, we dont need 1080p graphics’ you’ll get booed into submission

I’ve had this conversation a lot with people and I’m usually told at this point that games like Titanfall and Luftrausers are completely different and have different goals and budgets when it comes to graphics. I know this. My point is that there’s no reason for any game released on hardware as powerful as 99% of the consoles and PC’s available today, not to at least be on the same graphical level as games released 30 years ago on hardware 1000 times less powerful. Thats not an exaggeration. A modern console is exponentially more powerful and easier to develop on than systems of the past. So why am I looking at something that would have been rejected from a Tecmo board meeting? The indie community is filled with talented artists The indie community is filled with talented artists that could use your screen as a virtual canvas if given the chance. Instead their work is reduced to the lowest common denominator and then reduced even more.

Not all indie games fall into this bracket. There are legitimately beautiful titles available that fulfill the goal of ‘retro style’ gameplay while not insulting the player with poor graphics just to make sure you know you’re playing a ‘retro indie’ game. You can find them everywhere from the PC, Ouya, Phones, and even on next gen consoles.




0 #3 Yomar "Yogi" Lopez 2014-04-18 15:19
Lots of great points here, Derrick!

We know this is a discsusion we will always come back to, simply because we hardcore gamers have to find ways to justify our tastes to ourselves and/or others. That is why we contradict ourselves so much. It's also human nature, after all, to be a hypocrite to a degree because that is how we know we are growing and accepting new ideas.

With that in mind, I think there are some distinctions to be made here. The retro-style games fall into two major categories:

    Games that CHOOSE to be retro-style in presentation.
    Games that can't afford better presentation.

The foremost game type might be more what you are alluding to. The assumption is that the talent, budget dollars, team chemistry, and time is there to add that extra polish. That is fair in some circumstances. I'd say that sometimes the deliberate pixelated or sprite-based art is used to create tributes to what some consider the golden age of gaming.. Others might say that is hipster non-sense.

I know you're tired of hearing about the cost of graphics (it can be a cop-out, sure) but it is one of the biggest cost centers in game development. Anyone can learn to code these days and there are plenty of experienced project managers, game designers, and musicians out there. I find that reliable AND talented graphic designers that can work within a team or company's culture.. THAT is tough to find.

I recall one game I designed years ago. The graphic designers we had were your typical moonlighters because we could not afford dedicated artists. They were always weeks or months off our generous deadlines and took way too many creative liberties. It was expensive because we had to have art re-worked constantly and we paid for each draft. In the end, we barely turned a profit and the wind was knocked out of our sails. We had lots of great ideas and this game was to be the release that would put us on the map.. But we exhausted our passion and resources. That's a bad place to be.

What's more daunting is how there tends to be a disconnect between the different teams and creatives on a team. The graphic designers often don't get the vision of a game (They may not even be gamers) so they have the least vested interest. They just want their pay check so they're not starving artists. I don't want to generalize but I've seen this first-hand.. The wrong artists can kill projects, all for the sake of adding more polish.

Honestly, I'm not insulted by graphics that are not cutting edge, regardless of how powerful my platforms of choice may be. I think the opposite extreme of this debate points to the elitism of people talking about frame rates, tera FLOPs, interpolation, and other non-sense that, in the end, does not equate to replayable, let alone fun, experiences. In fact, there are far more gorgeous games that are forgettable experiences than there are 8-bit/16-bit stylized games that seem as if they might be underachieving.

Do we really need games that serve as proverbial penis measurements (pardon the expression)? Not every game needs to push the limits of the hardware. I am sure there are plenty of lazy indie developers but I don't think we can simply assume that they cut corners. In business, the most important thing is to get from thought to shipping as soon as possible. Thereafter, you can reiterate, pivot, and improve upon the original concepts.

I am more insulted by the plethora of regurgitated crap from big studios with the budget to do great things. I guess it's all a matter of personal preference. These days I find myself skipping most major releases and searching for the sleeper hits and diamonds in the rough.. And I have been far more satisfied with my budget purchases than I have been with a full retail purchase in a long time.

Ultimately, it depends what you really expect in a complete gaming experience. I don't think graphics are core to the experience unless the game is intended to be more of a piece of art like, say, Journey. That game is a good example simply because I found it boring to play but fun to watch. That may be what some considered an awesome game but, for me, not so much.

Now, look at Risk Of Rain, Steam Marines, Frozen Synapse, or Rogue Legacy.. These games may not look sexy but they are super fun. Others may not be able to enjoy the games because it's either not their style or the graphics bother them too much. Fortunately, with the indie scene being as strong as it is right now we at least have more options than ever.. We have the choice and the means to find games that we find fun and worth the investment of time and money. Everyone wins! :)
0 #2 RealMsH 2014-03-29 10:15
I wholeheartedly agree with this excellent article on how some developers are using the term "retro" as a scapegoat for substandard "retro" video games that do not provide exciting video game experiences in visualization and gameplay. As so eloquently stated in this article-- good graphics and engaging gameplay in video games are not "either or" propositions. Time and technology have moved on. So should indie and other video game developers progressively move forward and fully use changing technological advances available to create exciting video game experiences which were nearly non-existent during those "retro" times. It is those developers who stay current, relevant and attuned to the present and the future who will provide the best video game experiences possible, and not use "retro" as an easy route to mediocre. By doing the former, they will have the highest probability to succeed at providing video game experiences that video game players will thoroughly enjoy.
0 #1 Burr 2014-03-29 07:16
I do think low res pixelart is too often a crutch for indie developers. It's one thing if the style is appropriate for what you're trying to do, like a real abstract arcade style game, but it's another thing if you're doing it just to emphasize the low budget and put on the puppy dog eyes to not get graded so harshly, even as you attempt to make something more modern gameplay-wise. It just depends for me. This article would have ended on a stronger note with some specific examples of doing it right.

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