Sunday, August 24, 2014

Updated Character Models Aren't Enough

Hold up! Let me explain -

I thought the new models were pretty good
In Warlords of Draenor we're getting new character models. It's something that Blizzard had been asked about countless times and something a majority of people would say is an overdue change for a ten year old game. The new character models have encountered quite a few problems in their development, including mountains of both positive and negative feedback by the players.

Blizzard was in a damned if they do damned if they don't situation - for more than one problem. Blizzard would either have had to keep their old models and their old graphics and had to deal with more and more people questioning why they aren't updating them, or start updating everything - including the player models, which then creates its own slew of problems.

Of course, they opted to improve their graphics. They began adding updated, HD models for important lore characters, for creatures, for armor, the environment - basically everything. They were really starting to up the ante on their graphics for the game, something that they had gotten a lot of flak for. The graphics of World of Warcraft is a discussion in itself, but as we see new MMOs and new games come out with absolutely stunning, smooth graphics and textures - it was just a matter of time until Blizzard put emphasis on improving WoW's graphics situation.

After the decision to add new HD models, they encountered another situation that put them between a rock and a hard place. Now, all I truly know on the subject I've gathered from reading the art crafts and discussions about the models. The older models had their faces and textures 'painted on', which means that they can make them look any way they'd like rather easily.

However, this puts a lot of restraint on the way the faces can move, along with making them look flat and, well, like ten year old models. They did not want to continue to do that, they wanted to make higher resolution HD models, but they require a lot of work and detail in the structure of the face. The higher resolution HD models created a roadblock for them on the amount of different features and details they could add. This was the second issue - they didn't want to create new player models because they didn't want to destroy what players loved about the original models.

They didn't want to have to remove all the features, details, and customizations from the old models and upset people who really liked what their characters looked like. They had little choice - they couldn't continue to use painted on textures, or else the updated models would barely look updated. They had to compromise between time spent and results desired.

This artcraft discusses the "same-face phenomenon" and explains the difference between the painted faces and new HD faces.

Now, the new models were never going to look exactly like their older counterparts. This is yet another compromise that Blizzard had to make - there is no feasible way to update the models and improve their animations, structure, and features without changing the way they look. Besides, that was the entire point - to change the way the models looked. They stated that they intended to keep the original feel of the old models with their updated ones, and honestly I think they accomplished that. They had to make them different in some ways - for instance, nobody wanted the female tauren model to look exactly like it used to look, with her chunks of cheese for fingers. They made changes where they thought the models needed them, keeping as much the same as possible.

In the end, the entire process of making new models for every playable race took quite awhile and they still had to make compromises for time and effort. This is typical Blizzard fashion, so I don't think anyone is all that surprised. However, what I'd really like to see from them is that they continue to work on the character models. They specifically stated that they don't want to add new facial features or changes to the models over time throughout the expansion - however, I think that they need to look at their competition.

Almost every new MMO that comes out has incredibly customizable characters. Whether or not the graphics of those models are high resolution, fantastically stylized, or what have you, the fact remains that they allow multiple times more customization than Blizzard's models ever did, or will continue to, unless they continue to put effort into them.

Don't get me wrong, I'm more interested in content. I'd prefer not to lose a raid tier over more character customization, and let's face it - making transmogrification more interesting is going to be more meaningful to the customization of your character than changing their body or face shape. The thing about it, however, is that Blizzard needs to focus on their character creation and the beginning of their game.

Their entire mealticket is based on people who are already playing the game, people who are already playing trying to get their friends to play, and people who used to play coming back to the game. It's hard to get into World of Warcraft when character customization is so limited, when the starting quests are impossible to get into without background knowledge, and with so many other games adding beautiful cutscenes and voice over dialogue for the entirety of their beginning questline. The only thing WoW has going for it is its in depth beginner's tutorial, yet even that's bland - it's not tied into the experience of the game, they are just windows that pop-up as you experience the situation that needs explaining.

When people get into a new MMO, one of the easiest things that hook them onto it is actually whether or not they are already familiar with the game's story. WoW was so amazing to me when I first started because I loved WC3. Barely anyone I know who plays FFXIV wasn't already into Final Fantasy games, and ESO is almost exclusively populated by fans of Skyrim and older Elder Scrolls games.

Blizzard doesn't have any games coming out that are involved in the Warcraft universe - Hearthstone is just a card game, the only thing that involves any of its actual story is the art and the new Naxxramas solo wing. Heroes of the Storm involve characters from the Warcraft universe, but it doesn't do much in the way of explaining the story. WC3 came out 12 years ago, so not many people are coming to WoW after experiencing it. If Blizzard wants new players to get hooked on WoW, they need to focus some energy on how their game looks when you first log in, for the first time, without knowing what you're getting into. It's going to be hard to motivate someone to level up 100 levels to get to the good part when they aren't initially intrigued by what they experience within a few hours of playing.

the game makes sure you know when you've leveled up
Now, of course people can get into a game with an entirely new story, like Wildstar for instance, but the thing about games with new stories are that the game will inform players to the story with their introductions, as well as hooking players in by making the start of the game very immersive.

Blizzard is lacking in all of these categories for hooking new players. As a veteran player, you may say that I'm too cynical and jaded to make objective criticisms on the starting quests of the game.

However, I've played a lot of the newer MMOs that have come out recently. It's easy to make the comparison while starting a new character in ESO or Wildstar. It's instantly recognizable how much more immersive the beginning of those games are, and as a long time WoW player, I make the comparison even subconsciously between the two games every time I play something else. In that same light, I'm able to make the comparisons between the two and what WoW does better, but almost unanimously I see new MMOs with more immersive and interesting beginnings.

As a World of Warcraft fan, I tend to see a lot of positives about WoW's experience compared to new MMOs, but the beginning of the game is a different story. I know what to expect from WoW - I recognize all the subtle nuances that make it so great, I already know what to expect from end game and how much there is to do in the game. A new player doesn't, so they need a flashy introduction to pique that interest.

Updating their graphics and the playable character models is a great start - in fact, the older graphics were probably the last outdated thing about the game, as far as I'm concerned. If Blizzard wants to milk this cash tauren any further, they need to start putting consideration into their beginner's experience. They're in a tough spot because currently, new players starting the game for the first time are in fact the bottom of the totem pole on where their income is focused.

The majority of subs are people who have been playing for quite awhile, people who came back, and people who have been brought into the game by friends. They would have to lose a bit of focus on end game content and refining things about the game that that huge majority player base cares about in order to focus on a playerbase that is miniscule in comparison. This is probably a big reason why they haven't shown any progress on that front.

Who knows - maybe Blizzard is fine with that. Personally, I'd see that as a bit overconfident. I mean, I've been playing for nine years and I know other people who are in the same boat, even others who have been playing since the game came out, not to mention those who have been playing since TBC and later - maybe they don't need to worry about new players coming into the game. I would hate to see them say that they are happy with the beginning experience of their game, though, because that would simply show to me that they have ignored the games that are coming out, the games directly competing with them for their own playerbase.

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