WoW Wants To Wow You With Legion’s Draw Distance

As I settled back into the week, a post about Legion increasing draw distance in World of Warcraft caught my eye AND was pleasing to look at!

I think when I was a kid I just sort of thought pop-in was the default for gaming terrain and landscapes so eventually my brain stopped “seeing” it. I’m not sure what changed – I think it was a game I’ve forgotten having worse-than-normal pop-in. Like, it was to the point where walls would appear in front of your face as you walked along or something so it forced me to become aware of the phenomenon again.

Draw distance and how it works and how it taxes computers is an interesting thing because it’s so at odds with how traditional, static art represents landscapes and how we actually see vistas. I can look out and see the broad sweep of hills rising and falling as they intersect or meet one another, but I can also focus my gaze and pick out individual windows on a church miles and miles away.

The landscape fades and sharpens with your attention and your brain isn’t struggling to render the buildings and terrain because they just… exist. Landscape painting is a little different because of artists’ intentions and styles and using a flat plane and so on, but you still get to move your eye around, knowing some previously unseen tree isn’t going to slam into existence. Contrast that with me trying to visit a bee-themed Minecraft map which was initially swathed in fog and then crashed out entirely as it maxed out the allocation of RAM because insects were trying to swarm into being all around me.

So what’s up with Legion?

Well, the idea with Legion is that technical changes will make it possible to see areas from further away and in greater detail than you can currently.

Here’s a before and after screenshot from the middle of Shadowmoon Valley looking towards Karabor.

The first is Warlords of Draenor’s Ultra setting. The second is Legion’s graphics level 8 (Legion will have a system running from 1-10 for low to high capability PCs to introduce a bit more flexibility and to cater to people playing on the PC equivalent of an Easy-bake oven as well as those who have thrown money and their firstborn at some flashy GPU salesperson).

So what was previously not even visible as anything other than homogenised fog will now have a silhouette as a certain level of misty detail.

Another side-by-side comparison shows (I think) Dalaran with the older version just having a hovering silhouette the same colour as the fog and the new version showing a detailed colour version of the floating city.

Here’s their explanation of the technical side:

“There are two numbers that contribute to how far the player can see terrain and structures in World of Warcraft. These numbers are the “fog distance”—a depth from the camera at which point any object’s pixels are fully converted to the fog color—and an overall draw distance, after which we clip all object geometry, preventing anything past that point from drawing. On lower settings, you can see the second value as terrain and buildings seem to melt into existence, fully fogged, before slowly getting colored as you get closer to them.

“In Warlords, the highest-end hardware that can reliably run the Ultra setting manages to push the fully fogged distance to about 1,300 “game units” (yards). After that point, all objects would be drawn filled in with the fog color until the clipping distance. The same setting in Legion will draw out to 2,600 game units. Those who currently play at High settings in Warlords and see out to 1,000 units will see 2,200 units in Legion. Graphics Level 10 is currently set at 3,500 game units, which you can see in that last screenshot. It’s important to note that due to memory considerations, all of these new draw distances are only available in the 64-bit client.”

It’s made possible by Blizzard improving how WoW renders terrain and water at a distance, as well as implementing ‘level of detail’ (LOD) trickery for things like trees and buildings. That’s where games swap assets out for more or less detailed versions depending on how close you are to them, swapping to a low-poly version when you’re at a suitable distance without it spoiling the scene. If you want more of an explanation, Jane Ng has talked about this concept a bit with us in relation to the art of Firewatch.

Oh – and here’s the info about the switch to numbered graphics settings in case that information floats your toaster:

“We are retiring the concept of Low, Fair, Good, High, and Ultra in favor of a numerical scale. In Legion you’ll play the game on options 1 through 10, with 1 being the lowest we support and 10 being the highest. The old graphics settings land around 3 being comparable to the old Low and 7 being a match for the old High. This gives us even more room around the minimum spec and the recommended spec to either ease burdens on low end hardware or push titanic configurations.”

It’s worth noting that people have been trying to get around the limits the game sets out for years now, particularly with regard to generating more pleasing screenshots, by fiddling with console variable values. There’s a post on Reddit by LemonKing which explains how that works in relation to the Legion beta at the moment. It also has information that goes beyond draw distance, upping the density of flora, for example. Some of these work on the live client so it’s a useful read whether you have beta access or not if you want to crank up the farclip distance or whatnot.

Obviously twiddling the values too far might just cause your client/PC to fall over and start crying so maybe just start out with relatively conservative values as you work out a sweet spot for your own rig.

N.B. Legion is still in beta, changes might be made to these values etc etc etc.

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21 Comments

  1. GWOP says:

    The first image in the header (with just the silhouette) is atmospheric and mysterious.

    The second one just makes me realize how far textures have come along.

  2. blainestereo says:

    This looks sweet. Maybe by 2018 they will fix the flying mount water reflection bug too!

  3. int says:

    It really is way too much fog still; I haven’t seen examples of pop-in being reduced, though that would be better to show in a video or gif. Just let me raise it as much as I want, and let me deal with how my computer might react.

    I don’t get how their distance fog works either, because it for some reason obscures more in the middle of the screen and reveals near the edges (left and right). I did an example awhile back: link to imgur.com

    • ChrisGWaine says:

      It will be because it’s using how far it is in front along the direction you’re looking rather than the actual distance to the thing.

    • KillahMate says:

      The WoW distance fog is apparently being drawn as a box instead of a sphere – using boxes instead of spheres where possible is computationally cheaper and is a common real-time graphics optimization. So in front, behind and left/right it’s closest to you, whereas at 45° angles it’s farthest.

  4. RedViv says:

    How horrible, now WarCraft The Beginning The Movie The Special The Edition will have to reshoot half the film.

  5. Thornback says:

    Now concentrate this time, Dougal. These are small, but those are far away… Small, far away.

  6. Blackcompany says:

    Just give me a big, open world game like this that I can play with friends, with real action combat. None of this tab targeting stuff…i will play it forever.

    Because that screen recalls to mind the first time I ever saw The Imperial City from the road to Bring in Oblivion, on PC, after coming from consoles that didn’t have the draw distance.

    Ye gods for all that to be new again…

    • Blackcompany says:

      Road to Bruma…oops

    • Urthman says:

      Have you tried Guild Wars 2? You can mostly play it like an action game with no mouselook and wasd and little or no targeting. And it’s the most beautifuly-designed, secret-packed, exploration-rewarding open world I’ve ever seen.

  7. foszae says:

    Those “new” draw distance pictures would have been atrocious and low-res five years ago…

  8. OmNomNom says:

    Or…they could wow me with a new MMO?

  9. deadraque says:

    The old pictures look like the NEW Dovetail Flight School :)