Graphics Make or Break MMOs

Graphics Make or Break a MMOs

While making my rounds this afternoon I couldn’t help but notice the contrasting viewpoints on both sides of MMO graphics.  The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) just had a big press preview, and in every screenshot (like the one above) I see beautiful landscapes, characters, monsters, lighting, and really a very visually pleasing game.  My immediate reaction is, “ooo I want to play that game.”

Yet I think back to my recent experience with Guild Wars 2, also a very visually appealing game, and I remember the horrible performance issues I experienced.  WvW performance dropping by 80% was ultimately what started me on the path to quitting.  A lack of content reassured me the choice was a good one, but if WvW didn’t lag something awful I bet I would have lasted much longer.  You all remember Age of Conan, right?  The game had many issues, but looking pretty wasn’t one of them; performance sure was, though.

MMOs need to look good to attract people, but not at the cost of performance, and certainly not at the cost of having graphics be the gameplay.  Andrew of City State Entertianment wrote Camelot Unchained’s Foundational Principle #12 wherein he talks about not sacrificing core gameplay for more triangles. He’s spot on.  In my opinion, no game will ever look good enough for visuals to be the entire experience — not even a big part of the experience.  Maybe that’s why I’m okay with going back and playing MMOs that came out 10-15 years ago.  The gameplay in those games trumped the graphics back then, and the gameplay trumps the graphics today.  Going back to what Andrew said, performance is a primary pillar.  There are too many experiences of poor performance vividly etched into my memory (WAR, SWTOR, GW2) for me to even doubt that truth.

Start with gameplay.  When that’s solid, and working just how you want it, begin focusing on graphics.  If at any point in time the graphics diminish performance enough to hinder that solid state of gameplay, take a step back and ask whether you want people to play your game because it looks pretty or because they’re able to experience the game you set out to make.  That’s how graphics can make, instead of break, an MMO.  So, while I can’t say for certain that graphics and gameplay are mutually exclusive,  I know that designing around gameplay first is always the better choice.

*Update* Graev and I began discussing the topic further and we came to the conclusion that the worse the graphics get the more freedom given to the player.  Graphics, if used in any way as a constraint, directly limit gameplay.  The graphics engine itself directly limits what can be done by players and what developers can actually develop.  So in a way, there’s not just the idea of developing gameplay then applying graphics, but an idea that perhaps there is an inverse relationship between the two.  That leads to a fascinating realization that the better graphics get, especially in MMOs, the less players can do; better graphics, worse gameplay.

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Blargh - March 19, 2013

Funny thought #2321556 I had this morning (I must be psychic):

I have an old school friend who mostly works as a freelance 3D model designer. Once he said that a good way for him to detect whether the people giving him the job know their (paraphrased) elbows from their backsides is to check if the job spec includes a polygon count limit.

True story

Higgs - March 19, 2013

I would be curious for you to list some examples of large scale PVP where you didnt experience poor performance.

The only drop I see in GW2 PVP is on very large scale (100+) on that single central keep region. Standard keeps with a ~40 vs ~40 everything is smooth. I think they found a good balance by splitting it in 4 regions. You can have medium-large fights, but not too large.

I remember back in day doing a Relic raid in DAOC, I had to stay on /follow and stare at the floor the whole time. But just recently we were around 100 Hibs defending Molvik, now that brought back good memories.

Keen - March 19, 2013

I didn’t experience a whole log of personal PC lag in DaoC. Most of the lag was server side when we packed in so many people the latency went up and the zone crashed. I can remember 500 people in a battle.

In GW2 if 100 people were in the same area my performance would drop drastically.

To paraphrase again what I’m trying to say, graphics should be designed/developed around the gameplay — not independent, not before.

pitrelli - March 19, 2013

I don’t really see any real performance issues in gw2 unless its a dragon event or the main keep in gw2, overall I think they are doing a good job sorting out the engine, will be interesting to see the culling issues fixed.

To be honest I didn’t see you sticking around in gw2 for so long, as I never do when I see your posts about mmos. You are a MMO tourist, I’m not saying that’s necessarily bad but you just seem like the kind of gamer who is and never will be happy and is always looking for the next big thing.

