I'm playing modless for now since this is effectively my first time. I will probably start injecting tons of stuff into it once I reach late-mid game and need more complex shenanigans, but for now, everything that's currently there is far more than what I'm taking advantage of still.
Also, there's one other thing to think about with M&B's popularity in that it satisfies an untapped niche (that is, RPG/RTS hybrid—I really wanted to make one of these a couple years ago, but I may end up just looking at what my options are for modding if I ever decide to take up that project again), and as you explained Alex, it satisfies it extremely well.
I'd also say that the lack of hand-holding is a plus. Chris DeLeon did an analysis of why Minecraft works
, and one of the things that I totally agree with is the fact that the lack of tutorial basically means a tighter knit community.
Reading his article again, really, a lot of the stuff he says about Minecraft also applies here. Shitty graphics, at some point, become retro and charming, and we stop caring about looks because that's not what we're here for (I'd even go so far as to say the shitty graphics are part of the charm). There's a very heavy gambling addiction what with all the random mobs and calls to arms. If you lose your army in a bad throw of the dice, then your play time is suddenly extended because you feel the need to retrain your army.
Anyway, if there's one thing that I've theorized that's been pretty much true about game design in like all cases I've looked at, is that gameplay is number one, graphics are number two, and everything else is tertiary. Good gameplay keeps people coming back for more because they are having fun. Good graphics are only number two because they're used for grabbing attention, kind of like the cover of a book, but after a while, unless the game has nothing but ridiculous vistas (like Skyrim), fancy graphics mean nothing. More important than pushing pixels, though, is having aesthetic harmony—and I think Warband hits that perfectly despite having outdated graphics. Writing/sound/etc are all very
important, but only in the sense that if they're flat out terrible, they'll break the experience. If they're amazing, they'll help boost the experience, but only if the gameplay keeps the player enticed and therefore willing to experience the writing/sound/etc.