The Game Archaeologist: Is it worth the hassle to update graphics in older MMOs?

    
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Not this.

“I’d play this game again if the graphics were updated.”

“If they re-released this game with modern graphics, it would be way more popular.”

The Game Archaeologist is my hero, and I will name my progeny in his honor.”

How many times have we heard the above statements? From my perspective as someone who tries to keep tabs on classic MMOs, I see these claims quite a lot, or at least the first two. Such sentiments pop up in nearly every other post Massively OP does about older games: “This title is rock-solid except for its aging visuals. Update those, and it would recapture its former glory and then some.”

This has gotten me thinking whether such logic would pan out or not. Is the power of a graphics conversion or overhaul strong enough to pull back in previous players and fresh blood? Or is it merely slathering on new paint over a rusting hulk?

All right, I can sort of see it.

Thought #1: Gameplay is king

There are two camps when it comes to the maxim that “gameplay is king” in any video game: those who believe that’s true and those who argue that it’s more than that. It shows you how subjective games are to us, but generally I’m in the first camp. If a title has incredible gameplay at its core, I’m willing to overlook a lot (but then, perhaps not all).

So the issue then shifts to just how much these older games are hampered by dated graphics if they have such solid gameplay — or whether the gameplay is aging as well. Let’s face it; many of these pre-World of Warcraft games are somewhat foreign to the modern gamer. They come from a different era and are wildly diverse in form and function. No matter how good the gameplay, it’s still a challenge to convince someone to take on one of these games versus something that came out last year.

Games like Minecraft, Dwarf Fortress, and other “retro-style” titles of late have proven that gamers don’t need flashy graphics as long as the core gameplay is solid, accessible, and compelling. I think this applies to MMOs on a case-by-case basis. Some just have gameplay that surpasses their visuals.

Thought #2: Looks matter

That said, looks matter. They simply do, whether that condemns us for being shallow or not. It’s right there in the title: video games. We experience these titles through their visuals, and it’d be foolish to deny it.

Whether a game decides to go for retro charm, a timeless stylistic approach, or cutting-edge graphics, how it looks often influences how we feel about it, particularly during our first impressions. The problem here is when a gamer from 2012 decides to go back and play an earlier title that he or she never tried before because there’s often a jarring transition between the games of now and the games of way-back-when. Depending on the person, it may be impossible to overcome that transition to give the game a fair shake at all, even if it has a great personality and loves walks on the beach.

Keen.

Thought #3: It’s important to age gracefully

The image comes to mind of that man or woman we know who is pushing up through the years and yet fighting it every step of the way. He or she desperately clings to the latest fashion, undergoes repeated plastic surgery, and all but denies any knowledge of world events prior to 1990. The ironic thing is that the more these types of people try to fight aging, the more their actions illuminate their age to everyone around them.

I feel that’s kind of true with this whole topic. MMOs aren’t stuck in time; they gestate in a developer’s mind, they are born, they age, and they eventually die. Since you can never turn back the clock no matter how desperate you are to do so, the best thing to do is to age gracefully instead of desperately cling to youth.

And thus massive plastic surgery on MMOs isn’t the answer; that’s just hiding this natural process. Instead, the aging MMO should gradually shift its focus from its beauty to its inner strengths. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t groom itself and add a few touch-ups here or there, but that shouldn’t be its primary focus. Devoting too much time and too much attention to looks alone could backfire and make people even more likely to notice how old a game is.

Thought #4: Radical graphical updates change how a game is perceived

When players wish upon stars for a graphical overhaul, I have to wonder whether they realize that no two players envision the same sort of overhaul. Everyone sees the game as it is right now the same, but how you think it could look better is most decidedly different from how your friends or especially the developers do. So if your wish is granted and the end effect is foreign and unsettling to you, what then? You’re stuck with it. In this case, it might be better to go with the devil you know than with that pointy-headed freak in the next room.

If a graphic overhaul must be done, then it should fall in line as closely to the original designs as possible — just slightly better. Anything that deviates more than that risks alienating loyal players who make up the paying core of the game.

