Beauty in Simplicity

I am glad that forthcoming MMOs are stepping back from the precipice of the uncanny valley– a revulsion to the near real.  Quite a few upcoming MMOs are hedging towards stylized graphics, ala Team Fortress 2 or dare I say World of Warcraft, which are also less taxing on system requirements than photo realistic styles.  The stylized feel for things also gives the MMO artists another opportunity in creating some artistic moments through simplicity.

Wizard 101, for example, is a very graphics light game.  It doesn’t have huge polygon counts or untold amounts of shaders, but it does have style.  It’s simple and clean, filled with teenage wizardry, and fairly evocative spells.  Even in the age of Aion and Crysis, Wizard 101 still has some moments that made me appreciate the artistic direction.  The spells are the obvious choice, but I want to focus on the level design.

In my play through Wizard City and Kroktopia most of the PvE zones have been a street or street-like tomb with buildings and props off to the side.  There is the occasional tree or sarcophagus, but the space is not really much for looking.  Most of it is actually rather mundane.  It really just sets the atmosphere.  However, in nearly each zone the level artists made sure to add a stop and stare moment.  In Wizard City it might be a portion of the zone torn asunder with pieces magically floating in the distance, or deep below in Kroktopian tombs it might be a cave with a quiet lightning storm below the skinny stalagmites the wizards stand on.  I do not think that these moments would be so evocative without the simplistic baseline the rest of the zone portrays.

Lord of the Rings Online, on the other hand, is debateably one of the most beautiful and atmospheric MMOs.  Yet, how many vistas and painstaking creations get lost in the clutter.  I was very excited to walk in to the Prancing Pony for the first time as a young lad.  I stepped through the door, saw Butterbur, and was thereafter sensually overwhelmed.   There were patron NPCs, “roleplayers,” countless tables, a fireplace, things on the wall, maybe even wooden or antler-built chandeliers.  I focused on the thing with the quest icon above its head.  Any stop and stare moment was completely lost in the business of the place.

The most picturesque moments on Lord of the Rings Online, for me, have been the interplay between the sky and the distant landscapes, or a night upon Amon Raith, or finding a quiet fishing hole.  The more active the environment whether through props or moving players or NPCs, the less stunning it becomes.

I have great respect for the artistic minds that create levels above and beyond mere game design.  The whole zone becomes a type of symphony having many active allegro and vivace moments that come from movement, combat, and realistic business, but I think it is equally important to have a holding coda as well.  The base tempo for each zone will definitely affect the spikes in either direction.

obliged to be industrious

17 thoughts on “Beauty in Simplicity”

  1. Lord of the Rings Online, on the other hand, is debateably one of the most beautiful and atmospheric MMOs

    Then you look at the character models which then show just how ugly the game really is.

    I totally agree with you when you say “The more active the environment whether through props or moving players or NPCs, the less stunning it becomes”.

    It is all the size two waists and hands larger than your head that help create that ugliness.

    Make the models worth looking at and the game WOULD be the most beautiful then.


  2. Clutter and visual static are something that smart artists guard carefully against. It’s all about guiding the viewer’s eye. To that end, the vistas in games will *always* be better without the clutter of other players or robotic NPCs mucking up the place.

    That’s one big aesthetic part of why I prefer to solo these things. I can get the screenshots and visual exploration I want with low static. It’s also why I tend to take photographs in real life with no people in them. I can get a better sense of the landscape that way. People tend to draw attention to themselves, and often overwhelm the character of the worldspace.

  3. The whole uncanny valley thing is very interesting. When I first played EQ2, I was blown away by it’s graphics and loved the models yet when I look at it now, I think it’s aged very very badly. Yet, WoW actually looks fine to me. It gets away with it because of the cartoon style. Plus I’m totally into having low system specs.

    Age of Conan still looks goregous to me but then I wonder how it will look in 4 years.

  4. Eh, Age of Conan looks wonderful in screenshots, but as someone who’s played … something is lacking when it’s in motion. The animations are graceless and spastic.

    I’m surprised you mentioned Aion though. For a good looking game, the performance is _astonishing_. Like, it’s wonderful. You get sky-high fps on mediocre machines in giant crowds of people. I think aside from their character models (which are heavily LOD’d I imagine), the environments are more WoW-ish in their ‘few polygons but clever textures’ approach.

  5. I don’t understand your comment, Moon Monster. I mentioned Aion because it was astonishing, and yet the simplistic style of Wizard 101 still can produce kodak moments.

  6. The uncanny valley is a problem we’ve been having for a while, not just in games.

    Personally I’d much, much rather have a strong and consistent art direction all throughout the game than an exceedingly good quality of the actual art assets. I don’t mean things should have crappy quality, but I do think that if there was an imaginary “quality” slider, there comes a point after you crank it up that you start getting diminishing returns and it’s not worth it.

    Do the art assets perform their job? That is, do they convey and represent what needs to be conveyed and represented as per art direction? Are they correct? Easily identifiable? Do they follow the game’s lines and styles? Do they define and finish ‘wrapping up’ or ‘selling’ the object in question? If so, stop there. Maybe there’s no need to normal map the heck out of the thing, or make sure you reproduce every single detail it could have at the expense of general performance or other things.

    I wish more games would focus on art direction and through it selling a more complete feeling of a consistent game world and experience rather than focusing on detailing the hell out of everything. It just doesn’t do it for me.

