Casually Classic: How World of Warcraft made bad graphics look good

    
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When I returned to World of Warcraft Classic in 2019, I steeled myself to be vastly underwhelmed by the visuals. I’m not a graphics snob, particularly with MMOs, but I know that I had gotten used to the ever-increasing polygon count of retail WoW and how lush and good-looking that client had become. It was inevitable that going back in time was bound to disappoint.

Except that it totally didn’t. Sure, WoW Classic’s visuals are a whole lot more simplistic and, to put a term on it, “chunky,” but they also hold up way better than I anticipated. I’ve spent a whole lot of time in both vanilla and in WoW Classic examining the visual makeup of the world, and I wanted to share three key observations for how Blizzard’s art team took a rather low-poly environment and made it look timelessly good.

Exaggerated design

Every MMORPG has its own visual design, which I think of as split between realism/stylism and natural/colorful. A realistic and natural game — even a fantasy one — portrays the world in normally expected proportions with a color palette that mimics the real world. This was pretty much the standard in online games until WoW came calling with highly stylized and abnormally colorful graphics.

Everything in WoW Classic is exaggerated. It’s not ludicrously so — future MMOs would take this even further — but you can see it pretty much everywhere you look. Straight lines and boxy buildings are not the order of the day; rather, everything is at an angle (even a slight one) and given to greater proportions than we typically see in “serious” MMOs. It’s a totally cartoony, Dr. Seuss-like look that came out of Warcraft III and cemented the personality of this game world.

And when you’re dealing with chunky, lower-poly graphics, leaning into the chunkiness turns a disadvantage into an advantage. WoW has such a distinctive look that you instantly know what you’re looking at if you see a screenshot on passing. Furniture and buildings are both bigger and smaller than they need to be, and even characters and their (shoulder) armor bear signs of this design philosophy.

Artistic textures

But chunky and exaggerated effects only get you so far. The next layer of WoW’s particular style comes from the textures that are slapped onto these bulky constructions, and it’s here that I think Blizzard’s artists did some of their best work.

I mean, think about it. You only have so many polygons to make any particular object, so you can’t use them frivolously. Instead, you make textures that simulate the illusion of depth without actually changing the shape of the object on which it is laid. I noticed this my first week in WoW’s beta when I saw how the artists created fake shadows for low-lying farm plants so that, to the passing eye, you were running over a bumpy, plant-filled field rather than a completely flat plane with tiled stickers all over it.

WoW Classic gives you an awful lot of time to look at the scenery, and once you start noticing this, you’ll see amazing textures everywhere. I’m so impressed by how the artists could make wood planking or brick fireplaces look varied and interesting rather than utterly forgettable. The textures don’t just add fake depth and cover up chunkiness — they also add a whole lot of personality to the game world.

Here’s one example that I picked out. It’s a vaguely tribal or eastern arch that you’ll pass under in Ashenvale. But look at the wood textures compared to the trees next to it. In most every other MMO, the wood of the arch would feature straight plank lines or be a featureless brown. In WoW, the artists took the time to give it this delightfully swirly pattern that suggests that this wood was cut from different trees or that the builders took the time to carve this design into it.

It’s just one small example, but it shows how this technique can be used to infuse an object with eye-catching personality.

Movement and lighting

The last tricks in the WoW Classic artist’s toolkit are subtle movement and lighting. Let’s talk about movement first, because it’s really not something I’ve paid close attention to until relatively recently.

Have you noticed that so much of World of Warcraft’s world moves? I’m not just speaking of the characters, which never quite stand still (they’re textbook fidgeters), but of all sorts of world objects. Lamps on posts will sway slightly. Two-dimensional planes of grass will sway when your character walks through it. Even big mushrooms can be observed to give off a faint spore dropping now and then.

Lighting is more obvious and appeasing to the sight, and there’s a whole lot of it in this game. Times of the day each have their lighting settings, as to be expected, but there are all sorts of smaller touches of applied lighting that help to give places more depth and personality. Again, another small example, but running through the many tunnels between Loch Modan and Wetlands, the subtle lighting of the fires give those tunnels a warm and welcoming glow — like it’s a taste of civilization that’s still maintained.

