The Game Archaeologist: Are graphical updates worth the hassle?

Ultima Online
"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. Such sentiments pop up in nearly every other post Massively 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. With Anarchy Online's much-hyped graphics overhaul on the way, this discussion seems to crop up more often. 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?

Anarchy Online
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.

Modern releases like Minecraft, Dwarf Fortress, and plenty of "retro-style" mobile games 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.

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.

EVE Online
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 retains some but not all of Kingdom Reborn's upgrades), I'm guessing this experiment was more fizzle than sparkle-and-pop.

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

Finally, 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.

This is why I believe that the Anarchy Online graphics update has taken as long to reach the live servers as it already has: It's just not the greatest priority for the game. It's a side project that is of lower priority than putting out new content for the established playerbase.

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.

When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at justin@massively.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.
This article was originally published on Massively.