Agents, avatars, bodies and evolution, OH MY!

For the current expansion of World of Warcraft, Warlords of Draenor, the dev team decided that the character graphics needed a bit of an upgrade. There had been a lot of innovation and progression in graphics in the past ten years since WoW originally hit the shelves. They took on this incredibly daunting task with one idea in mind, to keep the “spirit” of the original:

With the revamp, we’re completely overhauling every aspect of the player models, but our goal is to do so while retaining the core look and feel that has always made them your character. We’ll feel like we’ve succeeded if you see the updated version of your character and it still feels like you’re looking at the character you’ve been playing for the past however many years—only someone has finally focused a lens. ~ Chris Robinson, Artcraft – A First Look

Now I was hugely invested in this change. I take so long to decide on a look for my avatar, not to mention the time invested in her (them – I’m an altoholic), their transmog, their general attitude and what titles and non-combat pets suit them best (no, I’m not on a roleplay server 😛 yes, I still consider all this anyway). For some classes, even their spec is taken into consideration when deciding on these things. leia

My Frost/Arcane mage in her Leia outfit … not sold on the staff mog or the belt, but when I get time to play I’ll look at getting more matchy ones!

Agent or Avatar?

So previously I’ve written about agents and avatars. Agents are characters you are lumped with and have no choice about, like Pacman or Lara Croft. Avatars are characters you can create. There’s a limit to this explanation, however. How much choice is there to be considered an avatar? Is it reliant on choice of appearance, story, abilities or what you do in the game?2015-05-31_00016In Wolf Among Us, you play Bibgy Wolf – the big bad wolf! You don’t have any option over his background or appearance, you are a pre-established character in a story, however the future of that story relies on your choices in the game. But in a way, that choice is limited by the fact of no open world, the game pushes you from scene to scene to progress the story. da2In Dragon Age 2, you can select one of six (based on class/gender), but cannot change appearance or name. Again, you are a pre-established character named Hawke – Garrett if male, or Marian if female. However, the future of your character, the relationships it has and the story rely on your choices. This is more of an open world where you can walk around and choose side-quests.

In WoW, you only control your own character, sometimes taking over a vehicle or putting on a disguise, but still you. You can’t quite choose reactions like in the previous games, but you can work on relationships through a reputation system, doing quests or giving certain items or killing certain NPC’s to gain influence with that faction and in turn being able to purchase from them (what I went through for the Bloodsail title…. never again). This does not influence the story however, except that certain quests become available to you at different levels of the reputation in some cases. In The Sims, the player is the hand of god, but gameplay is a sandbox, you have a tonne of control over the features of the character and can decide what they do and when they do it, from going to the toilet to flirting to getting a job. This is further complicated by the fact you can control many characters (up to 8 at a time without mods) as a family or household. Are they all avatars?

I’ll be going more into detail on these two, since I have played them the longest and throughout different variations (World of Warcraft was a real time strategy called Warcraft before it became an MMORPG). My PhD focus is on the body and aesthetics of the avatar, and both games have a very interesting take on avatar design as well as a lot of fan/fan+dev discussion about how the models should be.


World of Warcraft

I’ve been playing World of Warcraft for maybe 8 years or so, taking a break over Wrath for my bachelor degree, and another break now while organising my PhD. I did play the earlier RTS Warcraft 2 and Warcraft 3, so I was already familiar with some of the story and the style of game before heading into WoW. As I mentioned at the start of the post, it was very interesting for me when the devs decided to upgrade the character models, but there had already been some controversy about models previously. Let us start with what I consider the biggest evolution, of troll player character models (unique models were made for raids and the faction leader previously, but here I’m just focusing on the player character model).

**Please note that the labels are vague, I don’t know exactly when any of the pictures were taken except the Warlords one I did – and I say this, because tiny tweaks and additions to hair and such have been made throughout the games lifespan. So if you know when those models were in the game, please let me know!**

evolution trolls

Woah, that alpha troll I would not have played for anything! The change was a good one! My first character was a troll, so seeing what they could have been is scary. Look at this video, just look at it!