Vort - March 19, 2013

–What pitrelli said.

Sometimes I think nostalgia and getting back to the “way you think it was”. Clouds your judgment when it comes to some of your reviews and forward looking articles.

It’s frustrating because you usually have a lot of good point of views in there that just gets clouded over by nostalgia angst.

Keen - March 19, 2013

@Pitrelli: MMO tourists try a game and leave by nature. I beat GW2 much the same way I beat Skyrim. I ran out of content and things to do. MMO tourists don’t play the first graphical muds for years and help usher in the first MMOs. MMO tourists don’t play EQ for 3 years before taking a break. MMO tourists don’t stay with games like DAoC and SWG for years until the developers change them into a different type of game. MMO tourists don’t play WoW for 4+ years. I stop playing games when (A) I get bored or (B) I can’t stand the faults. I’m not always looking for the next best thing. Even now I’m playing oldschool UO and SWG. So again, I’m not a tourist — these games are 1-3 monthers.

@Vort: It’s not clouded by nostalgia if it’s a fact (DAoC could have more people in a PvP battle before lagging than WAR or GW2). Design a game around graphics and then watch how the gameplay suffers. Happens all the time and I’ve listed examples. Ignore the performance pillar, as Andrew put it, and you’ll reap what you sow.

@Pitrelli & Vort: Let’s avoid the straw-man arguments you can’t win and focus on the topic.

Identifying and developing gameplay first, then focusing on graphics as long as they do not impede the gameplay in any way. Discuss.

John - March 19, 2013

“MMOs need to look good to attract people, but not at the cost of performance”

not at the cost of pve players..I don’t care about pvp and sure I don’t care about WvW. Should I suffer a low graphics game because of this?I already suffer enough because of pvp (nerfs, homogenization, lack of character customization/freedom, lack of developers time in order to “balance” pvp)…now also I should play a lower graphics game because of people who want to do WvW.

I am sick of this plague in every MMO. Why they don’t make a pure PVP game to get all these people pleased?Ah guess they are not so many after all?Darkfall, Camelot Unchained, Warhammer, GW2, so many games with RvR, WvW and yet people plaguing the forums of every new MMO asking for pvp, WvW, e.t.c.

In a recent article of yours you said that new MMOs should target the right players and try to introduce new players to the market rather than target players of already existing MMOs. Skyrim sold over 20 million copies and generally elder scrolls have millions of fans, but what the hell pvp has to do with elder scrolls?Elder scrolls is about a huge immersive world with character freedom, relax pve gameplay. They should do this instead.

“that was my rant”

Keen - March 19, 2013

@John: Very valid point. I completely agree. Your point actually ties in perfectly with identifying your gameplay first. If we identify that we want a game of beautiful vistas and scenery, with gorgeous mobs and player animations, then the graphics become the gameplay in a way and that immediately restricts what can be accomplished in a PvP environment.

Even removing PvP from the equation entirely, the better the graphics the less freedom given to players. The better something looks , the more the players have to be confined to follow a path to keep it looking that way. This mostly applies to MMOs, but if you want a singleplayer example look at Daggerfall. The things you can do in that game vs. a modern game — the world was the size of Great Britain!

But going back to MMOs, in terms of MMO development you have to ask yourself what you value more. If you value gameplay, you can’t possible design around graphics first.

Green Armadillo - March 19, 2013

I agree, but I can’t help but think back to all the complaints about the graphics in Darkfall at the time of its launch (not here at K&G if I recall). Many of the same people who complain about catering to the mainstream PVE masses (again, not so much here) are not so inclined to be forgiving if a low-budget game has the audacity to show up with low-budget graphics.

John - March 19, 2013

Honeslty I don’t fully understand what I have to “sacrifice” for good graphics in pve. I don’t have technical knowledge to know what good graphics can limit and what not. The only thing I know it affects is large scale battles(pvp). I am all for gameplay of course but on the same time I want graphics of the current year we live in and not a decade ago. Expect for large scale pvp battles what else can be affected by good graphics? You mean that the world will be smaller?That we will not be able to shape the world(sandbox)? That developers will spend precious time for graphics and neglect other aspects?

