Monday, November 7, 2011

Graphics and budget

There's an interesting thread over on the Adventure Gamers forum about Blackwell Deception, mostly regarding the graphics. I figured it was a good time to address the issue of the graphics in my games and my thoughts on them.

It's no secret that my games are all over the map in terms of style.  Every game boasts a new set of artists, and its rare that the same artists work on two projects in a row.  This is due to a number of reasons, but the core reason is that the artists I work with are all freelancers.  When I have a new project ready to go, I have to go with whoever is available at the time.  They all have varying schedules and are not always available exactly when I need them.  They might have gotten a full time job, taking a break from art, or are swamped with other projects.  So each new game often means searching for new artists, which often means a new art style for each game.

It also depends on something else: budget.  When I made Blackwell Convergence, I had a lot of money coming in from my work on Emerald City Confidential.  Since I had money to burn, I thought it would be a good idea to invest it in nicer graphics for Convergence. I hired a professional art studio to do the backgrounds, and the results spoke for themselves:


It was still low-res (creating and animating high-res characters was an impossibility, even with the money I was getting) but the game was definitely gorgeous to look at. When the game was released, the responses were interesting to say the least.  The hardcore point-and-click fans loved it. They called it some of the nicest graphics they've ever seen.  Other sites?  Well, not so much.  Here are some quotes taken from various forums on the internet:

"Wow - are the graphics really as bad as those screenshots depict?"

"I couldn't stand playing this for even 10 minutes ... the graphics are terrible! Looks like it was written over 20 years ago."

"It is like giving yourself crossed eyes for the fun of it. HORRID. My eye sight is still blurry."

"I can't see a game developer releasing a game that looks this bad and is so hard on the eyes"

"HORRIBLE!!!! I wouldn't take this game if it were FREE."

So, yeah. Talk about conflicting reports. Even still, it shouldn't have mattered, right?  The better graphics meant that more adventure game fans were buying it, right?  Well, not so much. Convergence's budget was easily triple that of anything I'd ever done before, and while it did earn a profit it took significantly longer to get there.  In terms of money made, I pocketed the same amount of money as my previous games.

Think about that for a second.

I was spending more money, working much harder, and yet my bottom line remained exactly the same. 

This was dumb.

There was a lesson I learned here. As far as low-res graphics are concerned, there is only so far you can go. You can make it as beautiful as you like, throw as much money at it as you can, and painstakingly place every pixel, but the majority of the gaming audience will still think it's ugly.

This posed the question: would the people who bought Convergence have bought it anyway, pretty graphics or not?  After a lot of thinking and fan feedback, I decided yes.  The people who buy my games weren't buying them for the graphics, so why not focus my efforts to where they'll do the most good?  So when the time came to make Blackwell Deception, I made the conscious decision to spend less time and money on the graphics and more on the actual game. The art was cheaper, but there's a heck of a lot more of it. 

The graphics might be simpler, but the lights
change color and the characters dance!

I was able to take more risks. I wasn't breaking the bank, so I wasn't worried about it failing as much. I implemented, tested, and redesigned the ending of the game three times before I was satisfied. I never would have conceived of doing that with Convergence, since so much money was going out the door.  With Deception I could test more often, scrap ideas that didn't work and try new ones.  It was very liberating. 

The result? The highest selling and most critically acclaimed Blackwell game so far.  And yes, there are people who hate the graphics, but those detractors would still be there even if I tripled the production budget.  Did I lose a few customers by downgrading the graphics? Perhaps, and I'm sorry to have disappointed them. Did I gain many more customers by improving the game play? Undoubtedly yes. 

With every game I change my production methods, and inevitably I get something wrong or wish I did something differently.  This time, I seem to have gotten it right. I guess after five years and eight games, it was bound to happen eventually.



  1. By improving you mean that you added more variation (animations, object, etc) or more room, so the game was longer?

  2. Dave, I get the feeling that most of the "I hate those graphics!" comments were made by people aged 18 and under - not really your target market (though I loved adventure games at that age already, this is a new generation). It perhaps takes a slightly more mature (okay, OLDER) game player to appreciate both high-res, photo-realistic graphics and also appreciate, in a different way, the beauty of 320x200 resolution and even limited colour palettes.

    (Incidentally, one of the adventure games I'm working on at the moment is beautiful high-resolution work... another is reduced colour set 320x200... :-D)

  3. Actually, a chunk of those quotes were taken from the Big Fish Game forum, where the average age is 40+. For so-called "casual gamers" they can be downright vicious when talking about games they don't like.

  4. I think it may be less a question of how old they are, a more a question of how long they have been gaming. The growth of the "casual games" market was a relatively recent, and sudden, phenomenon. (Thanks, Zynga!) So while casual gamers may average on the older side, their history with gaming may not go back more than a decade or so.

    Whereas your target market might actually be younger (I'm 28, myself), but has a longer history with gaming (20+ years?), and therefore remembers fondly a time when the new top-of-the-line games had even lower resolutions and color palettes than the games you're making.

