Warlords of Draenor: Building Female Models

Orc female showing off new model and expressions.

Orc models and screenshot courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.

One of the features in the upcoming expansion I’ve been looking forward to the most is the long-awaited model revamps. While we have no confirmation that these models will be ready by the start or even middle of the expansion, what we’ve been shown so far has been promising. Through their new Artcraft series on World of Warcraft’s front page blog, we’ve been able to see a continuation of the promises they made about updating models at Blizzcon last year. Today’s offering of an orc female is no different and comes hot on the heels of the recent debut of the human female model.

It’s no secret that I take female model designs seriously – gaming culture is plagued with representations of women’s bodies that are problematic and World of Warcraft has long had a problem with a lack of customization. While I’ve enjoyed that at least WoW makes a decent effort to vary its’ silhouettes, it is still a game running on a graphics engine that’s severely outdated. These model revamps have been fun to watch as they happen; it is clear that they want to keep the overall visual fidelity to the old models but at the same time fix a lot of the problems that come with having them be a far lower resolution. Also nice to see is the time and care taken with some of the musculature and anatomy. Seeing game models that finally sit the breasts on the chest wall in a realistic manner is heartening, as well as egregious postures being smoothed out and relaxed.

I have to admit I’m a bit blown away with how much personality and life they’ve injected into the models. The postures looking more natural, as well as improved muscles and facial expressions makes me feel I’m playing a “real” person. The new orc female models are no exception – there’s life there now beyond just a blank, doe-eyed expression.

“We want a strong female counterpart to the male, equally battle-ready in appearance, yet still feminine.” — Character Artist, Dusty Nolting

I think the most heartening part of this process, seeing the models unveiled, is that it feels like the design ethic with the female models is steered in a direction that I feel comfortable with. What designers sometimes seem to lack understanding is that women’s bodies are so fraught with politics but they are ultimately our own and come in a variety of shapes, sizes and ability. Designing characters that show a little of this variety, particularly if there’s no sliders to customize, is what is going to keep many of your customers enjoying the characters they play is in your game. Dusty’s quote from the Artcraft about the orc models also reveals another part of the ethic that was very frustrating in the past: dimorphism and the tug and pull between feminine and masculine.

Design often requires visual shorthand to convey a lot of information in a very short amount of time. This often means exaggerating many different things – gendered traits are one of those things. What determines “male” and “female” visually falls on pretty essentialist tropes like muscle groups, facial hair and secondary sex characteristics like bust. Women are often designed to be sexy or sexual and men are power fantasies. This is due to who gaming still believes it the core audience – straight men. Men are given huge muscular bodies and women have very similar hourglass figures with giant racks. This is how the nuance between feminine and masculine gets hammered out as well. With the orc women, I was really troubled by the idea that they would not be able to strike a core balance between the more battle-ready nature of the orcs and the fact that orc women are still women in their own right. How do women in orc culture look and how does this compare to women of other races? Creating identity and unique versions of femininity among all the races of Azeroth is key here. It’s no secret that some race’s women are coded much more traditionally feminine than others: see draenei, night elves and blood elves. It’s necessary to allow every race to have elements of both hardness and softness in their visual identity. With the orcs, I was worried that she would swing too hard in either direction and it’d feel like a joke or cheap. The fact that the screenshots we got convey both that hardened nature as well as mirth and beauty makes me feel more at ease. Now, if I could only get some of the orc women’s hairstyles on my female humans or even my draenei would make me feel able to feel slightly more butch even on a heavily feminized body.

Between the orc woman’s kissy face and the gnome lady’s legendary side-eye, I do feel that one of the things about Warlords of Draenor I won’t have to worry about is how all the models look visually. Blizzard has done a great job so far giving us a peek behind the curtain about how we are going to look in the not-so-distant (alternate) future (in the past) and I look forward to seeing all the models.

Update: Blizzard quietly dropped a full render of the dwarven female model on their Warlords of Draenor site just an hour. Go look!

Some my quick thoughts are mostly that while I love her body, I wish she had a bit more meat on her thighs. Some of the screenshots of her face look a bit wonky but I would bet they look better when actually in game. Yay!

 

Patch 5.2 – The Problem with Twins, Part 2

Patch 5.2 finally drops next Tuesday and with it, there has been quite a few things of note, particularly regarding the Twin Consort bosses I discussed. The 5.2 trailer, which was posted yesterday, was actually exciting and got me pumped for the raid content. The poetry, the story, feels like some of the patch trailers we’ve gotten before but a lot more cinematic. And while we got a glimpse of a lot of the story behind the Thunder King and his lackeys in the raid, guess who were missing.

