Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Christoph Hartmann's "Photo Realism" Interview Response [E]

Author's note - the promised episode is on its way, but current events are current so.. here.


I first heard of the interview with Christoph Hartmann ,the head of 2K games, interview about 2K and 2K's views on the future of the industry that resulted in Mr. Hartmann's comments about Photorealism from the Jimquisition on the Escapist Magazine. But before I let my artzy fartzy designer side of me start ranting I did some searching and found the full interview. Give it a read. To be fair to Mr. Hartmann I'm going to include both the question and his answer from Gameindustry.bliz with each of my responses.


The interviewer, Gamesindustry US editor, James Brightman goes through the interview asking the general future of the industry type questions and for the most part Mr. Hartmann gives pretty standard (in my opinion, non-committal) answers. About two thirds through the interview though are where alot of people starting to disagree with Mr. Hartmann.


James BrightmanOn the mobile front, a lot of traditional publishers have been having a hard time adjusting to that market. EA has done well, and Activision recently launched a mobile brand, but how does 2K look at tablets and smartphones? Is that going to be a big growth opportunity for you at some point?

Christoph Hartmann - It definitely is a platform and area that we are looking at very closely. If you look at Civilization, it was one of the best-selling games on the iPhone and iPad. We definitely are committed to that area of the business. We're definitely looking at other IPs that we have to see if they work on mobile. We're not just going to take some random IP and throw it on there. We're going to make good games, and we're also looking at doing something original one day.We don't think it will be a revolution to the business, though. No one will ever be able to replace the power of the console business - having a console with that power and the opportunities for quality games is very important. And while being able to pick it up and being convenient is a big thing, and your phone and calendar are there, playing and carrying around games is nothing new. It will be a larger part of the market, but it is not the holy grail of the market and the business. Look at the history, there is a place for everything, but I don't think anything is ever going to replace the consoles given the maturity of the market.

Response -  Alright... well sure being able to play and carry around games is nothing new, but the fact that we're not only talking Nintendo while doing it is. Nintendo has dominated the handheld market and nothing has been able to compete simply because pushing a new device to compete against Nintendo in the mobile game market that's just about been branded Nintendo Territory was inconceivable. You bought Nintendo handhelds because you were looking for the IPs that you've loved and the handhelds could constantly support that kind of game style its demographic was nostalgic of and, in relation to the rest of the industry, starved of. Secondly Nintendo has a solid reputation as completely family friendly, parents want an mobile entertainment for their children that they know will put out plenty of games they consider age appropriate. That was a business model you just could not compete with. But to introduce gaming to an already universally used and owned mobile device, finally with software capabilities that can stand up in that market, you've just revolutionized the industry.
Mobile games brought in an entirely different demographic to the industry and also brought back more of the older game styles; arcade rail shooter, side scroller, shoot'em up, and brought new ones that designers would never have considered feasible in the market to the mainstream. The Indie industry had an entirely new platform that was easy to attain and approach for design and innovation, the old school styles of play and throw back gameplay that the indie crowd had always catered to were suddenly in the attention of a larger demographic then ever before. App mobile games are one of the most affordable way for large and small studios to make creative innovative risks. If you're wondering what kind of art an app game could bring to the industry then just take some time looking at Super Brother's Sword & Sworcery. Mobile games re-energized the industry, bringing back the lessons early designers had been forced to discover to get around because of their technology's limitations.
The largest point of this argument though that I will press though is that the amount of material and capabilities put into a game do not define it's quality. Some of the greatest moments in gaming have not been built because of flashy new technology, they've been built by designers and writers who have worked together conscience of the resources at their disposal. It was about working around your limitations to make the best experience possible. To quote Stranger Then Fiction, 
"... who in their right mind in a choice between pancakes and living, chooses pancakes?"

"Harold, if you pause to think, you'd realize that that answer is inextricably contingent upon the type of life being led... and, of course, the quality of the pancakes." 
The metaphor being living as these massive budget, visually and mechanically impressive works. And the pancakes being a smaller work with a stronger design and execution. 