    Which is not to belittle the appeal of your games as purely "retro" or nostalgia-based, but simply to say that those of us who can remember having a great time with the much cruder-looking games (technologically-speaking) of yesteryear are probably a lot less likely to let lower-resolution graphics stand in the way of our appreciation of a new game.

  5. Good point about the casual game players - their expectations are totally different I guess.

    I also have to admit that as much as I love retro graphics, I would struggle to enjoy looking at the Atari 2600 visuals these days...

  6. What's ironic is that the Big Fish members were my biggest customers back in 2007. Back then, little sprite graphics in casual games were the norm. Then a year later, hyper-realistic hidden object games became the "in" thing. How fast things change!

  7. Speaking as someone who was slightly disappointed with the graphics in "Deception" at first (although that was probably partly due to petty jealousy on my part, beign a freelance artist and a fan of the series myself ;D), I'll have to agree with the most points in this post.

    Low-res is still low-res for those who doesn't like it, and gorgeous graphics are not the reason why Blackwell games are great.

    And as much as I LOVED the graphics in the "Convergence", these two games feel very much the same after you've been sucked in into the story and the world of the game. And if the beautiful backgrounds and portraits of Convergence gave the game a calmer, slower, richer atmosphere, the backgrounds and portraits in Deception at the very least didn't substract anything from the game itself - they felt just right. Maybe they are more functional than artistic, but they certainly didn't feel out of place at any moment. And there's also more of them, so the game seems to be moving forward all the time, while Convergence sometimes felt like walking in circles. (in circles around the gorgeous art, though :)).

    So, yeah, it worked out well in the end, congratulations on that! :)

  8. Great game, and pretty great graphics in my opinion.

  9. I think you depict the truth about most players.

    Youngsters (I am 32) who love casual games or FPS for example don't play to your games because they are not your audience at all.

    I grow with Lucasart, Sierra & Westwood games so I prefer pixel art & a good story.

    Some french review said that graphically Blackwell lacks of personnality because for each episode graphics change. I know today that it is because you work with freelancers.

    A great voiceacting brings much too.

    Translation of your games must be appreciate in Europe. Call some fans of the serie for it.(AGS)

  10. "Blackwell lacks of personnality because for each episode graphics change."

    Well, like I said, nobody is buying Blackwell for the graphics anyway. Each game has its own style, but it's no different than, say, Neil Gaiman's Sandman comic books where each book was drawn by a different artist. The characters might look drastically different from one book to the next, but the heart of each one feels very much like Neil Gaiman's work. At least that's my take on it. :)

  11. I've always bought adventure games for the story. I'm extremely picky about that. Beautiful graphics are all well and good, but if you don't have a good story, then what's the point?

    This series is seriously one of the best stories I've read--whatever the format.

    That is why I keep buying the games.

    And really, I like the pixelated retro graphics a lot better than these stiff, awkward 3D renditions they have on a lot of the current games now.

    And the voice-acting is top notch, especially the two leads.

    Your reasoning is excellent and I think you made the right choice. :)

  12. A little late to this post, but I've just gotten up to the last game in the series (Deception) and was interested in learning more about the graphics change.

    I'm a 28 year old aussie who grew up on adventure games, but I play A LOT of different games, and haven't touched this genre in ages.

    I bought the package of steam purely based on the pixel art graphic style - I didn't even read a single review or watch the trailer. I probably wouldn't have bought it if the first screenshot I saw was from the last game (and would have completely missed out on something amazing).

    I'm actually working on an adventure game now thanks to this, and I've bought the series as presents for a few friends already.

    Great work, and thanks for the great commentary and posts to give us insight into game creation!

  13. Story, humor and sound/music is very important areas, some small animations can make up a lot with low res graphics, I consider graphics just to be supporting that experience.

    I have been gamer from the 80's and that might of course affect my view a bit. Currently I'm learning to make adventure games, I have long way to go, can't even draw and even putting story together is something that I'm learning but learning slowly so that I could eventually make use of some original ideas I have had long time.

    There is lot of people that care only how things look, not how things work, such persons probably will give ugly feedback, but even with super quality graphics, I don't think those people would have attention span to dig into story to get hooked to genre, so maybe safe to ignore such persons, that is what I have been thought about.

  14. Thanks a lot for this interesting article! Actually I was thinking and wondering a bit about the different graphics styles having played the whole series recently.

    I LOVE it, mainly for the nice storytelling AND old school, low end graphics!

    I must admit I like the Convergence graphics most in fact. : )

  15. Quote:
    "There is lot of people that care only how things look, not how things work, such persons probably will give ugly feedback, but even with super quality graphics, I don't think those people would have attention span to dig into story to get hooked to genre, so maybe safe to ignore such persons, that is what I have been thought about."
    I am one of those persons, I can buy a game, such as crysis, just (well, mostly) because of the good graphics. Still, I enjoy the Blackwell series with its atmosphere, and genre.
    You can't just buy an fps game, and enjoy it together with a glass of whiskey or two ;)

  16. I loved your older style as i'm playing through deception right now I was a little taken a back by the change of portraits and different graphic style. Still going to finish up Deception regardless I saw Blackwell 5 is in the making and i'm happy to see the old style back! Thanks for such wonderful games it's about trial and error I still love em.