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[Gamesbriefers] How important is visual quality to success?

By on January 27, 2013
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Creative Commons image by Creative Tools

Question:

With so much rapid technological progress focused on increasing the graphical capabilities of phones, tablets and web browsers, how important is visual quality to the success of a game in this sphere? The console business became an arms race of graphical fidelity which ended up all but excluding many smaller developers and publishers from the top table; does this risk happening in mobile and social, or will other factors always trump visuals in the end?


Answers:

Harry Holmwood CEO at Marvelous AQL Europe

I think visual quality/appeal is as important as it’s ever been. Whether that means that all games have to have whizzy 3D engines is another matter though. Look through the top grossing charts and it’s still the case that most of the games making most of the money are 2D. It’s a question we’re asking ourselves at the moment – I think you need to prove to yourself that your game is genuinely enhanced by 3D, rather than feeling the remnants of the ‘3D is always best’ attitude which is a hangover from the console business. I think, if we’re making relatively broad games, then many of our customers won’t even realise the difference between a 3D and a 2D game. They just see a game, and one which either looks appealing or doesn’t.


Emily Greer SVP Product, Marketing and Finance at Kongregate

I think that visuals/polish are like marketing — leverage to increase the popularity & spread of a game with a good core mechanic, but not enough in and of itself. Given the choice between a beautiful, slightly boring game (of which there are many) and an unattractive but fun game people may be slightly more likely to start the beautiful game, but much more likely to keep playing the fun game. Poor interface & ugly graphics definitely hold some games back, and are worth investing in, but only as a secondary concern. On Kongregate at least the top played, top revenue games are rarely the most visually appealing.


Martin Darby Founder of Remode

I believe visual quality is an important ingredient for success. I think it is one of the things that can help a game seem immersive, exciting, interesting, slick or culturally in-tune which helps provide the escapism we
get from playing games. While I’ll acknowledge that on an individual level “visual quality” can be subjective, on mass there are clear patterns, standards and bench marks.

However if you are more referring to high-end 3D, to which the limits are still evolving on mobile/web then I would say that while I think we are going to see more of it in the future, I don’t think that it will necessarily cannibalise games that don’t require it. This is simply due to the fact that there will always be a demand for games that don’t need real-time 3D and open platforms are by their very nature able to accommodate this. “Everyone already has a mobile” as the cliché goes: consoles on the other hand are specialist gaming devices bought by hardcore gamers who, as the evidence clearly shows, consume a lot of graphically advanced games.


Mark Sorrell Development Director at Hide & Seek

I’d very much agree that character is far more important. As we often say on here, people play games, not technology and a lot of ‘graphical polish’ is often ‘technological showing off’. As such, it’s massively less important than having characters people can emotionally engage with.

World of Warcraft is, in many ways, the high watermark for this stuff. It scales brilliantly with the power of your PC and requires very little oomph to look good. But it clearly works.

Good art direction trumps technological superiority every time.


Eric Seufert Head of Marketing and Acquisition at Grey Area

Visual game quality communicates to the user from the very first session a qualitative impression of the amount of work that was put into the game. So by that logic, I think visual quality can play a significant role in early stage retention. If I have to make a snap decision about how much I’ll like a game (say, I’ve just installed it
and my bus stop is 30 seconds away), I’ll be more inclined to return later if I can tell that it was developed by a team of professionals with care taken to ensure that it looks good.


Charles Chapman Director and Owner of First Touch Games

There’s no doubt that appropriate polished visuals can give a big advantage, regardless of 2D or 3D. Platform holders like games that make their devices look good, so a visually polished and appealing game is more likely to be featured, which is still a huge boost. However, there are plenty of games which do fantastically well despite not being as visually polished as they might be.
It’s definitely a big advantage though, and really one of the easiest advantages to get given time & resources – you can’t say the same about gameplay or game design, where you can’t buy the ‘magic’.
As they say, you can’t polish a turd, and a bad game with fantastic visuals is still a bad game.


