CONCEPT OF: Warcraft

Journal Entry: Wed Feb 10, 2010, 3:13 PM

Welcome to our periodic spotlight feature where we take a look at the concept art and design of a game or film. The intent here is to get the creative juices flowing, remind people what's out there and what's being done, and to not lose sight of the quality of professional work. We can also discuss what works and maybe what doesn't, what you dig, or what you DONT dig.


Game: Warcraft / World of Warcraft…
Release Date: 1994/2004
Company: Blizzard Entertainment
Lead Concept Artists: Sons of the storm

You KNEW it was coming! It is impossible, you might even say disrespectful, to study the art of concept design and not acknowledge the art of Blizzard Entertainment! Ignoring the titan in the room with the six-meter sword at our tea party would be.. dangerous.

Not going to lie, this is going to be a LONG one. This post might be so big it will crash a server somewhere. Blizzard's body of work is my personal favourite and I have a ton of thoughts I'd like to express - I am also compelled to do it justice. There was so much artwork to go through - and it's not my intent to post it all here - I just want us to take a look at some of the not-so-well-known beginnings. So grab a snack if you plan to read all of this, and if not, just look at the pictures and space out with me. Here goes:

While we COULD have focused on any of their franchises, like Starcraft or Diablo, today we will be focusing purely on the art of the WarCraft universe (this includes the RTS and the MMO). Now I know you've all been exposed to this stuff before, some of you are probably even sick of it, but the art of Warcraft is the embodiment and defining characteristic of what Blizzard is all about:  BAD ASS EPIC!


Their designs are SOAKED in awesome sauce - you can see it in their beefy armour concepts, impossibly huge weapons, and super heroic proportions. No one has pushed intensity of design quite like Blizzard has. They have taken things to otherworldly levels of creative bitchin'.

This summer, I was fortunate to attend BlizzCon 2009 in Anaheim, and met ALL of their lead artists in person (aka, Sons of the Storm) - which, needless to say, was a dream come true. Sons of the Storm is what the core Blizzard concept team calls itself - Chris Metzen, Samwise Didier, Glenn Rane, Rene of Twincruiser, MG, Thammer, and Peter Lee.  I sat in on their development panels, both 2D and 3D, and got to absorb their insight and wisdom - and gained a deeper understanding of what makes them tick. If there is one thing that really hit me, it was this:

They were not necessarily the best draftsmen.

That's right. They were however, the BEST IDEASMEN. The best way to describe the origins of their style is to imagine a kid in Grade 5 - he's drawing SUPER PASSIONETLY on some lined paper in class, hell, maybe even his assignment. He's listening to some heavy metal, some AC/DC, and he's just dishing out some huge bad ass monster with his yellow graphite pencil; making guttural noises as he details the rotting flesh and over-proportioned anatomy. It may not be the prettiest, most realistic or accurate monster ever drawn, hell, it may even look like someone barfed lines onto the page, but the IDEA is SO SOLID - the CONCEPT is 150% ON TARGET. THAT is what my monster looks like, THAT is how I want it to make you feel when you look at it, THAT is how it is SUPPOSED to be. THAT is Blizzard's art style.

Obviously they've matured from the lined paper days into world-class artists, but the ESSENCE and ATTITUDE is still there. I think this is one of the key reasons why their art succeeds and why it appeals to SO many people in the world - it is pure HEART. Solid, BOLD, and confident. It is pure feeling, pure energy, pure imagination, pure STORY, pure fun, and most importantly, PURE ENTERTAINMENT. And what better reason is there than that? There is a reason why thousands of people sport Warcraft related tattoos - because the art is a visual POWERHOUSE filled to the brink with feeling. This is why they call it Entertainment Design - we are here to invoke feeling, story, and ultimately, entertainment.

This is a really great example of the evolution of their art. Essentially the same character, same essence, same presence - but drawn more than a decade apart. And yet, the flavour is still there.

