The Riddle of Steel by Stormgaard of Se7en Samurai
Apr 12, 2007 11:27:18

"The Riddle of Steel. Yes! You know what it is, don't you boy. Shall I tell you? It's the least I can do. Steel isn't strong boy, flesh is stronger! Look around you.

[points to girl on cliff]

There, on the rocks; that beautiful girl. Come to me, my child...

[girl leaps to her death]

That is strength, boy! That is power! What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?"


Just last week Brad McQuaid - lead developer for Vanguard: Saga of Heroes - went public with the key reasons he believed the brand new MMORPG to be floundering in the marketplace. His number 1 reason was this:

"1. Performance. We simply asked too much of the engine. Tech becoming faster and cheaper will help us with this issue over the next 6 months, but that's 6 month's that *might* have been avoided. That, and we would have had more time to polish and fix bugs and get better and more complete high level content in (and maybe even a more workable AES). We did run into this a bit with EQ 1 being one of the first hardware only games, but not to this extent. Ideally, you launch with both a flexible engine that grows with you and also in a tech window that doesn't mean that a lot of your players feel the need to upgrade their machines significantly. Failing that ideal, however, I'll take the more flexible, planned for the long term tech, and bite the bullet for overshooting in terms of tech than the former (undershooting and/or launching with inflexible MMOG tech that isn't easily upgraded over the years to come)."

To put it plainly, the system requirements were too high. Vanguard - like many other MMORPG's hitting the marketplace over the next year - uses a resource intensive photo-realistic graphics engine that requires a relatively expensive PC to run - or at least to run well.

I have to ask myself why?

It's really a silly question to ask if you think about it. The answer should be obvious. Conventional wisdom says you want your game to look good. A lot of game developers and consumers have a preference for state of the art photo-realistic graphics. Conventional wisdom says you want to stay competitive. Why produce a game that only looks half as good as the one next door? Conventional wisdom says computers are constantly improving. You want to make sure your game looks good for years to come. There's only one problem.

Conventional wisdom - when it comes to MMORPG's in the PC marketplace - is wrong.

Everybody wants to stay ahead of the curve, but there is such a thing as being too far ahead of the curve, which is where I think most major MMORPG's being released over the course of the next year are. Sure you want your game to look good, but all to often that means putting out a product that looks just like everyone else's and sacrificing a timely return on your investment because you're waiting on the general public to catch up to what your game can deliver. Brad McQuaid had it exactly right and exactly wrong all at the same time. They didn't ask too much of the engine - they asked too much of the consumer.

One of the things I've gotten used to seeing time and time again from MMORPG developers is that they want their game to "look good for years to come". We all know that computers double in power and processing speed every 18 months, but if that's how long you have to wait for John Q. Public to run your game smoothly you're shooting yourself in the foot before the race even starts. By the time they get around to being able to play the game it will be an old product and nobody will care about it anymore. This approach seems especially crazy considering that one of the biggest complaints MMORPG developers have is the pressure they get from investors to release games before they're finished. You need a return on your investment today - not 18 months from now.

You have to strike when the iron's hot. The harder you make it for people to run your game smoothly the fewer people will play your game, and - given how many options MMORPG gamers have nowadays - interest is far more likely to wane as time goes on, not grow. It's as simple as that.

What's really ironic is that - given how competitive the marketplace is - photo-realistic graphics actually seem to make it harder to set yourself apart from the crowd. Think about the following games for a moment - Everquest II, Vanguard, Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons & Dragons Online, Dark Age of Camelot, Age of Conan, Gods and Heroes...

They all look basically the same. Hell, even Pirates of the Burning Sea looks like EQII models running around with pirate hats on.

How do you expect the average consumer to know the difference? Trust me - they can't. I've been a MMORPG addict for years now and half the time even I can't do it. When you rely too much on photo-realistic graphics and don't take pains to stylize your models and environments you're taking any possibility you have of establishing brand-name recognition and chucking it down the toilet.

This is where a game like WoW excels. When you see a screenshot from that game you know instantly it's WoW. Even within the context of the game it's dramatic. When you're in a Night Elf village you know instantly it's a Night Elf village. When you're in a Troll village you know instantly it's a Troll Village. Artistic stylization is an incredibly powerful tool for communicating information visually that cannot be underestimated. If your game looks too much like "Real Life" not only does it look like everyone else's, you restrict your ability to manipulate the game world as well.

