On the Drawing Board #19: Good Graphics: Realism vs. Style


As anyone who frequents our forums or main page comments has noticed, we’re in the middle of a resurgence of an issue most of us thought long since settled; call it the Diablo III DiabloWikiArt Controversy, part two. Numerous forum threads are all about Diablo III’s graphics, and the debate regularly spills over into seemingly unrelated posts. It’s like June 2008 all over again, except this time we don’t have the ebullient joy that Diablo III finally officially exists to distract us from arguing about how the game *should* look.

At least the debate has shifted, over the 2+ years.

The initial art controversy was largely fueled by players who felt that Diablo 3’s earliest screenshots didn’t look dark and gothic and gloomy enough. No one was complaining about the D3 concept art; it was the execution that was suspect, and as fans compared the early D3 screenshots to their selective memories about just how dark and gloomy D2 was, D3 just didn’t seem to measure up.  Numerous side-by-side comparison screenshots were created in an effort to illustrate this point.

The D3 Devs, clearly surprised by the vehemence with which this argument was made, countered with reason and patience and explanation, before eventually growing tired of attempting to placate the unplacatable, and announcing that the game looked how they wanted it to look and that no major art changes were coming. (Though countless minor ones were made, as they continue to tweak everything during development.)

Blizzard’s developers are not interested in chasing the highest polygon counts. They have consistently chosen a stylistic, dramatic, thematic art style, rather than trying to make their games look “realistic.” This is partly practical; after all, Blizzard has made its reputation with games that are playable on mid or low-end machines. Even aside from that, their design ethos is to use strong, stylized graphics. This is seen most clearly in World of Warcraft, which has less realistic graphics than virtually every other fantasy MMORPG released since about 2002, and yet remains by far the most popular; at least partly because the visuals are pleasing, inviting, and somewhat timeless.

This is one of the key points of this issue; Blizzard is making an intentional stylistic choice with their artwork. It’s not as if they lack the ability to up the polygon counts in their games. WoW and SC2 and D3 look more or less how Blizzard wants them to look, which brings us to our first analogy.

Here we have four images, all portraits of women, created by very different graphics engines. Which has the best graphics? Which is the most realistic? Which do you like best? Which could you look at for the longest, while still finding something intriguing about it?  Which makes you feel something on an emotional level?

     

Click through for the rest of the article, and the screenshot comparisons you know this is all leading up to.

 

Did you pick the same portrait as your answer to each of those questions? I’d be quite surprised if you did.

Which question is the most important to you, then? There’s an actual photograph there, one that was ranked very highly on the portrait photos of Photo.net. It’s obviously the most “realistic,” but is it the most inviting? Would you like it hanging on your wall in poster size? Would you travel to Paris and wait in line for an hour to see it (her) in person?

The other three portraits are masterpieces by very famous artists. They’re all done in very different styles, and with different techniques, and they vary a great deal in realism. (Compare the Picasso I decided not to include in this line up, to get an extreme on that issue.) Which is the best? Which is the most realistic? Does realism even matter, when you’re trying to decide if you like an image or not?

So, to continue the analogy, here are four screenshots from four upcoming RPGs. These four games are in varying states of development, so the images vary in how precisely they reflect how the final game will look. That said, each clearly has a different style and approach towards the visuals. Look them over. Click the images to see them larger and get a better look.

 

 

 

As with the portraits above, there are a lot of different ways to judge these images.  You can count the polygons and crown the most “realistic.” You can estimate which would run the most smoothly on a medium-powered system. You can look at the overall color scheme and visual appeal.

The biggest question though, IMHO, is a different one. Which graphics will pair perfectly with the gameplay, to create a fun experience? Since there’s no way to answer that at this point, how about this instead. Is there any way to judge the longevity and visual freshness a game will enjoy, before you’re playing it? Just because a game looks fantastic (to you) in a screenshot doesn’t mean it will look so good when you’re playing it. Furthermore, even if it looks fantastic when you first start playing, that doesn’t mean it will age well. Will you still find it visually pleasing once you’re a dozen, or a hundred hours in?

There’s only anecdotal proof of this, but it seems like Blizzard’s graphics age well. Many of us have been playing Diablo, Starcraft, Warcraft 2, and Diablo 2 for years and years, while countless more “realistic” games have come and gone. That’s obviously got a lot to do with gameplay, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assert that Blizzard’s stylized graphics and well-balanced color schemes create a visually-pleasing environment—one that gamers enjoy viewing for extended periods of time.

The analogy to great artwork is fairly obvious. Anyone can take a picture, and some photos are good enough to become art. But for long-term viewing, human beings seem to prefer hand-created artwork to photographs, even though the former is never as “realistic” as the later. There’s something inviting and soothing about good visual artwork, whether it’s hanging on a wall in a museum or running on your computer, and there’s nothing to indicate that making artwork more like real life will increase the enjoyment people gain from viewing it.

I’m not really arguing this; it’s more of suggestion. You’re free to disagree, or not, to whatever degree you see fit. You might even agree entirely, but still think Diablo 3’s graphics are teh suck. Such is life on the Internet.

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  1. A good article, glad I read it after it was linked to from another news post 1 year later. (Accessability = Bad Graphics in Blizzard Games)

    Personally I hate it when people with no education in a art field say that WoW/Diablo3 has bad graphics. They can say Blizzard title x or y has a lower polygon count that this other game. To me that is more of a talk about 3d engine. Graphics are about style, how well it fits the mood of the game ect.

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