That’s right, our wonderful twin ladies, Lu’lin and Suen. Kinda curious, don’t you think? Unfortunately my cynicism that Blizzard left them out of the trailer due to overwhelming shame might have a slightly more logical explanation, courtesy of the developer interview regarding all of the Throne of Thunder bosses earlier this week. This interview, incidentally, is what spurred me to post yet another discussion about these two Mogu sex robots bodyguards.

My thoughts on why the Twin Consorts were left out of the trailer might have been a mid-stream design change to their lore, as per Lead Encounter Designer Ion Hazzikostas:

An earlier version of the concept for the fight had them actually being spirits of the Sun and Moon, but that didn’t feel quite right (and we all know that the only true spirit of the Moon is Elune, and clearly she was not locked away by the Thunder King).

Now, this exceptionally generous on my part, but I suspect it is the only reason why they’d leave these female bosses out of the trailer video, given how long the machinima take to make. But like so many other things, I wonder if it because they like to leave developing female models for things out or to the last minute because everyone at Blizzard apparently is terrified about designing female models (worgen anyone?) Either way, it’s pretty odd that they are not in the trailer. I can distinctly remember most of them getting at least a second or two of screen time. (The only other female boss is Mar’li and the Council fight she’s a part of wasn’t in the trailer either.)

From people who have tested the bosses on PTR, and in even in just looking at the boss design, it’s pretty clear they kept the Sun/Moon aesthetic in the two of them.

It’s the rest of the interview that left me sputtering yesterday on Twitter:

  • Rumored to be the only known female mogu in existence, Lei Shen keeps his trophies close, and their combined arsenal against interlopers closer.
  • Players may have noticed the complete absence of any female mogu in their exploration of the continent of Pandaria.
  • Indeed, these were specifically created by Lei Shen and empowered to serve and guard him, and they are a direct reflection of his will rather than any broader sense of mogu culture as a whole.

Are the developers reading my blog? It seems like they are taking the heavy early criticism of why the hell there’s two female Mogu as raid bosses but not anywhere in Mogu society to heart.  However, there’s so many more questions left open here now that it’s canonically known that they are the only two in existence and only created by Lei Shen. Such as, “Why would an essentially monogender culture have a leader that creates women” or maybe “Why are they sexualized?” Consorts are very specifically a sexualized term, and maybe the developers are mixing real world stuff with Mogu again, but there’s this lingering feeling that these two women weren’t shaped out of stone just to guard Lei Shen. All of this bothers me, little piece by little piece.

Maybe it’s the objectified language in the copy and interview – “treasures” “possessions” “trophies.” Lei Shen created the only two women in existence for their race and they aren’t even granted true humanity in any discussions surrounding them. It’s the fact that they were created to be submissive and servile to him, to protect him. It’s the fact that they are the sexualized equivalent of guard dogs. Giving life out of stone is a pretty terrifying concept as well when you wonder where Lei Shen got the souls (do they have souls) for this purpose.

The only high point in the discussion about these two was the fan-ramblings about what possibly inspired Lei Shen – why not create a bulky Mogu woman, particularly if they are bodyguards? Cynwise suggested that it might be possible fashioning after Burning Crusade eredari, which would explain the model choice. However, I suspect the model choice is less a reflection of Lei Shen’s ideals and more the developers still.

All in all, these two bosses are a serious dig in my excitement for this upcoming patch. We’ve had a lot of trouble with female NPCs in Pandaria thus far and the raid dungeons have not been exempt from this – the last three did not heavily feature any canonically indicated female bosses aside from Lei Shi (the elemental) and Grand Empress Shek’seer (whether or not any of the other Heart of Fear bosses were women is up in the air.) So the fact that the new raid only features three women, two of whom are prized constructs created by Lei Shen and were left out of the official trailer, makes me upset.

Throne has an abundance of bosses and only 3 of them (the Twins, and Mar’li) are actually women. This is in fact a step up from the last raids we have done, but it still feels like a step backwards in terms of Blizzard’s creative development choices.

Patch 5.2 – The Problem with Twins

New Mogu female model in Patch 5.2.

Last week a preview of patch 5.2 dropped, with all the attendant fanfare and data-mining. It seems the focus of this newest content patch (which is going up on the PTR after the holidays) is the Thunder King, along with a corresponding raid Throne of Thunder, which is supposedly reminiscent of Ulduar in both size and aesthetics. What caught my attention initially, other than benefits for Sunsong Ranch was this gossip about how a female mogu model had been dug up.

