Rumour has it World of Warcraft is getting some kind of facelift - although the specifics aren't exactly clear. This came about recently when a few users noticed characters in the Armory - which features data pulled directly from the servers - were unavailable, leading forum members to meditate on this disappearance the best way they knew how - by complaining extensively online.
Many believed this was evidence that Blizzard was preparing a full character re-design, but whether or not there's any truth in it doesn't really matter. Because the result now is a 19-page letter to the devs from a small army of users demanding updated character models.
If you've been lurking on the Blizzard forums lately you've probably noticed some of this discussion come to a rolling boil, based on the odd state of WoW's models at present. After a couple expansion packs which rolled out some of the newer races, the game now has a hodge-podge of new and old, of models with varying poly-counts, some who still don't have working eye-blinking animations.
While there's no official word on how or when we're going to see a change, there is definitely something on the horizon. US Community manager Jonathan Brown AKA Zarhym confirmed the team had plans - vague plans, but plans - to rework current models. And he deals out some surprisingly insightful information into the current state of Blizzard's work mines, explaining exactly why we still haven't seen legitimate improvements to the models in the last seven years.
This issue is that you have to re-do these models from the ground up. The team has to design more bone structures onto the frames in order to allow for more animation options - something we can already see in the newer races. To update the original race models the wire frames need to change, and the trickle-down effect leads to changes in current animations, customisations, and hairstyles.
"Updating existing character models isn't something we've been 'waffling on'. It's something we'd love to do, but the fact is the art team has finite resources. Updating the current playable race models to be more in-line with Worgen and Goblins requires much more than just increasing the poly count.
"It's much more of a massive overhaul than many players are anticipating. That isn't to say we don't want to do it, but it's difficult to justify delaying the creation of new art, models, and animations indefinitely to revamp old ones. And we have to make sure to do it in a way that doesn't give some players a feeling of detachment from the look they've had for almost seven years."
The other major barrier is resources, unsurprisingly. Regardless of the size of Blizzard, the studio still doesn't have the infinite number of resources necessary to start up a new project in parallel with the rest of their schedule. Hiring an army of artists to get the job done is an option, but it's not a road the studio would go down, Brown says, because of their policy of extensively vetting new applicants.
"There's a synergy we strive for on each of our development teams. In fact, we go to pretty great lengths to vet applicants whenever hiring for a new position. We need to know our iterative design philosophy and our core values are shared. So, if we were to hire several new artists to get this project finished, you certainly wouldn't see the results of that 'right this moment.'"
Still when we're looking at games like Guild Wars 2 coming around the corner, alongside the likes of Star Wars: The Old Republic, WoW starts to feel like it's losing its forward momentum on the visual side of things. Despite working on designing "new gear sets, fleshing out the environments, [and] finishing up several new creature models," the central meat-and-potatoes character updates are losing their ground.
The fact that a total revision of the game's lineup of models isn't top priority isn't a surprise. Blizzard is in the middle of churning out WoW's next expansion Mists of Pandaria as quickly as possible, likely in response to the recent launch of BioWare's own MMO offering SWTOR. Combine that with the development of Diablo III, amongst other games, and you have a big enough excuse to cancel Blizzcon 2012, let alone slack on avatar reforms. But Zarhym goes on to say it's still on the cards.
"If all of this makes you feel that much further away from ever seeing new character models, I can say the project is still a regular topic of discussion for us. We want to figure out the best way to introduce such a feature without shocking a huge chunk of the playerbase that doesn't really think about how their character's features could be improved every time they log into the game."
Even so I wouldn't expect any movement in these areas until long after Mist's launch. Despite Blizzard's awareness of the issue, the player-base has already spent the last seven years proving it can live without a character face lift.