The Art Style of WoW

by Jon on October 26th, 2007

After my playing companion (aka my wife) decided to turn in early (not really that early but earlier than me), I ended up traveling solo back into Zangarmarsh to grind out the last of my Sporeggar Rep. Upon arrival I had second thoughts and decided to wait until she could join me as I knew she also wanted the Sporeggar rewards and I was already a few thousand XP ahead of her in the leveling race.

I wasn’t quite tired thanks to an accidental extended power-nap from earlier so I logged onto an alt to do some AH business. This only took a few minutes and I wasn’t really in the mood to play one of the many lowbie characters . So I fired up the Hellgate London Demo that I downloaded a few nights prior and decided to give it a whirl.

Now I’ve always been a fan of Blizzard’s work. Especially the Diablo Series. So when a few of the top guys from Blizzard North decided to take their leave and form their own game studio, I was intrigued to see what they could churn out. Hellgate London as a concept sounds like a winner. It’s part RPG, part FPS, with some MMO thrown in for good measure.

Unfortunately, I found the game to be extremely unappealing. It wasn’t so much the gameplay nor the clunky interface that turned me off. It seemed to have an inspired art direction but it was ultimately the graphics that did me in.

Now, my gaming machine is decent. Not the latest and greatest, but it gets the job done. I didn’t really have a problem with meeting the technical demands that the graphics required, but rather it was the uncanny valley that tainted the experience.

For those of you not familiar with the the term. The uncanny valley theory refers to the paradox of computer generated depictions of humans that seem less real and more “creepy” as they approach photorealism. When the image in question attempts to be realistic our brains will focus on the details that just aren’t right; like plastic-looking skin and hair, or weird eye-balls and false-looking teeth. When we’re shown a cartoon image, we compensate for the missing detail and the subject seems warm and lifelike, often even cute.

This is where Blizzard (in my humble opinion) really outshines the rest. Nay-sayers may argue with me on this but I definitely prefer the “cartoony” flavor of WoW over the attempts at ultra-realism from the competition. (Yeah I’m looking at you LOTRO).

LOTRO vs WoW

I have to give props to Chris Metzen and crew for accomplishing the goal of creating a very cohesive and recognizable art style that not only ages gracefully, but also retains a lower-end system requirement. In-turn allowing for an increased penetration of the “casual” space.

I don’t doubt that the utter uniqueness of their style that ties the entire game together for players has also contributed towards increasing awareness with non-players and securing their place in pop culture.

With it being utilized on TV as a sit-com gag, a commercial, or an entire plot element: it’s no wonder that everyone (Judge Judy excluded) is familiar with the World of Warcraft.

12 Comments
  1. Shippy permalink

    I agree 100% for me i think its’ expectation with a cartoon look i just want it to look cool, with ultra realism anything that doesn’t look ultra real bothers me, and if it looked too real i don’t think i’d really like it. Cool>real any day :)

  2. I agree with you there – I really enjoyed Ultima Online and Puzzle Pirates, but Everquest, City of Heroes and other games just never did it for me – they tried to create a world that was too realistic to allow me to fill in my own fantasy elements.

    Nice article!

  3. Is the screenshot on the left from LOTRO or Hellgate London? I have played neither, but you are right about the creepiness of the non-WoW image. (Of course, you chose a hot Draenai female to compete with so you may have stacked the deck. Er, as it were.) I’ve read about the uncanny valley before as well as heard criticisms of the simplistic art style of WoW. Like you, I’ve always liked WoW’s graphics, as you have, and the patterned-copied trees never bothered me because, let’s face it, the trees have nothing to do with the game. (Geez, it’s already so immersive that people claim addictions to it so we know that the art style does not pull the gamer OUT of the world.) However, it never occurred to me, as you surmise, that Blizzard may have made a conscious choice to stay as far away from the uncanny valley as possible — and not just for the sake of graphics load. I had always assumed it was a happy accident but maybe they really are as smart as you credit them.

  4. I entirely agree. Across the board I am disappointed by the trend in games towards “realism.” All too often, what is hailed as “amazingly lifelike” I find to be horrifying manikin-zombies. I know it’s part of why I enjoy WoW so much. Team Fortress 2, which recently came out, also chose that direction with their art, and I must say it is fabulous. The models seem to have so much life/charm/etc. to them. I had a hard time empathizing with the humans in Half Life 2 mostly because they looked so… creepy. I liked the aliens better.

    You’d think that it would be obvious by now how effective it is to sidestep the uncanny valley. As blizzard has shown (and Pixar for crying out loud), it is a lucrative tool.

  5. daveyp permalink

    I agree with this 100%, I’ve been saying this to people for a while now. Vanguard for example may be technically better looking, but to me it’s quite bland and lacks in style. WoW on the otherhand is very stylised due to it’s semi-catoony look.

  6. Finally! Someone else that thinks Blizz was being smart, not lazy!

    (Btw, hope you’ve got a good provider– wowinsider linked you.)

  7. @The Game Dame – The shot on the left is actually from LOTRO. I agree that I probably should have used a human or elven pic for a more apples-to-apples comparison.

    @zhagog – tf2 and pixar both come to mind when I think of cartoony art style triumphing over “realism”.

    @foxfier – we did notice a definite increase in our traffic. It was no digg-effect nor slashdotting so my 5-yr old server handled it like a champ.

    thank you all for the comments. =)

  8. Soul permalink

    The picture of lotro you have posted is with very reduced quality and features.

    I like both the graphics of wow and lotro, having played both and specially wow for a very long time, since release, and lotro since a month and a couple of weeks.

    while both game’s graphics are amusing, i found lotro environment to be more eye catching, the reasons varry from one person to another, but to me, wow graphic’s engine is not that great btw, wow graphics use too much shading to cover up for the big blocks, even though it’s still nice, but in my opinion, lotro exceeds it by alot, considering that both games are held by lore when making environment and graphics.

    also lotro is kinda new, and their graphics engine is enhanced yet, unlike wow which went through various model redesigns.

    but if you’re talking about graphicswise? well dark age of camelot and warhammer online exceeds both by far.

  9. @soul – i googled that lotro image so I don’t doubt that it probably didn’t have the settings maxed out. Wow’s graphics aren’t top of the line but neither are the specs on the huge casual player-base’s PC.

  10. Chad permalink

    I have nothing against the art style of WoW, in fact, I quite enjoy it. Its unique in the genre and, of course, the big plus you mentioned is it looks good and runs well on lower end machines.

    However, that doesn’t mean that other games’ art style is horrid if they’re focusing on more realistic art. LotRO, I played for about a month, just to try it out and all. I really enjoyed the look and feel of that game (I decided not to continue because the questing and mechanics didn’t really suit me). In that case, it matches the look and feel of Middle Earth. How many of us, when we read through the books, picture Middle Earth in the WoW-style art? Most likely, not many. LotRO is a bad comparison to WoW.

    The best “realism” I’ve seen to date in character models is in Guild Wars. Usually when games go for “ultra-realistic” graphics, the character models are where things suffer, as you mentioned. But still, to each his own. One person may like what another does not, one game may want something that another does not.

    Still, I stand by my statement that comparing WoW art to LotRO art isn’t entirely the right way to go because of what I said above. ;)

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