When looking at an MMO, what is the first thing that strikes you? Is it the game play, the genre, the world and characters? For me it is the artwork and concepts. Although I do look very closely at the game play and make my final decision on whether or not to play in the end, it's always the visuals the strike me first. Lately with more MMOs being designed in Asia we have seen a trend toward Eastern style or Anime style artwork. Aion is the perfect example of this style, yet TERA which is coming out soon and is made by the old Lineage team seems to be trending back to a more Western style of artwork to appeal to an overall audience. It's not that I am against Eastern style art in MMOs; it is that many times I miss the Western style of design in games. We'll go through some examples and try to explain why art and design can have such a huge influence on a gamer's decision.
Starting with Aion as an example, the game has a lot of potential. Players liked the game play and there is no doubt the world is amazingly artistic. So why didn't it appeal to me? Well, to be honest it was the simple fact that it was too Anime in the art design of the characters. I'd be the first to play a game where "Angels" fight "Demons". Imagine if Aion had an art style similar to the Diablo series. A dark twisted world with giant weapons and hulking monsters. With hardened Angels who looked like ascendants from the Dark Angel Sapce Marine chapter in Warhammer 40k, keep that image in your head and ask yourself if that game would appeal to you more? For western audiences I would make the bet that it would. It may even cross over into the Eastern audience as well. Keep the exact same game play, the exact same story line; just change the look of the world entirely. If Aion had dark gritty artwork to it, I would be playing right now.
That is not to say I dislike Anime at all. I love Naruto, Berserk, Bleach, and if you are old school anime check out Record of Lodoss War. These styles are all purely Eastern in design and each one would make a great world for MMOs. I just think that with more games making the crossover into the MMO market from Asia to the West instead of more games being developed in the West, we are seeing this trend grow faster towards a different art style.
Warhammer Online I think is a good example of a fully Western style artwork game. Since Games Workshop is based in England and all of the artwork was taken directly from the table top game it is very Western in design. The gritty world of Medeival Europe is clearly defined and stylized. The Chaos Warriors are the most distinct having been spawned almost right out of a Frazetta painting. I often wonder how this style does in an Eastern market? Do Eastern players enjoy our art styles as much as we enjoy theirs? Do they pick up a game strictly because it has a specific style to it?
TERA is our next example and is an Eastern game that is actually trending back to a more Western style. When we saw TERA at GDC, the producers explained that they did not go full anime in the design and were working to add in artistic styles with a more western feel. The character we saw looked like a hulking demon and he was running around with two swords chopping up opponents. The overall design definitely crossed into an area that was based in an Eastern art style, but with a heavy Western influence. The world design is also a bit grittier than say something like Aion. Will games eventually have this mix of styles to them as more and more MMOs become global?
Guild Wars 2 is following this design as well. With a heavy Western style in design there are some elements of Eastern artwork that trickle through the game. It seems to be that the more we see games appealing to a global market the more they will be combining art styles to fit into both markets at once.
World of Warcraft has crossed boundries in a similar way having huge appeal on both sides of the Pacific. Blizzard has always kept a very distinct art style to their games. While many see the graphics as cartoonish in WoW there is still a global appeal to having both katana and broad sword style weapons and designs in the game. Blizzard has made this leap very clearly with Diablo 3. The design of the Barbarian is something very Western, while the design of the Wizard class is clearly Eastren influenced. The blending of these styles is something we are seeing more and more in modern MMOs.
As a player I have always looked at screenshots to decide on a game. It is important that the world I plan to spend hours and hours in appeals to my own visual tastes. We cover all kinds of topics here at MMORPG mostly focusing on game design and theory. Art is a tough one and something that is truly personal in appeal. Yet it is the one thing that will drive us to pick up a box in your local game store. I can remember looking at the old D&D Monster Manual for the first time when I was 7 years old. The artwork still remains in my consciousness as a staple for what appeals to me, even though they were just simple pencil sketches. I am very curious how much art and style play into your game purchasing decisions? I would encoruage the fourms to open up on this issue. You cannot really argue about another person's taste, but more importantly, does artwork play into your game buying decision? When you think about it, the world you'll be playing in during an MMO is pretty important given the amount of time you spend there.