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.