The game barrel

So we used to use a metaphor: a barrel which holds water, a wooden barrel has all these pieces, and you use a frame to put them together. Each piece is for a different aspect of the game — one is for the graphics, one is for the sound, one is for design — and if any one of those is short, the water that you can hold is only up to the shortest part. And the water is the satisfaction of the player.

If you have terrible graphics, and everything else is great, the player will probably just keep saying, “Oh, the graphics suck!” But, meanwhile, if you have really wonderful graphics — like real graphics — but the gameplay sucks, they will still think the game is mediocre, because the gameplay sets the cap.

So, as a small team, there is no way that we can create a cap, a taller piece than a commercial game, but our goal is to keep every piece at the same height; so it could be even higher than some of the commercial games.

Wise words from Jenova Chen in a nice interview with Brandon Sheffield conducted at the Game Developers Conference where we met Mr. Chen for the first time. A very enlightening way of illustrating what we were trying to say in point 3 of our Realtime Art Manifesto, and a nice thing to keep in mind when working on a small budget and staring at those immense blockbusters in utter disbelief.

22 thoughts on “The game barrel”

  1. Agreed.

    A lot of people like to say that graphics don’t matter, but the truth is graphics are essential to gameplay. Bioshock, for example, just wouldn’t work without the graphics it has. And atari-fied TEF wouldn’t work either.

    Sounds a lot like Buddhism and the Eight Spokes.

  2. A part can be good enough that the player doesn’t say “it sucks!” without being up to the level of the other parts … so it’s not right that they all have to be on the same level. And certain kinds of problems are things people will get used to, so they can eventually enjoy the rest of the experience even if their first reaction is “it sucks.”

    Also, this sentence specifically …

    “So, as a small team, there is no way that we can create a cap, a taller piece than a commercial game”

    … is poorly reasoned, since it seems to conflate “more expensive / resource intensive” with “higher quality.” To pick an obvious example, I loved the visuals of Katamari Damacy, but they were really cheap and simple to make.

    Their analysis also doesn’t work nicely in to the reality that the ‘height’ of a given piece is a matter of personal perception … you can certainly target a niche and make something that those few players seems way higher than anything else.

    So yeah, I don’t think that this barrel analogy is very good.

    (Finally, Ben — System Shock 2.)

  3. lol, perhaps i should have said “Art Direction” not graphics. For example, the original quake has tiny polygon counts, but still the texture and the grit of the graphics are amazing. Sometimes i can’t believe how old it is and how good it looks. What i was more referring to was games where the graphics hinder gameplay. When I say good graphics, maybe i should also say “successful” graphics. I’ve played some games where you would shoot a person, and they wouldn’t react in any way. How do you know if you hit them or not? You didn’t. It ruined gameplay.
    So i would say that Katamari has good graphics, even though they are “cheap.”
    And yes, system shock 2 has good graphics :-), and so does Half-Life, and Quake I, and even older games like Mario. It’s not an awful metaphor :-).

  4. In that case, it’s a bit better.

    But perhaps a more apt metaphor is that a game is like a sandwich with many layers. The graphics are like the bread — it’s what you taste first — while the gameplay is perhaps the meat.

    Now if the bread is made of crap, you can’t eat the sandwich or you would vomit. But if the bread is merely okay, or even stale, you can still appreciate a brilliant meat in that sandwich. And if you’re really dedicated then you can sort of peal the bread away and just eat the meat straight, though it will be messy and you might wish there were nice bread still — like a player can learn to ignore graphical flaws as they get in to a game.

    And if a sandwich is all great bread and no meat, that can be fun too, but you’ll want to eat something else to get your protein.

    Or something!

  5. That may be your opinion. But it’s not what Mr Chen meant. He, like us, is of the opinion that all aspects of a game are equally important and should be of equal quality. The power of the interactive medium is not that it can do lots of things, it’s that it can do these things together.

  6. Yes, I didn’t say it was what Mr Chen meant … I was just pointing out that Mr Chen’s analysis was poor (in the first response) and providing a metaphor I thought was kinda funny and which might conform better to reality (in the second response).

    Of course, you guys don’t even bother to provide an analysis at all, so there’s not much I can say! Your view seems pretty arbitrary, though :)

  7. (The funniest part for me is that it doesn’t even mean anything for parts to be of “equal quality,” since it’s all so subjective.)

  8. As a visual artist, i think graphics are very important. Would you look at the great painting Mona Lisa and complain that it has no meaning? It doesn’t have too! It’s beautiful and mesmerizing.
    But i think you (zaphos) are talking on a different level, more about games as toys instead of games as art. Your argument reminds me of this weird kid i knew that used to take legos and not build anything with them, he’d just take two and bang them together making explosion sounds with his mouth. Was he imaginative? not really, he was just kind of silly, playing a game that could have been much more fun if he would have gone out and bought some toy airplanes.
    Games as art is a lot like interactive theatre, and theatre wholly relies on the suspension of disbelief. If you can’t suspend your disbelief, you start to ask, “But why must I hit A repetitively?” instead of like in RE4, where the graphical situation gives you an obvious answer: “Idiot, your gonna get your head cut off!”

