We’ve seen plenty of animation style video games in the past, starting with The Last Express (1997) and ending with recent Firewatch (2016), Darksiders: Genesis (2019) and Fortnite (2017). Of course, there were many more: XIII (2003), Bad Day L.A. (2006), Overwatch (2016), Realm Royale (2018), The Flame in the Flood (2016) and many others. The question is: why cel-shaded games have become so popular nowadays? Is it a long-term trend or a short-term tendency? Will it define the image of video games in the future or it will be substituted by something else?
To begin with, games with cartoon-like graphics always attracted developers throughout the world. The very first games had pixel-like graphics but with the evolution of genres they turned into something better like Aladdin, Tiny Toon Adventures, Lion King and other classic cult games, released on SEGA Genesis. Later, with the creation of new gaming systems developers decided to put an emphasis on realistic graphics, as a result the amount of games with cartoon-like visuals diminished significantly at that period of time. The strife for realistic look was the main objective of almost any producer in the world. They tried different techniques and new technologies; they had experiments with lighting and movement of characters. All of this lasted up until 2015 when it became clear that game technologies already reached its peak and can no longer evolve – better-looking products were very hard to design and they looked almost identical as games, published in previous years. Before that, the creation of improved visuals was justified; then it lost all of the sense in 2015, so developers and publishers started to switch to something new. As a result, animation style games began to appear at that period of time.
There was another reason for popularity of cartoonish style of visuals and casual-style gameplay: mobile devices. Previously, we did not have such phenomenon, now we have. The hardware of mobile devices can’t handle the shaders and polygons of the level of Battlefield 1, so developers turned to something less elaborate for portable gadgets. As a result, we got a bunch of mobile games with animation style and this certainly affected the development of serious products.
The third excuse is violence. People got tired of it. Modern gamers have aged; they are thirty-five or forty years old. They still want to play but something better, lighter and they want to play with their children too, to control their behavior in online activities and to make sure that they are socialized properly and to be certain that they receive good content as well. As a result, the rise of family friendly products like Sea of Thieves is obvious. Since these products are adapted for teens, they got the appropriate for them visual design.
The forth cause is the feeling of novelty. If you want to stand apart from your competitors, you must do something that they have not done before. It all began with XIII (which remake is currently in development) and continued with Borderlands, which used cartoon style to attract customers (and they did it well). Now other rivals try to conquer this niche too.
The fifth justification is that now children play more than in the past and if you want to broaden your audience, you must do something for it. Please note how Valorant and Fortnite both have Teen rating ESRB (Sea of Thieves has it too). It makes customer base wider, increases sales and makes sure that your product will thrive. If you design your game for teenagers, you must adjust it for them as well.
All of this means only one thing: cel-shaded games is a long-term trend and it will continue to dominate in the industry for a long time. We must be happy that gruesome violent electronic entertainments are replaced by fun casual style products, which are good for everyone, bring joy and pleasure and do not disappoint. Overwatch was named one of the best games of 2016 and now Valorant seems to be an excellent product too. All of this makes us wonder how many electronic entertainments of this kind will be released in the future and will we ever have a moment when we will miss something realistic.