When I wrote on the forums that I believed Blizzard had an advantage building WoW’s zones because of some black magic in their editor, everyone went against me.
Well, I’m still absolutely convinced that there’s some secret sauce right there. Call it how you want, the gist of what I meant is that for each zone Blizzard makes a terrain “palette” that guarantees:
1- A consistent and unique look throughout the whole game, and distinctive for the each zone.
2- That even if the zone designer sucks, things still look pretty and WoW-y.
Or: everyone can take that black magic editor and make a WoW-y quality zone in no time and with no experience. Even I.
See the ridge in the background? Compare it to what we are used to see.
A “new feature” in WotLK is that they built a new palette/preset for the terrain, and the rounded hills now look more sharply cut.
The simple thing I wanted to underline is that what you see there is not the result of an awesome zone designer who spent his life modeling EACH of those tiny hills and bumps, but of a tool in the editor that allows even a monkey to quickly use it and get a consistent look that makes every screenshot recognizable. That consistent look that everyone praises.
Then I don’t know if the zone designer person is ALSO responsible for the preset making. My point is that the “genius” is in the editor and preset. And that the making of a zone is much, much more trivial and easy than how people expect. And more concerned instead with the “flow” and structure of a zone.
But the “look” and prettiness are for the greater part merit of the editor and presets. And that if WoW still looks prettier than other games out there it’s because the designers can use standardized tools that guarantee consistency and quality.
And it is not new (Warcraft 3).
The controversy is that my theory is that other MMOs companies don’t seem to have the same pre-planning and strong automated tools, so more vulnerable to the fickleness of their zone designers. Lack of consistence and all the rest.
Or: it’s about the gears, not just about the people.
Blizzard has better gears, or spends more time making better gears. No matter who they hire, they guarantee already that the quality is high and up to their standards (at least for zone design).