During the beta test for BioWare's Star Wars: The Old Republic players with high-end PCs enjoyed stunning high resolution graphics. Now that the game has launched those sexy textures have mostly disappeared. What gives?
Take a look at the image I've posted here. On the left is my Bounty Hunter as he appears in cut scenes in The Old Republic. His cybernetic implants are well-defined, the details on his armour are crystal clear. The rest of the time he appears as he does on the right muddied, blurry, and plain, despite having the graphics settings completely maxxed out.
Since launch players in the Star Wars: The Old Republic forums have been actively wondering why their high resolution textures were taken away. Now there is an answer.
The answer came by way of a lengthy forum response posted by senior online community manager Stephen Reid.
During development and testing of The Old Republic, our priorities were to ensure the game looked great and performed well. In testing, we discovered that using our 'maximum resolution' textures on in-game characters during normal gameplay could cause severe performance issues, even on powerful PCs.
Reid went on to describe an issue that's plagued massively-multiplayer online games since the early days of EverQuest: Developers have no real control over the amount of characters appearing on screen.
When the EverQuest: The Shadows of Luclin expansion launched in 2001, it bought with it a new graphics engine with new character models that were quite taxing on the average system at the time. Since many players couldn't handle a large number of high-polygon, high resolution-textured characters at once, developer Sony Online Entertainment provided the option to only enable the newer character models for certain races in the game, thus lightening the load for less powerful PCs.
It's an issue similar to what BioWare faced with Star Wars: The Old Republic, only BioWare went with a different solution: They took the high resolution textures away. Though players are currently able to choose between low, medium, and high texture settings (BioWare is calling this a user interface bug), none of the settings will bring back those high resolution textures to standard gameplay. That's because the way textures are delivered in standard gameplay has been changed to a process called a "Texture Atlas". Reid explains:
When a character in the game is 'seen' by another character - ie, gets close to your field of view - the client has to 'draw' that character for you to see. As the character is 'drawn' for you there are a number of what are known as 'draw calls' where the client pulls information from the repository it has on your hard disk, including textures, and then renders the character. Every draw call that is made is a demand on your PC, so keeping that number of draw calls low per character is important. With our 'maximum resolution' textures a large number of draw calls are made per character, but that wasn't practical for normal gameplay, especially when a large number of characters were in one place; the number of draw calls made on your client would multiply very quickly. The solution was to 'texture atlas' - essentially to put a number of smaller textures together into one larger texture. This reduces the number of draw calls dramatically and allows the client to render characters quicker, which improves performance dramatically.
Rather than scrap the high resolution textures altogether, developers limited them to the portions of the game in which the number of characters on screen at any moment could be controlled; cinematic cut scenes and dialog sessions.
The screenshots at the top of this article were achieved by clicking on the holocommunicator in my character's ship, a trick that briefly tricks the game into thinking a cinematic conversation is starting.
With such a striking difference between the two rendering modes, it's no wonder that players in possession of high-powered computers feel as if they've been tricked by BioWare. I certainly wasn't expecting such a drastic change to occur between beta and launch. To the developer's credit the solution they've come up with is elegant, but the implementation of the fix should have been more transparent to players than it was. In his post Reid explained that the decision was made for the sake of the enjoyment of all players, the team opting to make the game work for as many people as possible rather than potentially break things for the sake of high-spec PC owners.
But don't worry, my performance-hungry brethren. BioWare has heard your cries, and while it won't come quick or easy the development team is exploring options to increase the fidelity of the main game.
Until that day, may all your screenshots be captured during cinematic cut scenes.
Official High Resolution Textures Post [Star Wars: The Old Republic Forums]