It's a rare game -- even in the MMO space -- that can remain relevant for nearly ten years. And not only relevant, but immensely popular.
While the gaming community's mindshare has been collectively drifting more towards popular MOBAs like Dota 2 and League of Legends for a while, World of Warcraft has proven year after year that there is still a market for a traditionally marketed, subscription-based massively multiplayer online RPG. Or at least there is if it's called "World of Warcraft"; the long-term success of more recent additions to the genre such as Final Fantasy XIV and the upcoming The Elder Scrolls Online remains to be seen, while "pay once, play forever" games such as Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World are growing in popularity amid the flooded -- some might say oversaturated -- free-to-play market.
Warcraft has endured for so long at least partly because it has remained accessible and playable to a pretty broad spectrum of players. Blizzard's deliberate choice to use highly stylized, relatively simple, cartoonish artwork with exaggerated, instantly recognizable silhouettes not only gave the game a distinctive look that was firmly in keeping with the previous installments of the Warcraft franchise, but also meant that it wasn't massively demanding on lower-spec systems. Those with more powerful machines and graphics hardware could buff up the resolution and increase the draw distance to seriously impressive levels, while those on more modest computers could still run the game comfortably. This is in stark contrast to many new big-budget PC games that are specifically designed to take advantage of the latest and greatest graphics hardware, but in the case of a subscription-based MMO it's an important consideration -- it's not a case of just getting people to buy the game in the first place; you need to convince them that continuing to pay for a subscription is worthwhile month after month, and consequently it makes sense to have the widest possible target audience.
Warcraft being relatively lightweight in terms of technical demands doesn't mean it hasn't moved with the times, though. The engine has undergone several updates over the years as the average specification of player hardware has gradually improved; each update bringing subtle but welcome improvements to graphical fidelity without sacrificing the distinctive look and feel of the game's visuals. And it appears that the release of the upcoming expansion pack Warlords of Draenor will bring with it another improvement to Warcraft's visuals -- particularly with regard to the character models.
Blizzard announced back at BlizzCon this year that it would be revamping the player character models for World of Warcraft, and in a new blog post published yesterday, senior art director Chris Robinson introduced some of the changes that the team would be making.
Robinson describes the character model updates as a "spiritual update" to the existing models in that they'll retain the same distinctive style and immediately identifiable silhouettes, but include considerably more detail. The models are being completely rebuilt from scratch rather than iterated upon, and include an increase in polygon count -- Robinson claims that in some cases models have gone from less than 1,000 polygons to more than 5,000 -- as well as doubled texture resolution, increased bone count (for more fluid, realistic movement) and retouched animations. The new models will be making use of the technology Blizzard introduced in the Mists of Pandaria expansion, which allows for smoother animation and more convincing facial expressions, so expect characters that are overall considerably more expressive and detailed than the current models -- but which hopefully retain the look and feel of the characters that, if you're a dedicated World of Warcraft player, you've been staring at the backside of for years now.
"Our first goal -- which is already a monumental endeavor -- is to make sure that the visual content that currently exists is brought up to or surpasses the level of quality you see in current boss models, the Pandaren, and central NPCs like the new Vol'jin model," writes Robinson, bringing up a good point -- when working on a game as sprawling and with as long a lifespan World of Warcraft, introducing new content brings challenges that other games simply don't run into, chief among which is how to ensure that new content is both in keeping with the original game's style but also looks "new" enough to attract new players -- or perhaps to entice some old ones back.
This is a particular challenge with the characters, of course -- put a human player character using the old model next to a Pandaren character and the differences are immediately obvious, for example -- but it's also something that has cropped up with world design in the past. The original world of World of Warcraft was constructed nearly ten years ago, so how do you build impressive new vistas to bolt onto that world without them looking completely out of place?
Blizzard's answer to this was Cataclysm, which released in 2010 and brought sweeping changes to the entire game world to bring the "classic" content more in line with that seen in later expansions such as Wrath of the Lich King. Not only were areas completely rebuilt and old, dated starting questlines scrapped completely, but newer technology such as "phasing" -- whereby some players see things but others don't according to where they are in the storyline -- was incorporated into the older zones. The extensive revamp to the "old world" was justified through the game's narrative by having Catacylsm's main antagonist, the evil dragon Deathwing, bring about the titular cataclysm by tearing through a dimensional barrier and causing a worldwide disaster.
Warlords of Draenor won't revamp the existing lands of Azeroth again, but it will bring players to a setting that hasn't been seen in its original form since the original real-time strategy games in the Warcraft series: the orcish homeworld of Draenor. Its plot is a mind-bending time-travel affair that rewrites Warcraft history and looks set to be somewhat divisive among Warcraft veterans -- but if nothing else it has the potential to throw players into some truly epic battles and prove that World of Warcraft still very much has what it takes to be relevant in 2014.