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World of Warcraft's evolving engine


Some people say that World of Warcraft's visuals are outdated. The game's graphics haven't been updated since launch, they say. In terms of some older art assets, I would agree, but the overall picture is a different story. The system requirements when WoW launched were a meager 800MHz CPU with 256MB RAM and a 32MB graphics card. Today, the bare minimum requirements are a dual core CPU with 2GB of RAM and a 256MB graphics card.

Mists of Pandaria requires an expensive computer to run smoothly at the highest possible graphic settings, and yet it will still run on hardware from 8 years ago. Do you know of many other games with a spread like that?

I suppose it's easy to forget some of the past engine updates when they're spread out over nearly a decade, but there are several graphical milestones which can be traced back to each expansion:Great Wall of Pandaria
  • The Burning Crusade may not have seen any major technological improvements (at least graphically), but asset quality (textures and models) did improve over original WoW. I think the biggest improvement was the sky boxes. I remember being blown away by the view the first time I set foot through the Dark Portal.
  • Wrath of the Lich King made leaps and bounds when it came to texture quality and model fidelity. This was evident in the system requirements, where the minimum RAM doubled to 1GB (from 512MB in BC) and the minimum graphic card memory also doubled. Northrend's zones are still among the most beautiful in the game.
  • Cataclysm's largest graphical update was the new water rendering. If you want to see WoW's old water, you can set the water option to its lowest setting. They also added sunshafts and an option to render the game with DirectX 11 for newer graphics cards. Model fidelity went up a few more notches with the new Worgen and Goblin models.
  • Mists of Pandaria's biggest technical update was the lighting and shadow systems. There was also higher fidelity models with improved animation systems, e.g. Pandaren and Garrosh.
Timeless Isle Celestial
World of Warcraft's graphics may not have the technical chops of a modern shooter, but subjectively it sure looks a lot better to my eyes. Good art is good art, regardless of any technical limitations.

As for Ghostcrawler's question about what players expect from engine improvements, I think it varies from player to player. There are always going to be some who would prefer if WoW looked like Crysis 3 with realistic models and textures which require 2GB of video card memory. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are people who loathe engine updates because they like to use their computer for many years without upgrading. Keeping the game running on such a wide variety of hardware is quite the balancing act for Blizzard programmers and artists.

World of Warcraft's evolving engine
We don't know what kind of engine improvements are in store for the next expansion, but we do know that new player character models are on the way. During Gamescom, Blizzard estimated that work on new character models was about 25% complete. We might see some of these new models with the launch of the next expansion, but the rest will likely be rolled out over time. This does more than improve player character models -- think of the thousands of NPCs in the game which will benefit. It will be like a fresh coat of paint on the game. I'm sure we will find out more at the upcoming WoW art panel at BlizzCon in a few weeks.

Are you dreading another bump in system requirements for the next expansion, or do you welcome an accelerated evolution of WoW's graphic engine?

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