A lot of concept art being done these days tries really hard to keep up with the demands of 3D realism - so we get a lot of realistic faces, pretty "illustrative" pictures, fully rendered concepts, with tight polished shadows, convincing bounce light, and flashy special effects. There is a place for this type of work, and in many ways it is the NEW standard. Blizzard breaks away from this convention and does their own thing. The most accurately depicted image in the world means nothing without a creative idea backing it up.  It's about STORY and IDEA before you put pencil to paper. Creativity over draftsmanship.

So lets take a look at some of the pieces we've got here. I consider Warcraft RTS and World of Warcraft the same universe, because, well, it is. A universe is a universe and that means it transcends how it is presented to you - it could be a real time strategy game, a massively multiplayer online game, a board game, a card game, a drawing, a comic, a book, a TV show, or even a movie (which is in the works). Doesn't matter. All of it ultimately comes from the same source - this 'other' reality.

Thick, chunky armor that often looks more like stone than metal. Chiselled, blocky, rigid muscles. Square jaws. Sharp angles. HIGHLY saturated colour. I won't really comment on Blizzard's style because words won't do it justice.

Instead, here's an excellent quote by Samwise Didier, Art Director, that sums it all up:

"Over the course of time they {our artists} are beaten down with our universal artistic truths:

(1) Less is NEVER more.
(2) Bigger is ALWAYS better.
(3) All one-handed weapons should be (at least) as big as two-handed weapons.
(4) If all else fails, add skulls and spikes and paint it red."

All our artists care about is the art. Is it cool? Does it kick ass over all others? We don't really worry about things like proportion or if it 'would really work' in the real (boring) world... As long as the art looks amazing, we don't care if it doesn't look real or act like it would in the real world." (Samwise Didier)

Not enough can ever be said about how cool these armour sets are... I mean.. just.. holy cow. Beautiful stuff - each one addresses 3 critical demands: 1) makes you feel like it could protect you, 2) makes you see how it would instil FEAR in your enemy, and 3) speaks to what TYPE of warrior you are (magic, melee, etc).

In their podcasts, Samwise talks about the origins of their style and says when working on Warcraft I, they tried hard to break away from traditional fantasy that was being done in the 90s. Orcs, for example, were stereotypically the "villains" and so in an effort to break the mold they poured a lot of love and sympathy into our green foes (the birth of the whole Blizzard Horde-bias thing if you know what I'm talking about). They took the fantasy genre and warped it into something unique. Guns? Got em. Bows and arrows, but flying zeppelins and helicopters? Got em. Everything in existence, regardless of time period, can find its way into the Warcraft universe - another of its defining traits.

Tools: pencil and paper. Most, if not all, of the concept work for Warcraft is first drawn on paper with mechanical pencil and sometimes pen/marker. This includes environments, props, weapons, creatures, and character designs. And somehow, I think pencil works with the universe so well - it has that storybook, medieval tome, or worn parchment type fantasy feeling. When they want to colour it: just scan in it, and paint it up in photoshop or painter. Their pencil drawings are not fully rendered either - they opt for "block" shadow instead and leave rendering up to later. In this way, the image quality is somewhere in-between comic book and 2D animation (Blizzard is known for their occasional fun, quirky, cartoony humour). What they DO do with pencil however, is material and texture indication. There is a strong emphasis on shape, size, and material - whether its metal plating, leather straps, fur, bark, chainmail, stone, scratches, tears, scars, etc. Anything to sell the idea.

Take a close look at this artwork. It is VERY clear - there is nothing left to ambiguity. (Again, part of the Blizzard style, BOOOM, I AM HERE, THIS IS IT). Sharp, crisp edges are used constantly to accentuate the violence but also to comply with the technical restraints of low poly modeling that is used in the RTS and in WoW.

This concept here is HANDS DOWN one of my favourite examples of Blizzard's bad ass creativity. This is an Ice Giant concept by MG from Wrath of the Lich King - LOOK AT IT! There is so much history in this one drawing - he's got the remnant swords of all the warriors he's obliterated acting like spike grips on snow shoes. His weapon is a Northrend tree laden with the lower JAWS of dragons he's ripped apart with this bare hands. His belt is the skull of a massive beast, the gate of a castle his shin guard, human shields protecting his knuckles, and entire polar bear skins strapped to his arms. Frankly, you don't want want to mess with this guy.

