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Player Versus Player: Stylized Graphics

Column By Christopher Coke on August 15, 2013

Welcome back to another edition of Player Versus Player. This is the column where MMORPG.com writers come to square off on the issues you care about, even playing the devil's advocate to make sure each side is represented. It's an arena battle of wits and words where only you can decide the victor.

Sony and EverQuest Next kicked the beehive this week and reminded us how much we care about graphics, stylized or realistic. Players have been buzzing about, attacking realism and defending their oversized pauldrons like it's no one's business. Unless they're on the other side, where it's everyone's business and those pauldrons are too silly to stand. That's our topic this week, so let's break it down.

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  • Stylized: MMO graphics should be served with style. Realistic graphics age and wind up looking old. Stylized are timeless, evocative, and all-around better.
  • Realistic: MMO graphics should be realistic. These games are virtual worlds and should feel like them. Realism helps players sink into the experience and not feel like they're playing a cartoon.

Standing the podiums this week:

  • Victor Barreiro Jr: Author of the Devil's Advocate and MMO's regular ArcheAge columns. Victor knows a thing or two about realism and isn't afraid to let it out.
  • Chris Coke: Author of The Tourist and host of the official Game On podcast, Chris likes his swords big and unwieldy and has a thing or two to say about stylism.

Victor: The great thing about online worlds is that I can be anything I want to be, and to that end, realistic graphics provide people with the best gains for their gaming life because it allows people to look like the most dapper or hideous badasses in a game world.

The ability to create realistic looking faces and an idealized vision of a hero that you want to be or look at is a great thing, and with the exception of one outlier (World of Warcraft) it’s the games with realistic graphics that tend to make their gaming presence better known to gamers than the myriad worlds filled with cartoon hamsters carrying hammers.

Chris: There’s no doubt that realistic graphics can be pretty, but I’m not so sure they’re as great as we’d like to think. I mean, look at Lord of the Rings Online. That game was stunning when it came out -- but now? It’s character models look big-nosed and blocky. Stylized graphics don’t develop that problem as quickly. World of Warcraft’s models might be looking old almost a decade later, but its armor sets sure aren’t. And the landscapes are just as artistic and beautiful as they were in 2004. Stylized graphics let artists focus on art over imitation. That’s a long-term decision.

Victor:  One other fun thing about realistic graphics is that, while it’s likely a greater technical hurdle, it’s scales emotional hurdles easier in terms of storytelling, If there’s a dramatic event happening in a character’s storyline, there’s a greater chance to feel the emotion of an event if the graphics are delve closer to real for a particular time period than towards cartooniness.

And no, don’t throw that Final Fantasy VII cutscene at me as proof of emotional gravitas with cartooniness. The graphics in FFVII were far closer to real for the time period than pixelated sprites.

Chris: Well why don’t you go ahead and strip Cloud and Tifa right from my memory then, Victor?! I won’t be needing them anymore! Seriously though, it’s all about writing at that point, isn’t it? I think that, on a personal level, seeing an orc cry would probably touch me less than a sad baby or meth producing science teacher. On the other hand, for me to care at all, I need to sink into the experience. Stylized graphics don’t try to trick you into believing something is real but instead ask you to extend disbelief. Once I’m there, immersed, caring is second nature.

There’s also something to be said for what draws you into the experience. For me, I want things to feel magical and extravagant. I want mystical forests with magic dust floating in the air, oversized armors that make no sense but for the spells bring them to your body, and an oversaturation of everything that’s too much like a fairy tale to resist. That, to me, is the essence of immersion.

Victor: While it’s easy to see the advantages of stylized graphics as being potentially easier to produce and maintain, it seems more difficult to scale upwards as better graphics engines come out and systems improve, rather  than to have a constant point that remains relatively future-proof, assuming games last beyond five years.

That said, MMORPGs with graphics that seemed realistic in the early 2000s (Everquest, Anarchy Online) can seem cartoony now. Would it be fair to say that these games spent had “realistic graphics” or “stylized graphics” during their lifetime?

Chris: That’s a very fair point but on that same token, stylized graphics which feel painterly generally don’t need that upward scaling until years and years down the line. The exception being character models, of course, which are less taxing than whole world updates. They can survive on incremental upgrades and still have fidelity while realistic MMOs struggle just to make sure players can run it.

To your question, I would absolutely say that games like EverQuest and Anarchy Online had realistic graphics. If they’re stylized today, it’s by pure accident and isn’t quite the same.

Victor: Fair enough. Perhaps we should also take into account that even among realistic looking games, there are games where one can have both realistic graphics with a stylish flair.

For instance, Final Fantasy XIV and TERA have relatively realistic graphics. At the same time, the realism still provides enough leeway for anime-styled character types that have more visual appeal and customization options than stylized games.

Chris: You’re right, but those games a treading a middle-ground. There’s no question that FFXIV and TERA are beautiful games but to what side do they skew? You examples are interesting because I would say TERA is stylized and FFXIV is much less so. To your point, I would contend that it is the stylization in those games that let them stand the test of time. It’s a good middle-ground to walk because one supports the other. Time has one rule for modern MMO graphics: what is real is proven not to be and what’s not is held as fantasy. Step between the two and you might earn the best of both worlds.

Victor: From the discussion, it would seem that graphics touted as realistic at a given point in time can become stylized as new technologies develop. At the same time, what is already made using stylized graphics needs less of a tune-up over time to remain fresh.

The definitions of what make stylized or realistic graphics different from each other also tend to depend on who’s talking. As evidenced earlier, what I consider realistic, some might think as stylized. The quality of the graphics also won’t matter much if gameplay isn’t compelling and the story and the world isn’t worth experiencing.

While I personally feel like I should concede in this little debate, I’d like to think there’s a fine middle ground that can be found. Get graphics that go well with how you envision the world, and that won’t break the bank in terms of funding. Sometimes games, especially MMORPGs, don’t have to look super good. They just have to look good enough to serve the purposes of the world being built and the audience expecting to buy into your virtual real estate.

That's all from us, folks. Sound off in the comments below and let us know your side of the story!

Chris “Syeric” Coke / Chris is a lifelong gamer with a passion for debate and consumer advocacy. Sometimes he takes opposite tacks for the sake of discussion. Read his column, The Tourist, every other Friday and hear him weekly on the official podcast.

Victor Barreiro Jr. / Victor maintains The Devil’s Advocate and ArcheAge columns for MMORPG.com. He also writes for news website Rappler as a technology reporter. You can find more of his writings on Games and Geekery and on Twitter at @vbarreirojr.
Christopher Coke / Chris has been a fan of MMOs since the mid-1990s when he cut his teeth on MUDs. These days he scours the internet for the latest and greatest multiplayer gaming experiences.

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