World of Warcraft art panel drops Deathwing details

BlizzCon 2009: Artists from the upcoming Cataclysm expansion pack give BlizzCon 2009 attendees a sneak peek at the way the world of Azeroth is going to change.

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Who Was There: Chris Robinson, World of Warcraft art director, and the heads of the various art groups on the massively multiplayer online role-playing game.

What Did They Talk About: Chris Robinson and the team leads ran through an overview of the process of generating the staggering amount of art that's going into the just-announced Cataclysm expansion pack. The panel began with a quick look at some Ice Crown raid loot, then dove into a run through the art being created for the new races being introduced: the goblins and the Worgen. The team footage showed the art being implemented into the game.

Deathwing looks friendly...
Deathwing looks friendly...

The talk then shifted to creatures, specifically Deathwing, the winged terror that is central to the problems in Cataclysm. The audience got a look at sketches of the massive dragon in better days, when he was a just a protector of the land, before he went insane and wound up getting shattered. The sketches of a post shattering Deathwing showed the mighty dragon back, covered by goblin-forged plates designed to contain his power.

The technical art team shed some light on its specific role in the development of art. While a fair amount of the work it does is behind the scenes, focusing on fixing problems and improving performance, the team also generates the dungeon and world maps that are obviously a big part of the experience for players.

Lead animator Steve Aguilar was up next, giving the audience its first look at the animation being developed for the Worgen transformations. Aguilar noted that the team looked at a variety of references for inspiration, including movies, cartoons, and video games. Aguilar showed off the evolution of the transformation from rough pass to the most current version, tricked out with a first pass of special effects that include smoke and lighting.

The Worgen are back.
The Worgen are back.

The next topic was the development of the zones, and the talk included a basic run-through of the process of their creation. The zones start out in brainstorming sessions where the team throws out ideas that are eventually mapped and prototyped to see how they feel. Ideas that make it through those stages are also checked to make sure they don't cause any technical or other performance issues. If there are no problems, then the stages are marked for inclusion in the game and passed on to the other art teams for polish.

The talk also touched on the various improvements that have been making their way into the game since its launch, which dovetailed into talk of the work being done for Cataclysm. Visual improvements such as more detail in levels, a greater viewing distance, and vertex shading have smoothed out the game's look so far. Cataclysm will continue to offer more improvements in those areas and include an impressive revamp of water in the game that improves its appearance and includes some very cool reflection effects, which will be implemented everywhere it can.

Lead city and dungeon artist Wendy Vetter took the mic next and ran the audience through the creation of cities and dungeons. The team starts by examining the storyline and background lore tied to what's being created. She then discussed the kind of gameplay needed for the areas. Once that's all sorted, the team pulls reference materials and artists begin creating concepts and experimenting with color and lighting. Silhouettes are also key, since the team wants to make sure players are able to recognize locations at a glance. Central to work on cities and dungeons is the use of a style guide to ensure that what's created correlates to character design.

Onyxia gets fired up.
Onyxia gets fired up.

Vetter also touched on the new technology being implemented in the Cataclysm expansion and how the new cities and dungeons are benefitting. Texture blending is playing a big role in giving the new underwater area, the Abyssal Maw, an organic look. Vetter closed her section with a movie showing a montage focusing on the Worgen village, which mixes sketches with gameplay to show off how the art is translating into the game.

Jason Morris, lead prop artist, picked up the talk following the movie to offer insight into the role of props in the game. The objects are meant to complement the story and help set the mood. To illustrate his point, Morris showed off an early look at a Worgen village. Besides the expected assortment of houses that looked slightly sinister, Morris pointed out how the various props peppered throughout the area--curtains, leaves, and scraps of paper--are all given some movement. A fly-through of the area also showed off gypsy-style caravans and light posts. Morris pointed out that the team has created roughly 350 props and showed footage of the area with and without the props to illustrate their subtle but key contribution.

Morris then gave an overview of the logic behind the goblin props, which have a cobbled-together look. Drinks were shown to be served in hollowed-out coconuts, direction signs were springy arrows, and food preparation machines were inelegant creations that punched eggs out of chickens and demolished carrots. There were also the expected mechanical contraptions of questionable use such as rocket turtle catapults. Morris also showed off the props being created for the Abyssal Maw which included coral, and a jellyfish elevator.

Cataclysm will feature goblin beach parties.
Cataclysm will feature goblin beach parties.

The panel wrapped up with a combination Q&A and a live demo showing senior artist Dion Rogers creating a tree in real time. The Q&A responses revealed some interesting bits of information. The team is working toward refreshing the older zones and races with coming expansions. Cataclysm will update a fair number of zones, but not all will get a refresh. Character skins are likely to be refreshed over the next two expansions or so.

The team is also working to increase the resolution of the older armor sets to pretty them up some. There are still no plans for customization features such as armor recoloring because the team is still thinking about how to implement the feature without winding up with hot pink goblins running around the world. It was also pointed out that one of the challenges in adding color to armor sets is that the art teams color the sets off of class to make it easier for recognition in player-vs.-player.

Random Facts: All the zones in World of Warcraft are still done by hand. The same is true of all textures.

The Takeaway: The upcoming Cataclysm expansion pack is shaping up to be the most drastic overhaul of World of Warcraft that has been seen since the game's release.

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