How much do graphics matter?

Is it just me?

Since the dawn of electronic gaming, I’ve been on a quest for better graphics in my games. I don’t think I’ve been alone in this quest. Games have continually improved, graphically speaking, from 4-bit color to 8-bit color and on up to whatever bits we have now. More than enough, I’d say. Marketing hype for new consoles is based on graphics quality while on the PC, new video cards are coming out all the time offering better resolution, higher frame-rates and more realistic imagery.

But suddenly, I don’t seem to care as much. Yes, I still take some pleasure in seeing a graphically impressive game, but I no longer buy a game just because it looks amazing. I thought about this when I realized I’d been playing Sonny for about an hour this morning, totally sucked in. Here’s a flash game with simple 2D graphics that I’m finding compelling. (Thanks to Tesh for bringing it to my attention, btw.) Last night I spent a good deal of time playing Mount & Blade, another game with graphics that are “fine” but certainly not stunning. And perhaps most significant, I recently was trying Star Wars Galaxies out again (free period for ex-players). I remember the last time I tried going back to it, I couldn’t get past the graphics since the game had “aged” since its initial launch. But this time, the mediocre graphics just didn’t factor in to whether or not I was enjoying the game.

Now normally I’d just assume this was totally a personal thing. Our values change a lot as we march through life from cradle to grave, after all, and I’ve been doing this gaming thing for closing in on 30 years now.

But what about this rebirth of “Indie Gaming” that we’re seeing?  Most of these smaller games don’t have cutting edge graphics. Remember, I’m not talking about style here. I’m talking in terms of technically advanced graphics. And what about the Nintendo DS? That system still sells like crazy and the graphics it can push are mediocre at best. People don’t care. I could arguably throw the Wii in here too, but I think it sells on the strength of its “fad” quotient in a lot of cases. People who don’t buy games run out and buy a Wii, play it for two weeks and put it in a closet… but that’s another post altogether.

So *is* it just me, or have we, as “Gamers” (is that even a relevant tag anymore?) broken through some graphics barrier where, sure, cool graphics are nice, but what *really* matters is cool gameplay?

MMO Longevity

There’s been some talk around the blog-o-sphere about how bloggers don’t stick with any one game “long enough” (whatever that means) and I can’t deny that I’m as guilty as anyone of “game grazing.” I admit it, I get bored pretty easily.

Tonight I logged into LOTRO and did a few quests, said “Hey” to the guild, and refreshed my muscle memory on how to play the game. I did it mostly because I didn’t want to get booted out of my guild kinship, which has a policy of removing long dormant characters.

As I rambled around the hills of the North Downs I was enjoying the scenery and it struck me that MMOs don’t age like they used to. If you played EQ and then Asheron’s Call and then Dark Age of Camelot you’ll remember that once you moved on to a new game, it was hard to go back to the old one. Graphically games got dated really quickly (not just MMOs, all PC games) and the game mechanics that so many poo-poo as being ‘derivative’ today were just being layered into 3D MMOs. (UO was its own beast and still is, honestly.) I’m not saying it *never* happened, just that it was relatively uncommon to go back to an “old” MMO and stick with it. It just felt dated if you did so.

But that’s no longer true. WoW and EQ2 both came out almost 4 years ago (November 2004) and neither of them look dated today. People can and do go back to these games all the time. Warhammer and Age of Conan don’t look that much better, really. This is subjective and you can argue details, but overall if you took screenshots of WoW and War and put them side by side, you wouldn’t immediately say “Oh, this one is four years older than that one.” Same with AoC and EQ2. (I’m making these comparisons because WoW and WAR both go for a stylized, low requirements kind of design, and EQ2 and AoC both go for a more “realistic”, give us more GPU cycles kind of design.) If you look at screenshots of the Bioware/Lucasarts Old Republic MMO you won’t think “Whoa, that’s what the next gen of MMOs is going to look like!” The game looks fine, but it definitely isn’t the ‘order-of-magnitude’ jump in graphics quality that we used to see from year to year.

This is great news for those of us who are easily bored (as well as those of us who can’t afford to upgrade their systems very often. I remember a time when I’d buy a new gaming PC every 6-9 months!). I slipped into LOTRO like it was a comfortable old coat. Granted I’ve only been away for a month, but I’m pretty sure I could slip back into WoW fairly easily too, and I guess it’s been a year or so since I last played that. Going back to something like Tabula Rasa would be a bit more challenging, but I could (and might) do it. I wouldn’t log in and grimace at the low polygon models or the chunky controls.

I don’t have a big point to this long ramble, except that I find it all very relaxing. I don’t feel like I have to rush through MMOs anymore. Next month I’ll be exploring both the EQ2 and LOTRO expansions, so I might pause my Warhammer subscription while I’m doing so (I don’t want to be in a position where I’m paying 3 monthly subs!). But it’ll be nice to know that I’m doing just that: pausing, not quitting. Because as long as the servers are running, I can go back any time and pick right up where I left off. The game won’t look dated and probably it’ll be better than it is now.

MMOs, like wine, improve over time. At least until finally, far in the future, they turn to vinegar. In MMO terms, the servers go dark. I don’t think that’ll be happening to any of the “big” MMOs any time soon, though.

After Chronicles of Spellborn ships later this fall, it looks like we’ll have a bit of a drought when it comes to new MMOs. That’ll be a perfect time to go back and re-visit and re-enjoy some old friends.