The Elder Scrolls Online, Zenimax’s upcoming MMOG take on the Elder Scrolls universe is going to have nowhere near the sort of graphical fidelity that you’re used to from, say, Skyrim. And there’s good reasons for that. Reasons that are applicable to pretty much every graphical title you’re likely to encounter, from IMVU and Second Life to … well, Skyrim and The Elder Scrolls Online.
Leaving aside the individual hardware for just a moment, perhaps the single most important factors in graphical performance, is control.
The customer has 3D graphics hardware, and your software contains a tuned and optimised 3D graphics rendering engine and pipeline. That’s great.
However, the best 3D graphics engine on the best 3D graphics hardware can still run about as well as a wounded tortoise if you don’t exercise proper control.
Titles that perform well exercise considerable content control. They know their limits and they work to them. They control what you see, when you see it and how much of it you can see, all the while allowing for the fact that the user herself is a bit of a random factor. Most of the time, that high level of control is relatively invisible. Things look good, it all runs at nice frame-rates and anything that doesn’t look good or perform well has been carefully trimmed away or hidden.
That’s under ideal circumstances. Start using the user’s network hardware and graphical performance immediately drops by a noticeable percentage. If they’re on wireless, then it drops even more – independent of the speed of the network.
This gets stickier when you add in large numbers of users, who can be spread far and wide, or all trying to crowd into the same location at once.
Worst of all, for 3d graphics performance, is user-created content.
When the content is first-party, the developer has that control that we spoke of earlier. Every 3D engine has its strengths and weaknesses. You create content for its strengths, and you avoid showing its weaknesses. That often means teams of creators, working together, negotiating the whens, hows, wheres and whats of content display, deciding which bits can get more detail, and who has to cut back for that detail to exist. Even for teams of professionals with careful measuring and testing, it doesn’t always work out as well as it could.
You see it a lot in each generation of games consoles, as games start looking better and smoother, even though the hardware isn’t changing. Everyone’s learning how to hide what doesn’t work well, and show off what does. The games in the last year of a console’s lifetime are almost always far superior in performance to the first year – and they exercise the most control.
For The Elder Scrolls Online, this trade-off means cutting back on detail, cutting back on textures, and cutting back on polygons, relying instead on a more stylised kind of representation for things, like you might find in any mass-market MMOG. It’s a strategy that hasn’t exactly resonated with fans of recent single-player titles in the series who don’t understand why it makes such a difference. I’ve seen it described variously as looking dated and flat.
Relying on the user’s network hardware, and letting hundreds or thousands of people wander around relatively freely is a recipe for disastrous frame-rates unless you reign in control somewhere else; in this case, in the level of detail.
General purpose virtual environments, like Second Life, are at the other end of the content-development scale. There’s no content control as far as 3d graphics performance is concerned. Content can appear at any time. It can be transformed, moved, replicated or removed at any moment. There’s no careful planning of interactions between disparate pieces of content. Some content plays well with other content, and some of it just doesn’t.
Each individual user – the random factors that I mentioned before – is largely responsible for what is seen and what is juxtaposed with what else. Control over 3d graphics performance simply doesn’t exist. Worse, most of us just end up cranking up our graphics settings until performance drops to a point we find just usable enough.
I’m commonly asked why Second Life doesn’t just switch to one of the commercial 3D engines. You know, the sort that deliver nice frame-rates and beautiful content for single-player games that don’t tickle the network card much.
And you know, it could, but at the end of the day, it’s the network and the content that would still end up making it run like a wounded tortoise. The control needed to make them run well doesn’t exist – and quite possible can’t exist. At least not until our systems are so far in advance of the kind of content we’re creating that the content looks… well, dated, stylised and flat.