There was a short news piece in GameDaily today quoting one of the senior producers working on Gears of War 2 as suggesting that developers may be reaching the "upper end" of the 360's graphical capabilities. The producer goes on to say (in essence) that the ceiling hasn't been hit, but the very fact that this comment was actually seen as a kind of news got me thinking—even if (and that's definitely an IF) the 360 is closing in on the best that it can do.... so what?
Frankly speaking, the latest round of titles looks pretty goddamned fantastic. The graphics that we get on average these days is so far beyond what we ever thought we'd see back when we were rocking 8-bit boxes that it's absolutely amazing we've made so much progress. However, I'm not saying this with the intent of sticking up for the 360. My real point is that although graphics may have made giant leaps, it's pretty clear to anyone who's paying attention that similar leaps have yet to be made in terms of raw gameplay.
Although it's true some developers are exploring new territory, I think it's probably more accurate to say that the bulk of games being developed these days are putting most of their resources into graphics, while we're still playing the same formulas and designs that started feeling a bit stale last generation.
In my opinion, we're only just starting to scratch the surface of what's possible with regard to new ideas and innovations in actual game design; things like integrating physics to take the place of arbitrary puzzles. Things like having improved artificial intelligence instead of predictable, canned behaviors. Things like giving players true options for customization not only of their avatar, but of their entire experience. In fact, developers have only just started designing things that have never been possible before, and the fact that a certain piece of hardware may or may not be closing in on its graphical limitations is irrelevant.
If anyone needs a more concrete example, look no further than the Wii. The graphics produced by Nintendo's little white box are slightly below average at best, and embarrassingly crude at worst—yet it hasn't stopped the system from outperforming everything else on the market. Although it's true that the Wii is something of a special case, I think the core idea that gameplay innovations do not rely on graphical innovations still holds true, regardless.
Not really needed right now.
On a more personal level, I'm still finding overlooked DS and PS2 games whose creativity and energy win me over and keep me occupied despite not having eighteen different kinds of lighting effects and hyper-realistic texture-maps, not to mention how many hours I've poured into the games found on Xbox Live, WiiWare and the PlayStation Network. There are some truly great things to be found on a smaller scale, and very few of them have the ability to melt the eyes of passersby.
Also not needed.
I know there are people out there who are more concerned with continually increasing the insane amount of detail that can be crammed into a game's visual display, but I think the fact is that graphics don't make a game, and anyone who's honest with themselves and knows even the first thing about playing them will agree. There's no need to get into a console arms race of diminishing returns with hardware iterations occurring every two years... let's make the most of what we've got now, and talk about new bells and whistles once we've established a few more milestones in terms of what we play—not how it looks.
Read more at Drinking Coffeecola blog.