I raced over to Wowhead to get a gander at what it might look like and was presented with this. We finally get a female version of one of the NPC races in game (out of so many that do not have female counterparts) and it is that? I mean, I’m always glad for more representation but this feels like a step in the wrong direction. It is obviously skinned over a draenei female’s animations/skeleton for the most part, but it is intensely dimorphic (like draenei, troll and worgen women) and very sexualized. Granted,  while the clothing isn’t much different than what mogu dudes wear, the effect combined with the posture, ornamentation and -ahem- ample cleavage skews the aesthetics in quite a distinct direction. At the very least the faces and headdresses radiate more power than sex. That is something, right?

Wrong!

Apparently this model isn’t an added NPC model for mogu areas, this is one half of a set of raid bosses. Yup, that’s right, we’re getting the Eredar Twins v.2 in the Throne of Thunder! Two more specific, incredibly sexualized models that only ever make an appearance as a raid boss (and one quest NPC.) And get this – the name of these mogu women in the raid are Twin Consorts. That’s right, the Thunder King has two royal “partners” (or chattel) in whatever way you take that to mean. But given the name, the attire and the history with this sort of thing, I am guessing we are in for a boss encounter that is full of breathy, sensual emotes. We’ve seen it before, why not again? Why not make them curled up and flanking the Thunder King’s throne? I’m not holding my breath that there’s going to be some radical change of tack for these ladies.

But that’s not even the weirdest part.

Given the idea that these Mogu female models are only going to be present in the raid, it sort of rattles the tenuous consistency that pervaded the Mogu as a race. While most other NPC races that only feature male models sort of laugh off this idea that their women are tucked safely away in villages somewhere, Mogu could pass as a seemingly male-only race because as far I could understand, they weren’t really constrained by the issues of flesh that most other races are. The idea that they were brutish proto-beings (or maybe even Titan constructs?) twisted by the waters of the Vale gives rise to the idea that created, rather than born. This means that they aren’t tied to reproduction and so Mogu females could just be a figment. Or, if they originally were mortal, just hidden away from view like every other group of NPCs that Blizzard has neglected to realistically portray. It raises a lot of questions and creepy concerns with this sudden and very specific appearance of just two women in the entirety of Mogu society – especially if they are merely decadent sexual companions to the Thunder King.

The Mogu are adept fleshcrafters and spiritbinders and very often view death as inconsequential. They also have a habit of putting spirits into shaped stone bodies, some from Mogu who “died” and were resurrected and others from those they’ve conquered or enslaved. Are the Twin Consorts created out of stone and enslaved spirits of the Thunder king? Were they his lovers or companions prior to his death and entombed with his unmarred body? Were they brought into being as some sort of Mogu ideal of decadence, like Pygmalion creating his ideal woman out of marble? So many possible theories and all of them make me squirm. Given the fact that Blizzard has a terrible track record with populating the NPC world with women, coupled with their narratives regarding their place in the world, it seems likely that these consorts could be far more chilling than I could ever imagine.

This expansion has been slightly better than most in terms of representing stories and background characters that are also women. This just feels like a step backwards and a reminder that so many times, women are an afterthought to the creative development team. I know that making two models just to represent a non-PC race is extra development time, but default models for NPC races are still coded as men only (Vrykul/Hyldnir aside), and this bothers me. It makes the female exceptions in the Eredar and now the Mogu stick out like sore thumbs and it always seems to give rise to really sexist representations.  This creates the message that the non-PC women of Azeroth are not terribly important.

In all likelihood, Blizzard doesn’t see this as a problem and it definitely shows. Taking the time out to fully represent NPCs races in such a narrow way intimates a very specific mindset. It is probably “natural” to stick a couple of women (sexy ones, no less) to “change it up a bit” probably because so much of our world (not just Azeroth) is still depicted as men only. It is catering to a male audience and the male gaze when the token women stuck in the scenery are there as eye candy. While Blizzard has made leaps and bounds in both their main stories and player character races (to some extent), their lack of thought into fleshing out the rest of the world is pretty clear to anyone who cares to look.

 

Amber is the Color of my Gender

Technically I meant to title this as “Amber is the Color of my Sex” to be scientifically accurate but I figured it might attract the wrong kind of attention. Yesterday on Twitter, I was reading a really interesting discussion on the nature of Klaxxi gender. The reason for the speculation was because, despite Blizzard’s past laziness with regards to gendering their non-player races, it could easily be left open to interpretation with a bug race like the Klaxxi.

