World of Warcraft has been arguably the most popular MMORPG in the world since its launch in 2004. With its sixth expansion pack, Legion, set for release next spring, the world of Azeroth faces another invasion by the demonic Burning Legion, but sees a new class of heroes dubbed Demon Hunters arise to combat them.

With dark fel magic running rampant, though, the colourful world takes on a sickly hue. Bad news for the Horde and Alliance, forced into an uneasy partnership against a common foe, but an excellent opportunity for players to explore a setting that looks wildly different to anything WoW has offered before.

At this year’s Blizzcon, WIRED spoke with senior art director Chris Robinson on designing a poisoned environment, the impact of the Warcraft movie on the game’s visuals, and how traditional artistry remains a key skill in creating digital worlds.

WIRED: The Legion expansion has been the one most overlapping with the development of the movie. Has the film affected the way you’ve done things visually, since you’ll be launching at around the same time?
Chris Robinson: We actually thought a lot of about keeping the game distinct, to where we saw the vision going. When we started the movie process, we talked about where we thought the overlap was going to happen. The people working on the movie were taking it in the direction of telling a story in the world with some characters that overlap. With us, we didn’t really want to get to that point where we were relying on someone else to make our decisions, or to group-think. It’s always been about protecting the vision in the team, and our writers, artists and designers are so passionate about what we think of as “the game” that the idea of it being influenced by an outside factor doesn’t make us excited. Certainly, we’ve been watching what they were doing and we love it. It looks great and I think there’s probably a little overlap in terms of the visuals, skin textures and what orcs look like, that kind of thing. But in terms of the game world, very little.

When you’re creating art and designs for an ongoing gaming world like Warcraft, what’s the development process? Do you focus on each expansion at a time, or are you constantly rolling out new material?
It’s a train, it’s a constant. We’re staggered in a way, so not everyone’s focused on one expansion or one innovation. Some of it’s stuff that might come out two or three years down the road; some that will come out in the next patch. It’s a little more reactive for the most part. We might put something out, see how players respond and then react to it and change our judgement and alter the process along the way, to make sure it’s stuff that’s relevant and resonates. Then there’s key elements that we feel we really want to do because we’re passionate about it and that’s always rolling. It’s about maintaining what people find to be the important parts of the game that resonate and identify with, and use that as a base to introduce new mechanics that might reference that or build on the core themes that make Warcraft what it is.

Legion is delving into darker territory, with the demonic Burning Legion returning. What goes into making the world aesthetically pleasing to players, when everything is death and destruction?
It’s a contrast, you know? We want those moments where you’re experiencing bleak horror and the colour palette is something you’ve never seen before. And then we want to pull you right back out of that to something that feels more light-hearted so you breathe again. It’s all about that balance — you don’t have it be epic all the time. Not everything has to be Burning Legion in your face at all times.

To me, Warcraft has always been about whimsy alongside the more serious storytelling, like a fairy forest. The theme is certainly very heavy but as you roll through the environment and you progress, we definitely wanted those moments of an arc — like in a story or a good movie — where there’s a build-up and the heat of it but then you need a rest period before you build up again. To me it’s about that contrast, about visually pulling people in and out so they’re not just getting the same thing over and over again.

World of Warcraft is over a decade old now. Where’s the line between maintaining the early, almost cartoonish aesthetic versus pushing out more technically detailed designs that both Blizzard’s engines and player’s machines are capable of now?
The art that we create is not the most definitive or realistic — to me it’s more like a painting where you leave areas for the imagination to fill in. This is what the style is, this is what we’re trying to convey to the player, but they also fill in the blanks with their own brain. Everyone who plays the same game doesn’t get the same experience. It reflects how we see the world and it maintains the connectivity for them, because a lot of that [immersion] is stories that they’ve told themselves between the gaps that we left for them.

Almost a form of interactive impressionism?
That’s a great way to put it. The hard part has been that when new creators come in, we don’t have like a 500 page book that we give them and say “read this book to learn how to make WoW” art. We sit with that person and work on the things that you get to work on; they’ll paint with you, do paint-overs, talk about art. It’s a big group that’s always driving the new people to understand the style.

Presumably some of that influx of new talent grew up on the game, too?
We have a lot of people who still work on the game were there at the beginning or close to the beginning. But we also have people we hired recently, who’ve just come out of school and they say that Warcraft was the beginning for them, it was their game. It’s a crazy thing for us, having people coming in and saying “I remember when…”, you know? Like, how dare people be younger than us?! But it really brings an interesting dynamic to the team because they have things that mean a lot to them, that mean something completely different to the people who created it.

How much of the art generated for Warcraft now is produced on traditional media compared to digitally?
A lot of it, actually. We do a lot of concept work in traditional forms. We do a certain amount of textures where you start traditional, scan and then sketch over or paint over that. I think that as an artist, you’re never going to excel at digital art if you don’t understand that kind of thing. You’re not going to be able to push your digital art as far as you can. When we’re not in active game development, we have classes where you actually sit down and sculpt or use oil painting, so that you understand the medium. When you later sit down to paint a texture or model something, you’ll pull in that knowledge from the traditional medium. We want you to feel that you’re in a piece of art, like at any moment you could take a screencap and it would look like a painting.

World of Warcraft: Legion will ‘feel like you’re in a piece of art’