Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Wii's Graphics - What's All The Fuss About?

"It's about as powerful as the original Xbox. The video hardware unfortunately is not as powerful. There's just a couple of key things that you can do on Xbox like shaders which you just cannot do on the Wii." - Tim Tschirner in a recent interview with Eurogamer for the Wii version of FIFA 08

Of course, this fairly innocuous statement about Wii's visual capabilities caused half the internet to blow up.

Wii's graphical ability is always going to be a bone of contention. That 'video' part of the term 'videogames' tends to be fairly important in the grand scheme of things, especially when we live in such a highly driven visual age. But really, are we not totally over the obsession with Wii's underachievement in this area yet? Must there truly be a massive explosion of verbal volleys launched every time a developer states something that suggests Wii is more/less powerful than the previous generation's hardware?

We're all to blame. Let’s be honest about this. We as fans, the developers, hell, even Nintendo president Satoru "you will say wow" Iwata has to admit to some of the flak which precedes the constant and predictable flood of arguments that surround Wii's graphical punch/slap/tickle. Very few official technical stats have emerged about the console's hardware, which so often becomes the ammunition for fanboys everywhere on all sides before a machine gets released. So the lingering question marks about what is viable and not have yet to subside. Ubisoft didn’t help things much releasing some rather spurious 'projection screenshots' of Red Steel that didn’t quite match up to the reality (although to be fair, at its prettiest the game comes close). And after Iwata intoned we'd be impressed by Wii's graphics, it raised expectations for some expecting Xbox 360 levels of visual sheen, albeit sans High Definition. Which was slightly ironic, because it's easy to forget the reaction of the hardcore demographic when Microsoft unleashed its first batch of titles a few months prior 360's launch; a mixture of apathy, derision and disappointment.

No matter how old we are, as gamers we can still be impressed by graphical gloss. But it's churlish to suggest we're as easily impressed as we used to be. Grand scale CGI is now commonplace in entertainment, and in terms of dimensions, videogames has long since exhausted the third one which has led to a rather limited jump in eye candy between the last generation and its contemporary; hence the comparatively muted reaction to many of the games we see, HD or no. The real progress has to be in geometry, physics and artificial intelligence -areas where 360 and PlayStation3 excel- but is obviously something screenshots can't project.

It's a given Wii is nowhere near as powerful as its rivals. And it's also accepted that in terms of what we will literally see from Nintendo's little white wonder, will likely be more in the region of Xbox and PS2 standards. At the same time, it's still as powerful as its predecessor, GameCube, which was no slouch in the video hardware stakes.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is; why the hell have so many Wii titles come out looking worse than the examples from any of those machines?

It's a more than valid question, and aside from the typical 'console wars' hyperbole, it's the main thing that has people scratching their heads over because from an outsider looking in, it just doesn’t make sense. The last generation lasted around six to seven years, with GameCube having a good run of that, but despite the leaps and bounds seen from that generations' conception to its twilight, many Wii games look worse than the bulk of that half decade-plus of gaming. Surely if Wii is pretty much a supercharged GameCube, developers would have got used to the hardware by now and be showing us stuff that exceeds the little purple box and its generational cohabitants?


Well, yes and no. Without any official stats it'll always be difficult to work out exactly why some companies are struggling so much with Wii's visuals. But there are many factors which have to be taken into account. The hardware architecture of Wii isn’t really just a simple matter of slotting in a video chip which is more powerful than the one boasted by GameCube. There's numerous other essentials, like its GPU, the CPU, the RAM and much more that can make a difference, and even if one part is substantially better than what we saw in the prior generation, another part could bring things down just as noticeably. Many programmers and designers may be familiar with GameCube, but it's not a basic case of shifting coding libraries and techniques from that to Wii. It's clear even more effort is needed; they may be both fruit, but it's still essentially apples and oranges. It's going to take time for some devs to make that change.

The other issue to take in mind (which becomes particularly potent when combined with the above one) is that many companies initially just wanted to shovel anything on Nintendo's machine to show a modicum of support, and are now suffering for it. Very few expected Wii to be as dominant as it has been so far, and a number of third parties threw large amounts of cash into 360 and PS3 development, which stands to reason given the strength of the brands and the fact they need more money on a whole to make the most of their visual potential. When Wii started selling out everywhere, these off-loaded projects became spotlight examples and cautionary tales. The lack of time spent on them showed. And what's resulted from that is we're only now seeing the fruits of six to ten months of development come to light. Some are playing catch up and making sure they have enough software for Holiday/Christmas 2007, which will mean, yes, we probably won't see any massive graphical improvements between now and then.

But as development money shuffles over to Wii, this time next year will be more telling in terms of seeing what the console is REALLY capable of. Because games take a lot of time to be created – and it's often a good year before we see market shifts and reflections, which is exactly why some have already claimed Wii the 'console war victor'; while we see the results of developers' work from last year and early 2007 on other formats now, at this moment they're are moving their resources over to Wii to show more force for the next 12 months, making the see-saw glut of software tip in the opposite direction. This will be especially true if Nintendo gets off its behind and lends more support to its partners. The games industry is, rather appropriately, very much like a playground in many respects.

In the meantime, it takes first parties like Nintendo's in-house teams to show the way. Super Mario Galaxy still remains stunning, as does Super Smash Bros. Brawl. A few other third party efforts are certainly showing some clout too, like Konami's Dewy's Adventure, Capcom's Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure, and some of Electronic Arts' titles (most notably, Boogie and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). Arguably, none have the sheer potency that Factor 5 showed via its Star Wars: Rogue Squadron GameCube games, but very few have displayed the talent for graphics that developer has, full stop.

Which makes the most under-appreciated element of visuals, art direction, all the more important. Games like Okami, Wind Waker, Rogue Squadron III, God of War II and other older titles still look stunning because the artists take a slightly more unconventional route and make sure their games possess a 'timeless' quality. They stand up today and (let's be honest) look better than 95% of Wii's current catalogue. A good team of artists can make all the difference, and if developers want to stop being ridiculed on a visual level over their efforts, then they should perhaps start focusing more on not what they use to draw their visuals, but HOW they draw them.

We can shout about Wii 'not being about graphics' until we're blue in the face (it certainly doesn’t matter to the bulk of people buying, and my 360 satisfies the internal graphics whore inside me, so I'm happy), but the fact remains they still play an important part of the experience. I'm fairly sure it's not something that will affect future sales, because even though the gulf of difference between Wii and 360/PS3 is evident, it's also evident that the games buying public wants something a bit more gameplay oriented than a power bump can provide. And Wii offers that more than its rivals, so much to the point that in three years time when HD visuals are the norm and looking even more incredible, the audiences (and thus, developers) will be long settled in choosing which side of the fence they're on and it'll be largely academic.

Wii's visuals will get better. The hardware ceiling may be lower than we expect and there may not be as great a distance to go before we see the best of what the machine can offer, but it's probably enough to get by with. And with some clever art direction and a bit more cash, it will be reached. However in the meantime, while we wait for that -and indeed the next generation where great visuals AND motion controls will be standard- it's worth noting that while the lack of visual fidelity may be a tad annoying, the subsequent focus on motion controls should be more than a worthy trade-off. Because ultimately, Wii is acting as a trailblazer for the next ten years of videogames. And if companies like EA are being forced to change the way they think in making games for the better, taking gameplay and innovation over visuals, then maybe we should close our eyes to optical infirmity just this once and get on with the joys of actually playing our games… instead of constantly arguing over what they look like.

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