When Ultima Online underwent its Third Dawn and Kingdom Reborn graphical overhauls, players had to contend with comprehensive updates to the game’s style. Some liked it, but many did not and instead continued playing using the classic client. Because Kingdom Reborn was later discontinued in favor of still another alternative client (the Enhanced Client, which retained some but not all of Kingdom Reborn’s upgrades), I’m guessing this experiment was more fizzle than sparkle-and-pop. (Though Bree reminds me Broadsword says the modern split between the classic client and Enhanced is 50-50. So maybe there’s some hope!)

Thought #5: The appeal of graphical updates is questionable at best

In 2015, Anarchy Online players were finally treated to the long-awaited promised graphic update for their favorite game. To say that the community had been waiting for this with great anticipation is an understatement, with some players claiming that this would be the second coming of AO and help it regain footing in the modern gaming era. Yet when it did arrive, the promised visuals were merely “fine” and the overall effort didn’t seem to matter much one way or the other.

In light of this, I have to really wonder just how effective graphical overhauls are to the attraction and lifespan of a game. Again, I’m not against their happening, but when so much pressure is put on them to pull in new players and beckon to the departed, I don’t think there are any historical examples that serve to prove that this is that magic bullet to make it happen.

Players have to keep in mind that in many instances, resources and personnel spent on one project are resources and personnel denied to other projects. MMO directors can’t choose them all, so priorities are made. Content that attracts and affects more people is more important than the content that has limited appeal. And when you’re talking about something as wide-reaching and massive as a full-game graphical overhaul, you’re asking the teams to put it all on the line over most everything else.

Conclusion

Because visuals do matter and a dated-looking game might put off players who would otherwise enjoy such a title, I’m not against a studio spending some time making a game look its best. However, it’s much better to do this as a gradual project than a massive one-time overhaul, as the impact probably won’t be as significant and the resources are always needed somewhere else.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.

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carthoris
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carthoris

Updating graphics isn’t what people are really after – they want a more modern interface. People don’t play older games not because their graphics are dated but because we’ve come so far in accessibility of menus, inventory, looting, combat, and the like. I think developers would be better served spending time on *that* to draw in new blood than wasting time on updating graphics.

Just look at how popular pixel art games are. Outdated graphics do not keep people away.

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Loopy

Graphics matter to me. I will never claim they are more important than gameplay, but they are important. There is however a difference between a game that is designed to look simplistic and stylized, and a game that simply looks like crap.

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Ryan Allgood

The reason I like video games is that they’re a complete package.

Movies are all visuals, story, and sound. There’s no interactivity.

Board games are purely gameplay. There’s some minor visual elements and tabletop games like D&D in particular can bring in some visual elements with some nice artwork.

But video games combine all of these things and I think they are equally important.

Gameplay is definitely the foundation, but all the elements come together to make a really great game. You can make a satisfying and filling meal with just steak and potatoes. But to make it really great, you need to season it.

A lot of people like to imply that visuals are meaningless, but even if it had some fun gameplay, I doubt an MMO with pong-level graphics would be popular. There’s a reason transmog/glamour/”Fashion Wars” is such a popular thing.

That all being said, I think one of the biggest keys is that “Aesthetic” is way more important than how “high tech” or “cutting edge” the graphics are. There are plenty of old games that still look great thanks to a strong and visually appealing aesthetic (such as Guild Wars 1). Hell, games like Ragnarok don’t even really look old to me. On the flip side, games with high end graphics can still look awful because their aesthetic/design is just bad.

As for graphical revamps, I do think, unfortunately, that you’re right that they usually aren’t worth it. Existing fans have a 99% chance of absolutely hating it, and those who aren’t currently playing would need too dramatic an overhaul to make it worth it.

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Jim Bergevin Jr

It doesn’t matter how much lipstick you put on a pig. It’s still going to be a pig. Graphics will never trump gameplay – I defy anyone to invest time, money, and energy into a game that has absolute garbage mechanics and gameplay, but is the most beautiful game out there. It’s just not going to happen. Great graphics will never save a bad game.

