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.