  7. Agreed, Julian. It’s something that I push for every now and then in my job, and it’s something that the company has done well with. Chasing bleeding edge visuals is way past the threshold of diminishing returns, Uncanny Valley is just a side concern.

  8. Oh, I read it as Aion was one of the ‘many polygons, little effect’ games (see: Vanguard), as opposed to Wizard, etc, etc. My bad. :)

  9. I can appreciate the gorgeous scenery of EQ2, LoTRO, AoC, War and I don’t really have the revulsion that some mention on too much realism. The breathtaking scene shots are nice, all the graphic effect are great, but if you don’t have the uber machine or in my case internet connection that is so/so for dsl – graphics are turned down, except for the vista screenie!.

    Where Blizzard has caught it right, it’s playable, fun and conveys what needs to be without seeing flying sweat or too many details that get overlooked.

  10. Art direction trumps polies in my mind. Say what you will of it, but WoW really has fantastic art direction. A very distinct and cohesive style. As does Wizard 101. And neither game is a graphical powerhouse technically.

    One of the things that always bugged me about EQ II was the inconsistent art direction. Some objects and areas are simply gorgeous, while many others are quite fugly. I find it jarring. The powder blue pajamas that they give cloth wearers at the end of the newbie area in Kunark are also an affront to good taste. You’d really have to get into LoTRO helmets to find something that looks less heroic.

  11. I really don’t think any MMOs have approached Uncanny Valley.

    Even AoC, which some trashed as trying for realistic graphics, was actually trying for the heavy stylized look of Frazetta paintings.

    Accepting you don’t like a particular style is much different from saying “it’s too realistic”, which is usually just a cop-opt to claim opinion as fact. I myself have little appreciation for anime, but I can recognize when it’s done well.

    I agree with Julian and Yeebo, what’s more jarring is when the art direction is inconsistent. EQ, EQII and Vanguard are the easy examples. I completely agreed with Gabe (Penny Arcade) when he summed up EQ’s overall art as inconsistent shit.

    The visually poor MMOs have more troubles with consistency, lack of quality animation and poor direction.

    Uncanny Valley doesn’t even enter into it IMHO.

  12. I think LOTRO is quite up there with regards to approaching the uncanny valley. I just cannot get into the look of the characters. They look mostly stiff, bereft of life, the animations (even the idle ones) are hit and miss.

    The models in themselves are well made, and you can easily glean the general lines of the style they’re going for. That much is fine. But overall I see those models and I see puppets. It’s jarring when compared to the same area in WoW, where with much less polys and worse texture quality, those characters not only “fit” quite well in the world around them, but also feel much more lively.

    This is also doubly jarring considering just how utterly vibrant, natural, well-made and “alive” most of LOTRO’s environments are. There are times I feel it’s a crime to put those poor character models in such a gorgeous world, so there’s that disconnect to my eye that I can’t explain. It’s like that constant itch in the middle of your back you just can’t reach.

  13. I don’t think any MMOs are /in/ the valley, but I think some are coming awfully close…AoC, IMHO, would be the closest one.

  14. @Julian: Yet the way you describe it is more about inconsistency. The characters looking like puppets, I wouldn’t disagree, but it’s like putting something in front of a bluescreen, it doesn’t appear to belong because of the contrast.

    That’s different than Uncanny Valley, which is something so close to realism that the smaller unreal parts give a disturbing impression.

    @Ravious: And you’ve said it before and I’ve always responded that I think you just dislike AoC’s style. Again, it isn’t terribly realistic, there are moments of absurd lushness in the terrain and well, every character ripples in unrealistic musculature.

    Doesn’t even seem remotely close to me to.

    In Uncanny Valley, it’s very key that you have to /MISTAKE/ it for /REAL/.

    I’d put a bunch of exclamation marks next to that to imply emphasis, but in truth have you ever mistaken any MMO for being in real places, with real actors instead of CG characters?

    C’mon, get honest, you’re trying to say you dislike the style. Even if you think the style was an attempt at realism that missed, that’s still not Uncanny Valley.

  15. I do not like the way that AoC portrays humans. It does not seem stylistic to me. It seems like they tried to go for a realistic edge, and it made things worse. The musculature, while I agree is in some borrowed style of Vallejo or something, tried to fit it, IMHO, in to more realistic perceptions. Every one of the AoC KTR banners makes me cringe.

  16. Call it an “Uncanny Speedbump” then, when a character looks good, but *moves* incorrectly. A lot of the blame of the Uncanny Valley and whatever you want to call this “lesser” version of the same sort of clash between expectation and reality lies at the feet of the animators.

    A brilliant animator (say, one of Disney’s Nine Old Men) could make a flour sack look like it was alive. Yet, the most beautiful marionette will give off a distinctly creepy vibe when it doesn’t *move* correctly. That’s the Uncanny Valley *effect*, whether or not we’re dealing with the “pure” definition of “Uncanny Valley”.

    The animations of the WoW characters are pretty spectacular across the board, and it sells the low poly low res characters a lot more effectively than normal mapping or high res textures will.

    Also, there’s a lot to be said for lighting. Frazetta and Vargas paintings (may their bones burn green) aren’t photographs. Their lighting and focus are just as stylized as their concepts of the human form. *That’s* where art direction needs to step up and make things work. Cheat lighting, fudge focus, fake spatial realities to create better *composition*. The finest texture artist in the world paired with the finest modeler in the world still won’t be able to do that alone.

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