Interview with World of Warcraft art director Ely Cannon

With Shadowlands around the corner and developers at Blizzard working hard to hit a fall release, we sat down (virtually) with Ely Cannon, the art director of World of Warcraft.

Some of our questions were specifically about Shadowlands, but with Cannon having worked on World of Warcraft since The Burning Crusade, his touch can be seen across more than 50 zones in the WoW atlas.

SA Gamer: How do you go about designing The Maw, a place that has bits of other zones in it?

Ely: Within the skybox of Oribos, we will have a representation of The Maw there too, so you get to see a connectivity to The Maw and how it relates to the rest of the Shadowlands as a starting point.From that point we start to think thematically and from a narrative level. What’s the story that we are trying to tell here? And one of the things we started talking about is this creature, the Jailer that is stuck inside of The Maw, he’s got plans, he is after something, he is looking for something. So he’s trying the best that he can given his limited abilities because he is effectively in prison to try and reach out and find whatever it is that he’s looking for and one of the ways he does that is sending these giant chains and harpoons out into the ambient space around his tower and trying basically to hook things and pull them in. So the bits of land and such that we see in the Maw are actually pieces of things that he’s been able to successfully grasp onto and then tie together and make use of.

It was a very difficult thing for us to do something that was very desolate but wasn’t a typical desert or wasn’t a typical barren landscape that we’ve done. So we did try to take a few of the themes that we had elsewhere in the Shadowlands and pull them in here.But to do it in a way that was only vaguely reminiscent. We wanted to not say it’s a specific place or a specific part of a zone, but to say that it came from somewhere within the Shadowlands. Probably no Revendreth, Bastion or one of the zones we will go to, but one of the other places that exist. The Shadowlands is a place with countless, countless afterlives. We’re just seeing a very small portion of those, and mostly the primary ones but the reality would be millions of these places that various different afterlives take place in. Here we wanted to show something that was different than the zones that we had shown but had some things that you could understand as a human, right? When you see it and say “okay I understand this was a place but it’s obviously not what it was before”; it’s been burned and desiccated as it came through the atmosphere of The Maw.

Looking back at Ny’alotha, it had a very dramatic skybox as you approach N’Zoth. Was there new tech or techniques to give that effect of feeling like you are near something so massive?

Yes, we have been dealing with some new tech for sky boxes for Shadowlands specifically. We’ve added something called a skyscene, and we did start to use it a little bit in Battle For Azeroth but didn’t really fully develop it until we were working on Shadowlands. It allows us to put fully three-dimensional objects in the sky and have them be part of the sky scene. So they travel with the sky scene and the way that the skies normally they’re tied to the player character which is pretty interesting. This let’s us got more three-dimensional looking objects, like Torghast sitting in the sky of The Maw, for example is one of these 3D objects because it’s not actually part of the sky. Being a 3D object you also get a sense of parallax and such as you are moving around it in space. It is definitely something new that we’ve done on the skies.

I’m really excited about it and of course over the last few expansions we’ve been pushing skies as much as possible and trying to find these new ways that we can take it to the next level and really unlock the talents of our artists, which I think are just amazing painters. When it comes to the skies I’ve always loved what they come up with.

Do you have a favourite sky in the Shadowlands zones?

Oooh, they’re so unique, right? I love in Bastion it almost looks like there’s sort of star portals opening up in the sky with clouds spilling out of them. I love that idea. It was so much fun that one of our artists came up with. For Maldraxxus it sort of looks like the sky has a sickly web-like storm happening in it which feels very true to them. Then Ardenweald is another great one where you have these celestial paths that form through the sky and the entire thing looks like a celestial canopy under a giant tree canopy. And Revendreth, of course, has this very Gothic, downtrodden vibe to it. I think they are all so iconic and it’s hard to pick a favourite. Probably The Maw. The sky is pretty amazing and I do love the Tower of Torghast. It’s so epic and being one of the first times we really used that new tech. I’m pretty excited about that one.

What challenged and differences did you encounter designing Torghast?

It’s been an interesting process. So, we’ve done a lot of work over the last few expansions on cities, right? We’ve done Boralus, we’ve done Suramar city and Dazar’alor as well and each one of these was basically created from a kit of pieces in a way that we hadn’t done in the past. It’s a modular sort of a kit where you have buildings and walls and all these different parts that come together to make the larger image. In Torghast we did actually approach it in a similar way, where we had a kit of constructed pieces that we used in order to put these levels together and then that way we were able to create a really wide variety of level layouts. The created a fairly robust prop sets for multiple different themes so that we could create the levels, but theme and prop them differently. Basically we were creating different set designs for them so that you feel like you’re getting a different experience. At least you’re going through a slightly different part of the tower every time you go in. So it was a different way to think about something for sure and it was one of our first real endeavours into truly doing a modular build. Ultimately, as with everything we do, we try to really apply that handcrafted nature to it. So after we piece it together with individual parts, we came back in and did another art pass over the top of the whole thing to make sure that is all really worked together, it was seamed up properly at all the intersections and pathing all that stuff was really as nice as it possibly could be. It would effectively have a similar vibe to as a dungeon, the same level of craftsmanship we apply to a dungeon which is very important to us.

