We sometimes hear people talk about how graphics don’t matter. I have often been confused by this statement. What does it really mean? Taken at face value would mean that a game is merely a series of rules and the visual representation of those rules is irrelevant. What it really means though, I think, is that making a game look attractive is an extra that does not substantially contribute to the game. I may be a bit biased, but I really don’t think that this is true. Even thinking about an ancient game, such as chess; the graphics in chess are the quality and material of the board and pieces. It is also the theme that the chess pieces have. There is a reason that there are thousands of different themed, sizes, colors and materials used in chess boards and the reason is that graphics contribute to the experience of the game.
Our position is that graphics do in fact play a major role in games, and they serve a specific role. The primary function of graphics is to immerse the player in your world and to provide meaningful information. The better the graphics accomplish these goals, the better experience a player will have. If we take two different kinds of games as examples: Crysis and World of Warcraft. Both of these (arguably) have good graphics, but they are vastly different. In one case the graphics are hyper realistic, high resolution, complex shaders and so on. In the other case the graphics are more cartoonish (or stylized as people like to say), far lower poly and texture resolution. The reasons for these decisions are complex, but in general Crysis is pushing the envelope of technology and Evolution, immersing the player in a world with qualities they have never seen before. The games that did this in the past, such as Quake and Unreal are no longer visually impressive in this same way. So as developers, we need to keep pace with the times, and technologies that allow us to push the envelope. In the case of World of Warcraft the number one goal is to keep accessibility high; the game has to run on as many machines as possible. This does not mean the game can look bad, thus Blizzard’s strategy has been to use lower tech techniques to create the same visually compelling feeling. Big objects with bright colors and high contrast and saturation tend to help with this effect. This is, of course, an oversimplification, but it is important when discussing our approach to graphics in Jumpgate Evolution.
The goal for us, simply stated, is to create the visually compelling and immersive world while simultaneously making it accessible on as many hardware configurations as possible. This is much more in line with the World of Warcraft approach than that used in Crysis or Unreal 3. From the start we wanted a world that was inviting and impressive. Most space games tend to be very dark and empty, which makes sense because space is, in fact, a very dark and expansive place. We, on the other hand, are much more concerned with developing a space game that is more aligned with the way people wish it looked. If you watch PBS specials about space they tend to show colorful spiraling nebulas, huge gas clouds and bright swirling galaxies. Most of these images are touched up visual representations of much less compelling images. It is these touched up representations that we are more interested in reproducing for Evolution.
Our first focus was graphics programming. We felt the most important thing is to have some great concept art to work from. We spent a lot of time iterating on all sorts of concepts of space, space stations, ships and just about everything else. This was a very rewarding albeit frustrating experience. Once we had something compelling, we began the process of creating a graphics engine that would accomplish the concept vision. This was complicated by the fact that we were dedicated to a reasonably low end system. While at first these goals seem to be in conflict we discovered many ways to cheat – create a graphic quality higher than what the technology is expected to handle. As a few examples we used high resolution textures for the skybox, since this dominates much of the scene. For our ships we take advantage mixing high specular values and environment mapping to make them both stand out and blend in at the same time. Particles get a similar treatment. Instead of using massive numbers of alpha blended particles, we try to use a few particles with more saturated values. This is a simplification of the entire process but we have strictly enforced our minimum spec while refusing to degrade visual quality. And the results are far better than what we had ever expected.
Another thing we felt was important was creating two render paths: one for fixed function video cards and one for pixel shader supported hardware. Shaders can then be scaled based on specific video card features. When doing this, however, we always target the minimum spec and add features for the higher end systems and not the other way around. It is much more difficult to scale down to older cards if you write for the high end than the other way around. As a side advantage we ended up fighting a lot less graphics related issues because most of the techniques we are using are well established and universally supported. We save the complex graphics problems for visual features that are not critical for game play so if there are hardware related issues they do not affect the ongoing production of the game. This is something that turned out to be a really nice win for us.
We believe that the graphics in Evolution are very strong. People tend to react very favorably to what we have achieved and that is, after all, one of our primary goals. Simply put, graphics can not look dated, and that is a very important consideration for the longevity and success of any mainstream MMO. We believe that the approach we have taken will bring high quality visuals to massive numbers of players without expecting them to spend thousands of dollars on new hardware. As we move forward with the product we will continuously look to find ways to improve the visuals and I have no doubts that post ship we will do several more iterations to ensure that the graphics quality remains high and the overall game experience is as exciting and entertaining as it can possibly be.