The New Character Model Debate in World of Warcraft

A recent uproar about upgraded character models has the World of Warcraft community in a flurry of discussion over if, when, and should the character models be upgraded.

It all started when armory characters were blanked out which started a rumor that Blizzard was preparing to upgrade the character models. Zarhym replied to one thread with a very vague remark which many players took as confirmation. The next day Zarhym unleashed a volley of news about character updates, how they will not be coming anytime soon, but they are indeed on Blizzard’s wishlist.

So where does that leave us? Is Blizzard going to roll out news about updated character models before Mists of Pandaria or are we stuck with our current models? Well, as for if we’re stuck, we know that character models will have to receive an upgrade to facilitate the Monk class (available to all races in WoW). The game is also aging and other games are visually “one-uping” WoW even with its age defying cartoony graphics, considering WoW just bypassed the seven year mark last year.

It's absolutely not a "too bad" situation, Sutei. I know the concept of us having near unlimited resources to throw at whatever we want to is intriguing, but it's just not the case. We don't have an army of artists on layaway that we can transfer onto a project. 

Just the same, we don't necessarily want to exponentially expand the head count of the art team to ensure a specific project gets done. There's a synergy we strive for on each of our development teams. In fact, we go to pretty great lengths to vet applicants whenever hiring for a new position. We need to know our iterative design philosophy and our core values are shared. So, if we were to hire several new artists to get this project finished, you certainly wouldn't see the results of that "right this moment."

Right now it's just difficult to give any sort of estimate on when new models might be available. Whenever a new expansion is in development there are many, many requests for new art assets. We're elbow deep in designing new gear sets, fleshing out the environments, finishing up several new creature models, etc.

If all of this makes you feel that much further away from ever seeing new character models, I can say the project is still a regular topic of discussion for us. We want to figure out the best way to introduce such a feature without shocking a huge chunk of the playerbase that doesn't really think about how their character's features could be improved every time they log into the game.

New Models – The Player’s Viewpoint

The playerbase is pretty much cut in half when it comes to the debate about character models. Half of us would love to have smoother, slicker, prettier characters that have superior combat animations. That’s one of the reasons Star Wars: The Old Republic is doing so well currently. Their character animations allow for all kinds of range of motion which makes the gameplay a lot more fun and makes different abilities to have some awesome animations.

Character models are composed of a skeleton (the white lines) and the mesh (the polygons). Changing it is no simple feat.

On the flip side, the other half have been playing with their characters for up to seven years. Having a different skin, different eye shape, or even different body frame may perturb them. Back in 2001 Everquest launched Everquest: Shadows of Luclin which included the “Luclin models” which were a new set of character models (including armor). Many players felt that the changes were unwelcomed and ruined their game which is why players now have the ability to switch between post Luclin and pre-Luclin models in Everquest.

This is a game that over 10 years ago implemented this change and players, to this day, can be found arguing on the various message boards about which is better. Same say the blocky pre-Luclin models are far superior to the non-blocky post-Luclin models while others find the improved graphics to actually be an improvement. There is no clear victor in an argument of perception, but we can see how serious this subject is.

The harsh reality is that improving a game as old as WoW can become a necessity if we’re to have nicer armors, skills with unique animations, and more fluid gameplay. The only question is if the current playerbase will take offense to their characters being changed or if it’ll be welcomed with open arms.

Updating existing character models isn't something we've been "waffling on." It's something we'd love to do, but the fact is the art team has finite resources. Updating the current playable race models to be more in-line with worgen and goblins requires much more than just increasing the poly count. There are more bone structures on the frames of newer models which allow for more animation options. In order to update older models, the wire frames have to change, which means a large number of existing animations and customizations/hairstyles would have to change.

It's much more of a massive overhaul than many players are anticipating. That isn't to say we don't want to do it, but it's difficult to justify delaying the creation of new art, models, and animations indefinitely to revamp old ones. And we have to make sure to do it in a way that doesn't give some players a feeling of detachment from the look they've had for almost seven years.

Blizzard has already addressed the concerns of an upset playerbase by stating that, “We're not going to hide behind the statement that too many players will get mad if we tamper with their models, but it's a concern -- not a concern that's going to stop us from doing it, however.” So would an upset playerbase stop Blizzard? According to them… no.

New Models – Technical Issues

If Blizzard does decide to overhaul the character models, then we need to start looking at the core game engine and what upgrades would be needed to render the new models for us. One of the biggest issues is that Blizzard will need a team of artists working diligently to make sure the new textures are as good as they could ever be for the discerning WoW fans. Half-finished models would upset an already volatile community and drive many to the unsubscribe button which isn’t good for any of us.

Then the client would need to be upgraded in order to render these new graphics, which means performance degradation for old and new systems. No one wants their game their game to run slower. We have a few hints that Blizzard might be looking towards upgrading the game engine with MoP, considering the 64-bit client, the exclusion of Windows 2000, and the increased minimum system requirements.

Let’s not forget that the Monk class will require a new skeleton in order to operate on any non-Pandaren race. Players who have played the Monk on the older races have already noted the animations are messed up and require a total bone structure revamp. If it’s needed then it’s a great time to retexture the characters for the new models.

If you’re a bit lost, each character model in most games have a mesh (or skin) that is affixed to a skeleton. Much like our own bodies, think of the skeleton as our bones and the mesh as our skin. This goes for anything from dragons to cockroaches in the game. The skeleton, or bones, have joints that allow our characters to pivot around and move. Right now we have them in the traditional human joints (knees, ankles, hands, feet, hips, shoulders, etc.) along with the chest (to facilitate to breathing).

What’s interesting about this is that the recent Chuck Norris commercial featured his character model having an upgraded look (over normal characters) and advanced animations that might be impossible with our current character models. Is this just movie magic or a precursor to new models? Who knows.


In my opinion, I think that we can expect new character models in patch 5.0 and new textures. I feel that Blizzard will probably not push it out of the door unless the characters match visually to our current ones to help ease us into the transition. Especially for races like the Worgen which badly need a new skeleton. It could, in my opinion, also be thrown into a later patch or delayed, depending on how Blizzard approaches it.

As for the community, well, don’t expect new character models announced tomorrow or some vague wording or event on the Armory to get your hopes up. Blizzard could announce anything at any time, but it’s up to us to filter out what is possible and what is a lot less likely.

Do you want to see updated character models or would you hate it if your Tauren female got an overhaul? Share your thoughts in our comments section below.

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