What great graphics can do, however, is make good games better. If you take the SimCity, Wizardry, or Tropico series, as each installment came out, the already good gameplay built into the game was enhanced each time as the graphics got better (SimCity “Online” notwithstanding). I just started playing EverQuest this year, and back in the Spring they gave a slight overhaul to the Gloomingdeep Mines. Now the game still looks like it’s 20 years old, but just that little touch was noticeable and helped enhance my enjoyment of the game. I have also played a handful of games that looked really good, but were bug-ridden with horrible mechanics and the graphics did nothing to help me overcome the unenjoyable time I had attempting to play those games.

In the end, small graphical updates are the sweet spot for those oldie but goodie MMOs. However, I don’t think that means spending time and resources to make EverQuest look as good as Shroud of the Avatar is a good idea or even necessary. My favorite MMO is the original Guild Wars. It doesn’t look as good as Shroud, but it still looks great to me and I don’t think it needs to change a thing. I would rather see developers put time and effort into making content for their great games instead of doing an Extreme Makeover to its look.

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Kurt Shadle

For me, gameplay is king. I love Project Gorgon despite the 2 decades old graphics.

Here’s how I look at it. I’ve never heard someone say, “Man the gameplay for game X is just awful but the graphics are so good I play it anyway.”

This is just my unknowldgable opinion but I’d wager the time and money spent on graphics updates are less effective than putting the same resources into the gameplay.

Not saying graphic updates are inherently bad but I don’t think they’d be a big draw to new players or current player mention.

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Ald

I didn’t look at this as an either/or situation.

If i’m playing an older MMO, then obviously i like the combat mechanics and player interactions more than i do modern MMO’s, otherwise i wouldn’t be playing it. I’d like that aspect to be left alone and the aesthetics improved.

A perfect example for me would be LOTRO.

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Robert Mann

MMO graphics are never top of the line to begin with, so nobody is likely to be too impressed all in all. That said, older games have another difficulty to work with in this: the game engine. Generally, unless they are using a modified game engine (or a custom one) to begin with… there’s a giant problem to updating the graphics. They must update the engine, which often means a lot of recoding and potential problems.

Given how little can be done, my personal answer is that minor touch ups are fine. The expectations will always be more than is realistic for most MMOs, and promising anything more than minor touch ups will result in backlash and that whole disappointed feeling which really is of low benefit.

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Ald

Of course it’s worth the hassle if you have a dedicated playerbase.

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strangesands

Change ‘dedicated’ to ‘massive paying’ and you might have enough money to make some improvements here and there. Dedication has nothing to do with it.

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ghostlight

I wouldn’t give too much credence to ‘Strangesands’. All his posts on this topic seem to be trolling others in a very aloof and condescending manor. In any case dedicated players are indeed important as they are more likely to spend money on the games.

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strangesands

Hey, I’m just pointing out the reality of development and the business cost of doing said development. Fan suggestions are fine, but they are often disconnected completely from both. Any monetization or reality-based points are “greedy” because, you know, all businesses are “greedy,” instead of needing to pay their employees and have enough money to viably continue their games. If you think pointing out the business POV is “trolling” then so be it, but frankly I get a little tired of la-la land suggestions from fans who have no clue what is needed to implement their wishes. Not to say all suggestions are bad, just be realistic about what you are asking for.

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Bruno Brito

Yes…to an extent. Sometimes, gameplay update to ease the hassle of some commands help ( pet classes on Anarchy Online come to mind )

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Witches

A graphics update would be great for many older games, but i seriously doubt it would bring enough new players and revenue to justify it.

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strangesands

Whenever I read “If they would just [insert my personal/quirky/unreasonable request that has no proven basis in reality here], this game would sell like gangbusters!” I have the unreasonable urge to volunteer that person to “personally” making it happen (for free).

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Loopy

Just because a request isn’t “easy” doesn’t make it unreasonable or unwarranted. I don’t think it’s fair to claim that updating graphics in a game is simple. But i also don’t think it’s fair to say “well go do it yourself then if you want it”.