Before we get into the whole thing, I should mention the most important part: The artists all but said that giving visible armor to Druid forms is in the works!
The first to speak was Gary Platner, the lead exterior artist. His team of consists of 11 people who design and implement the various landscapes and exterior zones in WoW. They draw everything by hand using WACOM tablets, and sometimes even pressure sensitive monitors. There's no automation to their process, other than some basic software tools.
To design a new zone, they start with a meeting where they discuss ideas and get everything on paper. From this, they create a basic zone in illustrator with the basic features in place, such as the water boundaries, other zone boundaries, and any major landmarks, towns, cities, and the like. Then they run around in it, getting a feel for the size, the features, and deciding whether they like it.
After this, they create illustrations that show the basic concept and look of the zone. This not only gives them a base to work from, but the color palette of the illustration becomes the guideline for the colors to be used in the zone, and gets everyone on the same page.
Once they have that, they begin working on tilesets to use in the zone. These are like the wallpaper of the zone. They cover the grass, water, roads, all the basic land types. There's generally between 10 to 20 per zone. These tiles can then be place via a computer program -- but again, they sit at the computer and place them all by hand.
Other elements, such as trees and rocks, that help define a zone, are added next. Trees are especially important because they can help set a mood for a zone and show zone boundaries. Seeing trees change from place to place can also help give the illusion of having traveled a long distance.
Character Art and Armor
Rob McKenney of the Character Art Department was next. His team deals with both PCs and NPCs, as well as the armor and weapons they wear. Characters start wit a concept, which can be a full-colored mockup or a simple pencil sketch. From that concept, they create a wire frame complete with hit boxes to determine any collision. Then they map on the textures, and place the creature in game for final approval.
Tweaking the creature involves knowing its basic disposition. Depending on if it is lethargic, energetic, malevolent, or something else, they may change textures or the way a character moves while idle.
Moving on to armor, they showed a few examples of concept armor for Death Knights. Interesting enough, they mentioned that one of the reasons starting Death Knight armor is colored like it is is to make it stand out against the Plaguelands.
They also showed how they could change the look and feel of armor in simple ways, such as palette swaps, or adding new textures such as bones, feathers, metal, or fur.
They also demonstrated NPCs built like PCs, such as the Tuskarr with their interchangeable beards, and the Vykrul, who have many different skin types that can vastly change their feel: Iron skinned Vykrul who seem primeval, Sea vykrul with kelp hanging from blue-tinged skin, or Zombie Vykrul.
These are also the guys who do mounts and vehicles, and we got to see a model of a new multi-passenger lava catapult siege engine, built with a definite horde look to it.
Slim Gharini, the French FX Artist, used Death Knight spells such as Death and Decay to show how his team creates spell effects.
He revealed that there are over 70 new effects for Death Knights, and they have a whole new particle engine to play with. However, they specifically limited themselves to 30 textures to help lower end computers.
The spell creation process begins with a designer idea. Based on the function of the spell, the feel of the class, the colors associated with the class, build, and spell element, and such, the FX artist submits his proposal, and the Lead animator accepts or rejects it. Then, the designer and director give their feedback. They may want different colors, more particles, different particles, whatever it takes to get the concept solidified. Once that's done, the FX Artist polishes the effect a bit more before it's patched in.
He showed a bunch of examples from the Death Knight arsenal. Blood Presence went through many tweaks, such as a few changes to the skull size and shape, and the addition of soul swirls around the circle.
As a final "Bonus Preview," he showed us some spell effects that will go in in a future patch. One was an effect that wreathed the character in flames, as if he was in the middle of a bonfire. The other looks a bit like a floating steel disc surrounded by frost. However, what they were exactly, and if they belonged to players or bosses, he did not say.
Next up was Jason Morris, of the Props team. From tables and the things on to waterfalls and fires, the prop team makes the little things that add flavor to the world.
They may get suggestions from the design team of a zone or dungeon as to what they want to see, or they may simply work with the theme of the zone or "paint over the concept art" to decide what to put in to a zone. He showed some of the props they use in Dalaran as an example, including potion bottles modeled after in-game icons for potions. They also try to create props that can be reused.
