Graphical Upgrades Are Dangerous

You are an older MMO. You don’t look sexy anymore.

Your players think a graphical upgrade would help you recruit new players. They tell you how embarrassed they are to be seen playing you and how easily they could convince all their friends to play too if you just looked a little nicer.

Your bosses think a new graphics engine should form the core of your next expansion. They tell you how important looks are to getting new players and how much reviewers like shiny graphics.

Your team members think a graphical upgrade, especially a new graphics engine, would be great. You’d get new players, maybe some more marketing money, and it wouldn’t even affect content creation all that much because graphics is all code.

Let me give you some advice: Don’t do it!

You will never be the prettiest. That boat has sailed.

Your players are fooling themselves. If they haven’t convinced their friends to give you a try based on their stirring recitations of your game systems, some shiny art isn’t going to help.

(And it’s not like they’re going to quit out of embarrassment. When they do quit, it will be because they need a break from your gameplay.)

Your bosses are fooling themselves. You’re an older MMO. You will never be an impulse buy for a new player looking for something shiny. You’ll be lucky to get a cursory look and half a column from major reviewers.

(Online reviews will be happy to dissect the intricacies of your game systems at length. If they mention your graphics at all it will probably be in the context of how they really aren’t that bad. Really!)

Your team members are fooling themselves. Graphical upgrades will drain time from new features and game systems, from new art, and from QA. And all of those things will have a fundamental impact on the ability to add more content.

Worse, a graphical upgrade may well slow down your art pipeline – and therefore your content development – in the future.

No matter what you do, be very, very careful about affecting your system requirements. Raising system requirements on a live game doesn’t just throw away existing players – it throws them away with extreme prejudice.

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13 Responses to Graphical Upgrades Are Dangerous

  1. Agreed. I spent a lot of time and effort upgrading Meridian 59‘s engine. I understood we’d never be the prettiest, but adding a few nice things like dynamic lighting, mouselook, and higher resolutions for modern systems improved the game in my estimation.

    The problem is that the players didn’t really care. In fact a vocal few were irate that we spent our time on that graphical update rather than on “real content”. Players who weren’t going to give our game a chance based on graphics almost certainly still wouldn’t, even if we had nicer screenshots to show. Whatever attention we could have gotten from the press when we did the upgrade was swamped by WoW launching mere months later.

    I still think the graphical upgrade was good for the game itself. It plays better, and adding the features above helped make the game feel a lot nicer to play to me. But, the time and resources invested into the upgrade didn’t show any sort of business return.

  2. Zubon says:

    If I need to remind myself to comment on the images in a graphic novel, I am not going to spend many words beyond, “The new, shiny water is very pretty!” I have a blog, not a Twitter account, so you didn’t get much distance out of that, developer.

  3. Cryect says:

    Hmm, considering every major graphical upgrade expansion for EVE Online has resulted in a huge boost to subscribers this seems odd to say. If you can’t sell new graphics then its a marketing issue but if you want your MMO to stay relevant then you need to maintain graphical parity. With proper marketing it really helps get your product out in front of a wider audience or reminds people about trying your game again.

    Trinity expansion – Complete New Graphics Engine
    Dominion expansion – New Planets
    Incursion – New Avatars

    Definitely want to be careful and have good stats on what your users have and not push to far. MMOs should be seen though as a service model that needs to be maintained.

  4. Eric says:

    Cryect – it’s pretty scary to assume that all those people are playing because of graphical updates. IIRC the Trinity expansion was the first to refactor the tutorial to make it only really terrible, instead of REALLY REALLY terrible. But EVE does have it a lot easier. Space games are incredibly easy to make look pretty compared to medieval fantasy games.

    The best PR blitz for a graphic update I’ve ever seen was DAoC’s. They must have spent a ton of money on that. Didn’t do much for populations that I could tell, though.

  5. Kujo says:

    Another big risk to consider with a graphical update is that you might prevent some of your existing players (your most precious resource) from playing because their older computer can’t handle the update.

  6. Kujo says:

    Whoops, you closed with that thought! Oh well, it’s important enough to reiterate…

  7. Polynices says:

    I flat out quit Everquest because of their terrible graphical update. It changed all the character models I’d gotten used to (especially my own) and the new ones were butt ugly. It was sad.

    Before someone says “but you could turn new models off”, you could but they’d still permanently changed what the old models looked like even with the new ones turned off (different faces, different gear textures/colors).

