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  Gameplay vs Graphics by JdB  
This article is written by JdB, using quotes from several other individuals. The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the staff. Quotes found in this article were taken from contributions by respected addonmakers. Their names have been removed for reasons of privacy.

Gameplay vs Graphics

I got the idea for this article in what was originally a discussion of ArmA vs VBS2 on the forums. As the debate developed, it turned more towards other subjects, including what features of military simulations such as VBS2 would make a good addition to ArmA from an addonmaking perspective.

Past & Present

As we all know, we have a great number of addonmakers amongst us that put alot of effort into creating extra content for the games, that BIS creates, for free. While I do not think anyone is in the position to question them about their enthusiasm and commitment, I would like to take this opportunity to comment on something that has been bothering me, and apparently alot of others for a long time. Some refer to it as "CP fodder" or "CP candy", "CP" standing for Combat Photography. Addons that look great, but are totally unplayable due to unoptimized models, lack of proper lods, excessive usage of large texture-files, not being binarized etc. While this is unlikely to matter much when taking screenshots to dazzle CP-thread viewers with, it has a vast impact on what this game was meant to offer: amazing gameplay with large battles raging across enormous islands. Alot of us bought BIS games because they offer exactly that opportunity.

The community tends to go overboard with graphics and detail all the time, and forgets what really matters, the gameplay. There is no point in having beautifully made environments when no one can run it smoothly during any kind of scenario, it would destroy any advantage that the ArmA engine has over games that are far more linear/restrictive. By saving on excessive detail that has no impact on the gameplay, you could add things like (partially) inhabited islands, have vehicles standing around, obstacles like roadblocks, a large diversity in buildings (not villages that consist of like 3 different buildings), being able to actually send someone somewhere over teamspeak/VOIP by describing that (more or less) unique object. In other words, less of a generic feeling to the battlefield.

You can have many objects for one excessively detailed tank (are you gonna shoot that enemy with your polygons?), which is far more detailed than is needed for a clear identification of the object. All serious simulators share this lack of graphic overkill, something which you'd expect at least the addonmakers that strive for realistic gameplay to appreciate. Everyone can work on whatever he wants, but then people should also stop complaining about how great VBS2 is, and how ArmA should be like it, because if they really felt that way then they would prefer "gameplay" over graphics like the military does, when making addons.

A compromise is needed between gameplay and graphics, where a sufficient time is spent on developing both to a level where they are useful as well as beautiful. This optimizes the chances of addons becoming popular within the community, and missions being made that use them.

As one well-known addonmaker commented on this subject:

“My personal view is that its easy to say gameplay first and graphics second, but an addon with some sloppy down textures should offer lots of functions to survive in my Addons folder.

Balance is the key, i have to admit we in ***** sometimes also had problems with the balance but i think we did right most of the time plus a few of our addons are rather playable than beautiful.

A perfect example of balance is the FDF mod, a mix of addons ranging from rather bad to very good but in combination with all the features and great missions it was an outstanding and not too resource hungry mod.”

The origins of some of the content that has been brought into OFP has been questionable at best, and this is not likely to change in ArmA with the disregard for personal property and respect that some addonmakers as well as players have. An EULA is not something you live by whenever it suits your own interests, you've signed it when you installed the game, meaning you agreed to respect it's terms under any circumstance. Buying something does not mean you own everything, and the intellectual property is transferred to you. You do not need to sign anything, or accept any EULA to already be legally responsible for your own actions. Instances where an addonmaker does not feel obliged to respect other peoples property because their local law does not specificy restrictions on intellectual property should be met with a community wide ban on mirrors and threads of "his" work.

In the history of OFP there have been many weapons(systems) that have been made and remade several times. While it is great that people strive to improve upon themselves as well as others, most comments on a new(ly released) addon are to the likes of "wow, it looks so much better than [name]'s". Looks, not new gameplay features offered through scripting is what people look for the most in the addon. OFP has never really been a big shot in the world of graphics, and most people that played it early on valued it's gameplay, not it's graphics. This has seemingly changed in (a part of) the community over the last few years, with graphics taking an increasingly dominant position as the graphics of new titles made OFP look aging rapidly.

The most "improved" things in "redone" addons are more than likely polycount and texture sizes. If an addon for OFP like a tank was done with one or more 512X512 textures only a handful of years ago, the standard now appears to be set at multiple 1024X1024 textures (or even larger), running on the exact same engine as that of 4,5 years ago (release of Resistance).

This is why OFP with the current wide-spread community-vision of graphics first has never been able to come even close to being the ultimate warfare-simulator series as is claimed by some.

Alot of addons that offer both good visuals as well as revolutionary scripting are hardly ever used in missions, but only serve as CP-thread fodder for a few weeks, before being discarded in favor of the newest CPU-Strain...With slightly improved visuals over the BIS standard, the amount and variation of objects, weapons, buildings, vehicles etc could have been enormous. It will soon be clear that such resource hogs are going to be nothing but CP candy, as they'll be unplayable unless optimized properly.

