MMORPG's can be funny when trying to dissect the various aspects that are important to gamers nowadays. They can be some of the most popular, socially-driven games on the market today. Yet one thing MMORPGs historically haven't been praised for is the genre being on the cutting edge of graphical prowess. We see games that are beautiful: from Final Fantasy XIV, The Elder Scrolls Online, and now games like New World using modified CryEngine. Games like Black Desert take over the mindshare for many when thinking about graphically intense MMORPGs. Yet the genre as a whole isn't always considered to be a place where visuals are one of the most important aspects.
We see this too with some of the MMOs in development now. While some MMORPGs, like Ashes of Creation, are trying to create as beautiful a game as Intrepid can without sacrificing its complex systems that make up the core of the MMO, other games like Ember's Adrift don't necessarily have the most cutting-edge visuals, instead focusing on the social constructs in their game.
Thinking back to older MMOs, the genre has its roots in MUD text-based games, where the story telling and immersive fiction of the world allowed the player to visualize it in their head. Games like Ultima Online draw players even today, even though the visuals of the MMO are quite dated.
Games like EVE Online invest heavily in their art direction, even though the joke is that the MMO is a spreadsheet simulator - yet as creative director Bergur Finnbogason told me in an intervew last week, EVE is the "most beautiful spreadsheet software there is."
For me, high quality graphics, as well as top notch art direction (yes, there is a difference here) help sell the world I'm investing my time within, though the former isn't always as important myself. To me, the art direction of an MMO is more important to sell me the world. Not every game needs to be built on CryEngine or Unreal Engine 4 in order for me to enjoy the visuals (though it certainly doens't hurt). Instead, games like Final Fantasy XIV, World of Warcraft and The Lord of the Rings Online go a long way making up for older game engines and graphical rendering in their art direction.
How about you, though? How important are graphics to your enjoyment of an MMORPG? Does it matter, or do games need to push the envelope with better graphics with each new release? Let us know in the comments.