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Graphics or gameplay, which is “more important”
hopefully you can hear the bunny quotes there
Is a shiny veneer more important than an engrossing gameplay mechanic? Can’t we just have both? What if we have neither? All of these questions, and more, will not be answered in this episode of Raw with Jay.
This is The Waffling Taylors Raw with Jay, a series of shorter episodes of indefinite length. These episodes will cover shorter topics which don’t really fit will within the scope of the show, or topics that I want to cover in my own way. That’s not to say that we won’t cover these topics in the main show, but I’d like to take a whack at them here, first.
Anyway, let’s get to it.
Graphics vs Gameplay
Firstly, this episode/rant/whatever was inspired by a tweet from Twitter user PlaySushiUK. Those who have heard our bonus episode with the folks behind lock-on
will recognise PlayShushiUK as Jason Maddison, one of the folks behind the upcoming gaming journal.
Anyway, Jason had this to say:
It just feels like all I see is this exercise in mental masturbation and dick waving to try and prove a point as to which chosen console of yours can achieve this and that in terms of performance. What about story, mechanics, animation, collision detection, trigger events, etc?
It’s bizarre nowadays, that alot of people I see who play a game are highlighting 4K, 60 fps, graphics, better textures, any technical jargon you can throw basically instead of talking about gameplay, story, characters, music first. There are some who do but we’re in the minority
check the show notes for links to those tweets, by the way
and if you’re not already following Jason, then you really should be
This is another example of an age old argument which goes back to the playground at school - unless you’re a long-in-the-tooth gaming journo (and by that I mean from the 80s, at the least). Remember when I brought this up in the previous Raw with Jay on Gatekeeping?
And it’s an argument which worked back in the day, because each console had a completely different architecture and completely different graphics hardware. This meant that the games which were ported to different consoles naturally had a different graphical experience
go look into the differences between the original Resident Evil on the PlayStation vs the Sega Saturn version, for instance
But since modern consoles are, effectively, PCs running Unix-like operating systems, that argument has been nullified. I mean, let’s take a look at the PS5 vs Xbox Series X graphics hardware for instance:
In the white corner, sporting black trunks with white stripes is the PS5; weighing in with a Custom AMD RDNA 2 with 36 CUs @ variable frequency up to 2.23 GHz. And in the black corner, sporting white trunks with white stripes
Seriously, the official brand colour guidelines even use the same colour pallet, THAT’S how similar they are
Is the Xbox Series X; weighing in with a Custom AMD Radeon RDNA 2 architecture with 52 CUs @ 1.825 GHz
Let’s take a look at some of those terms because we don’t want to get lost in alphabet soup.
First, both GPUs are created by the same company: AMD, with them both being the AMD Radeon RDNA 2 architecture. But even that argument is nullified by the fact that both are custom designs, so they don’t match anything on the PC market.
Both GPUs sport a number of CUs - or compute units; technically
and mean technically
the more of these you have, the more things you can compute. But with the PS5 having fewer but faster CUs than the Xbox, they almost even out.
Interestingly both consoles use the same CPU as well. The Xbox version being 0.3GHz faster - that’s roughly 300 MHz or the speed of an Intel Pentium MMX from 1999. Both CPUs also support SMT, or Simultaneous Multi-Threading. This allows for multiple threads to work independently of each other, but it can bring overall performance down in some instances.
Side Note: CPUs, Threads, Kernels, and coffee
When you ask your computer, phone, console, or whatever to do something for you, the kernel (that’s the very core of the operating system) will create one or more threads
most often, it’ll be a single thread but we won’t go into multi-threaded apps just yet
the thread is told what you want to do, which code to run in order to do it, and will be allotted time on one of your CPUs cores in order to do the work.
CPU architecture and time sharing is a non-trivial task, so I wont go into it too deeply here.
Assuming that the thread can complete the task in the time allotted, on the CPU core it was loaded onto, it will then close and be re-used by something else. Again, it will be assigned by the kernel.
A good rule of thumb is that a CPU will have twice as many threads as CPU cores. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it’s generally right.