What Tera and GW2 proved to me is that we can have top quality graphics with good gameplay (responsive combat/animations). For me what matters the most is the combat. It has to be responsive, fun and addictive. After that the pve depth of the game.

Lotro for example, is one of my favorites as of pve content. Big and Immersive virtual world, only pve, non linear questing, great story/lore, lot of things to do while leveling (deeds, reputations without dailies), dungeons, raids, Skirmishes, “reality”(in Forochel for example you get a debuff from the cold and you need to go next to a fire for a while). But it really lacks on the combat..in a point that it breaks the game for being my main MMO.

Also someday we need to go forward and don’t design games for 2000/2005 computers..I am aware that people may have economical problems but really, most of them simple don’t want to invest to their hardware because gaming is not their hobby and is something they maybe use for 1-2 hours a week…All of my friends with low spec pcs have no economical problems…they prefer to go out and spend 50 euro in a single night on drinks rather than buy a graphic card or anything else..Gaming is a hobby, and in my opinion developers have to design the game for people actualy invest to their hobby and not for people who does not care and/or play for 1 hour a week from their old laptop.

In conclusion, I don’t need high edge graphics but I want good graphics. And by good I mean better than wow and swtor and the majority of MMOs. I cannot favor one over the other, I have dropped games with good graphics and bad gameplay(or pvp focused) and I have dropped games with good gameplay and bad graphics.

Mark - March 19, 2013

Not an expert by any means, but I do dabble in open source game servers and clients.

Think about what has to happen when you walk into an area with 100 people in it. Think about what has to happen if this is a pvp game. The server has to send you timely updates of the position of each of the 100 players, and you have to send your position back to the server. That represents X amount of traffic.

Next up is a battle. People fighting, swinging weapons, executing styles, casting spells, etc. For your client to see these a packet is sent telling your client to draw this pretty effect here, another for another effect. Another to tell you player #24 just executed a style with an effect that did damage to player #25 .. etc. etc. All of this information is is streaming out of the server to each client that needs to draw this stuff, and each client is expected to respond to these packets by drawing something on the screen.

With that said, I really don’t see graphics quality as the primary limiter in PvP games or any game with large scale battles. Where it really starts to fall apart is how the client processes this information and how the server optimizes what information is sent to each client.

That was primarily DAoCs problem and sounds like GW2 as well. My biggest pet peave with the DAoC client is that /effect off just suppresses the drawing of the effect on your screen but does not prevent the server from sending you thousands of packets telling you to draw the effect. So in a large battle, even with effects off, your client tends to get overwhelmed.

Worse for DAoC, is the shear number of text messages that get sent along with the smaller bits telling you to draw something. So and so casts a spell, etc. Individually this is all small stuff, but in large scale battles this really starts to add up.

So perhaps graphics is not the real problem here? 🙂

Keen - March 19, 2013

@Mark: I have no background here, so everything I say is conjecture, but doesn’t it make sense that those things are server side limitations and not client-side? And if the server is sending you things, and you’re sending them back, isn’t that a connection limitation?

Sounds like what hinders people’s performance on their own end is having to render everything in real time. I was having a real hard time rendering in DAoC with my old school gfx card from the EQ days. When I upgraded to one even on the low-end of what was available at that time, the game was extremely smooth and only suffered from server-side issues (around 300+ people).

rasli - March 19, 2013

While lagging does happen in GW2, it’s really not as bad as you make it in your post and certainly is much better than WAR (though the very recent appearance of skill lag may change my statement if the situation get worse). I really think it’s something to do with your computer rather than the game itself as plenty of people are happy with the performance.

But I do agree with you that games need to find a good balance between performance and graphics and certainly should not sacrifice performance for the sake of graphics.

Keen - March 19, 2013

@Rasli: My issues were, for some reason, extremely worse than most people’s, but lag was definitely an issue at launch. I don’t know if they fixed it since. I think there was just some issue with optimization for my hardware.

