Monday, November 7, 2011

Graphics and budget

There's an interesting thread over on the Adventure Gamers forum about Blackwell Deception, mostly regarding the graphics. I figured it was a good time to address the issue of the graphics in my games and my thoughts on them.

It's no secret that my games are all over the map in terms of style.  Every game boasts a new set of artists, and its rare that the same artists work on two projects in a row.  This is due to a number of reasons, but the core reason is that the artists I work with are all freelancers.  When I have a new project ready to go, I have to go with whoever is available at the time.  They all have varying schedules and are not always available exactly when I need them.  They might have gotten a full time job, taking a break from art, or are swamped with other projects.  So each new game often means searching for new artists, which often means a new art style for each game.

It also depends on something else: budget.  When I made Blackwell Convergence, I had a lot of money coming in from my work on Emerald City Confidential.  Since I had money to burn, I thought it would be a good idea to invest it in nicer graphics for Convergence. I hired a professional art studio to do the backgrounds, and the results spoke for themselves:


It was still low-res (creating and animating high-res characters was an impossibility, even with the money I was getting) but the game was definitely gorgeous to look at. When the game was released, the responses were interesting to say the least.  The hardcore point-and-click fans loved it. They called it some of the nicest graphics they've ever seen.  Other sites?  Well, not so much.  Here are some quotes taken from various forums on the internet:

"Wow - are the graphics really as bad as those screenshots depict?"

"I couldn't stand playing this for even 10 minutes ... the graphics are terrible! Looks like it was written over 20 years ago."

"It is like giving yourself crossed eyes for the fun of it. HORRID. My eye sight is still blurry."

"I can't see a game developer releasing a game that looks this bad and is so hard on the eyes"

"HORRIBLE!!!! I wouldn't take this game if it were FREE."

So, yeah. Talk about conflicting reports. Even still, it shouldn't have mattered, right?  The better graphics meant that more adventure game fans were buying it, right?  Well, not so much. Convergence's budget was easily triple that of anything I'd ever done before, and while it did earn a profit it took significantly longer to get there.  In terms of money made, I pocketed the same amount of money as my previous games.

Think about that for a second.

I was spending more money, working much harder, and yet my bottom line remained exactly the same. 

This was dumb.

There was a lesson I learned here. As far as low-res graphics are concerned, there is only so far you can go. You can make it as beautiful as you like, throw as much money at it as you can, and painstakingly place every pixel, but the majority of the gaming audience will still think it's ugly.

This posed the question: would the people who bought Convergence have bought it anyway, pretty graphics or not?  After a lot of thinking and fan feedback, I decided yes.  The people who buy my games weren't buying them for the graphics, so why not focus my efforts to where they'll do the most good?  So when the time came to make Blackwell Deception, I made the conscious decision to spend less time and money on the graphics and more on the actual game. The art was cheaper, but there's a heck of a lot more of it. 

The graphics might be simpler, but the lights
change color and the characters dance!

I was able to take more risks. I wasn't breaking the bank, so I wasn't worried about it failing as much. I implemented, tested, and redesigned the ending of the game three times before I was satisfied. I never would have conceived of doing that with Convergence, since so much money was going out the door.  With Deception I could test more often, scrap ideas that didn't work and try new ones.  It was very liberating. 

The result? The highest selling and most critically acclaimed Blackwell game so far.  And yes, there are people who hate the graphics, but those detractors would still be there even if I tripled the production budget.  Did I lose a few customers by downgrading the graphics? Perhaps, and I'm sorry to have disappointed them. Did I gain many more customers by improving the game play? Undoubtedly yes. 

With every game I change my production methods, and inevitably I get something wrong or wish I did something differently.  This time, I seem to have gotten it right. I guess after five years and eight games, it was bound to happen eventually.