Props in the world can also help to drive quests and stories. A noticeable prop can lure a person in, helping them find a quest objective or directing them toward a new boss or point of interest in a dungeon. They may also take cues in making props from the inhabitants of the area, deciding what they would use and how they would use it, and what it would look like based on their culture and character.
If you enjoy items such as the Disco Ball or the Romantic Picnic Basket, you can thank the prop team too. Basically, those little touches that add to the environment or can be added to the environment are what they do, right down to the magical doughnuts of Dalaran.
Dungeons -- or rather, Cities.
Next up was Wendy Vetter of the Dungeon Team. Not only does her team design dungeons, but they design cities as well. To demonstrate, she showed us how they worked on Dalaran. To begin with, we saw a time lapsed video of the 6 month Dalaran production cycle, from a few small blocky buildings on a base with no textures, to the finished floating city. We also got to see a "I fell off Dalaran and Died" T-shirt, though alas, I do not believe that it is official merchandise.
They were given two major design directives for the look and feel of Dalaran. First, it should look medieval, and second, it should look like a marriage of Human and Elven Mage culture and aesthetics.
To start the look process, they actually used Stormwind textures and assets to create the basic city and check the layout to make sure it was easy enough to navigate and felt large enough to be city like and small enough to be convenient. From there, they leached out much of the color and replaced it with Dalaranian color schemes. Wood become gilded gold. Roofs became domes and minarets, and mosaics decorated the floors and walls.
Interestingly enough, the last picture was a screenshot of the old Dalaran from above, as it appear, sans pink bubble, in the woods of Alterac. Whether this points to a Caverns of Time: Dalaran instance, however, she would not say when asked later.
Questions and Answers
The first questioner wanted to know who does the art for the patch previews, such as the pictures of Kil'jaedan and Kael'thas for 2.4. It's an artist named Wei Wang from China, who works as a contractor for Blizzard. From concept models and arts, he makes the pictures essentially own his own terms with his own ideas, and Blizzard is generally very happy with his work.
The next questioner wanted to know if Shamans will get more tier pants. He was told to play a Paladin, as they wear the pants.
Another questioner involved getting female models for races like the Taunka. The answer they gave was that they ran out of time in designing, and decided to create more races overall rather than create fewer races with both genders. This was true for the Tuskaar as well.
A couple questioners were hoping for redesigns of the current PC models, citing the lack of blinking on female trolls in one case. Another female questioner asked for all the males to look as sexy as Kalecgos. While Chris Robinson said they had no immediate plans for it, they'd try to fit it in for the next expansion. He then corrected himself, adding "I'm sorry, if there is another expansion." I think by now we know there is another one.
Other questioners wanted to know if more racial leaders might get a facelift like Sylvanas received. One questioner cited the fact that Anduin Wrynn still looks like a random Stormwind Orphan. There was a joking answer that they might give him a Burger King crown, but the devs seemed open to the idea of further redesigns.
Another questioner asked what the artists' favorite Wrath zone was. The general consensus seemed to be that Grizzly Hills' Redwood forests were favored, with Crystalsong Forest also getting high marks. In addition, Wendy Vetter cited Utgarde Keep as her favorite new dungeon, for the lore and feel of the Vykrul.
Another questioner wanted to know if we'd see particle effects on armor that wasn't head and shoulders. The designers say they want to look into it, but right now, since heads and shoulders are rendered differently, it's easier to slap particles on them.
Here's an answer that Druids should enjoy. When a questioner asked if it was possible for Feral Forms to have visible armor, the Artists seemed very enthusiastic about the idea, all but saying it's coming. Later, when another young man asked if Druid trees could change leaf color, Chris Robinson said he'd been talking with a designer who was very much a fan of allowing more Druid form variety. So without outright saying that it is coming, it seems like the designers have revealed that it is high on the priority list.
One other interesting question came from someone who wanted to know where zone inspiration came from. Chris answered that usually, the concept is pretty solid from the beginning. For Grizzly Hills, they had wanted to create a Redwood forest zone for some time, so when one of the team was in San Francisco, he took a detour and snapped pictures of a redwood forest, the trees, the ground, the dirt, and all. On the other hand, sometimes things change during design when the right inspiration hits. Once, when Dragonblight was nearly finished, Jason designed a new tree that everyone absolutely loved, but they had no time to go back and redesign Dragonblight to fit it in. So instead, they spent nights and weekends changing the trees themselves.