Updating MMOG Graphics Is A Risky Business
Graphical updates to long-running MMOG clients may be attractive to developers, but industry veteran Damion Schubert says there are many potential pitfalls awaiting those who embark on such an adventure.
Schubert, an MMOG developer who has worked on Meridian 59, The Sims Online and Shadowbane, wrote in his "Zen of Design" blog that while many successful online games, including EVE Online, Ultima Online and Everquest, have issued graphical upgrades to their client software, there are many "hidden land mines" associated with the process.
First and foremost, he wrote, is the massive expense of such an undertaking, which has the potential to overwhelm smaller MMOG developers. While Blizzard, which recently announced it would "probably" be launching a graphical update to World of Warcraft in the future, has the deep pockets to finance the venture, less fortunate companies often don't have the resources to do the job properly.
"When working on Shadowbane, we added the tech to do advanced pixel shaders to our engine, but could not financially afford to touch what we wanted to upgrade the most - the character art," Schubert wrote. "We ended up only using the art in the new lands we added, and took care not to put any assets or creatures from the expansion pack in the old lands so you wouldn't see hi-res assets in an otherwise low-res area. Now then, WoW has a lot more money than we did, but they've also generated by this time a couple of orders of magnitude more art as well."
Changes to in-game art also run the risk of being negatively received by gamers who have grown attached to the look of their characters, their fellow players and the landscape surrounding them. Describing an upgrade to character art in Meridian 59 as a "complete uproar," Schubert wrote, "Players [who] had chosen their appearance carefully in character creation and had bonded with it over hundreds of hours, suddenly woke to find their appearances completely different."
Yet he added that if such changes aren't made mandatory - a move which will inevitably "piss off some people" - developers run the risk that the new client simply won't be widely adopted. Along with leaving developers in the position of having to support two separate clients, it also ends up looking like a great waste of time and resources. "That definitely happened in UO with the UO3D client," he wrote. "But even if only half of your audience uses the client, isn't there the argument that the time could have been spent on more popular things?"
Despite the risks, Schubert believes that such upgrades will continue to be the norm for games getting a little long in the tooth, both for marketing reasons and "ego and practical self-interest - artists really don't like filling their portfolio with art that looks ten years old."