How important are they, anyway?
Graphics just aren’t as important as they used to be. In the past few years in particular, there has been no strong correlation between how successful a game is and how technically advanced the graphics are. This has strong implications for game budgets and the length of development cycles. This has less to do with the way that games are made and consumed than the way that they are now marketed to players.
As the gaming industry moved into the 3D era at the end of the 20th century, hardware manufacturers began the graphics card races that have continued through to today. Developers worked closely with these manufacturers to continue delivering more incredible 3D graphics with every passing year. Publishers marketed their games mainly to print magazines and through in-store displays; chiefly emphasizing action packed screenshots to help get their game to stand apart. That was the way that people found out about games – developers had only a few seconds to grab eyeballs from finicky consumers, and the best way to do that was with pictures.
In some ways, things have not changed very much. Some of the highest selling titles still try to push the graphics envelope, but it’s hard not to notice that many of the titles that are topping the sales charts have old graphics engines. Activision’s Call of Duty 4 uses a heavily modified version of the Quake 3 engine, and nobody seems to mind. Valve continues to produce games that aren’t terribly more advanced from the 2004 Half-Life 2. The 900-pound PC gorilla, World of Warcraft from Blizzard, also released in 2004, can run on just about any PC on the market. On the other hand, Bioshock from Irrational Games had highly advanced graphics and was the top selling game in August.
People have been repeating the canard that "graphics don’t matter" for years. It’s only been relatively recently that it has been shown to be actually true from a business standpoint. Screenshots no longer drive game sales. It’s all about the buzz from thousands of media outlets and gamer communities. This also makes it much harder for publishers to make profits on mediocre games so long as they look cool in screenshots.
That’s a good thing for gamers. Developers can now focus more on making graphics that suit the type of game that they’re making rather than on what the marketing department thinks will look cool on the box.