XBox 360: Graphics are King

By Deane Barker on November 30, 2005

Last night, while looking for “Shout Elmo” in Shopko, I found an unrestricted XBox 360 with Call of Duty 2 running.

After playing for 10 minutes, I was quite sure there were Germans hiding amongst the towels in the next aisle. When I got home I accused my wife of being a German spy. Then I tried to machine gun the cat.

But let’s step back for a minute and consider the XBox compared to the XBox 360 (the base model, without the hard drive). What’s the big improvement? The graphics, of course. That’s the big thing — there’s more power, so they can make better and better graphics appear on the screen. Finer detail, smoother movement.

Would that power ever be used for anything else? If so, what? I’m willing to bet that the lion’s share of the processing power of an XBox 360 is graphic-oriented.

Say you doubled the intelligence of the enemy AI. How much processing power would you need to do this compared to the power required to run the graphics? My guess is that it’d be inconsequential.

So what this means is that the entire…point, of making a new system is graphics, graphics, graphics. Think about it, when the ads tout “better games,” what do they mean? More mentally challenging? More thought-provoking? More…what? No, they mean “better graphics.” It’s the be-all and end-all of systems these days.

I’d like to see an XBox 360 version of an a classic XBox game that was advertised as “new and improved,” yet had the same graphic quality. I’m willing to bet it’d get savaged by consumers.

Consider Madden 2006. We discussed “Superstar mode” before, where you create a player by choosing his parents, and guide him through his life and career. Now, this was an innovative thing — it was a new way of looking at the game. And it had nothing to do with improving the graphics — it couldn’t, since it was built for the same hardware as Madden 2005.

But the rules are different when you move from one system to the next generation. You get better…what? Better graphics. Pretty much every other improvement can be done with the old hardware.

This is not to say that better graphics are bad. Just an observation that true innovation in game play doesn’t really require them.

However, does it mean that innovation in gameplay comes later in a lifecycle of a game on the same system, when developers have maxed the graphics out on the hardware and have to look for new ways to change things up for the next release? Would we have seen “Superstar mode” if Madden 2006 was designed for a new console?

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  1. Physics.

    I guess I lump that in with graphics — it affects how things are rendered on the screen. But now you have me thinking I may be wrong.

    So have physics models in games gotten better with XBox 360?

  2. I’ve been a historian of videogames for over a decade now (created the Videotopia exhibit) and this is pretty much par for the course. Beyond advances in controller design the move from one generation of hardware to the next has always been about graphics.

    Of course, you got a whole bunch of plusses with new storage media and more memory meant more capability for little niceties – like content and improved audio, etc.. but the main driving point has always been the graphical capabilities because that is what sells – by that I don’t mean that it is all audiences want – but I mean its just about the only thing that you can communicate through advertising to indicate the power of your product.

    And you know, I would say that (as much as I enjoy eye candy) that an increase in graphical capability (or any capability really) has contributed to a narrowing of the diversity of game types out there.

    Think about the early arcade games -Asteroids was a massive hit, and you just couldn’t go out there and rip off Asteroids by copying the play mechanic and slapping some flashier graphics on it. The capabilities just weren’t there for that sort of thing – so you got this “Cambrian Explosion” of videogames – a walk through an early 80’s arcade was, literally, a tour of dizzying varieties of game types and styles because you just had to try something different. A great example – consider that Q*bert was, essentially, a Pac Man rip off.

    Flash forward 10 years to the age of SFIIxx and MKx and look at what the increased capabilities have given us. A nearly endless variation on the same thing. It’s not so drastic, looking at the console world, where game types are more varied – but they essentially fall into one of just a few categories, 1st person shooter, racing, fighting, sports…

    Not that there isn’t pure genius today, there certainly is – but with such a vast arsenal of capacity in their hands – it is easy for designers and programmers to get sloppy and less imaginative… or more to the point – for corporate types to dictate that they do so.

  3. That Asteroids facsimile is a great piece of work – however it’s got the problem of all conversions of vector graphics games to raster. You lose that stark and unearthly effect that only a vector monitor could give you. On a vector monitor, black is unlit – meaning that the contrast of the imagery is just spectacular. Just as in any of the conversions of Asteroids on PC or PS2 or what have you, the “shots” are dead pixels – but in the original game they were pulsing nova-flares of brilliance.

    There’s just something missing and I really am saddened when I think that there are so many out there that never had the opportunity to experience games with those types of displays. They really were something special.

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