Well, this is a ridiculously late comment on WoW, but having just been totally absorbed by it for the past week or so, I’d just like to say that it’s made me think twice about my love of visual realism in videogames (it’s actually what drew me into them once they’d passed the Doom threshold, and psychologically I’ve been largely driven by wanting more and more visual realism).
It seems that a cartoon art style can be actually more realistic in emotional impact, if the amount of detail in other ways, particularly conceptually (and, not least in importance, from audio effects), matches the blocking-out of character visually.
What I mean is, with a cartoon style, you can flesh out the world to the same level of detail in everything - world itself, mobs, clutter, etc. - so that every “thing”, every entity you encounter, whether it be a mob or a locale, has a pronounced boldly-drawn character.
When you’re living in a virtual world of such pronounced and distinctively drawn “things”, with such tremendous attention to detail for every little thing in the world, the immersion factor is much greater than it would be where you have visual realism, but everything else sort of lags behind. The brain buys into an integrated illusion more wholeheartedly.
But of course the simplicity of the elements means the world can be bigger. You can have an entire forest of a zillion simple square trees.
If there’s any secret to MMORPGs proper, it’s got to be this: that the world itself has got to be the main star of the show, it’s got to feel like a real, and a really BIG, place. When I think of all the failed “WoW beaters” of the Noughties, that’s where they all fell down.