  9. Zaphos, the aim of this exercise is not to provide a (pseudo-)scientific analysis of a production routine but instead guidelines for a creative process. Quality should be subjective to some extent, where it means that the artist follows their own instincts about what is good and what is not good. But quality is never as wildly subjective as some theorists might like to claim. In the end a small number of groups of people tend to agree an a large amount of things. Beauty is mysterious like that. I just think that you are not a person in that group of people who appreciates the work of thatgamecompany or Tale of Tales. And I’d say: good for you because there’s many more developers who would agree with your views than with ours. Like you, they think gameplay is more important than everything else in a game. But they tend to not realize that this is only so for a certain part of the audience. And most developers, perhaps subconsiously, tend to include some other elements as well, that attract other people too (without whom they would never sell the millions of copies that they do).
    Mr Chen is advocating a creative method that consciously takes this other (larger!) part of the audience in mind and carefully constructs a game that offers many different types of joy (and not just the type you get from winning a game).

    But in the end, we should not forget that the guideline that Mr Chen’s metaphor represents is an answer to the question of how small indie developers on low budgets can compete with huge budget games from giant corporations. The barrel metaphor may be not suitable for blockbuster productions at all.

  10. I do actually like the work of thatgamecompany — especially fl0w, and I think fl0wer looks like it will be wonderful.

    And I never said gameplay was more important than anything else in the game, so far as I know. I think what is important just depends on the game and the players. For example, I’ve not seen any particularly interesting presentation of the game Sudoku; people seem to be fine with just a grid of numbers. Meanwhile I think a kid might find Battle Chess way more exciting than ordinary chess, while an expert player might prefer a more basic presentation. For something like Knytt, the charming presentation dominates the experience, and I just love walking around the world, so I find that presentation is absolutely critical to the experience. I was terrible at Myst, but I loved walking around the world they’d created anyway, so there the graphics held things up far beyond (my perception of) the gameplay. For Unreal Tournament, the game was initially (I think) a bit of a graphical showcase, but as players become more serious about it they do their best to disable all graphical quality settings so they get a competitive edge. There’s a wide range here, and what’s important changes depending on the game and the player.

    As guidelines for a creative process I think there’s definitely something to be said for keeping the pieces of the game aligned, somehow, and working together. And yes, that does mean that the art has to be ‘strong enough’ to support the gameplay, etc. I just think that it’s not so helpful to worry about ‘equal quality’ so much as it is to worry about coherency in a more general sense, and in the context of the game or audience you’re interested in creating. I think it’s often the case, especially in low-budget productions, that people have found styles of expressing their world where they’re not really making visible quality sacrifices, within the style, and the important thing is that the style works well with what the game is trying to express.

    Finally, fl0wer is as nice to look at for me as any blockbuster production I’ve seen. For that matter, so is fl0w, within the context of what it is, since no blockbuster was trying to look like that.

  11. “The graphics are like the bread — it’s what you taste first — while the gameplay is perhaps the meat.”

    gameplay, to me, is like a toy in the sense that you play with it, which is fine. Games are meant to be played with. But in some cases, can graphics not also be the meat? in that sense they are not JUST a toy, but also an artform.

  12. Ah hehe, sorry, I hadn’t thought too hard about the sandwich metaphor; didn’t mean “meat” to correspond to “the important part” really … I see how that came across weird now. Yeah, graphics can definitely also be the meat :)

  13. You have a good point, Zaphos. But only in as far as computer games are considered games or toys. If you are looking at them as mature media experiences, then I think the barrel metaphor does hold water (pardon the pun). Sudoku and chess don’t even belong in this category and Unreal only in so far as its narrative aspect. Even Myst is a border case because its puzzles are very hard and abstract. In fact, and this may have been what Mr Chen was ultimately getting at, most current computer games don’t belong in this category and the barrel metaphor is perhaps an ideal to strive for in an attempt to grow for electronic games to a new art form.

  14. And the reason why I think this is very relevant is that I believe that many people, even now, play games as if they were some form of art! Only the core audience still thinks of them as (pure) games.

  15. I still think I personally have trouble knowing when the components of a game have reached equal quality (and perhaps this is just my own shortcoming) but I do think I understand what you are getting at much better now! Thanks for the explanation :)

  16. Hi everyone, I’m glad that the first thing I do on my birthday is to talk about game making here :) Wonderful start!

    The metaphor of a water barrel is not originated from me but one of my film school professors. Of course when he used the metaphor, he applied it to film and divided aspects of film into graphics, sound, script, acting and so on. I agree with Ben, “Art Direction” or “Visual” is more suitable than “Graphics” among gamers since people consider graphics more about frame rate or pixel resolutions when attached to video games.

    The barrel metaphor is just a vessel to communicate an idea. And metaphor is rarely scientifically accurate. Most mystic stories are metaphors, when people take those stories seriously, they can easily poke holes on it. I can make so many false cases on the barrel metaphor too. But that’s not the point.

    I think we all get the rough idea that a game’s overall quality ties to all aspects of the development. The final game experience would benefit if you keep an eye on the “whole” rather than focusing only on one aspect, say “frame rate” or “# of enemies”. Unfortunately, people can pick up flaws much faster than realizing the perfectness of an object. That’s why I felt the short piece of wood and water leaking barrel’s a good metaphor to share. :)

    As to the conversation about Gameplay vs Graphics. I don’t have an opinion on who’s more important, we need burgers but vegetable as well. Maybe you are a vegetarian, but the world market would be happier if there are meat for those who are not vegetarians. I think I used too many metaphors today…

  17. Oh btw Jenova great job on flOw and good luck in the future with Flower.

    I really appreciate the direction the art is taking, along with the gameplay, and that barrel metaphor is a pretty good one, still reminds me of Buddhism :-)

Comments are closed.