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I was reading the Queue, WoW Insider’s daily reader Q&A, and this question (and the TONS of debate in the comments) stood out to me:

Daniel asked:

is the increasing size of the game killing subscribers with inferior machines?

No. WoW is still very accessible from very aged computers. The size of the game has very little to do with any as well, as long as the graphic settings are low the game could be three times the size it is right now and it’d still function fine.

It’s a fairly relevant topic for me. You see, I don’t have a video card. In Guild Wars 2, I joke that I have a super deluxe in-built realistic physics engine. My friends all kinda raised their eyebrows, until they saw my computer at our New Years’ GW2 LAN party: every time I ran anywhere, my turns would translate momentum from the direction I had been travelling in and if I stopped running my character would jog a step or two before fully halting. It makes doing jump puzzles impossible, but it actually does add an (inadvertent) layer of realism to my toon’s movement. Still, it’s crappy graphics. The game looks pixelated and grainy, and WoW – while less demanding – is often hardly better.  I run at about 10 fps in raids. All of my settings are as low as low can be, except for view distance in battlegrounds (hey, I gotta be able to see Gold Mine from Lumbermill!).

I’m also my guild’s top healer. Granted, we’re not a hardcore progression team, but we did just down the first boss in Terrace, so we’re not a throwaway guild either. My game is not as pretty as…pretty much anyone else’s…but, to be honest, I find that helps half the time for avoiding crap on the ground. I used my live-in-arms-warrior’s computer while he was back east visiting family and I was dazzled and almost a bit overwhelmed by all the shiny, pretty, glaring spell effects. I may be part magpie. However, I can see the merit of toning all that down (except for certain encounters, like BoT’s Valiona which had to be hotfixed so low graphic settings could even SEE the black circles) to make it easier to see the really vital stuff, like void zones.

Plus, if you have really shitty graphics, it makes gathering quests (and sometimes PvP) cool in an almost-cheating-it’s-kinda-that-great way, since all the ground clutter phases out of view unless you are right on top of it. This means that you can essentially see through the world and view the actual quest elements and other players. Boxes, rocks, plants – bam, gone! Great for things like hunting for cloud serpent eggs; all the foliage vanishes, but the eggs are interactable objects, so they remain visible.

I mean, really, what stuff IS actually important to see? As a priest, I like being able to see who has bubble and aegis at a glance, but that’s really only vital in PvP (both for keeping them ON my team and for dispelling them FROM enemy teams!). In raids, I tend to be keeping my eyes more on health meters, however, and those display who’s got bubble AND  how long their weakened soul is. I don’t really NEED to see my spells themselves being cast. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’d feel weird if my character just sat there, but seeing sparkles shoot out of my hands is not necessary to gameplay – all I really need from that end is a cast bar to let me know that spells are actually being cast. Technically I don’t NEED the visuals of it.

However, there’s a reason gaming moved on from text-based into graphical, afterall (hint: it involves the graphics). A game where all of the visuals are pared down is not an aesthetically pleasing one. Think about it – when you picked up your first MMO, there was probably a moment of awe, simply based on what you were seeing. I know there was for me: I came to WoW from text-based MUDs and to suddenly SEE all of the game in dancing, vibrant colors and 3-d image was jaw-dropping.

mudscreen

General MUD gameplay. Talking to another player and viewing /g

mudscreen1

MUD combat and part of the in-game mapping system

mudscreen2

An ASCII firework!

Those above? That’s what a MUD looks like. You might get some ASCII image, like the “map” at the bottom of the second (yes, we use THAT to navigate) or even some more flashy things like ASCII fireworks of a nyancat. However, that’s as advanced as you get, graphically. It’s like being stuck in 1980, visually, in a MUD. So to suddenly load WoW and SEE my character (instead of just imagine her) and SEE her casting spells…that was incredible. It’s not much of a leap to assume that it was a similar experience for many people trying MMOs for the first time, and there is no doubt in my mind that part of what makes a game popular is its graphics – but very firmly only part.

Graphics alone don’t make (or break) a game. RIFT, for example, had stunning graphics, but a lack of distinctly unique gameplay prevented it from becoming the WoWKiller it was predicted to be. Many Asian MMOs have gorgeous graphics, but overly-grindy (to Western audiences) gameplay prevents them from getting a foothold in the US and EU market. On the other end of the spectrum, you have the runaway success of Minecraft and its 16-bit world.

