“It was a different kind of Gnome,” Ely Cannon, Assistant Art Director, Environments for the World of Warcraft team tells me. We’re discussing the look and feel of Mechagon, one of the new zones added into the ever-expanding Azeroth. “A higher-level Gnome that had more intellect, was more focused, more capable, and really almost an elitist.” An obvious nod the light-hearted, almost comical relief tone that the Gnome race represents, to both players and quite a large part of Warcraft’s story.
“We really wanted to play up the difference between the Gnomes that we had grown to know and love on the surface world, and really present another branch in their family tree.”
Some of the early concepts, when thinking about what might exist below the surface of Mechagon, led to some drastic ideas. “Let’s make them more of a threat,” Ely recalls, revealing some of these design discussions. “One of the big driving factors for them is this removal of the curse of flesh. That drove the architectural elements, the type of technology they had and the look of the characters. They're much more mechanical in nature, they're trying to remove the soft fleshiness that was imposed upon them at some point in the past.”
Robo-gnome by the way of Cronenberg, I imagine.
“At some point we moved away from that,” Ely continues. “We went back and started to look at how we could bring them a little more in line with their surface cousins, bring a little bit more of the wonkiness and playfulness. To really meld these two sides.”
World of Warcraft, which recently got its latest update in the form of Rise of Azshara, is currently celebrating its fifteenth anniversary. Albeit against the backdrop of an epic war that began with the release of the latest expansion, Battle for Azeroth. For fans a new update means several things; from new mechanics and fixes, to new dungeons, stories, threats and, of course, new locations to explore. Najzatar, home to the menacing Queen Azshara and her Naga armies -- a newly surfaced kingdom, quite literally -- it wasn’t that long ago when it existed beneath the surface and underneath a large body of water.
“What we wanted to do here was represent the history that we know about,” Ely explains, when the discussion shifts to Nazjatar. “The epic catastrophe that brought about its downfall, but also show what they had become; embracing the fact that this was very much a sea dwelling race. Their buildings, their architecture, all the spaces that they inhabit are these underwater areas that are now exposed to the surface.”
“The real question is, and the thing that we ask ourselves often is, “Does it break the story?”
The second new zone, Mechagon, offers up a very different backstory. A high-tech home to a race of intelligent and industrious Gnomes set against the backdrop of a large junkyard full of mechanical bits and bobs. With both zones drawing on existing lore and how the World part of World of Warcraft is in a constant state of evolution. For new zones this means history, stories, environment and even races evolving over time; as things start to take shape in their own development. This gave the creative team at Blizzard the chance to, well, create. More than a decade after what we know of as World of Warcraft originally released.
“The real question is, and the thing that we ask ourselves often is, “Does it break the story?”, Ely continues. “And if it doesn't, then how can we make all these awesome ideas and concepts that each individual person has, come together. We see a lot of that in Nazjatar, when we were inventing their architectural kit there really wasn't a reference. This is an underwater space that's now been exposed to the air. The buildings wouldn't be on the ground, they'd be swimming up to these conical structures that we see on the underside of these overhangs. And that, that was really an evolution, or an invention out of the necessity of telling the story of what this place was before. An interesting way to not only get more of the Naga civilisation into a much smaller space, but also support the fact that this was once an underwater area.”
With both Nazjatar and Mechagon arriving at the same time, at a glance the takeaway could very well be this difference in architecture -- one borne from machines and metallic origin, the other an underwater city. But, in many ways the first visual impression comes from the colour and the immediate emotional response gained from seeing the vibrant look of Nazjatar’s coral and the almost wasteland desert-feel to Mechagon’s sandy browns and rusty ruins.
“Colour is one of the very first things that we tackle,” Ely responds when the subject of colour and the vibrancy of Warcraft’s environments is brought up. “Our initial concepts are typically done in a pencil sketch format. And almost immediately after that, we start doing colour boards, and coloured scripts. For zones we'll really start to break it down into individual environmental biomes. For Nazjatar we have the coral, we have the kelp, we have the Naga city areas, and they're all very different. Understanding what the mood is that we want to achieve in these spaces is really important and informs the colour palette.
“The story we're trying to tell informs colour and that's one of the first things that we really start thinking about.”
