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OK, maybe I'm exaggerating a little. I'll admit that OpenGL is actually pretty neat. And, for all I know, 3DStudioMax is written by nice, normal guys without a single drop of demonic blood in their veins, inasmuch as any software developer can be characterized as "normal". And maybe Direct3D is not really a crawling abomination from the lowest planes of the Abyss. (Then again...)
However, the game industry's mass polygon-hysteria is definitely devil-induced, and if it doesn't end up killing us all, it will certainly condemn us to obscurity and irrelevance, unless we can get our hands on a few dozen first-rate exorcists very, very soon.
The Prosecution's Case
Witness the following facts:
A certain console manufacturer who shall remain nameless once told my former employers that, from a certain date forward, no 2D concept would even be approved for development on their platform, much less published first-party. Which means that if, say, Warcraft or Civilization had been submitted to them first, their developers would have been kicked out into the streets without as much as an interview.
Robotron 3D. Frogger 3D. Lode Runner 3D. Pac-Man 3D, if it ever ships. None of these games gained one iota of value by going 3D, and the first two destroyed any and all gameplay the 2D versions ever had, but the new generation production budgets overwhelmed the originals by 2000% or more.
And now, a few game reviewers have seen it fit to demolish Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri because, even though they readily admit that it has amazing depth of gameplay and the most advanced game AI ever seen, its graphics are not quite state-of-the-art.
Houston, we have a problem.
Sensory and Conceptual Immersion
All games seek to provide some form of suspension of disbelief. All forms of entertainment do, and they manage to do it well whether or not they have access to 21st century technology. Heck, Stephen King relies on printing technology essentially dating from the 15th century, and he's quite capable of keeping you awake at night, thank you very much. Shakespeare and Molière and Strauss would gain absolutely nothing from laserworks. Some of our best game designs, whether you like it or not, gain nothing (and may lose a great deal) from the flashiest technology.
Of course, some games do need the real-time shadow computations and the Bezier curves. These games seek to provide what I call "sensory immersion", i.e., they create a world into which the player is drawn by visual, audio or tactile stimuli. First-person shooters provide gameplay which is based on the stimulus-reaction chain; they throw obstacles at the player at an incredibly high pace, give them lots of ammo and no time to think, and watch the fireworks. For these games to be effective, the illusion must be as good as possible; the ultimate goal is to trick the player's brain into thinking that he is actually a part of the game. Here, graphics technology, 3D audio, force-feedback, virtual reality hardware and other technological trinkets are crucial; the more realistic the illusion, the better the game. Half-Life is the perfect example of a sensory immersion game done well: it looks fantastic, you can't take your hands away from it, and when you finally do, it leaves you physically exhausted. Good work.
Other games rely more on "conceptual immersion", where planning, resource allocation and abstract reasoning are paramount. GAMES OF CONCEPTUAL IMMERSION DO NOT REQUIRE TOP-NOTCH GRAPHICS. When I was a kid, I had a chess set with pieces made of nuts and bolts painted with Tremclad; it was probably put together in one afternoon and cost about three dollars, but the pieces were recognizeable, so it played a heck of a lot better than my friend's artsy antique Polish marble set. What these games do need, however, is an intellectual challenge, and when graphics take up 70% of a budget and 90% of CPU cycles, there isn't much left to develop great AI or unusual gameplay functionality. Remember this: when you add yet another lighting model or push for higher bit-depth on textures in a game like this, you are actually reducing its gameplay value. And no matter how much fun a 300-polygon rampaging Godzilla would be in Sim City 7000, it has to be considered an extremely low priority feature, because that is not what the game is about.
Of course, the conceptual vs sensory immersion thingy is not a binary decision; a game like Baldur's Gate (and, to an extent, most of the God games and adventures) lie somewhere in the middle, while real-time strategy products are probably two thirds of the way towards the sensory end if only because of how quickly you need to assess a situation and give orders. And I will gladly grant you that very few games other than Tetris, chess or Go would gain absolutely nothing from high production values. However, we have to use common sense when deciding how much of our meager resources to devote to something which, in many cases, is pure packaging. Our mistake as an industry is that everyone assumes that their games need sensory overload, no matter what kinds of gameplay they provide. As an extreme example, consider Battle Chess. People have been playing chess for a thousand years; if there is ONE game in the known universe which didn't need cutesy little animated segments, this is it. Pure waste of effort. Battle Chess followed the diktats of the industry to a T, but I will guarantee you that any serious chess player was thoroughly unimpressed.
The bottom line is that glitz is sometimes useful, sometimes wasteful, and sometimes harmful; and the more spectacular the technology, the fewer the types of games which actually benefit from it. If we keep on putting a premium on looks at the detriment of everthing else, we'll end up sharply reducing the range of good games we produce, thereby shrinking our audience to even more miserable levels of inconsequence.
We are an entertainment industry, folks, and just as cinema can provide us with both Independence Day and When Harry Met Sally, we can also provide excitement in various packages. So, if Half-Life II comes out with crappy graphics, complain all you want. But even if Civilization 3000 does not feature a true-color real-time ray tracer, who cares; just shut up and enjoy the game.