Also, none of this applies to software threads, which are a slightly different beast.
So let’s talk about that, with a metaphor: Imagine you’re in a coffee shop and there’s someone working the cash register and four barristas behind the counter: two for each bar on the coffee machine. When a customer places an order
a user requesting a task be completed
the person working cash register
hands the order off to one of the baristas
a CPU thread
who then makes your order using one of the the coffee machine’s bars
a CPU core
By doing this, technically the coffee shop can handle four times as many orders at once then a coffee shop with only one barrista. But what happens when two barristas want to use the same bar on the same coffee machine? You get into something called a deadlock, and that affects performance and causes a bottleneck: no one can make any more drinks until that bar is clear.
As metaphors go, it’s not great but it gets the point across.
So the hardware is very similar, but the code will be completely different, right?
Nope, Chuck Testa
Almost all modern video games use an off the shelf engine, either Unity or Unreal - we’re not going to talk about the RE engine and Capcom just yet, because that’s a completely different beast all together.
This is because it’s faster to get started making games for all of the pre-existing consoles using a pre-existing engine and toolset, especially if it already does all the hard work of cross-compiling
that’s building everything for the game, but for different consoles, computers, and CPUs and all that stuff
for each console for you.
As such, each of the off the shelf engine has to spit out code which runs on all of the target consoles. Let’s say that you’re making a game for PS5, Xbox Series S/X, and Nintendo Switch. The “weaker” (again, bunny quotes) hardware in that list is the Switch
I’ve intentionally ignored PC for now
And this means that the code must run on the Switch. Sure, there will be tonnes of optimisations in the code base for specific consoles, but the core code which will be compiled for all of those formats must run on the Switch. Otherwise it would be a waste of time using an off the shelf engine in this instance.
All this means is that, since the core code will be virtually identical across the different ports of the game, the game itself will run almost identically across them all; including any graphical assets.
And if we’re arguing over 0.05 teraflops of difference or ray tracing vs no ray tracing for a game where you’re never going to notice the difference, then what’s the point?
Enter: Gameplay and Story
With all of that said, and with the flimsy proof that the experience will have to be very similar across all platforms, gameplay and story will always trump flashy graphics. And here’s why:
Have you ever watched an experimental film? Some folks love them for their artistic endeavour, and I’m not attempting to knock that at all. But have you ever wondered why experimental films don’t have mass market appeal? It’s likely because they’re mostly style over substance. The majority of experimental films have almost not plot to them, but they do endeavour to make a statement in a way which will grab you through their visuals. As such, I equate them to a game with out of this world graphics, but nothing in the way of gameplay or story.
Imagine reading a novel about a detective. In this novel, nothing happens. The detective travels to their office, sits behind their desk, and stares at the door hoping for a client to enter, but no one ever does. Now imagine that the author spends 350 pages describing, in excruciating detail how those eight hours pass. Now imagine that you know ahead of time that nothing happens in this book. Would you read it?
I’m sure that some of you would, and I’m sure scholars would too. If only to discover how the author had achieved this Herculean task.
But most people wouldn’t.
Now imagine a game which had out of this world graphics; it looks so real that you could swear that it opens up a window in to some fantastical world. But now imagine that it has no story. It’s the equivalent of the novel I just mentioned. There are no controls, because the game starts when the detective sits behind their desk and continues to the end of their work day, at which point the game is over. Not a very engrossing game, and one which is not likely to win any awards.
Sure, my example here is facetious. But imagine the opposite end of the spectrum.
Imagine a novel where there are deeply rich characters, and an engrossing story with multiple side stories, all happening at once. It has metaphor and asks questions of the reader. It has content and is weighty with it. Which of the two novels do you think would be more enjoyable to read?
Now imagine the game version of that novel, except that the game starts with an introduction to the main character, and why they became a detective in the first place. The actual gameplay starts with the detective waking up, and you literally have to get them out of bed, dressed, and on their way to work. Which sounds more like you could “play” it?
Everyone does this comparison, so I’m in good company, but look back on the 8bit era.
