Sep 20, 2011

Common Video Game Design Aesthetics in MMO’s before and after WOW

When World of Warcraft launched in 2004 it took the gaming industry by storm. One of the contributing factors to the game’s success was the game’s aesthetics, which were a huge improvement over those of previous games in the genre. While the game did borrow heavily from games like Everquest, it also made considerable improvements over the formulas employed by earlier games.

Visual Design

Of all design decisions, those relating to the game’s visual aesthetics are perhaps the most important. Graphics are the first thing players see, and leave a lasting first impression. The game’s graphical style is the foremost tool that developers have for immersing players in their world, and includes things such as level design, art style, graphical interface and menus.

Before World of Warcraft, MMORPGs did not employ any discernible art style. The character models and environments were rendered in a very muted color palette and used as many polygons as possible. In terms of the game environment Everquest featured over 400 different areas, although each zone was very sparsely populated and usually contained very little content for a player to experience. Because of these factors, Everquest required a fairly powerful computer to run, meaning that players with older hardware were unable to play the game. Additionally, Everquest 1′s user interface covered was completely opaque and filled a huge portion of the game screen.

Everquest UI art design


In World of Warcraft, there was a huge emphasis on the game’s art style. Blizzard’s lead artist Chris Metzen cited the “uncanny valley” principal as being a major factor in developing the game’s art style. The uncanny valley theory states that as computer generated depictions of human become more photo-realistic, they somehow become less natural looking. To counter this phenomenon, Blizzard developed a sort of cartoonish art style for the game. This style is defined by straight, distinctive lines and a vibrant color palette. Besides giving the game a very unique feel, this art style had the added bonus of requiring far less polygons than a more photo-realistic art style would. In turn, this allowed World of Warcraft to keep system requirements for the game low, increasing the game’s potential player base. World of Warcraft’s user interface was also a huge improvement over Everquest’s, as it took up a significantly smaller amount of space and could even be re-sized to meet the player’s individual needs.

World of Warcraft's art style


After the release of World of Warcraft there was a notable increase in MMORPGs with distinctive art styles. Games like Final Fantasy 11, City of Heroes and DC Universe Online all feature distinctive art styles that attempt to give players the feeling that they are part of a world with a unique personality. Modern MMORPGs were also influenced by World of Warcraft’s focus on having fewer areas available to players, but with more content in these areas. To put it more succinctly, World of Warcraft’s zones stressed quality over quantity.


The art style used in City of Heroes


Audio Design

Even though a game’s graphics are the most noticeable feature, sound also plays a significant role in a player’s experience. While a game’s graphics display obvious gameplay cues, the sound can be used to great effect to subtly convey emotion. Sound aesthetics include things such as background music, character voices, and sound effects.

In Everquest, music was composed using a MIDI synthesizer and was similar to music found in classic RPGs such as Wizardry and Might and Magic. Sound effects were also incredibly rudimentary, each monster in the game had one sound effect that it would repeat over and over. Gameplay cues were also kept very basic. For example, when a player leveled up in Everquest a simple chime would play to alert the player of their accomplishment.

World of Warcraft’s sound was centered around creating as epic an experience as possible for the player. Upon first creating a new character, the player is given a lengthy segment of spoken dialogue explaining the background of the region and the player’s motivation for being in it. Additionally, the background music features high-quality recordings of music recorded using a full symphony orchestra. The gameplay cues also add to the player’s experience by conveying a sense of grandeur about everything the player does. For example, when a player levels up in World of Warcraft they are treated to the sound of a gong being rung.

Levelling up in World of Warcraft

Aion, Rift, and Fire Fall are just a few of the modern online multiplayer games that have followed in the trend of World of Warcraft in creating an epic experience for players. These games feature beautiful cinematics that are accompanied by bold orchestrial music to truly immerse the player into the world of the game in order to replicate the success of World of Warcraft.

Even though World of Warcraft’s design aesthetics weren’t revolutionary, they were a huge refinement over what had come previously. The game proved that bigger wasn’t always better, and that sometimes less is more. The fact that no other MMORPG has managed to replicate World of Warcraft’s level of success is a testament to the foresight Blizzard had when designing the game.

Written by Ken Hattori from Online Graphic Design Degree


  • Good breakdown re. wow’s keys to success. Wondering if the fact most players now possess suped up rigs has made the need for lower end systems being able to access a game less of a factor. For me, having an older system allowed me to try out and enjoy older games like Everquest and DAoC, but I would like to try new offerings like RIFT and SWTOR.

  • Oh for the love… if you are going to use examples please at least be somewhat correct?

    City of Heroes launched about 9 months before WoW, and FFXI launched about 2 years before WoW and yet these are examples of games that emphasized art styles AFTER WoW? I would also point to other games like SWG and AC2 as having very distinct art styles as well. And heck this is even precluding that all MMOs haven’t had art styles. Most MMOs, even to this day, go for a more realistic look. And yes realism is an art style. You may not like it, but there are many that do (look at all the top selling games, most have realistic art not cartoony looks like WoW). I’d also say that you are extremely incorrect by even implying that WoW has a unique look to their art as it is widely known to have been “borrowed” from Warcraft (not the game), so much so that when WAR was launched many who didn’t know about Warcraft thought they were just stealing WoW’s art when in fact they were stealing their own. Personally abhor the art of WoW and I think it is pretty terrible overall, I’d take AC1′s art style over WoW any day (it uses less polys too! Genius!!!!)

    Another major problem with this article is you giving credit to WoW for coming up with the concept of quality zones over quantity. Again this was actually the MO of EQ1 far before WoW was even conceived.

    I’m not going to comment on audio… I don’t even know any MMO player who doesn’t turn off the sound of audio after a day or two. Although i do think it is kind of silly that you are comparing the sound of EQ1 to WoW. You realize EQ1 was out 7 years before WoW right? Of course it was going to have inferior technology. You think WoW was the first MMO to break away from midi? Think again.

    My only presumption from this article is that you started playing MMOs with WoW and thought that only EQ1 existed before it. Sad really…

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