“For the coral forest, for example, we really wanted to get that subtropical, very humid, very vibrant colourful vibe to break up the more oppressive spaces,” Ely continues. “When you get into the city areas, they're dark and a bit more oppressive, but they also have this pretty, bioluminescent element to them, which makes them feel exotic and magical. Even the story we're trying to tell informs colour and that's one of the first things that we really start thinking about.
“It's also something that evolves over time,” Ely admits. “As we see all these different environmental systems coming together and playing against each other, it's necessary to adjust; to retune and rethink how these player interactions are happening, especially on the colour level. Because that's one of the ways that we unconsciously inform the player about the emotion that we want them to feel.”
Beginning with a pencil sketch, and then a full colour drawing, some of the most interesting examples of concept art that we find – especially in relation to both Mechagon and Nazjatar – are those where an image, borne from an artist’s imagination, capturing a hypothetical time and place, can look almost identical on the other side. In-game, with the camera lined up just so, as a digital world to explore.
“One of the challenges that we face is that the forms that we can draw on a piece of paper, or as a concept piece, don't necessarily translate into geometry one for one,” Ely tells me. “When we're painting the textures, we add a lot of those subtle details. The changing of the plane, the highlights and shadows that potentially don't exist in the model. Over the years, and with fifteen years of learning lessons, we've gotten better at capturing the original intention of the concepts and using all of the tools at our disposal. The geometry, the lighting, the materials that we're using, the textures that we're painting, we use them all in combination with each other to hit that vision.”
Staying true to a vision or recreating a piece or two of concept art as explorable digital worlds, one must wonder at what point this aspect factors into the equation. The game. As fantastical and otherworldly as Nazjatar and Mechagon might sound, they’re also places that are for a lack of a better term levels – game-worlds that house stuff like quests, hubs, dungeons, and various other points of interest.
“That's always interesting when you're working on a game,” Ely responds. “We effectively have this big box full of objects, and all these cool things that we can put into a space. The inclination is to try to make every inch filled to the brim with every bit of awesome that you can. But the real challenge, the real art, and the real magic of what we do is striking a balance. Between the visually rich, world-building philosophy where we're packing in detail, telling a story. And leaving enough room for navigation, for gameplay, and for the world to breathe.”
“Over the years, and with fifteen years of learning lessons, we've gotten better at capturing the original intention of the concepts and using all of the tools at our disposal.”
A balance made possible by an entire team of artists, engineers, level and quest designers. Ely, who began as a level designer years ago sees his own experiences as playing an important role when he strives to strike this balance. And to make what the player experiences feel believable. “It is really a combination of all of those different aspects working in balance with each other,” Ely confirms. “So that the visual doesn't overwhelm this sense of world. And that the world design does not limit navigation. In the end it is a three-dimensional space, and we really do want our players to be able to run around and experience it and explore it. It should be approachable from every angle, feel alive, feel contextual, and feel like it's based in a deeper meaning. Like an understandable truth.”
The new dungeon, Operation: Mechagon, as per its namesake takes place in one of the newly designed high-tech Gnome installations. And presents a very different design. Namely, of the engineering variety. If a hedge inside an English-style garden that is entirely mechanical can open to reveal a turret inside, or a pine tree that folds up and retracts with propeller-like shapes – these elements shift the order of the steps taken in the concept to screen process.
“When we think about stuff like that, we have to pre-plan what we want them to do mechanically,” Ely explains when discussing the new dungeon. “And then sort of retcon it back to figure out, for example, how can we wrap a plant around this thing. Understanding the motion and the animation, the mechanical nature of these things informs a lot of our design decisions when we’re doing the conceptual development.”
For the mechanical English garden as featured in Operation: Mechagon, a team of four or five artists working together brought this idea to life. Figuring out how a pristine garden might transform into a defensive system. “That was something that we've never done in the game before, but felt was really appropriate for this society,” Ely concludes. “They feel like they're superior to other Gnomes, so of course they would have this highbrow mechanical garden to spend time in, in the upper city. That was a really fun challenge and required that we understood where we were going.” An understanding that ultimately points to a universe, in Warcraft, that is continuously evolving, and growing. And that each new update brings with it new elements that build on what has come before, offer-up something new entirely, and all whilst still feeling like a part of Azeroth.