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I have noticed that in general it seems like the 3d graphics and animations for MMOs and MMORPGs seem not as seductive and polished as the graphics for normal, non-online 3d games.

  • How come this is the case?

    or

  • Is my judgement inaccurate?

    If my judgement is inaccurate please provide examples of MMORPGs that render 3d graphics and animations that are superior to normal, non-online 3d games.

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I'd like to say it's generally true but not always the case e.g. lineage II came out in 2003, and for it's time had great graphics. youtube.com/watch?v=JVXlC1hQ1X0&feature=fvst –  CiscoIPPhone Oct 30 '10 at 18:58

6 Answers 6

MMOs often have much more content than traditional games. If you think about it, your traditional one-player game has a mostly linear storyline, so the levels are very straightforward, linear, small and restricted. They can be scrutinized and made to a high level of detail. A MMO, however, has an entire world's worth of content, so a lot more art and content is required to match that same level of detail.

It is also the case that MMOs often have many things on the screen at once; this can differ based on the game, but some games allow many people to be standing in one area (for example if there is an important event or party). That is a lot of polygons; so each character must be low detailed in order to be able to draw them all on the screen at once. Similarly, even in the fighting areas there can be a generous number of NPCs/mobs on the screen at once. Level-of-detail algorithms can be used to tune the detail levels based on how much is on screen, but then you are introducing even more content that needs to be made (each thing would then need to be made several times -- or an algorithm can try to do it automatically).

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Your point is valid. But keep in mind that a MMORPG has more models, textures and animations than a normal game; making those assets in a very high resolution would need a lot of disk space, and they wouldn't be easy to stream to system/graphics RAM. So they are kept low-res to easily load a higher part of the world, and to make the development of the game shorter.

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The other answers are quite good. Another reason for MMOs to be low-tech in the graphics department is that they are often designed to be played by low-end hardware, to increase the possible user base and encourage gameplay on laptops or while multitasking.

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Games like Age Of Conan, Vanguard, Aion were all high-tech when they were released. –  CiscoIPPhone Oct 30 '10 at 20:41
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Indeed - the "MMOs run on low-spec systems" mantra seems to be an artifact of the fact MMOs have a long lifespan, so the most popular ones are always many years past release. I can't think of any AAA MMO that was not spec-competitive with other top-spec AAA titles at its release. –  user744 Oct 30 '10 at 20:47
    
I said "often," not "always." I'm not just counting AAA MMOs. Plenty of MMOs are top-of-the-line when released; plenty are low-spec, including many, many free-to-play B-grade games. –  Gregory Avery-Weir Oct 31 '10 at 4:16
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I don't think it's useful to compare B-grade MMOs to A-grade non-MMOs and then conclude MMOs have worse graphics. There are plenty of B-grade non-MMOs with "bad" graphics too. –  user744 Oct 31 '10 at 9:39
    
I concur. However, I'm offering a reason why the querent may have that impression. In my (not-at-all-scientific) estimation, B-grade MMOs tend to advertise much more (and to a wider audience) than B-grade games. –  Gregory Avery-Weir Nov 1 '10 at 12:28

I think the answer is in the definition of MMO: Massive Multiplayer. These games are typically aimed to run on as wide of a player base as possible, including low-end hardware, laptops, netbooks, etc. So the graphics usually don't take advantage of the latest advances in hardware and CPU tech. All the reasons above are also good as well.

P.S. - Looks like Gregory beat me to it :)

Edit: Vote down if you want, but I'm not stating an opinion, it's an absolute fact. WoW has 11 million players and Blizz has stated many times that they want to keep the game so that it can run on low-end hardware. Age of Conan, Aion, where are those games now? They're not so massive, if you get my drift. Name a successful MMO, one that actually has, you know, players, that requires a high end graphics card and then we'll talk.

