Angry Robot

Halo 3 and the Graphics Fetish

  1. articles by and for hardcore Halo players; generally focused on what minor gameplay changes have been made since Halo 2. Sample prose: “All of the ‘nades explosive diameters have been reduced, so you’ll have to be more accurate. The nail grenades do stick to walls, but don’t have a huge blast radius.”
  2. articles by the more mainstream press for a mass audience, such as this Reuters one, which tend to emphasize graphics, and tend to qualify them as disappointing. Sample: “Gamers at the invitation-only preview gave mixed reviews.“The graphics can use some work … They’re not much different than the previous Halo.”“

The latter sort of article triggers crowing by fanboys of other platforms, the internet weeps, and pretty soon a fairly innovative marketing idea transforms into a lost battle in the console war.

It’s pretty logical, really. What will the non-halo-fanatic journalist write about other than the graphics? Joe Sixpack cares not about the tracking ability of the plasma pistol. (Actually, I have some ideas for what they should write about instead, but I’ll leave them aside for now.) In general, the non-gamer journalist writes about the graphics because, well, all they are doing is looking at people play. Concepts of gameplay or game flow elude them; like the Windows user seeing fancy Mac OS X visuals for the first time, all they see is the pretty surface.

Yet, just as a Mac OS X user couldn’t give a rat fuck about how dashboard widgets ripple and splash when they’re just trying to get shit done, gamers actually playing the game think very little about the graphics. And what they do think about graphics tends to be utilitarian: are they immersive? realistic? can I see things clearly?

Imagine if all coverage of film concentrated as exclusively on cinematography. Would people be disappointed when The Return of the King did not have better cinematography than the previous two films? But no, unless the cinematography is terrible and thus distracts from the story, or expresses something about the story in a particularly notable way, we tend not to mention it.

Now, there is some justification for considering graphics in games moreso than that. Because of the relentless march of Moore’s Law, there are revolutions in visual quality in games every few years. There is no such correlative in film. Or, in fact, there is: computer-generated imagery, which (obviously) follows the same law of the Moore as do games. But no-one but the most ADDed male teen will try and convince you that better CGI leads to better films. It may make more immersive fantasy environments and more realistic dinosaurs, but these do not save terribly written, acted or directed films. Nor should they make or break a game in the eyes of the public.

In the case of the Halo 3 beta, there is no story to concern ourselves with since this is only three levels of multiplayer play. What the prospective player wants to know, then, is how good is multiplayer going to be? Those who have played Halo 1 and 2 multiplayer will want to know what has changed, and whether those changes are for the better. And yes, since the multiplayer for the previous games was largely well-received, they don’t want revolutions in gameplay – they want small tweaks. Minutiae like less long-range tracking on the plasma pistol (since this makes gameplay more balanced). It’s the equivalent of reporting on proposed rule changes to a sport, like when the NHL decided to allow two-line passes and clamped down on obstruction. In other words, it’s of little interest to those who don’t play or follow hockey.

Which brings us to the very nature of the public beta. Why is it a press event at all? Why do we need articles from Reuters on the topic? The cynic might answer that the beta’s sole purpose is to add to the steady stream of hype coming out of Redmond with regards to its game console. Prevailing wisdom is that advertising is on the way out, and PR is ascendant. Thus while Microsoft could flood the airwaves with TV spots firing out Halo 3’s release date – and I’m sure they will – it would be more effective to generate hype via news coverage. And another bulletpoint yet-to-be-released game doesn’t merit a press release, but a playable beta does. So the celebs are purchased and the press passes given out.

Unfortunately, in this case, it seems to have backfired.