World of Male-craft

Unfortunately my skepticism that Blizzard made a race that wasn’t populated with dudes unless otherwise specified (Grand Empress Shek’zeer) is high. While Blizzard is exceptionally clever and the Mantids have been left open to interpretation, I don’t think it was done on purpose. Warcraft constantly defaults to “maleness” as the norm when it comes to NPCs unless there’s a reason to duplicate women elsewhere (in the case of some NPCs that have player races.) This isn’t surprising at all given that it is way cheaper on both resources and development time to only create men. Why?

Their logic seemingly is that in a world of war and aggression, wouldn’t most women die or be hidden away so you can perpetuate your tiny little race infinitely after adventurers slaughter billions of your kind every day? On top of that, they seem to not quite “grok” how to gender models as women without extensive time put into it if a model doesn’t have tits or a pink bow on it’s head. Those two facts make representation in the game world a fairly open-and-shut-case. There are notable exceptions to this: Centaur, Naga (who have explicit male/female models), Dragonkin (at some levels), and Harpies/Dryads (who are exclusively female.) The rest are seemingly neutrally gendered or typed male, even in the face of actual logic. That’s just how gameplay will always clash with lore.

This is the largest point in the idea that Blizzard may have made the Mantid at large a mixed gender race. However, this doesn’t stop us from using their lack of detail to our advantage to speculate otherwise.

BUGS, BUGS, BUGS

I’m not an entomologist but insect societies, which the Mantid and such seem to based on, wouldn’t necessarily conform to Blizzard’s “all men all the time” rule when it comes to NPC races. By setting up a female Grand Empress with an unclear line of succession (there’s combat and corpse eating but it doesn’t say if it is matrilineal or what) as well as offspring being sired by her (presumably), they seem to leave the door open for contradicting themselves with their own male bias. Insect societies that behave with a “queen” being the mother figure (see: Grand Empress Zek’hara) like ants and bees do not have an overwhelming majority of their society as male. Most of the workers tend to be female drones, with some breeding males groomed for the queen. It would stand to reason that if the Mantid were similar to these species in terms of being colony insects, that most of them (including the Klaxxi) would be women. However, a couple of facts about the Mantid move them away from being simple colony insects.

1.) They are fearsome in the singular, more-so if fighting in a swarm.

Insects that are typically colony-based do not have individual characteristics such as these, whereas Mantid seem to be capable of doing great damage all on their own, moreso if any group of them stick together.  A single Mantid is able of making personal decisions as well as defending themselves, and could live away from the group.

2.) They do not communicate via collective.

Unlike the typical sci-fi/spec-fi convention, Mantid and Klaxxi talk to eachother using technology via sound frequencies boosted over large areas and developed language, rather than things like scent markers, swarm intelligence or the ubiquitous “hive mind” where all members in the society are linked telepathically to the central power and do not think independently.

These two indicators mean that it is very possible that Mantids are not specifically majority female and may perhaps be a mixed-gender population (which is still not majority male.)

Not So Much Man-Tids: Meritocracy Within an Aristocracy

My strongest case for there being mixed gender despite Blizzard’s plans to leave a fairly non-dimorphic insect species mostly male is the cycle of the Mantid Swarm.

Mantid assaults on the Serpent’s Spine are a terrible thing to experience, both as a defender, and as a mantid. Only the smartest, strongest, or most agile of the mantid survive this encounter, and pandaren defenders are slaughtered outright in terrible numbers.

Mantid survivors make their way back to the great trees, often bearing trophies of their conquests. There, they are welcomed back into the mantid society, and take their place among their civilization according to the level of their deeds. The purpose of this rite of passage is unclear. but those who travel beyond the wall are forewarned: any mantid you encounter beyond the wall is a hardened veteran, to be feared and respected.

Mantid Swarm lore scroll in-game

In short, the Mantids and by virtue the Klaxxi, are a merit-based insect society. Those that we see in-game that are not throwing themselves against the wall as cannon fodder are the highest achieved in Mantid culture. At no point are these best and brightest codified as male, even those who are pegged as the most strong. Blade dancers, manipulators and bladeguards alike are, despite the game’s norm, potentially female. Due to WoW having no dimorphism in body types among the Mantids (save for the Empress) means that we have a potential for yet another mixed-gender NPC race. Granted, I still believe that this is by accident, but the idea of the Mantid society defining themselves by accomplishment seems more a true reflection of the Warcraft gender politics than even us as player characters are. In this vein, it’s very possible that the Empress ascends to the throne by virtue of being the most accomplished female within the group, rather than strict familial succession. We could conjecture even further and say that gender is fairly irrelevant as how Mantids define themselves in all aspects other than the singular Empress hierarchy. Gender as a societal construct seems fairly irrelevant to them and solely a biological indicator of sex. What a Mantid does during and after the Swarm cycle is far, far more important and is the pinnacle in individualism.

