Graphics, Art, and Immersion

Technically, Blaugust is over as of 90 minutes ago (in my time zone of PDT) and so this kind of doesn’t count, I suppose. I did rack up 31 posts in August, so hooray!

But, I’ll discuss that more later.

Today, I want to talk about graphics. Specifically, something that I noticed from Bhagpuss’ recent post about the art style of WoW Classic.

I am, by all accounts, a graphics guy. My core gaming rig features a 12-core CPU and a GeForce GTX 1080Ti so it can push all of the graphics. My graphics card is 1GB of memory shy of matching the system memory of my golden-era rig from Wrath of the Lich King. Theoretically, I love graphics.

I also love watching the developments in the graphics industry. Last year, Nvidia introduced their RTX technology, which allows their newest, highest-end graphics cards to perform real-time ray tracing, adding tons of detail and definition to lighting, reflections, and other varying things. Most games with RTX features to date use it for one feature, more or less – Battlefield V uses it for realistic surface reflections, Shadow of the Tomb Raider uses it for realistic global illumination, Metro Exodus also uses global illumination, and there are fun project titles like Minecraft with ray tracing and Quake II with the feature, which adds an interesting layer of depth and character to their artwork.

When I started playing World of Warcraft, it was an era of 1024×768 CRT monitors, or maybe 1280×1024 if you were lucky. Games were just starting to really break in the pixel and vertex shader hardware that had been added to graphics cards, rounding out the feature set until DirectX 10 in 2007. Games of this era looked good, but we were in a sprint to realism – games were starting to use tons of geometry to round out models, bump mapping was enabling light to affect flat surfaces in a way that creates an illusion of depth, and the looming Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 would both jump to full HDTV support, which the original Xbox and PS2 could only kind of support, in some games.

WoW’s visual fidelity wasn’t high, at least not in a traditional sense, or in a way that compared to its contemporaries. Doom 3 had high visual fidelity, and was released around the same time. However, which of the two games can you call out by name with only a screenshot?

Exactly.

Blizzard’s art team made a very conscious choice when designing the game’s art style. One of the lead environment artists on the game, Gary Platner, describes the style as “painterly” and I can see why. The game used a color palette reminiscent of Warcraft III – bright colors, large shapes and defined silhouettes, to create a visual signature. The game looks like a painting in motion, rather than, well, a game. The game used a limited visual resource set to enable the engine to run well on just about everything, and it worked. Rather than making blocky polygons, the team did work to optimize the placement of just about everything for maximum impact. Human males had their Popeye arms because it (mostly) hid the fact that they were pretty low-poly. Armor with any degree of simulated physics (rare in vanilla, but as a priest, I got a lot of it!) was canned animation run in the direction you were most likely to be seen from, so you’ll notice the shoulder drapes of Devout and Prophecy both have odd twists in them from the player perspective, but look perfectly flat and correct head-on.

The thing about this is that you might suspect I’m winding all of this up to diss the WoW art team and dismiss their work as low-rent crap, but actually, it is one of the most endearing parts of the game. Early on, the gameplay is about opening the world to you. Teldrassil’s dusky purples and greens, Durotar’s saturated oranges, the green forests of Elwynn Forest, all of these are tailor-made to impress you and pull you in. It doesn’t look realistic because it doesn’t need to – it is a fantasy game creating a fantasy world.

I finally logged in and played about 45 minutes of WoW Classic tonight, and as an experience it was interesting. Gameplay-wise, I rolled a Night Elf for maximum nostalgia, but a warrior to experience something that would be new to me (I never fully leveled a Warrior until Cataclysm). The gameplay was interesting, in that it was pretty slow (slower than I remember) but this also gave me a chance to soak in the experience a bit.

Teldrassil is a beautiful place, and while the illusion of it as a tree doesn’t hold up once you leave, that doesn’t matter. It looks cool – really cool, and it absorbs you completely.

What I’ve realized as I’ve grown older is that what I thought I liked when I was younger was wrong. WoW is artistically strong, because it defines its own style completely and then pulls you into the world with that, rather than relying on realism as a shorthand to avoid doing the work. Any look at any expansion’s art book will show you what the Blizzard team goes through to create the visuals of the game – it is a painstaking process of defining the shapes and color palettes of a civilization, sketching out multiple buildings, trees and environmental props, armors, weapons, and a myriad of other details that many players may never notice. All of this is put together by a small team and placed manually. They could use a procedural generation engine to spit out a landscape and then dot it with props, but instead, the entire thing is created by artists, drawn by hand, detailed by hand, from start to finish. Even in the modern game, this type of process is done for all new content.

The game has great graphics not because it is a technical marvel – or, as someone pointed out in the comments on Bhagpuss’ post, the game doesn’t have maximum resolution textures with no tiling, no aliasing anywhere, or meet a technical standard of excellence. The game has great graphics because it has a strong art style, adhered to stringently, that uses color palettes to tell a story that is woven and reinforced through gameplay and story. Teldrassil is verdant and dark because it is a World Tree and home to the Night Elves. Durotar is hot, orange, and utilitarian because it is a settlement from the immigrating Orcs of Draenor, making due with what is available in the short time they’ve called the valley home by the time the WoW story begins. All of these fit and belong because everything about the game ties back in artfully.

It is about more than graphics, but the graphics play a key role in that. You can glean something about the story of a zone from how it looks, and Blizzard plays this up extraordinarily well. Azshara is a zone that has been abandoned, and is dotted with ruins, the society of a vain and self-serving queen, and oh look, statues of her are everywhere in varying states of distress. The zone’s art tells the story even if the game doesn’t directly. Ashenvale has a sharp divide of lush forest and desolate paths of chopped lumber, because the Horde are there pushing for resources to expand nearby Orgrimmar.

One of the best hooks WoW has always had is its art, and Classic demonstrates this wonderfully.

It also runs really well on my GeForce GTX 1080Ti, so that is good, I suppose!

One thought on “Graphics, Art, and Immersion

  1. It’s the difference between Art Design and Graphics. The most immersive MMORPGs have great art design even when the graphics are less than stellar. Conversely, you can have cutting edge graphics that put the best cards under pressure but if you use them to show a generic, off-the-shelf world, who cares?

    WoW has always looked like a real place and it has never needed graphic realism to do it. I think this is one of the reasons so many imported MMOs struggle in the West; I’ve played a lot of them and they all merge into one in the memory, with their souless buildings, featureless landscapes and monotonous color palettes. It’s also part of why something like Black Desert Online has been such a breakout success – they have a world that looks handmade not autogenerated.

    Liked by 2 people

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