Andy Payne CEO of Appynation

Visuals are really important – all part of the packaging really- but as we all know all visual no gameplay leaves Jack and Jill very dissatisfied ultimately. I personally don’t care too much about the 2D vs 3D argument having come from the comic generation, and my experience with consoles tells me that a rush to 3D is not ‘the one’ answer. Candy Crush Saga is a fantastic example of what Bejewelled should have been. It is really polished and visually rich and has wonderful pay offs with so many crazy little events. It is fiendish and it is a lot of fun. Even the music is mad. As a 3D game it would probably suck. Broken Sword series works fantastically as a 2D experience just as the Walking Dead works as 3D. Art and gameplay are joined at the hip, although retro bitmap art can work for many gamers or those familiar with 8/16 bit graphics (much like comics).


Oscar Clark Evangelist at Applifier

Wow! Have we stepped back 10 years? Are we still having this debate?

People have been underestimating the importance of visual fidelity on mobile since I first launched 3UK’s games service.

As Eric says the evidence (even in the Java days) is that people immediately respond to the art of a game and this forms a key decision maker, especially when there is very little other information available on the App Store. This was an arms race then and it’s an arms race now. The key to that race is that the art is perfect for the experience – even if this is Retro or 2d cartoon styles.

But don’t underestimate the value of good 3D content. I remember in 2004-5 how games like Carmageddon in relatively primitive 3D and only running on one device earning as much revenue as games like Tetris which were available on all devices. I do recall we sold those 3D games at a premium (£10-15). Ok the App Store is a more complex place than our long departed operator portal, but games like Infinity Blade and CSR Racing show console quality graphics still has an important effect. However, 3D alone is no guarantee of success as others have said it needs to be well implemented and in a game worth playing. Just using it to raise price (as I once did) no longer works.

We already have the capability to create amazing art on mobile and we need to leverage that power as part of a great game design and within a great brand/experience (often including quality characters). All of these elements have to be brought together if you want compete against the hundreds of thousands of competitor apps and we ignore this at our peril.

This very issue was why I joined both NVIDIA and most recently Applifier. I know 3D still has an amazing impact on adoption when it’s done well and when appropriate to the game. But that doesn’t stop me loving amazing pixel art or 2d characters if they are more appropriate to the game experience i am playing. I also know that showing your friends great video of gameplay that’s shows high visual fidelity, where the art is compelling (2D or 3D) that also creates an amazing first impression; much more than a static image.


Ben Board Senior Product Lead at Boss Alien

Sure, some games, even genres, really don’t benefit much from visual snazz. And we’ve seen visual gimmickry fail as a differentiator for so-so games time and again. But if the core appeal of your game is closely related to its visuals, in conjuring a sense of place, then improving your visuals will improve the player’s absorption, natch. For CSR Racing, like most big console games, this is clearly the case: Players like great-looking cars, an evocative location, scenery blurring and camera shaking with speed, and a close camera showing them edging an opponent on the finish line. Those visuals wouldn’t keep a crap game alive, but they do amplify great mobile gameplay. That combination also makes it a great viral proposition in pubs and playgrounds. It’s not the only formula for success on mobile but it’s a good one – and with the diaspora of console-trained talent coming to mobile, plus the increasingly ripply muscles of successive devices, one I think more teams will be tackling.

When a dev gets to the point where they’re adding 3D to a 2D game because they can’t innovate any other way, they are likely making a very expensive mistake. That transition is a vastly expensive one and, if the game was doing fine in 2D, unlikely to deepen the experience – if a player doesn’t want to play it in 2D, they probably won’t like the zoomy-rotatey version either. If it adds to the promise of the game, though – we made Theme Park World with an extra dimension, literally and experientially, with ride-riding and park-wandering adding to that sense of place – then fill yer boots. Clash of Clans is not desperate for 3D. But I could imagine a CoC-related game for people who wanted to get more immersed in that world, with entirely different gameplay, in which the graphics mattered. But I think they’re busy leafing through superyacht catalogues (and good on them).