Now this image was a comparison of the live model on the left, and the work in progress for the update on the right. Trolls before didn’t have much expression and couldn’t even blink. The high level of detail in the new models is fabulous. You can see what they meant by trying to keep the spirit of the original, but just with higher detail. There were, of course, some who felt that the new models did not resemble their character and I feel that completely for my human paladin. I despise the way she grits her teeth, and her face previously was very calm and collected, and now just derpy and wide-eyed. I can’t even play my paladin anymore (but also wasn’t very good at the class, so I could be biased). But my troll is adorable ❤

From Blizzard's Artcraft blog on

Another controversy was back in the Cataclysm (expansion 3) beta with the worgen. Now, I wasn’t around for this one, so all I know is what people say happened. The original worgen were like the one on the right, with coloured eyes and a nice, softer snout. The live version, however, looks much more fierce and with more teeth. Which is what I assume the designers were going for, a fiercer and more bestial looking worgen, however there was a backlash in the community. As far as I can tell, the Blizzard release of the beta version happened around the 20th of May 2010, the expansion was released in December 2010. Since the worgen was released much later, Blizzard didn’t consider them a priority to update like the trolls for the fourth expansion. On a Blue (blue meaning a Blizzard employee) post on pandaren models, Wryxian stated that they didn’t want to second-guess the design, and referred to changing the model might make the silent majority upset and compared it to the female worgen. This has been taken by the fan community as an admission by Blizzard that even they think this radical change was a mistake. Even if this is an admission, and some in the fan community argue for it, Blizzard has not said it will majorly change worgen design. I do trust that they want to keep the ‘spirit’ of the avatars players have already created. Even if I think the alpha worgen looks pretty, I don’t mind my worgen (she’s not a derpy Chihuahua to me!) and have no idea the time or manpower that the re-creation of these models would take, probably for little gain (if it’s even noticeable). beta+worgen

This is not the least of the model change controversies, and there are far more fan comments on every tiny detail. Another notable one that I haven’t included was the change to the Blood Elf Male, who was bulked up to look more masculine, which is an awesome example for gender studies!


The Sims

I’ve been playing The Sims since the first game, although I never got every expansion pack or stuff pack or DLC. I also played on PC, so no console versions for me, and I did not buy the ill-fated The Sims Online. I’ve had a hand or two at the phone app games, but didn’t really get into them.

The Sims, for creator Will Wright, is a digital dollhouse. The basic idea is that you direct a Sim through their everyday life, building them a house, getting them a job, creating a family, paying bills, and with expansions, going to the shops and university. They have needs, as the creator built it off Maslow’s hierarchy, and although it varies between games, it’s generally around things like hunger, bladder, hygiene, fun and social.

There is no primary objective, there is no storyline, there is no end to the game and there’s really no success or failure of how you play the game. In particular, this interests me that you really cannot be ‘badat The Sims. The gameplay is so open, you can play however you want. Some just enjoy being a digital architect and making houses, some prefer creating their own stories told through machinima or blogs, some try challenges which have been entirely created by the community (the most popular and well-known is the legacy challenge – my personal favourite is called Differences in the Family Tree), some like cheating in lots of money (called Simoleans) and just making a giant house their sim can chill out in. One thing that interests me in particular is how some players focus on a SimSelf, deliberately re-creating themselves (perhaps friends and family too) within the game. Sometimes they try to re-create their lives, or play out possible futures for themselves, or create a fantasy world for themselves in which they have a lot of money, a giant mansion and are married to celebrities.

simselfMy SimSelf!

Each generation of game gives you more and more control over the appearance of your Sims. However, there are debates of the need for realism within the Sims. In 2013, a live broadcast with lead concept artist Albert Truong said “These characters, what we’re trying to go for, is a little bit of a sexier, cooler, design, a little more appealing. Something more on the painterly effect, but we didn’t want to go towards a realistic thing and get into an uncanny valley.” The uncanny is a concept from Freud, but was developed on by roboticist Masahiro Mori. Generally speaking, the closer a robot or simulation gets to looking like a real human, the more we get freaked out by it. The Sims artists are very aware of this when they create new versions of the game.

With expansions, you can also play Sims that are vampires, werewolves, genies, aliens, witches, fairies, plantsims. Also, there’s the pets expansions! I re-created my cat in The Sims 3. Isn’t she adorable?!


This video gives you a good look at the changes of the Sims over time and how Create-A-Sim functions in The Sims 4.


And for the record, I would consider The Wolf Among Us as an agent, with Dragon Age 2, WoW and Sims as avatars. Just need to be precise with language as to why.


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