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How Much Do Graphics Really Matter in MMORPGs? | OGR

Let's Get Graphic

Steven Weber Posted:
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In the ever-evolving world of gaming, graphics have always been a hot topic. As technology continues to advance, I found myself asking the same age-old question when it comes to MMORPGs: do graphics matter? With the launch of games like World of Warcraft (WoW) and Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) nearly 20 years ago, we saw the birth of a new gaming era, and at that time, graphically, those games were at the forefront of the MMORPG trend. Now, with the availability of cutting-edge engines like Unreal Engine 5, is there even an excuse for bad graphics in games? On the flip side, could less graphically-intensive games potentially allow for the larger scale battles that MMO enthusiasts crave? Let's dive into these arguments and explore the significance of graphics in MMORPGs.

Even With Outdated Graphics Older Games Still Thrive

From EverQuest to World of Warcraft, to City of Heroes and Lord of the Rings Online, when these popular MMORPGs first graced our screens, they were part of a revolution in the online gaming landscape. These games captivated players with their immersive worlds and expansive storylines, creating communities that, in some cases, have endured for almost two decades. The graphics in WoW and LOTRO, while not completely groundbreaking at the time, were adequate for their era and allowed for smooth gameplay.

However, as technology continued to progress, these games had to adapt and evolve to stay relevant. Both WoW and LOTRO have undergone numerous graphical updates over the years, enhancing textures, character models, and environments to keep up with the growing expectations of players. It definitely doesn’t hurt that World of Warcraft adapted a unique stylized fantasy art style that just held up better than the more realistic concepts many fantasy games shoot for. These graphical updates demonstrate that while graphics may not have been the primary selling point of these MMORPGs, they still played a significant role in maintaining player interest and immersion.

Graphics Are Easy to Look Past, But Should We?

Enter Unreal Engine 5, a powerhouse of a game engine that many MMO developers have been utilizing lately. With the potential to create photorealistic graphics and environments, some argue that there's no longer any excuse for bad graphics in games. But is this really the case?

While there's no denying that visually stunning games can make for a more immersive experience, it's essential to remember that not all developers have the resources or expertise to fully utilize engines like Unreal Engine 5. Smaller studios may struggle to keep up with the high bar set by cutting-edge technology, and opt to go a simpler, more stylistic route, or forego any kind of real graphical enhancements in favor of trying to deliver on larger scale battles.

Games like Temtem and Zenith: The Last City forego hyper realism for a more stylized cartoony art style.  Focusing solely on the realistic aspects of some games could lead to other aspects of the game being neglected, such as gameplay, story, and community engagement, especially where Indie developers are concerned, where their resources are already spread extremely thin.

Less Graphically-Intensive Games: Bigger Battles and More Accessibility?

Another argument to consider is that less graphically-intensive games might actually benefit MMO players by allowing for larger scale battles. The massive player-versus-player (PvP) skirmishes and epic raids that define the MMORPG experience can be incredibly resource-intensive, particularly when they involve hundreds or even thousands of players. It’s been very seldom that we’ve seen new MMORPGs shoot for the moon with larger scale battles, or areas that are built to encourage encounters of thousands of players in a single zone. New World is a good example of a game that initially touted large scale factional warfare, but upon launch, they only opted for servers that could house a maximum of 2000 people. While that has changed somewhat now, by opting for simpler graphics, new MMOs can ensure that these large-scale encounters run smoothly, without sacrificing the gameplay experience or limited servers to extremely low populations.

Furthermore, less graphically-demanding games may also be more accessible to a wider audience. Not everyone has the latest high-end gaming rig, and opting for simpler graphics means that more players can join in the fun without having to invest in expensive hardware upgrades. Sometimes it isn’t specifically about the graphics that the team decides to use, if the art style is pleasing enough. Take indie MMORPG Mad World: Age of Darkness for example. Not only is the game accessible on any browser, but the art style is so appealing, with gruesome monsters, and great looking avatars, that it doesn’t really matter that the game utilizes 2D models.

It’s clear that a good art style is far more effective than simply graphical achievements, but so many developers fall back on engines like Unreal Engine 5 with state of the art visuals, lighting and shadowing, textures and post-processing, that the necessity for really unique solutions with art styles generally revolve around the cosmetic items modeled within the engine rather than future proofing their designs with truly unique design. This inclusive approach fosters a more diverse community and ensures that MMORPGs can be enjoyed by as many people as possible.

Can We Strike the Right Balance? 

So, do graphics matter in MMORPGs? The answer is both yes and no. While it's true that stunning visuals can enhance the gaming experience, and most people these days won’t look twice at blocky, pixelated MMOs unless they model themselves after Minecraft, they're not the be-all and end-all of what makes an MMORPG great. Gameplay, story, and community engagement are equally important factors in creating a memorable and enjoyable gaming experience, but sometimes it can be hard to look past terrible graphics and break through to an audience that is specifically interested in everything else the game has to offer.

Ultimately, the key lies in striking the right balance between something that’s visually appealing, while not sacrificing key features that MMO players really look for. But, what say you, MMORPG gamer? Do you judge a game by its graphics? Or will a feature list catch your eye, even if the graphics aren’t appealing at all? Flip over to our comments section and let us know.


Steven Weber

Steven has been a writer at MMORPG.COM since 2017. A lover of many different genres, he finds he spends most of his game time in action RPGs, and talking about himself in 3rd person on his biography page.