Transmogrification and the dismissal of the silhouette theory

Mathew McCurley
M. McCurley|08.17.11

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Transmogrification and the dismissal of the silhouette theory
Blizzard recently announced at the Gamescom gaming convention in Germany that patch 4.3 is coming, and it's coming on strong. With brand new features like a separate bank for your old gear, a transmogrification NPC who can change the look of your gear, and even Deathwing himself as a raid, patch 4.3 opens up a ton of possibilities for the future of World of Warcraft that we might not have seen coming.

For me, the most stark change that patch 4.3 is bringing about is not a change to the systems or gameplay, but a philosophical change at the heart of World of Warcraft that spells out some of the potential big announcements that might be coming our way during BlizzCon.

Transmogrification is bigger as a philosophical leap than we think, and here's how.

The silhouette theory

World of Warcraft's factions are rooted in an idea called silhouette recognition. What this means is that you can easily tell who your friends or enemies are based on their aesthetic look. The reason there are no "humans" on the Horde side is because Blizzard wants you, as a Horde player, to point out a human on the battlefield. The same goes for every race. No two sides have races that feature identical silhouettes. This is even the reason worgen are forced into their bestial forms in combat -- players need to know that you're a worgen.

This goes for gear as well. Blizzard practically invented the gear tier system in raiding and made it so your two most prominent pieces, shoulders and headpieces, were the sought-after marks of power and prestige, and a physical reminder of player accomplishment. My shoulders currently tell you that I've been to the Firelands, killed many bosses, and taken their stuff. My silhouette is instantly recognizable as a raider who is geared and powerful.

Transmogrification is the antithesis to silhouette theory

For a long time, players and the MMO world together have complained that World of Warcraft was behind the times when it came to player character customization. WoW has been out for a good long time, before a world where sliders for every part of your character's attributes were a staple in the industry. Over time, the age of the system has proven an issue, with Blizzard even updating the models of the faction leaders to provide a better in-game design to older models. Thrall, for instance, only recently shed his level 30 greens for his new shaman digs.

The reigning philosophy was that gear in WoW defined a player and that player's appearance. Gear could easily tell you who and what you were going up against. A warrior looked like a warrior in warrior tier gear, and his race was readily apparent.

Transmogrification is the antithesis to silhouette theory. By allowing players to change the look of their gear from one skin to the next, you remove the ability for any one character to be instantly recognizable in power and prestige in PVE or PVP. A level 85 paladin who is wearing a full set of the Judgement armor set could or could not be a tier 12 raider -- you need to inspect closer to figure it out. If you're on the battlefield in Tol Barad, for instance, you cannot accurately gauge your enemies based on their gear if transmogrification is active during PVP combat in PVP areas, other than looking at their health pools.

There is no doubt that this new system will connect players to their characters more than ever before, and I applaud the move. I have been a vocal critic for some time about the lack of character customization in the game, and I am glad to see Blizzard shedding the old philosophy and bringing to bear new features for the players. Interestingly enough, I wonder how this will affect tier gear creation and whether there will be an emphasis on less impressive gear and more on different art assets, as players might not even care to see their new armor. I sincerely doubt that that will be an issue, however. Blizzard will still churn out cool-looking armor sets for every tier with each new raiding environment.

The future

Here's the real meat of the issue. With transmogrification signaling the end of the silhouette era, could this possibly mean that with the next expansion, potentially concerning oft-rumored Pandaria, that we could see the inclusion of WoW's first bi-factional race? Could Blizzard be giving us pandaren for both sides of the equation now that the concept that players and factions are defined by their silhouettes is out the window?

Dual-faction pandaren make a lot of sense for Blizzard and for the WoW community in general. You don't want to upset either faction with a sense of bias or favoritism, especially when dealing with the fan-favorite pandaren. The story could be worked in such a way that pandaren get a starting zone much like the death knight beginning experience and choose their faction at the end of a heated battle that has the Horde and the Alliance at each other's throats over territory on Pandaria, or even an outside threat like the kvaldir. Could there be two factions of pandaren, one of nobles in the capital and one of the outliers, living outside the bounds of the society formed as clans adhering to the "old ways"?

None of this is fact and none of this is confirmed, but removing one of the biggest roadblocks to cross-faction contamination is one of the bigger sea changes in philosophy in recent history with Blizzard and WoW. Maybe, at this time, we are seeing such radical shifts in ideology because of the need to innovate and keep up with other games releasing soon. The great Cataclysm experiment showed that WoW has to change even more fundamentally to retain and grow the subscriber base. Blizzard has been developing WoW with a very conservative mindset, still rooted deeply in the EverQuest beginnings of the genre. Now, with patch 4.3 signaling the end of one of the bigger design philosophies, anything is possible with the next expansion.


Brace yourselves for what could be some of most exciting updates to the game recently with patch 4.3. Look at what's ahead: new item storage options, cross-realm raiding, cosmetic armor skinning and your chance to battle the mighty Deathwing -- from astride his back!

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