Column: Video games emphasize the details, miss the larger picture

"Madden NFL" is one of the many video games that sell updates for small details, like updates facial expressions or background details. (Courtesy/Madden NFL, EA Sports)

When you watch a trailer or a gameplay video for a video game these days, it’s not the grand vistas or brilliant characters that the developers try to sell you on. Rather, AAA developers have become increasingly focused on perfecting the little things, details so small that it can often be a waste of effort.

The inspiration for this column is a gameplay video I came across for the “Hitman” game. The developers focused on the details for that game, as they apparently forgot to give the game a real title. Throughout this presentation, the developer takes several minutes not to show off combat or the environment, but demonstrate just how in-depth and detailed the game is.
One example the “Hitman” developer uses is crowd size. The last “Hitman” game, the slightly above average “Hitman: Absolution,” had between 40 and 50 NPCs at a time in some areas. “Hitman” will apparently feature as many as 300 NPCs wandering around and interacting on the map. That’s a lot of people, and supposedly each one is somehow unique, whether in visual or audio design. 

When I heard that tidbit, my first thought was of “Assassin’s Creed Unity,” which also boasted of its massive crowd sizes. What Ubisoft forgot when they were making “Unity,” however, was that most players didn’t want to bother navigating extremely busy and crowded streets when they’re trying to get somewhere fast. For all the hype about the environment and the crowds, most players just stuck to the same rooftops they had been traversing since the Bush administration. It probably wasn’t an intentional decision by the “Hitman” developers to set the demo in Paris, the same location as “Unity,” but having the Eifel Tower in the background did nothing but exacerbate my fears that “Hitman” would fall into the same hole that “Unity” did. 

Every year, EA attempts to sell us on the upgrades in small details, from graphics to crowd size and facial animations. Never mind that gamers are looking at the field and hardly ever see the faces of actual football players in the game.

Another franchise that really loves to harp on the details is the “Madden” franchise, which has been one of the longest running series in gaming history and is still going strong thanks to the popularity of actual American football. Every year, EA attempts to sell us on the upgrades in small details, from graphics to crowd size and facial animations. Never mind that gamers are looking at the field and hardly ever see the faces of actual football players in the game. 

Something I learned researching this column, however, was that John Madden, the former Raiders coach for which the series is named, actually insisted that the series be as realistic as possible. And when it comes to yearly series like “Madden,” there’s just not a lot that EA or anybody could add to make it a better experience. Football hasn’t changed that much in the last 50 years, but the developers of “Madden” are still pressured into releasing a new game every year, although at this point graphics have gotten so good that the only reason to buy the next “Madden” game is if you’re an obsessed fan who must have all of his imaginary rosters updated. 

I don’t mind franchises like “Madden” or “FIFA” focusing on improving graphics, because there’s little else that they can do at this point. That being said, I am concerned that such ventures could be taking away from new and interesting projects that people actually get hyped for. I’m not suggesting this is a strong possibility, but I certainly don’t want to see resources taken from a game like “Star Wars: Battlefront” in order to animate Marshawn Lynch’s facial hair. 

So, we’ve examined two cases where developers have opted to focus on the little details. But graphics, apart from perhaps the original “Crisis,” have never made a game wildly successful or a failure. It’s innovation, entertainment and creativity that gamers are after, and it’s those aspects that I’m most afraid will fall by the wayside if developers keep focusing on the little things. 


Edward Pankowski is life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at edward.pankowski@uconn.edu.