In my opinion, it comes back to that first experience I had with WoW. Not only was I seeing the game world, I was seeing MY character. I had given her red hair, like me, and, to this day, I remember what it looked like to watch her run around and cast spells. I identified with my avatar and formed an attachment to her visual representation. Now, that kind of visual identity transcends whether the game even has graphics; it’s just easier in an MMO. In MUDs,  many players went out of their way to visualize their characters: avatars and signatures for forums, a paragraph describing how the character looks, even real life drawings to depict the character. One of the biggest ways to make money in the IRE games, for example, is drawing pictures IRL for other players. I know, personally, because I had DOZENS made of my little Imp.

The difference between a MMO and a MUD is that the ENTIRE world is there for you to see in a MMO. In a MUD, you have to imagine the game world, and immersion stems from other sources, such as reading the description of a room, or reading what an NPC says, or reading another character’s emotes (it involves a lot of reading, is what I’m getting at). In a MMO, it’s right there before you. You drink it in and are instantly immersed;  that type of game magic is what drew so many to try out MMOs and shot the popularity of multiplayer games from the thousands into the millions.

…but at the same time, that quick, in-your-face immersion dulls you to its very power.

In a MUD, you are drawn in to the story and the mental pictures you, yourself, are painting. That doesn’t mean that you read the text for every time you cast a fireball. It’s the same line of words, and you cast hundreds of fireballs every time you go out grinding. You tune it out, just as MMO players tune out basic cast animations to focus on what is DIFFERENT. It’s the same concept of our brain tuning out white noise or ignoring the sight of our own nose in front of us. Basically, stuff that is repetitive and the same gets relegated to the back of our notice, so we can pay attention to changes.

I’d argue, however, that after a point, the very gameworld becomes background noise. When you are raiding or capturing a flag, you aren’t focusing on the cool architecture of the room or the pretty trees surrounding the base. You are looking on the ground for void zones or watching an enemy cast bar for polymorph. MUDs are similar: when you first start playing you walk around reading every room description. Eventually, you just turn on BRIEF and get just the name of the room and the exits as you run around the game.

Verbose and then brief room descriptions in a MUD

Verbose and then brief room descriptions in a MUD (my spaceship in Lusternia)

In short, you focus on the game’s mechanics and gameplay, and the immersive aspects (like graphics or descriptions) only really factor in as an occasional “yeah, that’s nice” or when you consider how well they are letting you see stuff like enemy AoE. In both cases, there are definitely moments where you can be drawn back into the game world. It might be a particularly beautiful vista in WoW or an especially unique room name in a MUD prompting you to read the room’s description. And some players who are focused heavily on roleplay may not even leave the heavy immersion behind in the first place. But the majority of players tend to concentrate on the gameplay itself when involved in tasks like raiding or PvP. I guess I’m saying that graphics don’t really matter for core gameplay, as long as they are good (and fast) enough to let you see what you need to. Having graphics, period, has helped draw many new players to MMOs, but having insane graphics won’t make up for subpar mechanics or design, because players become essentially immune to the visuals when they are engrossed in high-attention gameplay.
All of the above being said, playing low graphics does make for some amusing anecdotes. For example, when xmog came out, I said I wanted a halo or a crown or something pretty, so a guildmate took me to BRD and I got the Circle of Flame. “Oooh!” I thought. “A red gem hanging above my head!” and proceeded to xmog every outfit ever with it for a year or so.

flame_kal

See? There’s a little red gem hanging over my head! (Squint your eyes and zoom in; it may help) Then, a few weeks ago, I came to bug my boyfriend’s toon by mimicking him as he ran around doing stuff (we’re mature adults like that)…and I completely froze, staring at his screen.

“What…what is that?!” I stammered.

“What is what?” he replied, turning to face me in real life.

I pointed at his screen. “That!” I exclaimed, circling my toon’s head on his screen. “My head is on FIRE!”

He stared blankly back at me. I mean, I’m a goof, but I think he was a bit concerned.

“It’s…your…armor…?” he suggested.

“Since WHEN?!”

Turns out, the actual visual for the circle of fire is – shockingly – a circle. Of fire. Go figure. After a few minutes of being weirded out by my (from my view) new wreath of flames, I decided I liked the look quite a bit, and began demanding that he show me myself just so I could admire my toon in high res. In a way, I feel like I’m back at square one, knocked out of my jaded function-over-form paradigm from the last few years to find myself enthralled simply by the image of my character, shining away like a pretty little pyrotechnic elf.

Pretty fire....

Pretty fire….

…Damn. Now I want a video card, and Christmas JUST passed.

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