Q: How long have you been working at Blizzard?
Chris Robinson: This is my eighth year now.
Q: And you’ve been on World of Warcraft the whole time?
Chris Robinson: Yeah, I started as the lead character artist. I did that gig for about a year, then moved to art direction just about seven years ago.
Q: How has Blizzard’s approach to art direction in World of Warcraft changed over that time?
Chris Robinson: We’ve found the areas to focus fire on. We used to spread everything out a little thinly and spread time on areas we didn’t necessarily need to make so detailed or so complex. I think we’ve started to find a cadence where we’re hitting areas that are important points of interest, and working with gameplay to establish where they player is going to spend the majority of time in an area and what they’ll be doing. It helps us to focus our efforts on what to make look really good, and where we can save some time.
Q: Where can players see this in Warlords of Draenor?
Chris Robinson: I think Garrisons are probably are prime example of that. We knew this was somewhere we really spent those chips and made sure players could be like, ‘This is always what I imagined my home in Warcraft would be.’ Of course we wanted to make every building for every race in every possible combination – and I think we made over 100 buildings for Garrisons – we needed to find the areas of focus. Making sure everything looked cohesive and was leveling in a similar manner.
Garrisons and the Garrison buildings were for us an interesting opportunity to look back. The first thing we did was pull up all the old human buildings and took a look them and ask how would these buildings feel in Mists of Pandaria, Cataclysm, even Wrath of the Lich King. I think very quickly we realised that our technical ability, our focus on detail has changed to the point where those buildings now feel a little out of place in the newer environments.
Q: On the idea of where to spend your chips, you’ve got raids, which are carried out on huge sets, but they’re not seen by as many people as, say, Orgrimmar or Stormwind. It must be a case of constant compromise?
Chris Robinson: I think if anything we use raids as a way to reward people on the team. We really share resources across all these things. We don’t have people who just make raids, and people who just make outdoor content. Outdoor content is certainly more digestible, one-off content, it’s one building that you spend a little time on then you’re done with it and you move on, whereas a raid is multi-month, multi-personnel process to take on.
We have outdoor raids and indoor raids. Outdoor raids are very similar to the way we go about creating the world. Indoor raids, I think, really afford more finite control over any one area that a player may be in. Free roaming worlds are difficult. We set up these vistas every now and then where we know a player will be funneled up a pathway and when they come out they’ll see a particular vista, but raids really give us a different opportunity. We know the player is going to be in a certain area for a certain amount of time. Their attention is going to be focused on this boss, or this puzzle – whatever it might be – and I think that has allowed us over time to figure some things out. People don’t look up! We’d spend all this time on these beautiful ceiling tiles and maybe three people in the raid would say, ‘Hey you guys should check out the ceiling, it’s pretty awesome!’ Then the raid leader would shut them down: ‘Pay attention, you’re standing in the fire!’
Things where, as you go through and you’re focusing on boss or mobs, we know you’re going to be looking in a certain direction and we can set up little vignettes. Raids really afford us the opportunity to set those up and go off on them.
Q: The player character model updates are something you’ve been an instrumental part of going into Warlords of Draenor. What has that process been like?
Chris Robinson: Probably one of the most challenging things that I’ve tackled, and I think the team has tackled since I came on [before Wrath of the Lich King]. I use this example all the time: back in the day we had this bug where if we put a weapon in the game without a texture it’d be fuchsia – this really bright, obvious colour. At some point – I don’t know if it missed a specular pass, or what – but a weapon got into the game that had that really bright appearance. We saw it right away, and said, ‘Oh, we need to fix that, it’s terrible!’ Then all of a sudden we got, ‘That was the coolest weapon we’ve ever seen! You just ruined my weapon!’
I use that example because players find the strangest thing to focus on that identifies them with their character, and what they feel personifies or reflects them in their character.
With this player character thing, we knew right off the bat we were going to break some eggs. There’s no way around that. For the character artists working on that project – myself and three others: Tyson Murphy, Joe Keller, and Dusty Nolting – we all sat down and did what I think people hoped we would do. We talked to people who played these characters on the team, talked to our friends and family, we all have our own characters as well, and we had conversations about what really resonated with players. We talked about what we could and couldn’t touch, and that if we did touch something that it’s not just a re-envisioning, it’s a literal conversion to a higher resolution.
There are other things as well. For example, we never intended the human male to have that messed-up upper lip, and we really didn’t like the puppet mouth thing.
So once we’d identified those things, figured out where we could really push and where we needed to stay with what we had previously, then it was a matter of finding the point at which it broke. The lips are an interesting example. Before, they literally were puppet lips. It was a flat mouth for top and a bottom and it went out to the lip. You could do anything with that, you could paint a snarl, you could paint flat mouth, whatever. As soon as we modeled the lips we couldn’t do any of that – you can’t paint teeth on lips and have them moving around.
So the process was this gradual discover of hurdles that we never knew were going to pop up, and then finding the best, most creative way to approach solving those problems.
Q: What has it been like to reverse engineer an apocalypse? To go from Outland to Draenor?
Chris Robinson: We had to figure out what from Burning Crusade people would want to see, and what it would look like in Draenor. For people to look at Shadowmoon Valley and think, ‘I never knew that it looked this way,’ and yet when they’re standing in that valley and looking up at the plateau, there’s a part of them that knows that’s the mountain where the volcano is, or what Black Temple used to look like.
Q: So there must’ve aspects of Burning Crusade that you were obliged to work with under duress?
Chris Robinson: Yeah there were, but one of the things about the creative process is that the challenge often leads you to a better solution. For instance, look at Tanaan Jungle. In Burning Crusade it was a red wasteland. We started talking about what it would’ve been, looking back at lore, and how do we pull in those elements that you’re used to like the red sand and the plateaus and rock structures – what’s the anatomy of the zone? Everything else becomes a layer of frosting. The trees aren’t really the fundamental layer, they’re not the bones, they’re the skin.
◆ James Cullinane travelled to BlizzCon courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.