In the zones where you restore the flow of Anima, what kind of physical changes will we see?

There’s some really interesting effects that have been tied to the Anima System. So when you turn an Anima on in let’s say Ardenweald for example, there’s almost like an Anima rain that starts pouring down from the tree. In Bastion the Anima comes up out of the ground. It is just a different way of showing that the same thing is happening when they’re diverting Anima to these places which amplify the amount of ambient Anima in the area. You do see things turn on and get that sense of “hey, I’ve actually activated this part of the zone” and when you do that also unlocks gameplay for that specific area in the zone too, so there might be world quests or other opportunities that happen specifically because you have chosen to activate a portion of the zone.

With Shadowlands being so focussed on the afterlife, will we see any homages from members of the team?

Nothing that I am personally aware of. We’re very specific about adding any homages into the game and as far as I know we have not done so in Shadowlands. You will see homages to characters within the game, both heroes and villains that died previously, which I’m pretty excited for. We’re gonna see some pretty cool characters from the past that I think will be interesting to see what they have been up to.

In our deep dive of Bastion, someone mentioned colour similarities to Mac’aree in Argus.

Yeah, I can see that. Of course there are only so many colours. So I think that while there are some similarities, obviously, the sort of tawny golden grass of the Savannah portions of Bastion are very similar to some of the grass colours of Argus, though I think the ones of Argus were more of an orangey-yellow, maybe a little bit more saturated. I think that’s the biggest difference when we looked at Bastion was to specifically play down the amount of saturation in the colours to make everything feel like it was lighter and brighter and just had a lighter feel to it overall, trying to make it feel very peaceful and serene. So I think it succeeded really well in that and yes, similar colours but a very, very different vibe.

Is that a part of your process? Looking at what colour palettes you’ve used for previous zones?

Absolutely, and not even from expansion to expansion, but even within a singular expansion we do really like to look at everything almost like a colour scripts. So if I look at all the zones next to each other, I really want you to feel like you are being transported as you move from one place to the next. Even within a zone, that you do feel some difference. Bastion’s actually a pretty good example of that, while it has fewer different biomes, there’s a lot more difference between them. So if you go from the Savannah grasslands into the more heavily vegetative, sort of blue jungle spaces, there is a very different vibe and we do that within zones and across all the zones for an expansion and also look at last expansion: did we have zones that were very similar colour pallets. We try to make sure that we’re doing something different. We’re always evolving and iterating and trying to create things that are unique for the expansion, and really the place. Because there are a limited amount of colours and we have to try to make colour theory choices and create a package of colours that make sense for the themes and the place in the expansion, but we don’t want to necessarily reiterate something that we’ve done before because we’re always trying to tell a unique story.

Some areas in Ny’alotha look like… reproductive organs…

I don’t think that’s intentional.

So it is just us being filthy while we raid?

I couldn’t say. Our intention was to represent the Old God spaces as best we could and try to make it feel like you’re going into the guts of N’Zoth. I think in an of itself, the organic nature of him as a creature makes that place creepy and disgusting and it does make it a bit uncomfortable to be there and I think that is a part of the Old God vibe. It’s that feeling of “I really should not be here. This is a very alien place.”

How did you know you wanted to go into level design?

So I actually grew up in Eastern Washington, which is say, three hours from Seattle. I think everybody’s heard of Seattle. It’s a very wilderness-centric area with a lot of agriculture so I spent a lot of time outside honestly, hiking, rock climbing, mountain-biking, that sort of stuff. Going out on the water on the lakes and rivers nearby so I got a real love for landscape and nature. And then I went through art school and started looking for jobs, one of the jobs that came up was at ArenaNet as a level artist at that time. So they had done all the design work and they needed people to go put in the art over the top of it and make it pretty. I just fell in love with it: sculpting the mountains – there is such a beautiful rhythm to the way that mountains are formed via erosion and other natural effects. The way that trees grow together and plants gather around the base of the trees, the little epiphytes that grow on the surface of the trees, the little leaves and mushrooms and all those things that like to grow there. All of those systems and all of the sort of magic behind nature, that stuff gets me here and is something that has always really driven me and even to this day, the landscape, the world part of World of Warcraft is still a thing that really drives me. Personally, the thing I get most excited about is exploring the zones and really just running around. I get distracted when I’m questing because I wander off the beaten path to go look at something. It’s always been the drive for me, it’s just that real love of nature and deep connection to nature from when I was a child.

Do you have a favourite place in World of Warcraft?

I think Icecrown will always be near and dear to me. I spent a lot of time on that working with one of my really good friends on it. It is one of those moments, I think, that was a turning point for WoW too, as far as visual fidelity and landscape with the work that we did in Wrath, we really did turn a corner from the original WoW and  BC that has carried on into modern and really set the stage for what really has happened since in the realm of level design.So if I look back that’s probably my favourite zone.

If it has the letters RPG in it, I am there. Still battling with balancing trying to play every single game that grabs my interest, getting 100% in a JRPG, and devoting time to my second home in Azeroth.

Lost Password

Sign Up