James Brightman - I met with David Jaffe at E3, and he said that he thinks consoles will become dinosaurs after the next generation. He says next generation is probably the last generation now that things are going digital with smart TVs and cloud gaming. It sounds like you disagree completely with him?

Christoph Hartmann - I semi-disagree with him because the way your games are going to get transmitted from one source to the gamer might change, but I'm talking about big, huge quality games. It is like how people consume food. Fast food is on the rise and that has to do with our lifestyle, but there are high quality restaurants that are not going away. When I talk console games, I'm talking about huge experiences with many hours of gaming... and you will always need a major platform for those titles.
I don't know what we will have in the future, maybe a PS 15 or something, but we will need the hardware. It's like in the software industry, the software pushes the hardware; there's a give and take and it's the same in video games. We need machines built to perform well in one area, and that is gaming. You're never going to be able to compete with it because it's about quality and it's built to do one thing best. And, by the way, the whole streaming and cloud thing is just nice words until the [internet infrastructure improves]. I don't believe in cloud gaming until a cable provider stops breaking my internet connection every morning, when everyone logs in at the same time. I don't see this being fixed for a long, long time.

Response - Well, again, quality is not defined by the tech under the hood. Technologically impressive games come out all the time and no one even bats an eye, in this era change and technological improvement is common place, the true drive is always within the new use of technology. In this media technology has opened up thousands of possibilities, but it's the use of that technology that creates engaging experiences. With physical distribution production costs so high publishers are slow to greenlight anything that's not similar to whatever has recently been the most profitable on the mainstream market. That's not a recipe for a innovation, that leads to stagnation. With the digital distribution market growing so rapidly due to a better retail situation and infinitely better convenience eventually the consoles as we know it today will becoming obsolete. Notice how the newer generation consoles are trying hard and harder to be more then just a gaming console, it's because companies just can't get customers to justify paying the prices the companies want for something that's just another game system. How exactly and to what extent digital distribution will eventually change the video game industry we just can't know. We've only begun to grasp the full implications and possibilities of an internet hook up with multiplayer, look at Dust 514 and Eve online. The shift to fully digital gaming will for better or worse completely change the landscape of gaming, and the changes in the industry thus far because of it are just the tip of the iceberg. 


James Brightman - What's your reaction to Warren Spector and his talking about how today's games are overly saturated with violence? Obviously, a lot of games in the 2K portfolio have plenty of violence in them. Do you think developers should be working to make other types of games not steeped in violence to help the maturation of the medium?

Christoph Hartmann - It's something that comes up internally a lot and in product development. What's the difference between the movies and gaming? Movies you just watch. You get emotional involvement in both, but in gaming you interact. That limits you already in what you can do, as certain emotions can't be recreated. Recreating a Mission Impossible experience in gaming is easy; recreating emotions in Brokeback Mountain is going to be tough, or at least very sensitive in this country. It's limiting. Comedy is already very hard in video games. You can't have a game simply built around comedy. It has to be part of an overall vibe. So there is only a certain area that you can use [to create games] and then you look at technology, you can kind of maybe make people look right, but it will be very hard to create very deep emotions like sadness or love, things that drive the movies.

Until games are photorealistic, it'll be very hard to open up to new genres. We can really only focus on action and shooter titles; those are suitable for consoles now. If someone comes up with a video game where it's all about you falling in love, where you have the emotions and you don't need a lot of interaction from your device, that's great but what happened to those interactive movies from the '90s? They were boring. It was like a movie that gave you three endings.

Response - The notion that only with a fully photo-realistic range of facial and body expressions that games will reach their full potential as a medium is.. well, it's ignorant to the theory, maybe even law, of all other forms of artistic medium. First in defense of non-photorealistic visuals, I'd like to site the entire animated film industry. Disney, there, how was your feels trip? This argument's over... right? Well no, simply because we feel we know something and we feel that examples we bring out prove the opposition wrong doesn't mean we've won. What we need to do is explain and understand the phenomena beneath our stand at its base. We know it's right, but we need to understand why it's right. Which for games (as a fledgling medium) might seem difficult, but lets be honest it's only difficult if we're lazy. Hundreds of years of arts have built up to this interactive medium, there is no other form of storytelling and expression that can take and adapt from more other existing forms to creating unique experiences.

