Remanum screenshot
Ah, graphics. If ever there was a deciding factor for most gamers, it would be graphics. How does a game look? How do the graphics make you feel as a player? I'm as guilty as anyone else who might consider himself to be a graphics snob of sorts, but I lean more in the opposite direction. For whatever reason, I am not as easily impressed as I once was and tend to go for more representational graphics. I'm not quite at the stage where my MMO gaming has been reduced to a blob of text on my screen, but I definitely enjoy simplicity.

The problem is that many MMOs do not provide that precise formula to hit my graphics sweet spot, or as in the more common scenario, there are parts of certain titles that I would adore if only they hadn't been packaged with the rest of the game. Ryzom, for example, is one of my favorite freemium titles. To this day, it packs more graphical punch and originality than games a quarter of its age.

Now I find myself leaning more toward very basic graphics delivered smartly through my browser. I've even gone through an Anime obsession! Yes, it's been one of those years.

Parallel Kingdom screenshot
I started to notice the change as I became more obsessed with browser-based and mobile gaming. Within that environment, graphics have to be relatively simple and easy to run on on-board graphics chips and basic cards. Sure, there is a lot we can do with browser-based tech now thanks to Unity and Flash, and one day soon I believe that not only will the browser be providing most gamers with their virtual worlds to visit, but those worlds will look as good as anything else. For now, though, developers still need to work creatively within the confines of the browser window.

I imagine that even in my perfect vision of a mobile future, some developers will still favor simplistic graphics. After all, stylistic choice is not always the result of technological possibilities and boundaries that need pushing; it's often just a choice that the developer makes based on different influences, budget, or time constraints. Text on the screen will always be able to do its job, and basic images can do even more when combined with descriptive text. I see many browser games staying as graphically simple as they are now and continuing to use icons or slightly animated backgrounds in lieu of three-dimensional graphics while also becoming much smoother experiences that are also possibly integrated into our everyday lives. Our cellphones will act as direct, mobile extensions of our favorite titles. The largest smartphone in the market still generally needs to fit into a pocket, so graphics will again need to work on that size of a screen. Innovation will come in the form of cleverly animated icons and flowing charts of information.

Nadirim screenshot
It sort of sounds boring, doesn't it? Walls of text with a few icons peppered here and there do not sound appealing. That's not really what I am describing, though, and that's not what I truly enjoy. My tastes have started to lean more toward impressionistic gameplay and graphics that do a good job of allowing my mind to fill in some of the blanks. Perhaps this explains my love of the MMORTS. Although much of the gameplay I have found uses a repetitious formula, there are several gems that deliver epic fun in a stylistic package. My brain conjures many of the details, but I do not feel ripped off even though I am doing a lot of the work. I don't feel that way with a good book, so why would I with a game that tickles the same areas of my brain?

As I write this, I am in the middle of playing a game called Remanum for Rise and Shiny, my column that looks at a different new game each week. So far the gameplay is pretty easy to understand; players spend all of their time trying to out-trade and out-maneuver other players in a world of finance and politics. That means there is no combat whatsoever in the game. I love it. Of course, there is a lot going on behind the scenes of the game. The system is supposedly in a constant state of estimating, recalculating, and adjusting market forces. The developers have quite cleverly used graphics to represent much of the information that is crucial to playing. I can look at the map and tell which areas have the best prices. My warehouse gives me a visual cue when something is wrong. Each production facility of mine simply changes color when there is an issue that needs to be resolved. On top of that, this information is displayed using wonderful, hand-drawn graphics that are unique to the Travian universe of games. Each of the Travian titles is stylized but not silly, and each is also generally functional in any browser and on any system.

I think this desire for convenience and distaste for spending any more cash on PC upgrades has created a love for such simple graphics. If you surround yourself with something, even if that something might not be your favorite thing, eventually you grow to love it or at least appreciate it. I've grown to the point that I can see a game and right away know whether or not I'll enjoy it. I've been wrong a few times, but generally my gut is correct.

I know something dramatic has changed when I see videos of brand-new, "AAA" titles in all of their three-dimensional glory and I no longer get the same thrill I used to. When I see a game like Guild Wars 2, I can think only of the bill from the local Frys and the possibility that all of that money was spent to play a game that is actually nothing unique from last year's batch. At least with a browser-based game, I can skip in and skip out if I need to. All of this has got to influence my tastes in graphics.

So do we form tastes based on the games we surround ourselves with no matter how they look, or do we continually pursue some greater gaming machine to run everything at NASA-worthy levels of sophistication? I think I know my answer.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to beau@massively.com!

This article was originally published on Massively.