Everyone knows WoW has graphics dating back to 2004. Sure, new graphics are added, and many new weapons, armour and areas have received the high-poly and high-res-texture treatment… But not the old characters, no, no.
Blizzard claims they’re not planning on increasing the polycount on characters, as that would strain older computers too much (but they’re happy adding polys to weapons and armor, largely replacing much of the low-poly characters, so that logic fails here). However, would they really need to increase the POLYCOUNT, of all things?
How about some normal maps, hello?
Take this plain human female model:
Okay, textured she looks better, but not by a lot.
Now let’s hop her over to a sculpting program…
Actually the applied level-5 subdivision itself provided most of the soft curves, but the face and the abdomen musculature and ribs needed manual work. I’m no great sculptor and this shows painfully, but there it is. This could take no more than an hour of work for a good sculptor and give WAY better results – with proper collar bones, arm toning etc., I skipped on all that, as this is just a proof of concept.
Now, let’s make a normal map and apply it to the model…
There we go, facial features are no longer just painted over her face, but can receive proper lighting and shadowing; muscle tone gets lit as well and isn’t reduced to texture-based ambient darkening. Give it only slightly more work and you get significant quality increase at NO additional poly cost.
Tech details: of course some tweaks to the original UV map had to be done, as (unbeknownst to normal map newbies like me) normal maps can’t be symmetrical; you can’t use a typical “left and right side mapped onto the same image” UV map. You need to unwrap a map like that for the normal mapping, as a normal map needs distinct left and right sides (and bottoms and tops, of course) – otherwise your right side will appear convex while the left side becomes badly concave, or vice versa.
Anyway, all it would take for Blizzard to vastly improve on their models’ appearance is, say, two hours of sculpting per model. There aren’t that many models to fix, really. It’s 2010, dammit, why are we stuck with 256×256 skins per character?