This is exactly the kind of meaning I'm talking about. A lot of the concepts you see these days are sci-fi soldiers with some intricate looking backpack thing that, to be honest, yea it may look kinda cool but it doesn't mean a damn thing. In other words: it's visual bullshit.

There is a HUGE emphasis on silhouette in all of these designs. This is something I believe was adopted from having worked on the Warcraft RTS. From the birds eye camera-view of RTS games, being able to distinguish a unit from another unit FROM SO FAR AWAY can only be done with clear unique silhouettes and strong colours when they are tiny little figures on screen. That means pushing everything; the size of swords, the size of shoulderpads in order to make them READ. All of this translated into WoW - where shoulder pads are the size of small cars. What's so brilliant about shoulder pads is that they are a KEY way to add interest to a human silhouette. If you've ever watched Bear Grylls, the British survivor man of TV show Man vs. Wild and former UK special forces, he talks about the importance of breaking up the human sillhouette if you are trying to hide in the jungle. All animals can instantly identify a human being by looking at the shape created by the shoulders and head - and if you fill the gap between the head and shoulders you instantly become something else. Smart man.

The environment sketches are very painterly with an emphasis on mood, lighting, and colour. Again, because of the "everything-AND-the-kitchen-sink" nature of Warcraft, there is no limit on what the environments can have - from majestic golden crystal interiors, to magical forests, to floating islands with impossible waterfalls, to harsh jagged volcano fortresses sitting in lava. Anything goes. The same is true of the weapon designs - all designed with the purpose of KILLING and inflicting harm. Look at some of these monsters, and think about how much something like that would hurt if you were faced against it in real life.  

Now, if there is one weakness in this work, it may be the very thing that makes it so great. The problem with making everything so grand is that it all starts to look the same. A ton of big ass swords look like a bunch of big ass swords - there is nothing to contrast the greatness. In reality, even a butter knife used properly can make a man bleed. And so, what I think is needed is to keep, at least to some degree, a PART of the Warcraft universe that remains grounded in the laws of reality. For example, villagers/peasants and non-combatants serve this contrast well. While they are only armed with their flimsy pitchforks, shovels, and straw hats, we the hero feel WAY more cool indeed, what with our flaming 20foot long axe and shield. If you compare this medieval themed art to that of Project Offset, the shoulder pads are about a quarter of the size - but the armour in PO still feels durable. Basically, there is still value in ordinary design, and we shouldn't lose sight of them because they help enhance the epic things.

Contrast is one of the greatest tools we as artists have to use. One of the first assignments we were given at school was to "draw the biggest sun you have ever seen". How do you draw the biggest thing you've ever seen? A sun is just a circle. Well I could draw a circle, but then I could just draw an even BIGGER circle, and a BIGGER one then that - so how do I know what to stop? The key is contrast. To make the BIGGEST sun ever, you draw a tiny SPEC of a cityscape beside it. Contrast of scale. Suddenly, the sun looks like the biggest thing in the known universe, all because of the relationship between the two entities. This is what I'm getting at with the Warcraft art. If everyone is super, then no one is super. (Incredibles *cough*)

But this is a minor "weakness" if you can even call it that. This body of work speaks for itself on many levels and it's nice to take the time to really STUDY it for what it is and the thoughts that go on behind the scenes. These guys at Blizzard make some of the freshest ideas in the world, but remember, they do that because they have the passion of a little kid doodling in class in grade 5 - where ANYTHING is possible.

As we wrap this up, and after having revisited some of this artwork, I have one last thing to say: Freak Creativity. What? Blizzard has basically coined massive shoulder pads and if you watch the Diablo 3 trailer, at the end, not only are his shoulders the biggest, meanest things you have ever seen, but they have MOUTHS on them. Frickin MOUTHS on shoulder pads... Freak Creativity.

This post is massively epic - took me hours to put together. But as you can see, Blizzard deserves no less.


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