When I was growing up on Lookout Mountain in the great state of Tennessee, there was a tourist shop close to my house that sold items that were supposed to reflect the rural culture of the area. I particularly remember a ceramic trivet you could hang on your wall that showed a country woman saying, “Good looks don’t last, good cookin’ do.” I thought of that quote when I thought about what Grand Theft Auto taught me, namely, “Good graphics don’t matter, good gameplay do.”
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Grand Theft Auto (hereafter GTA), it was and still is a very controversial series of video games made by Rockstar Games. One or more of the GTA versions have been banned in Australia, Brazil, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates due to the games’ inclusion of themes of violence, cruelty and prostitution. The release of many of these GTA games were often accompanied by news reports of how the games were banned. The sales would soar despite concerns in the media about the games being violent and glorifying criminal activity, especially car-jacking, a key game mechanic.
I cynically concluded that the GTA games couldn’t be that good. After all, screen shots from the game looked like they didn’t have very good graphics. I assumed that the game was selling because people wanted the forbidden fruit of playing with a banned game.
So I played the game to see what was going on and I found that I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Wait, I wasn’t wrong about the graphics. They “sucked” as we like to say in academia. The graphics were blocky and the characters walked around the environment like they were wearing diapers that needed to be changed. In a city scene with lots of people in it, I remember laughing about how you would see identical characters walking around in the same scene. The graphics overall made the game look very low-budget. I have, by the way, heard that the first GTA games were very low-budget compared to industry standards and you could see where they were saving money.
Where I was wrong was in my thinking that the game was popular because of the negative hype. After playing it I realized it was popular because it simply was a really good game. It drew me in with a suspenseful story line. For me, it is one of the few games where the story line is actually prominent and important to the progression of the game. In most other games, you can have fun in the game without having any idea of what the backstory is. It was also fun because you could freely explore an environment. I usually don’t like exploring environments in games because they usually tax my limited spatial reasoning skills (ability to navigate 3D environments). The environments in GTA often had unique landmarks in them so that they actually supported my more female strategies of navigating environments successfully by using landmarks. Also, progression in the game included a pretty broad array of activities so it was continually challenging and new. I definitely got immersed in the game which led me to understand a major reason it was popular. It had awesome gameplay!
So, whenever I hear someone say that graphics are key to having a good video game, I ALWAYS disagree and bring up Grand Theft Auto as an example. It has horrible graphics but it was wildly popular and it was really fun to play.
This conversation is often followed-up by some kind of comment about how Grand Theft Auto is a terribly violent game. I always try to follow-up these comments by asking these people if they have ever played it. I can confidently say that 10 times out of 10, these people criticizing the game have never played it. This is a very, very unfortunate situation. First of all, these people who are making serious games don’t have the experience of playing a really fun game because they were turned off by negative hype. Second, these serious game makers are really missing out on learning about what makes for a really engaging game. It is not necessarily through flashy graphics (but I will admit that it often helps) but through engaging gameplay.
In closing, there are two points I want to make in this article. 1) Good gameplay is more important than good graphics and 2) draw conclusions about “bad” games based on direct experience, not the hype.
So get out there and play those games!