I love working with artists because they can make my ideas spring to life like magic. But it seems like MMO artists and MMO designers come to blows about a few things over and over. Let’s look at the common arguments, and who should win.
Nighttime is too dark!
Most games suffer from this to some extent. (WoW and a few others are exceptions.)
- Artist says: “It needs to be dark because otherwise the ambiance of the scene is ruined!”
- Designer says: “Yeah, but you can’t see more than 20 feet ahead of you and the in-game torches aren’t strong enough to correct it.” Players have three responses to a dark game, based on age and savviness: they can squint, they can turn off all the lights and drape towels in front of the windows, or they can turn up the gamma and brightness until they can see again. In EverQuest 1, you had to do all three.
- Winner: Designer. This isn’t a painting, it’s a game. The ambiance of nighttime will suffer, and that’s all there is to it. This goes for overly realistic weather effects, too. The older you get, the less tolerance you have for this. (Hint: it’s because your eyes get crappier.)
We can’t let players dye armor in the game! It’ll look like crap!
Although programmatic color variants were a handy way to add diverse appearance options in earlier MMOs, the techniques used back in the day look pretty unappealing now.
- Artist says: “This is a suit of leather armor. Applying a ‘dye’ effect to my amazing leather texture just turns it into a big blotchy smear and it looks stupid. I won’t allow the game to look stupid.”
- Designer says: “Yes, algorithmic dyes look bad, but we only budgeted for six suits of armor with five variants each, so in the end everybody is going to end up looking the same. We need dyes and any other cheap tricks we can come up with to give players appearance choices!”
- Winner: Compromise. Don’t programmatically do “dyes” with cheap color techniques like some sort of 90’s game; instead, choose a dye selection of eight to ten colors and have the artist touch up all the dye variants. It’s not a perfect solution: designers would prefer far more color variants than just 10, and artists are annoyed because it means there’ll be purple leather and green plate mail in the game. But at least the artist will have touched it up so it shouldn’t look nearly as dumb.
This is the epic boss monster! He needs to be awesomer!
Monsters in an MMO (and any game, really) have a “budget” : they can’t exceed certain technical limits (such as polygon count, texture size, particle count, number of rendering passes, etc.) without causing framerate problems when there’s lots of creatures on-screen at once. But artists, like all creative people, will strain at their limitations.
- Artist says: “This is the epic dragon at the end of an incredibly hard quest sequence. Only this dragon will be visible — no other monsters will be around it. So I should be able to triple the monster’s polygon count and it won’t affect anything!”
- Designer says: “I was hoping to reuse that dragon by scaling him down and applying a texture variant. But now I can’t use the dragon near any other creatures without ruining the framerate!”
- Winner: Usually the designer. MMOs have so much ground to populate that they need to be able to easily reuse all art assets. The exception? The amazing demo monster you use for selling your project to investors and making advertisements should be as impressive as you can make it. (Just make sure the artist also makes a crappier version for designers to use elsewhere.)
I don’t need your help, I can do it myself!
An artist’s time is precious, and designers never have all the assets they want. Resourceful designers will want to “wing it” by improvising. Say they need a corn field but don’t have one: well, if they have an art asset for a single stalk of corn, they just place that corn stalk into the ground 500 times and voila, it’s a corn field!
- Artist says: “A corn field is not a rubber-stamped collection of 500 identical corn stalks. It looks stupid.”
- Designer says: <nothing — normally tries to hide this from the artist so they don’t notice>
- Winner: Artist. It not only looks silly, but the designer’s “improvisation” is also likely to be extremely inefficient in the game’s engine for one reason or another. Designers aren’t artists. If they can’t get the art they need for a particular dungeon or quest, they need to redesign the dungeon or quest. (After the game has shipped and the engine is stable and the designers are more experienced, this might be less of a problem. But early on, no funny business.)
You can’t see this player’s scar in-game!
Artists draw at really high resolutions. They tend to make things that look good in high-res. Unfortunately, seeing it in-game isn’t the same as seeing it in Maya.
- Artist says: “I know what looks good, and this is a good-looking rugged scar [or a nice subtle tattoo, or a classy nose-ring, or…]”
- Designer says: “It looks great in Maya, but in the game you can barely see it: the engine degrades the quality a bit, the player is wearing a shirt over the tat, and everybody is running around at 20 MPH anyway. It has to be BIG if you want it noticed!”
- Winner: It’s a draw. It’s true that only exaggerated features are visible in game, but an important special case is the new-character-creation screen. While the player is customizing his avatar, the screen zooms in on the model so minor details are much more noticeable. At this stage, players want subtle touches, not grotesque scars or huge earrings. They’ll just ignore features that look ugly during character-generation. But once they get into the game, these minor details will be nearly invisible. So in the end, you use the exaggerated features for NPCs, and the subtle (and largely unnoticeable) features for player characters.
I’m sure I’m missing a bunch more. It’s funny, though — when I jump into a new game and notice that nighttime is too dark, I immediately think, “looks like atmosphere is more important than fun in this game,” and my confidence in the game goes down (in direct proportion to how much I have to crank the gamma up). Don’t make these same old mistakes! Make new, fresh mistakes!