Fidjit - March 19, 2013

I agree that really “good” graphics limit the freedom players have. Minecraft, for example, could not be the amazing sandbox and platform for player creativity that it is if it had fancy “AAA Big Publisher Title” graphics.

As for Camelot Unchained, I think they make some good points. They also have an angle to work though, because as a small project they simply are unable to afford fancy graphics whether they want them or not. Better PR to just call it good game design.

Blargh - March 20, 2013

@Keen: It was a hardware optimization issue of sorts. I had some seriously bad hitching in WAR at the beginning, game was OK as long as I stood still but moving around was terrible.

Then after reading up on some tweaks, I turned texture and graphics to max and never had a problem again. I still don’t know what exactly the mechanics were of that, but I sure was not the only one with that problem and solution.

Ettesiun - March 20, 2013

Never had any problem with lag in GW2, but that does not make stat ! ^^ Maybe I am lucky !

About graphics VS gameplay : I think this is more about Graphics VS Gameplay VS Hardware/power. Why having higher resolution texture will touche gameplay, provided you have unlimited powers ? Or to say it differently, for a given game and a given HW/network, you can push up the graphics until you start to hit your power wall, right ? My point is that graphics is not limiting the gameplay from a design point of view.

But you are right from a money point of view : the more freedom you have, the more expensive it is to increase the graphic. Building a very high resolution car, and a totally realist track, is far less expensive that doing the same for a 20km² zone, with city and thousands of different people !

Argorius - March 20, 2013

Whenever I see great graphics in an MMO, I automatically become suspicious. It usually means that we are dealing with a game where even the instances are instanced. I’d rather not have that good of graphics.

On the other hand, if the environments and characters look lame it does hurt. As much as we so readily state that we prefer gameplay over graphics – that is up to a point. DAOC graphics were satisfactory in 2002. However, if you go back today – there are many moments where you think to yourself WTF? Problems with gameplay are frustrating and I would call this conscious problems – bad graphics are pseudo subconscious problems as you usually dont sit there being disgusted and upset at how bad something looks (“usually” e.g. see DFO character model complaints) but while playing bad graphics do leave you unsatisfied in thel long run.

Another point is the difference between number of triangles and art direction. I dont think that quality of graphics and number of triangles exist in a 1:1 relationship. Art direction matters and what you do with your limited number of triangles matters too. I would think that you can do a lot as an artist even if you are limited by triangles…but I can see that it would take a great artist to make the most out of it.

Mark - March 20, 2013

>>>@Mark: I have no background here, so everything I say is conjecture, but doesn’t it make sense that those things are server side limitations and not client-side?

I really can’t say either, but I have witnessed the DAoC client start to lag when the number of packets sent exceeds a certain threshold, but keep in mind this is from an open source server to a Mythic client, and frankly we may be missing some needed optimization. From a programming point of view only, it’s something that can be missed by the client team in the same way people can miss the importance of polygon counts when thinking about rendering and the number of objects on the screen at once.

A good graphics card might eliminate all graphics lag but the client has to respond to each packet and can’t get backed up without eventually getting too far behind and losing the connection. The programmers have to pay close attention to this in order to support massive battles with a large number of players in range at once.

What this usually means is someone with a top end graphics card but a slower CPU might only lag in large battles, while someone with a less that great graphics card but a very fast CPU might not.

One of the DAoC updates introduced the idea that players still in view distance but beyond a certain radius would not draw with the same detail as players close up (looked more like a grey shadow). This reduced graphics lag a lot. At the same time I think, but do not know for a fact, that they stopped sending some of the other updates as well. So if someone is 1000 units away you might see two players standing next to each other but no real detail as to what they are wearing, and no movement or effects. For two players 500 units away you would see full detail as to armor and weapons being yielded and all effects would play.

With a system like that in place you could afford to crank up the overall graphics detail in a game and still allow for reasonable performance in large scale battles. It’s not as simple as that, of course.

Zederok - March 20, 2013

I think something was wrong with your setup, or computer as really other then culling GW2 runs smoothley on any machine which meets the minimum specs.

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