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  • I double Jim’s reply.

    Of course I’m not saying that visual quality doesn’t sell. Any “quality” sells. Visuals are just one of the few elements that players can taste and evaluate before they even play (purchase) a game. That’s the reason why PC/Console games are doing those amazing trailers even if actual gameplay visuals are medicore. It’s a bait.

  • Jim

    Technology has a big impact on game performance though. Optimisation around performance arguably has a much bigger impact than visual polish.

  • Jim

    The “sale” (i.e. 1st purchase action) in most f2p games happens after several sessions. The purchase decision being driven by game mechanics rather than theme.

  • I think it depends what you mean by “quality”. I would define the term how well the visual appeal of the game resonate with the target audience of the game and how quickly it does that.

    Very good example is Ski Safari. At least for me, the game is “high fidelity 2d” which meant that the game looks awesome in the iPad and the visual style is fantastic to the genre of the game. It also gives quick visual feedback (visual style is immediately visible).

    The other kind of example is the story of Hill Climb Racing. To me, it doesn’t have so good visual appeal which means that it doesn’t have bright colors, no good looking characters etc. = I think you can refer the game has “engineers’ visual style”. This resulted that when I first downloaded the game and run it, it took about 10 seconds for me to quit playing it. But, because I have some connections to the game (Finnish game) I was ready to give it a second chance. It took about 30 seconds when I got what was good in this game.

    So in the first example the visual style of the game immediately encouraged to go on and start looking what’s the actual game. In the second example, it didn’t. Of course this has a lot to do how you build up the game, but I think that you have to think about the genre, goal and core-loop of the game to define what are quality requirements for the game.

  • I agree. The 3D/2D argument is a bit silly; I’ve seen horrible 3D games and beautiful 2D games. Technology has less of an impact than thematic consistency and attention to detail.

  • I don’t feel it’s about technology as such – a 2D game can look fantastic and stand out. It’s about polish within the space your game exists.

  • It’s not just about the money, it’s about the sale. You still need to “sell” a Free product. Especially in a market where F2P becomes increasingly competitive.

  • Jim

    I like the social casino reference made by Lukasz and it backs up my own observations in casual games: Visual quality can help marketing and user acquisition but has no noticeable impact on retention.

    A lot of developers coming from the console space are going to get burned on this unless they understand how the free to play model works. There is a lot of info on the AppStore about a game’s quality (not just visual) and the low friction to install means that beautiful games lacking good gameplay get found out very quickly.

  • Sik

    You definitely want the game to feel polished. Polished visuals don’t necessarily mean more complex or advanced technology, but rather that it feels more natural. Things like animation and such add to polish more than shiny graphics do.

    Also wait a second, Carmageddon? How did I miss this? o_O

  • A good space for observations is social casino and slots games. The mechanics are exactely the same in all games, the set of features as well. Visual appeal would be the first suspect for a success maker, however it isn’t. Arguably, the winning factor is responsivity undestood as a combination of usability, fast performance and small tricks that make users feel that they have impact on the game (even if they turn on autoplay). Of course, if you add beauty to this, it’s only better.

    Beauty is rarely the main ingredient, but in some games it might be the key to monetization, especially, if it’s UGB – User Generated Beauty. If you give user visually stunning components that he/she can use to builds even more stunning Theme Park or a garden, user will feel stronger emotions about it. Not only he/she will spend more money but also will be less likely to leave his/hers Opus Magnum behind and churn.

    As Simon points out in his comment, “visual quality decreases UA costs” but I think it’s more relevant to paid games than free2play. People are definitely more likely to invest $70 (or $1) in a game with high production values. For F2P it’s sometimes a great icon design or couple of first screens that’s enough.

    My small advice, before investinging a lot in visuals, think what purpose it serves in your game’s genre and who your players are (psychological types!).

  • Visual quality decreases your UA costs significantly. Details improve retention.

    It’s absolutely vital. Everybody loves beautiful.