WoW’s secret sauce: tools

This has been my theory since the first hours I’ve seen WoW’s client with my eyes. I was discussing this on the forum today, so I will repeat here the concept, also because I think it’s one of the most important aspects that made the game successful and that I’ve NEVER seen commented.

Outside of Dave Rickey, who wrote in his blog about the importance of tools and how always the worst programmers are put to develop tools, as it is not fun or really gratifying. Can’t post the link because it was swallowed by the internet along with the blog.

So look at this sample picture that was posted.

It is nothing crazy, but it explains my idea. See all those tiny hills that make the mountains in the background? Now, do you think that a designer modeled and textured every one, one by one?

So here I repeat my theory.

I believe that a lot of WoW’s beauty comes from ground textures and terrain modeling.

My controversial opinion is that it isn’t about good art, but good TECH.

If you notice WoW’s terrain is modeled in a way that is easily recognizable and every zone has the same rounded style. What I think is that Blizzard is using an editor that with a few clicks of your mouse creates pretty terrain while also placing textures on the fly, depending on the height and slopes.

Not only it allows them to keep that style consistent, but I also think they can make the terrain very quickly (and a new zone is just a set palette of new textures). Even the grass placeable are probably added by the editor itself.

What I’m saying is that this editor must have some preset brushes that do everything on their own (mostly). You give a general direction, a few mouse clicks and the terrain comes to life with all the textures placed and blended following a precise formula. That ALSO makes all the game, everywhere, look consistent (because they turned textures and modeling conventions into RULES, then applied by the editor itself).

Even *YOU* can make a pretty zone in a very short time, if you had the right tools.

You can import WoW’s textures even in NWN2, so what?

I’m talking about tools that let you manipulate objects. Not the objects themselves. You can let someone make a picture pixel by pixel, or you can give him some broader tools. What you are saying here is that MS Paint is the exact same program of Photoshop.


But can’t you see that doing what Photoshop does into MS Paint would require years of work?


So: try to use NWN2 editor to make a small zone with the terrain that look similar to WoW. Even use an existing zone as a model. I’m sure it will pass six months and you are still tweaking things.

And I’m sure it would only take a few hours to make a good looking zone with the editor Blizzard is using and that is giving that consistent look to ALL the terrain in ALL their zones.

You think this is the result of awesomely awesome art direction, or that maybe there’s one slave who’s doing all the terrain in all WoW. I say it’s because a multitude of designers are using the same tools, so producing similar results.

And I know this because I did use tools in various games, and I know that the most difficult thing is to actually make things look DIFFERENT from everything else in the same game and produced by the same tools.

In short: WoW’s designers are using Photoshop-level tools, all other designers doing other MMOs are using MS Paint-level tools.

Generalizing and simplifying a lot, that’s why everyone else is behind.

Follow up here. In the same way Warcraft 3’s editor as the “apply cliff” tool, WoW likely has an “apply rounded hill” kind of tool that automatically shapes the terrain AND applies appropriate textures. With no effort at all.

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