The best you could get out of the majority of the consoles was 128 colours on screen
Ed: Jay is wrong here. The NES could display a maximum of 56 colours on screen at any time
and a shed load less than that for home computers. But the developers and designers used what the could to make those games engrossing and fun to play. I would posit that the Super Mario Bros. on the NES would have been as fun in greyscale as it was in full colour - in fact, it was: there was a version released for the GameBoy, admittedly with a different name and slightly different story: Super Mario Land.
The creators of those games knew that there were technical limitations to the hardware they were using, so they worked around them. This lead to innovations, and games which had deep narratives. Imagine if Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, or The Legend of Zelda didn’t have the story and gameplay mechanics that they had; they would never had sold as well as they did, and wouldn’t have become the media franchises that they are today.
I’d argue that those titles are still as playable today as they were back then
although, most folks would still probably avoid the NES TMNT game
all without Ray Tracing, too.
Side Note: Ray Tracing
Let’s talk about Ray Tracing for a moment, as it seems to be one of the technical buzz words du jour.
So what is ray tracing? Seriously, what is it? I’ll give you some time to tell me
Well, what is it? Couldn’t tell me? But it’s so important to modern video games, right? You can’t play a game without it, right? Well what is it?
So here’s what ray tracing is:
Did you ever make diorama’s? If not, take a shoe box, lay it on it’s side and arrange some items in it, so that it resembles a tiny room.
Ray tracing is a process by which an invisible ray is fired from the viewer’s point of view into the diorama. Any time this invisible ray hits an item, the angle at which it reflects off of it is calculated, it’s reflected, and it continues to move until it’s out of sight. This is repeated for every pixel in the frame.
But why? What does it do?
Ray tracing solves two problems:
Occlusion is where one item or thing is placed in front of another.
Grab two items and put them one in front of the other. I’ve got a coffee cup and a phone. If you put the coffee cup in front of a phone, you’ll only see part of the phone. Knowing this ahead of time when you’re rendering a scene helps you to not waste time rendering the parts of things that you can’t see. This helps to optimise the render loop, making it faster to draw everything on screen.
Why waste precious time drawing something that the player is never going to see?
The other thing that ray tracing does is it allows for more realistic lighting and shading effects. If you know where the light source is, and how it effects the scene, then you can make the scene look more realistic. Part of this work can actually be done ahead of time too, and stored on disc. Meaning that rendering the scene is even more efficient.
None of this is actually required to make the game more playable, it just makes it look nicer.
that is, until some indie developer makes a game where you are the ray tracer
So the next time someone says:
no ray tracing: literally unplayable
you can tell them what it means
because they likely don’t know what it means either
Sure, great graphics can help to sell a game. But they’re not the be-all-end-all, because once the sheen has worn off, you still have to play the game.
Take the movies for example. We might show up for the flashy stuff like the special effects, or some big scene that we’ve always wanted to see
I’m looking at you, Avengers Assemble
But you can bet your bottom dollar that the majority of butts on seats are there for the content, not the presentation. Because if it’s just a special effects-a-thon with no story, drama, character, or actual point, the majority of people will stop paying attention. And when you stop paying attention, you go looking for the next shiny thing, and that’s not what a game developer (or indeed a movie director) wants. They want you to stick with their product for as long as possible.
So stop talking specifically about tech specs and graphics terms. OK?
Here’s the thing about these Raw with Jay episodes: they are my opinions. If you prefer a game to be all style and no substance, then more power to you. I prefer more substance than style, but that’s just my tastes.
When saying that a particular title
or a console, or whatever
there’s those bunny quotes again
than some other thing, try to take each thing that you’re comparing as a whole rather than just how it’s presented. Otherwise you’re comparing apples to oranges instead of playing video games.
Then again, what do I know? I don’t own either a PS5 or an Xbox Series X Series S Series Stupid-Name-Here. I’m not even that much of a PC gamer
as my computers run on Linux distributions called Pop! OS
Anyway, let’s stop complaining about graphics vs gameplay and go play something. OK?
So again, like I’ve said before, in the words of my man Tatsu: