Blizzard Insider #39 goes behind the scenes with the art of the Firelands

Mathew McCurley
M. McCurley|06.28.11

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Blizzard Insider #39 goes behind the scenes with the art of the Firelands
Patch 4.2 brought back one of the most iconic WoW villains in the game's history -- Ragnaros, the Firelord. Blizzard Insider interviewed two critical members of the dev team, Lead Level Designer Jonathan Dumont and Lead Environment Artist Gary Platner, to discuss the process and philosophy behind the Firelands' design. Dumont and Platner go into detail about the origins of the Firelands, the design decisions that made the cut and some that didn't, and how the environment animates with the new particle and water effects.

Firelands is one of the most cohesive and engaging locales Blizzard's team has brought to life, in my opinion. Much like Deepholm and Vashj'ir, the Firelands exists to bring the realm of fire to life, when the daunting Sulfuron Keep only existed in our imaginations prior. An interesting piece of info was that Ragnaros' model was rebuilt from scratch, completely overhauling his skeleton, animations, and feel. The new Ragnaros is one of those things, to me, that the Cataclysm did right -- create a new thing with the heart and soul of the original. Ragnaros looks like he belongs.

Check out the full interview after the jump.

With Rage of the Firelands (patch 4.2), Ragnaros the Firelord returns with a burning vengeance to challenge players on his home turf, the elemental realm of twisting flames and churning magma.

To get a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of Ragnaros's domain, the Insider recently sat down with Jonathan Dumont (lead level designer) and Gary Platner (lead environment artist) from the World of Warcraft team to discuss the creative process and art philosophy behind the game's newest 10- and 25-player raid instance and accompanying quest hub. So read on, and learn how the Firelands evolved from rough concept art to a fully fleshed-out in-game environment.

Where did the ideas and initial concepts for the Firelands come from?

Jonathan: We knew early on that we wanted the Firelands to feel alien and formidable, a place of infinite height and size, and not just an ordinary volcanic cave with lava. We liked the outer-dimensional aspect of it and focused on ideas that involved a lot of floating islands and magma falls. It needed to feel epic and dangerous and, most importantly, like somewhere our players would enjoy exploring. So once we had our initial ideas together, one of our level designers, Victor Chong, created a quick block-out of the geometry, and it triggered a new flood of ideas and concept art from the art team that got us going from there.

Gary: True, though it doesn't always happen that way. Sometimes an artist will create a concept first, and then an exterior level designer will create a rough mock-up from that. Other times a designer will first create a rough map in Illustrator before it goes to a level designer for further development. No matter who starts the process, there's always a lot of back and forth between level designers, encounter designers, concept artists, and environment artists to make sure we're working with the most epic - and feasible - ideas.

How did you focus on the ideas that eventually made it into the final version of the zone? Are there any visual elements that did not make the cut?

Gary: A lot of times we don't know how something will work out until we go ahead and give it a try. One of the early visual concepts we tried for the zone were these octagonal rock columns, which you can find here on Earth in areas with a lot of volcanic activity. You see them in places like the Devils Postpile in California or the Giant's Causeway in Ireland. These rock columns worked great for the spider area in the Firelands, especially after an artist painted them with glowing fiery web textures. One idea we tried that didn't make the cut were fire columns shaped like trees. We have trees in most outdoor zones, so we thought we'd add tree-like flames to the Firelands, but tree shapes – even burning tree shapes – ultimately felt out of place.

Jonathan: Also, we initially wanted to make the Firelands a lot busier by adding lots of floating islands above the main island and having all these crazy lava waterfalls pouring across the playable area. We still did some of that, but we scaled that idea way back because it was making the zone visually confusing. We also tried having a boundless lava ocean under the main island, but that ended up creating a horizon line and taking away from the sense of infinity that we were trying to achieve, so we cut it. It makes the Firelands feel a lot bigger when you walk up to the edge of the main island, look down, and see nothing but swirling clouds of ash below.

What visual challenges did the Firelands present when the World of Warcraft artists began building the zone?

Jonathan: The main thing we had to keep in mind was that the instance is just the stage and ultimately the players are going to provide the action. So in addition to everything we put into the zone, there are also going to be players, monsters, pets, and all their spell effects going off during the raid. We didn't want the action to be overwhelmed by bursting fires and lava explosions, but at the same time, it's the Firelands, so you definitely need some of that! Finding a visual balance between the spectacular and the practical was a challenge.

Gary: As an outdoor instance, the Firelands is actually the work of two different art teams. The dungeon team works on the enclosed interior areas of the instance, such as Sulfuron Keep, and the environment team works on the exterior terrain areas, such as the Molten Fields. Making seamless transitions between both types of geometry was a fairly challenging undertaking. We had some help from our new texture-blending technology that was implemented with Cataclysm, but there were still a few rough edges to smooth out. One of our early bugs that we had to resolve was that the skybox was showing through the walls of the interior areas. You could see the sky through the ashen haze, even though you were inside Sulfuron Keep!

How did the encounters designers, animators, and environment artists work together to bring the Firelands and its raid encounters to life?

Jonathan: Well, I don't want to risk spoiling any of the boss encounters... but I will say that the encounter designers had some really interesting ideas on how to make some of the areas much more interactive. We all thought the boss encounters were distinct and epic to begin with, so it wasn't hard to create supporting areas for them. The Shatterstone area in particular features a volcano boss and full set piece designed by the dungeon art team that also includes animation and terrain work. It's a great example of all of the game-development disciplines working together to create a memorable encounter.

How do you bring the raid instance to life?

Gary: The terrain doesn't actually animate, so we had to create a sense of molten lava using particle effects and props. The lava was created with the game's improved liquid technology... the same liquid tech we used for the new water effects in Cataclysm. We were able to create heat-shimmer effects with animated props and we added a lot of particle flames and fire spouts throughout the Firelands.

How did you tie all of the Firelands' different visual elements and points of interest together?

Jonathan: Players may not consciously notice this, but we framed the whole exterior portion of the raid zone around Sulfuron Keep and tried to make it visible throughout as much of the zone as possible. This gives players a constant visual point of reference on the horizon, and also gives them a subtle reminder of where they are ultimately headed as they progress through the raid instance. For Sulfuron Keep itself, the dungeon art team created an awesome-looking building with a distinct profile, and we used it as a backdrop for a lot of the other areas as well. We also wanted to create unique areas for the boss encounters, while still making sure that they all felt like they belonged in the domain of fire in the elemental plane. The Lair of Beth'tilac [the Red Widow] serves as a good example of how the design and art teams embraced the fiery hot visual themes, while still making a unique and memorable point of interest for the boss.

Can you tell us about the new boss models? How was Ragnaros visually updated for Rage of the Firelands?

Gary: Ragnaros's model was completely rebuilt from scratch. Ragnaros was given a new hammer, new armor, and best of all, legs!

Jonathan: Yup, this is the first time players get to see Ragnaros on his home turf, so we wanted to make him look even bigger, stronger, and tougher than before. He is now much closer to his seat of power and we needed to convey that through his model. There are many other bosses in the instance as well, and we wanted to get away from filling a zone with just elementals. So you can expect to see a lot of variety in the Firelands.

Thanks for your time. Anything else you'd like to share before you go?

Jonathan: I hope players enjoy the Firelands raid and the Molten Front quest hub. We had a lot of fun making them!

Gary: Yeah, creating the Firelands was a great experience. I think we've learned that we get good results when we break with convention and just start running with all our crazy visual concepts. It's a trend we hope to continue in the future.

The news is already rolling out for the upcoming WoW Patch 4.2! Preview the new Firelands raid, marvel at the new legendary staff, and get the inside scoop on new quest hubs -- plus new tier 12 armor!

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