In this respect, despite Dread Wastes giving me the major wiggins, I find the Klaxxi/Mantids very exciting and hope that we see more lore about them in the future. As someone who uses the game to escape the ridiculous gender politics of reality, seeing a society work solely on individual merit makes me gleeful.

New Pandaren Female Teaser: Critique on Video Game Women Bouncily Abounds

Pandaren Female

Very early this morning (3 AM or so my time) Blizzard decided to drop a teaser image on us of what is presumably the female pandaren model for Mists of Pandaria. The full reveal will be on the 19th of March. Considering how we’ve already seen not only  how the males of the race move and look, this was arguably one of the most hotly speculated things about the expansion that wasn’t revealed at Blizzcon last year. The full image is posted up at World of Warcraft’s Facebook, here.

A couple of things really leap out at me and my especially trained lady-figure eye (so sue me): first off, it’s not as heavy as I would have liked, perhaps. There’s obviously curves there, but as Pewter from Decoding Dragons commented, “[it] is still  hourglass shaped.” It gives off feelings of dwarf women, which is fine, but I felt that maybe Blizzard could have gone to a different body form this time around. Slightly more rotund or bottom-heavy triangle would have made sense given how the males are shaped. The arms and their length definitely feel more “animal” than humanoid given that they sit slightly more bulky and longer than where they’d fall on humanoids. They are very goblin-ish in that regards. She has a confident gait, which means she’s not going to be slumping or stooped. The shape coming off her legs and midsection suggests a swinging tassel or tabard. It’s unspeakably Asian-influenced too, with the hair sticks. There’s still a lot of things that trouble me with regards to the Pandaren and Pan-Asian influences, especially where the women are concerned. All in all though, this doesn’t look like a terrible model. The real test though will be to see the face; given what a botch job female worgen were, I am cautiously hopeful that this lady won’t have bedroom eyes or a side-wise snarl.

What really interests me about this is not Mists of Pandaria but what criticism of said female video game race models says about our feelings on women’s bodies, even if they are “fictional.” If you take a gander at WoW Insider’s or MMO Champion’s comments, you are going to get an eyeful of criticism of various body types, sexualized language, and a lot of snark about these “panda women.” (Usual rules and warnings about reading comments apply here, guys. Approach with caution.) Not only criticism but a ton of wolf calls and value judgements like “normal” and “real” which is always exceptionally pernicious when it comes to discussions such as these. A lot of intriguing language that persists in our own discussions about larger women’s bodies pervades with an uneasy metaphor: being “thick” or “having meat on their bones.” It says that we still have a lot of weird concepts with regards to seeing women as edible, consumable or outright sold off the docks to restaurants, if you want to be perversely literal with this metaphor.  All this ever does, aside from whatever homophobia and fat-shaming goes on, is serve to reduce how us actual non-fictional women feel about our own bodies. Sure, Pandaren exist only in Azeroth, but we are the ones who play alongside the gamers saying things like what kind of badonkadonk they have, how big the boobs are, or how ugly and fat they are. A lot of us want to see ourselves in the video games we play (to a degree) and despite eagerly accepting fantasy, there’s ties between our own looks and how these races look (even for men.) As much as men feel the slights of a male power fantasy by not having a 6-pack, women tend to feel bowled over by the sexually-charged, often sexist approaches that video game companies take when representing their fantasy women. It’s still about how we are not part of the audience who is looking at this, and this audience often speaks up quite loudly without thinking about the ramifications of what they are saying.

Do I think Blizzard is failing in this regard? Not as much as some other games, no. Blizzard, while still adhering to a mostly popular waist-hip ratio, still mixes it up with heights, body girth and bone structure (especially with regards to Forsaken, naturally.) It does so more than some other games that have a wide variety of races in their worlds. I’ve heard a lot of women who are happy with the fact that they can play a race that looks like them or makes them feel good about themselves. While the Pandaren criticism is going to be coming fast and hard, I urge you to make your own judgements, whether they be positive or negative, but let’s leave the shaming, the creepiness and the grossness behind. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with these new brewing-and-cooking women (which is fascinating to me, since women dominated a lot of the world’s brewing pre-Industrial Revolution) who can stomp butts all over. Mists, here we come.