Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Modelling for WoW (All Hail the New Flesh)

Amidst the cries and gnashing of teeth that arose from the masses following the announcement of the Blizzard Store transmogrification helms, I couldn't help but notice a repeated "argument" against such a feature, that went something a little like this:

"Instead of spending time on ugly, useless, expensive helms, why don't you give us our updated character models ?!"

While that statement might be argued vs the aforementioned helms (which I won't delve into), there's the subtle implication or suggested thought that the developers have been holding on to the updated models or that they could've simply released updated models at this point in time in the history of WoW or that updating the models is a simple task.
None of it is the case, and that's what this article is about: updating models is not an easy or simple task.

Why you choose/don't choose a character
Just think about all the current characters in WoW.
I hear most of the complaints about Worgen being about the way their arms move, whether they're running or they're casting spells.
That's the main reason why most players won't play Worgen.
Simple as that. (Oh and that sniffing/snarling sound.)
I kinda hear the same thing concerning Goblins, the way they move being the 2nd complaint why people don't play them, right after the way they talk (the accent gets old really fast for most people).
The main reason I hear from people that don't play them is that they're too silly, that the way they move and emote isn't aggressive enough, isn't what you'd expect from a character that is battle-hardened, that would seem like a threat to others (ie: doesn't look, act, sound like a badass).

So it IS important.
It is why we choose some characters over some others in the Character Creation screen.
Yeah there's other reasons like the lore or the racial buffs, but a majority of players will follow their first impressions of the character models before deciding to play them (or play them longer than the first 10 levels, anyway).

People are attached to their characters
Hey do you remember when they slightly updated the Human Females and it created some ruckus?
It was a minor change, a change that most players wouldn't notice.
And yet, a handful of players couldn't play their Human Female character anymore and played another toon.
This might seem like nothing to most players - it was just the eyes on a character that you spend most of your time looking at from the back!
But then think what would happen if all the character models got updated - and we're not just a change to the face right there : we're talking the way they move, the way they cast spells, the way they're idle, etc.
Players are WAY more picky than you suspect about the way their characters move - you might even be more than you think!

You're used to see your character emote a certain way.
What if they bring up your character to the Pandaren level of top animation and end up having so many different facial expressions that go way beyond everything you've ever seen?

I'm used to my Draenei looking stern and almost expressionless.
In my head, I've associated his demeanor to his race - a proud and battle-hardened people, living on solid principles, with a staunch belief in the Light.
Now what will I think when I see him with a face-full of expressions?
Will the stern Draenei disappear and instead I'll have a character that's WAY more emotional that I've been used to?
Will he smile the very wide smile that the Pandaren have?
Will his demeanor be a little bit more bouncy, giving his walk a humorous attitude rather than the serious and determined, almost military way they walk currently?

What I'm trying to say here is that people may not be aware of it, but they've grown used to the way their characters move, and the slightest change brought in by the updated models might be something that enhances your notions of that race or completely destroy them.
It's a fine line to define on the developer's end and it's not something they can treat lightly.


Yes, Blizzard is working on updating the character models
In case some people might've missed the news, Blizzard has said they've been working on updating the models. (I still see people asking why they're not doing it - they are. You just haven't seen them yet.)
As a matter of fact, here's them at Blizzcon 2011 confirming it:

The question is all about Blizzard doing it right.
However, for them, "doing it right" goes beyond simply updating the models to the new level of cool.
A good developer knows that sometimes the best way to not code themselves in a corner, especially for a program that will continue being developed, is to leave a bunch of options to further expand on the work they're doing right now.
So they have to consider not just what they're doing right now with the character models, but what they might do with them in future expansions.
Maybe the guys have crazy design ideas for gear sets and weapons and they've been hindered all this time by the limitations of our current character models.
But now they have the opportunity to throw ideas at the devs and see if there's anything that's viable, anything that would generate enough interest from players, or just anything that would make other NPCs cooler than cool.
So they've probably spent a lot of time on the drawing boards and in meetings trying to plan all this out as meticulously as possible because it's not just about updating characters.

Actually, let's make a list of the probable things they have to worry about.

A list of possible WoW dev tasks
  • Update the models. That's the skeleton of the characters. It's what the textures are being applied on. They have to make sure that all the articulations work correctly, that all the possible moves by all the classes and all the emotes can be performed correctly, on top of making sure that all the movements still fit the design and signature of all the races.

  • Fix existing model problems. Some models have problems with the way they interact with the world. Mostly clipping issues. I'm sure players would be happy to see their weapons and off-hands not to disappear inside their characters once in a while.

  • Make sure that the gear actually fits all the possible new models. That means going through all of the gear in game and coming up with a solution to the problem of finding some pieces of gear that aren't looking silly when worn by certain characters (mostly the more bulky ones, or the ones with special features). That also means probably having to come up with new models for some pieces of gear. Also make sure that it'll fit with what they're working on in the other cubicles at Blizzard HQ.

  • Make sure as well that textures match the updated models and updated gear. Or else transmogrification and armor sets will look ridiculous. Or else we might have that whole "Human Female eyes" situation all over again - except spread across everything you meet in-game.
  • Then, after the player characters have been taken care of, you have to make sure that all the same types of changes are also applied to every single NPC that is in-game. Think about that. Also, they'll probably have to take a look at all the little in-game events and interactions of all the NPCs to be sure that everything is still all right.

When all that is done (whenever it gets done), they have to find the right time to apply those changes to the game.
If you take into account everything that I've listed, you would probably come to the conclusion that this isn't just "a few little changes".
So they would need a serious big patch to incorporate this to the game, like an expansion, or a pre-expansion patch.

And that, my friends, is one of the big announcements that I'm expecting to hear and see at Blizzcon 2013.

And if someone has the temerity (aka "balls") to ask the devs if they're going to apply those changes to the in-game cinematics, don't be surprised if they answer you with the angriest and biggest middle finger you've ever seen.
The cinematics are fine the way they are.
You'll have to deal with the fact that the cinematics are displaying the "old" models, just like you currently have to deal with the fact that Outland and Northrend are fixed in the "past", and they won't update those unless they really need to.
They'll tell you to at least be happy with the work they've done - the work that you've been requesting so angrily for so long.
You've been requesting this and they've worked very hard and very long to present you with the best they've got.

Enjoy what you have before it's gone and embrace the incoming changes with open arms.

All hail the new flesh.

EDIT: Forgot to mention something that a few people might find important.
With new models comes also the possibility to get new character movements for the class abilities, better emoting, new emotes and new dances.
And you thought that the Dance Studio was a joke.

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