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You're looking at a 6 year old game and saying it doesn't have high requirements for today's computers. That's absolutely true, but WoW was not a min-spec darling when it came out in 2004. Aion was a commercial success, as long as you don't compare it to a game that's had six years to accrue a social circle and nearly outsells every other PC game combined. –  user744 Oct 30 '10 at 21:21
up vote 25 down vote accepted

The main reason is that MMOs blow away any attempt at asset budgeting.

Take a game like Crysis or Gears of War, with top-end graphics. They have a fixed number of player models. The enemy types are often broken down by zone or level; often those enemies will share textures or materials with other things in the environment, to save memory. At most you're going to have a dozen people (by far the most expensive things to render) on-screen at once.

By sharing textures and only having a handful of models, these games can afford to have more polygons, more shader effects, and more detailed animations. So when they fix their budget at, say, 512MB of RAM and a 3.2GHz processor, they know exactly what the most expensive scene in the game is, and can make sure that machine can play it at an acceptable framerate.

In MMOs, you don't have that luxury. The levels are large. Enemies can be trained from one end of the map to the other. Players can wear whatever they want, and expect that to appear on their character model - meaning their models are often many separate models in practice. You need to be able to render dozens or hundreds of players and enemies at once. You're animating more, and you need to be prepared to render any character model or texture at any time.

When figuring out the budget for an MMO, you have no idea what the most expensive scene is. Fifty players in your frustum? A rare item you didn't expect to need to load? Better have the graphics memory and CPU resources ready!

But these are exactly the kind of situations players love - as many people as possible at the same place, drawing myriad mobs into the middle of a town, showing off as much sparkly alpha-blended light-emitting gear as possible.

What everyone else has said about MMOs targeting lower hardware is sometimes true, but it really comes down to that. The worst rendering scene in an MMO is not known at development time and you can count on players to try to make it as bad as possible, no matter how good their hardware is. The "worse" graphics you have, the more you can scale up before the game becomes unplayable.

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that is such a great answer, to me the reasoning always was that lower graphics equal more accessible game, but then you look at WoW and, for the cartoony graphics that it has, it always required a good rig to run –  dreta Mar 31 '12 at 0:53
    
I was about to give a bounty to this answer, then I noticed it's an anonymous user :/ –  Lohoris Sep 3 at 15:55
    
@Lohoris Award it anyway, why should we burden ourselves with non-anon usernames when we could be writing answers? –  user137 Sep 3 at 20:39

Having done A LOT of research on MMO creation the single biggest issue on graphics is that a designer really has no way of knowing how much content will be present in an area at any given time.

In a single player, or even a multi-player with under 12 players, the designers can control how much content needs to have drawcalls made on them at any given time. Additionally they can control fully how many textures any scene, or area if you will, has. Since they can fully control these assets they are able to turn the model detail far up the spectrum with High poly model and richly detailed textures.

The problem in an MMO is you have little control over how many "assets" are going to be in a given area at any given time since players can wear what they want, where they want, when they want.

Take a game like Skyrim, single player game, lush graphics, high detail. But if you pay close attention, there are seldom more than 5 or 6 moving "characters" at any given time on screen, and when there are more if you carefully look around you'll often notice that they've cut back a little on the amount of material present in the scene. Additionally games like Skyrim know's exactly what every character will be wearing in each scene.

In an MMO, by contrast, a zone can be devoid of any other players other than yourself, or there could be hundreds, and each and every character is often wearing different texture and shader combinations. MMO's, however, can look very nice if the creater get very clever and efficient with their use of well designed meshes that are applied to models. And this can compensate a lot on the graphics difference between mmo's and stand alone games. But in the end the graphics detail level of an MMO will never be the detail level of a stand alone game with equal system requirements. Resource management just doesn't permit it, at least not if you want an MMO framerate above 5.

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Nice answer and welcome to GDSE. –  Byte56 Mar 30 '12 at 23:24
    
This is a very good answer, pity borg didn't stick to this site. However I'm puzzled: this whole answer is basically re-telling everything that has already been said in the user744's answer. Quite odd, if I may. –  Lohoris Sep 3 at 15:57

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