“Unfortunately at the end of the day, the community votes with its downloads and it saddens me to acknowledge that it will be very hard to win over the CP whore trends we see today. Unless the community can be won round to stop 'wowing' at over complex models that are hideously unoptimized, will we see developers take note and do something about it.

Missions are also key. It is my firm belief that CP was born out of people having a lack of things to do with an addon. We've all been there, we've downloaded an addon, stuck it in desert island and gone 'ooh, thats pretty' and then never touched it again. I hope that a example mission or more should be as important a part of an addon as a config or the p3d itself. If BIS had shipped ArmA with no campaign and no single missions and said 'make the missions yourself' then we would have been up in arms. There should be no reason for us to treat addon makers any lighter - anyone can make a quick example mission for their addon.”

As some of you may have pretty much dozed off by now, something slightly pornographic, showing the wonders of modern technology, to grab everyones attention once again:


While the much improved graphical engine of ArmA provides many new options to addonmakers, graphics that mimic reality as best as possible are after all an important part of realism, it also pushes us further and further into the corner of what so many people complain about, those "graphicswhores games". This is where the comparison of ArmA vs VBS2 returns. The following is not a promotion for VBS2, but rather a comparison at the motives of the military to choose the VBS2 engine technology, and how it could aid to make ArmA what many now already call, the "most realistic military simulator", or more fitting "game".

Most, if not all, military simulators do not support normal maps. Objects are far more simple than would be allowed by the community in ArmA. I saw a screenshot of a parking lot full of cars for example a while back taken in VBS2. All cars were very basic models, but alot of different types and colors. This is exactly what the party that signed the contract needs: the military. They don't care about excessive graphics or "entertaining" missions, they're looking for something to train their soldiers with, not to entertain them. Where as we in ArmA would say "engage that UAZ", the vast array of vehicles and objects available in VBS2 makes it possible for the trainers to go into enormous depth to create a simulation of a possible combat-environment that is as close to reality as possible.

Now you might be thinking to yourself, “entertaining”, isn't that what we want ArmA to be? And surely you are right. The main difference between BIS' games and the mainstream entertainment industry however, has always been that realism and difficulty are considered entertaining, not brainless running, hopping and fragging in tiny maps. By reading on forums dedicated to BIS' games for a few years now, I believe this is what alot of us really want, gameplay being valued over graphics. There comes a time when you stop looking at graphics in a game, and actually want to experience the gameplay (at least that is why I am assuming we're all here, and not playing the before mentioned mainstream games, such as BF, CS:S and alike on a 24/7 basis). Graphics that add to the gameplay experience, not overwhelm it.

The lod-system and streaming technology introduced in ArmA should bring us closer to what military simulators can do in terms of environment, of course other things are out of our reach due to scripting limitations, which for a huge price tag is reasonable to expect when compared to a game that is sold for around $40.

“The community can fall into a very poor trap if they are not careful. It seems increasingly apparent that because the engine can support more complex models, shaders, normal maps et al, then the community seem to believe that their models must contain all of the above, and be more detailed and complex than before. In fact it should be more likely that poly counts actually decrease, given that normal maps should aid us cut those useless lumps and bumps we insisted on modeling before.

It's becoming increasingly obvious that we are going to have to be more professional with our LODS and texture counts. The days of 100 textures and 3 lods are over (I am myself very much guilty of that in the OFP era) - uv unwrapping and texture panels must become the new standard, and clear concise LODS's that cut the poly count by 50% at each level. This may for some models number up to 10 lods, but this is the price we pay for optimization.”

Finally I'd like to write a little bit on the problems that we've been experiencing lately on alot of OFP/ArmA forums, the struggles of a growing community, and the interaction with one another. There is nothing wrong with non-addonmakers or missionmakers giving their opinion on any matter concerning addonmaking or game development (BIS/BIA), as long as it is respectful towards the person dedicating alot of their (free) time to produce something. Alot of times though when you see people bashing addonmakers, mods or BIS/BIA, they have never made an addon themselves in their entire life, they expect complicated addons and mods to be completed in no-time, and without the inevitable flaws. “Respectful” is the keyword here, not ”offensive” or “rude”. If you do not posses alot of knowledge about addonmaking, then at least do the community a favor, and don't attack anyone, either personally or through their hard efforts.

“I feel that it is important that the community becomes far more constructive and honest in its approach to addons. I am sick and tired of reading the 'mature' members of the community belittling and sarcastically commenting on a poor new members piece of work. Yes, it may be quite awful, but their arrogance helps no one. It also amused me to note that many of these mature members who are guilty of this, have contributed very little in the way of addons or missions to the community.”

I sincerely hope that the respect that the community shows towards addonmakers and BIS has it's "dis-" removed as soon as possible, so that everyone can once again enjoy their game, whether it be playing or modding.

  September 18th, 2007 - 11:53   Comment (0)  

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