It's interesting to note too that many of Blizzard's techniques are achieved by clever optical illusions. Everyone I've talked to about the game has some story about the first time they walked up to the outer wall of Orgrimmar. "It's flat" they all say. "I didn't even know it was flat until I walked right up on it!". There are countless examples of this technique used throughout the game. The expert use of textures helps them reduce the polygon count dramatically and deliver a top-notch visual experience to people with average, and below-average computers.

But don't take my word for it. I could just be a stingy gamer who doesn't want to spend money to upgrade my computer to play the next generation of MMORPG's coming down the pike.

Take a look at Blizzard's Fan Art program the next time you get a chance. It's stunning. Incredibly talented artists from all over the world send in some of the most amazing images I've ever seen. No other game has a fan art program that even comes close to rivaling Blizzard's. If anyone developing a MMORPG had half a brain they'd snatch up the people sending in the fan art submissions and put them to work. Clearly Blizzard's use of stylized artwork is a hit not only with the general public - but it's also an inspiration to a large number of genuinely talent artists.


"Steel isn't strong boy, flesh is stronger! What is steel compared to the hand that wields it? "

Who cares if your graphics engine is the most powerful one on the market if nobody else can play it? Who cares how realistic your graphics are if they look like everyone else's and you can't set yourself apart from the crowd. Who cares how many polygons you have if not one of them can inspire your audience.

The Riddle of Steel would serve well here. It would do for MMORPG developers everywhere to learn it.

Stormgaard of Se7en Samurai

Submitted by Brent on Apr 12, 2007 11:27:18 CST (comments: 4)


'You make some good points.' by CowNoseThe50PoundCat
Submitted on 2007-04-12 13:58:43 CST
I can exactly see where you are coming from, and I agree in some respects.

But as a gamer I really enjoy getting the best hardware and seeing all those nifty new graphics that are out there. I must admit I am addicted to shiny things.

So why should I care if joe shmoe can't play the game that I am playing with all its new technology? I don't think that the next generation of MMOs should limit itself to more primitive technology like WoW has done. I don't want to play a game with great art and low polygons. I want the reverse, great art AND the photo realistic stuff.

That is what I really agree with your article. Art is a great asset to a game and it is something developers must not loose. So what if that turtle has a huge number of polygons and is shiy and neet looking if it doesn't have good art... oh wait I can't talk anymore I'm too busy staring at that turtle.

Take that Direct X 10 waterfall. The water flows in this particular way the rocks get wet and dry and shimmer and blah blah blah. I love that stuff. I want to play that stuff, I like my MMOs to be the best graphics they can be. I'm not bashing your article even if that might be what this seems just that I have a different perspective.

I am what my friends call a "graphics whore."

'Make the proc bleed....' by cyanbane
Submitted on 2007-04-12 15:07:27 CST
/agree with cownose

I know I am a subset of the target market for sure, but I want new MMO's to make my proc/graphics card cry when rendering the most beautiful graphics possible. That being said, all MMOs should plan to have a large berth of graphical scaling if they want to be successful. It definitely sounds like a trap that a lot of people are getting caught in; develop for the high end, scale to the low end.

But as for my personal opinion, please don't hold back on the shiney-ness ;)

'right on the money' by teranesia
Submitted on 2007-04-12 16:26:09 CST
I made similar comment in my blog after seeing Brad's claims.

One thing about new-tech.. WoW doesn't ship on DVD's because Blizzard knows majority of their 8.5M userbase doesn't have DVD drives. My guess would be that the people who don't have DVD drives don't have the latest and greatest Nvidia card either.. which could mean (a leap of faith here) the majority of WoW players have a rig that won't match Vanguard's minimum spec.. so even if they try it and manage to run it, it will be like crawling through the tarpit..

Nothing wrong with making graphics scale upwards (so those that have monster rigs can enjoy pretty pictures) but designing your entire game for some vague future reference is great way of marginalizing yourself out of the market even before you get to launch..

'looking good' by Sente
Submitted on 2007-04-15 09:53:03 CST
I am all for the games looking great, but not at the expense of gameplay. It may be very cool to look at the environment and see all the nifty details and shine - but then it should be looking good also with 20-40 mobs and players fighting each other also on screen.

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