World of Warcraft’s visual design was one of the very first things that ever drew me to this MMORPG, and I’m still delighted in observing it even to this day.

Stepping back into the MMO time machine of WoW Classic, Justin Olivetti offers up observations and ground-level analysis as a Gnome with a view. Casually Classic is a more laid-back look at this legacy ruleset for those of us who’ve never stepped into a raid or seen more than 200 gold to our names.
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Crowe

Hmmm. I don’t find the graphics for current or classic very good. I’m not confusing this with the art as I know that’s a stylistic choice. Early WoW still had enough interest for me to play for a while but Blizzard increasingly made the talent tree more shallow which deprived me of the ability to make characters the way I wanted to. But I have always found the graphics a big disappointment.

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Schmidt.Capela

This is part of the reason I prefer non-realistic graphics; well crafted cartoonish graphics age much better. I mean, there’s a lot of SNES and Genesis games whose graphics still look beautiful to this day, but the ones that went for a more realistic style, while often lauded back then, nowadays look like crap.

TeoSC2
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TeoSC2

WoW, during Vanilla, looked good at the time compared to a lot of games. But it’s important to keep in mind that some of how Classic looks today is NOT what Vanilla looked like. The swaying grass when you ran through it didn’t exist. In fact, a good chunk of what exists in Classic WoW today is due to the retail client. View distance, swaying grass, some lighting effects, etc.

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Utakata

…I would argue it’s the same system they use today, but much more refined and expanded upon.

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Paragon Lost

Yep, over all I agree with your points Justin. :) It’s one of the things that WoW does very well. Though like Bruno Brito below I tend to be more critical of the player character models and fashion system.

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Bruno Brito

While i do agree that WoW’s graphics do age well, i have a pet peeve: Characterization is really bad in WoW ( specially in Retail ).

It took Blizzard more than 10 years to implement racial sets. They were the only company i knew of that actively made a fashion system into a polarizing debate. Their transmog system isn’t that good either.

But my biggest problem of all, is how the entirety of volume in your character is on your shoulders and helm, and MAYBE belt. WoW glues your armor and robes to your skin, and doesn’t differentiate between materials. Warhammer has trophies that you literally put on your armor, and they look awesome, it has cloaks with horns, it has armor that has volume and has chainmail below the armor.

WoW doesn’t. How long have we been waiting for librams, ammo packs, satchels and such? Why are we still using cloaks that don’t have scarfs, or go below the shoulderpads for a more wide look? Where’s the fur? Why is WoW art so disconnected of the game?

Kinda bothers me a LOT because i use a lot of WoW art as reference and it reminds me of how this multibillion dollar company still has a terrible fashion and character building system that doesn’t hold up to the likes of Allods. ALLODS.

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Hostagecat

yep… all good points, but compared to the peers at the time of launch. EQ2 had way better graphical requirements, but yet to be honest it did not look as good as WOW. The cartoony style of the characters has helped it keep its age well.

Now that being said… your right with all your points you would have thought it would take 10 years to get improvements.

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2Ton Gamer

We didn’t play WoW before and so Classic was our first foray into Azeroth and I gotta say it was not as bad as I thought it would be. We played LOTRO so we are no strangers to old graphics, but these were really well done and I think hold up nicely.

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Dark Wombat

Great article!
Here is a good example of point number two. Notice how this field looks bumpy? it’s not, its flat. Great artwork:

wowscrnshot082010081018.jpg
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styopa

My wife jumped back in to Classic a short time ago, and noticed that the sound your footsteps make appears to change depending on your footwear.

She plays focused on ENTIRELY different things than I do, but I’m sure that all goes into my gestalt of “this feels real”.

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Loopy

I’ve noticed the same. Also armour – if you’re wearing leather, the hits you take sound like thumps and taps. Once you put on mail, all of a sudden you get this metallic clangs during combat. It’s really intelligent sound design.

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wjowski

Aesthetics/feel and consistency are important. Your game’s graphics engine can have all the horsepower in the world but it won’t pull in players if everyone looks and movese moves like arthritic, dead-eyed mannequins and the world itself looks like someone tried to bring a stock photo to life.