To understand a game as art, you first have to view it as art. You have to notice all the elements that go into it that create a completely unique experience in relation to other mediums, and in that you just can't relate it to other medium because they don't measure off the same theory in design. Art, at its root, is expression, but here's a better definition for our purposes. Art is the expression of real world beauty through the artist's interpretation. Meaning that all works of art are simply an interpretation of reality.

Pablo Picasso as child prodigy could draw photorealism (as the eye sees it) from the age of eight. It was within his later works that made him famous where he played with proportion and his representation of reality. Art has never truly been about replicating reality in the world, it has been about how to represent the beauty of the world. It's in interpretation, not replication, where an artist can really convey emotion to the viewer. Look at these two...

Which of these two stand out stronger, which seems to stimulate more, which makes you think and feel more?

The human mind and perception is a wonderful thing, we can look at proportions and representation of a human figure that is completely unnatural within the human world and still understand it to be human. Even in giving inanimate objects human like features we can mentally connect with the work as a representation of ourselves.

Exaggerated human like features and expressions prove to still powerfully convey emotion. With this phenomena the full range of human emotions can still be powerfully conveyed within an unnaturally proportioned representation. The catch is how accurately they can represent (not replicate) the emotions and convey the emotional situation to the audience.

Course, there is a powerful downfall to this phenomena, the Uncanny Valley. Teddy Bears were an instant hit, not because they looked like bears and were named after a popular president, but because their proportions were based of human babies. The slope is where proportions or expressions are close.. but just off in the wrong way. Then it becomes just creepy or unsettling and all feeling of connection or empathy with the subjects are completely lost.

Just... look..

Which one wants to watch you from outside the window and hug your dog too tightly?

It's in understanding all these things and all the subtle aspects of human interaction, and then taking those into account throughout the entire design and production process that video games can accurately portray strong emotions through the characters. They don't have to look like snapshots of reality, they have to look like snapshots of real life interaction.

It can be something as small as characters holding hands.

And without looking at the graphics, or even getting a glimpse at the faces, that connection between the characters are conveyed.

We can see those emotions and we understand them as a representation of our own feelings, we can empathize. We could create a Brokeback Mountain for gaming, but the reason we probably wont right now is more because of the political environment then our technology. When there are things like Chick-fil-A going on, how many producers would greenlight something like that? For this medium to transcend purely entertainment and to become an art we first have to have an industry that sees itself as creating art. It doesn't have to mean all art-house kind of games but more that are made by designers that see themselves as artist, in their own sense, within a creative medium. If we don't think we can achieve a status of art yet, then we wont be looking for a means to.

In Hartmann's defense, as far as he's concerned, you can't convey a true range of emotions yet. In a market where shooters are the one reliable project to return a profit, how often does a designer really get a chance to explore a range of emotions? The largest demographic of the market want first person, and in first person as you are looking through the eyes of the character you might expect -to a degree- the world to look photo-realistic, as the eye sees it. The main demographic is white hetrosexual males ages from high school to college, the demographics are growing to include more then that sure, but still at this time what the industry produces is still generally governed by the most marketable items to that demographic. Violence & fighting, guns, sexual pandering, you get the picture. Then how do designers break this mold?

Well, actually they do it by not breaking it, they stretch it. They use what is popular to create art and expression in the game experiences they mold. Like basically, all other artists... Sure we haven't figured it out entirely, but no medium has, and we are learning. Take a look at the outcome thus far.  


In our own manner we have created art, we've conveyed true emotions and characters that the player connect and feel empathy for. And we've been doing it for a long time, we can't look at other mediums for comparison; because we have plenty of amazing moments in gaming history that convey powerful experiences to the player, those moments are what we have to learn from to better our medium and the emotional experiences we convey to the player. And that's just about all I can say on that. Until next time, thanks for tuning in everyone. If anyone has any comments they'd like to add to the discussion, feel free.


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