  8. Mike Grem says:

    Because I’ve been playing it for so long, I tend to look at most of these articles and ask, “Does this apply to City of Heroes?”

    And in this case, of course, it does. CoH has had a couple of major graphics updates, but I notice they always come as part of a much larger package… and are typically optional. City of Villains added better water and generally better power FX, and CoH: Going Rogue added that optional “Ultra Mode” malarkey.

    CoH also had a lot of different minor updates– I remember when they revamped the worst zone in the game, Faultline, into a story-heavy quest area. It was also graphically nicer. The same thing happened with the enemy group, the Rikti — they got their own quest maps and got prettier too.

    But all of it came with content. That doesn’t dispel your “draining development time” notion, Sandra, but at least CoH didn’t kick a ton of players to the curb when it decided to look better.

    UO’s 3D client, on the other hand… no one I knew who played the game liked THAT “upgrade.” That’s anecdotal, but I think we may not have been in the minority if EA is still allowing the 2D client to be downloaded…

  9. Randel Reiss says:

    The self-funded indie MMORPG (with cheap-ass graphics) has a painfully slow growth model and has never been proven to any success beyond survival. All you can do, instead, is A) resort to acquisition or B) seek investment dollars – to spend at a higher advertisement level. To do either A or B you have to meet with an army of publishers & venture capitalists, respectively, who compare your less than cheap-ass MMORPG against shiny $40M MMORPG – MMORPGs that will never be completed anyway for reasons explainged elsewhere on this very website. Those publishers and VC tell you, “Oh, and you ARE going to use our help to update these graphics while still moving the MMORPG to iPad & Android, right?” And you don’t tell them that’s a complete contradiction, you say “Of course!”

  10. Cryect says:

    @Eric, yeah those subscription increases are likely not just due to graphics but other factors as well. But graphics help with getting good press and hopefully then looking into the content of your game it self. Really the key is getting something in your updates that will give the gaming press reasons to talk up your game beyond just saying you have more content.

  11. Tren says:

    As I read your post, I was thinking that while graphical upgrades were anathema to existing players, yet the potential for new players is still there.

    When comparing a game with x graphics and the same game with x + 1 graphics, the game with better graphics would appeal to a new player, assuming minimum system requirements.

    Then I read the part about an “impulse buy”, and I couldn’t agree more. A player looking at year-old MMOs or older would be less likely to be swayed by the ephemeral allure of better graphics. Whatever the potential benefits, the potential costs are pretty high as well.

  12. Completeli says:

    I agree with a lot of points you made. But what are the other options to bring some new life into an older game. When a game is down to the point where only the die hard fans play it and the world is so under populated it feels like a ghost town wherever you go.

    When it’s to that point, what else can you do but try to bump up the visuals. Because no matter how interesting the features you add or small gameplay changes, the only ones who will have any care or notice for it will be the ones already playing. Not to mention that when a game is that far along in its “life” any additions made will be at the higher levels and the other places in the world still remain dead.

    Basically, I’m just curious what are the options if a graphics update isn’t the right one.

  13. Sandra says:

    Completeli: This porbbaly deserves a post of its own, but … I think you’ve pegged the problem when you say “the world is so under populated it feels like a ghost town wherever you go.”

    The obvious solution to that is new players – but in truth it’s a lot more efficient to bring back lapsed players. And in my experience a graphics upgrade is not a great way to bring back lapsed players. New game systems work pretty well for that, especially ones that aren’t aimed at only the top-end players.

    Even without more players, though, there are often things you can do that help the game feel more full and vibrant – and a game that feels alive is a lot more likely to draw players in than a game that feels dead.

    A simple example: AC1 was a very lonely world before we added world-wide chat channels. You could be within a mile of an epic battle and never know it. Now at least you can talk to people while you play.

    Of course it’s not always about UI, especially for less ancient games that already have the normal modcons. But there are all sorts of interesting game systems that can concentrate and socialize players. Take the WoW fishing tournaments, for example.

    I get particularly excited about non-synchronous social gameplay, although there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot in the MMO world. The example that’s springing into my mind right now is from Legend of the Red Dragon (L.O.R.D.), an old BBS door.

    And now I’m rambling. But hopefully that gives you some idea of where you might go in a situation like that.

    As an aside: forced grouping in whatever form is deadly for a game that’s having population problems. It takes lonely to unplayable in seconds flat.