World of Warcraft: The War Within's art direction leans into Warcraft's history and a 'feeling of nostalgia', says lead artist

Alleria, an elf touched by the void, stands proud among the ruins of a familiar city in World of Warcraft: The War Within.
(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

One of the defining themes of The War Within, World of Warcraft's next expansion, is revisiting the past.

Even the visual approach was carefully considered with Warcraft's long history in mind, lead visual development artist Gabriel Gonzalez said. The War Within, the first expansion in a three-expansion story arc announced last fall at BlizzCon, will be WoW's 10th, in the game's 20th year.

"One of the things that we're really leaning into is this feeling of nostalgia, the classic flavor of World of Warcraft," Gonzalez said. "Even before World of Warcraft–my initial introduction to Warcraft was Warcraft 3. So when we really think, what is the flavor that's at the core of what players identify as the most Warcraftiest Warcraft visual that you can imagine, that's what we're trying to lean into."

He gave the example of the starting zone of the expansion, the Isle of Dorn. It's an Earthen island, inhabited by the stone forefathers of modern dwarves, and echoes of Warcraft's original buildings and landscapes resound across its rolling hills and blocky rooflines.

"Even though [the Earthen] are very different from dwarves and they have their own unique culture, there are similar themes to them that help us reminisce," Gonzalez said. They "tie back to some of those common themes that we experience at the beginning of Warcraft, when we're playing those original zones."

It's always a challenge to find something unique and special to introduce some of these newer zones.

Lead visual artist Gabriel Gonzalez

The color palette for some of the zones is more like WoW Classic in some ways, he said, harkening back to the first years of the game. While there are unique visual styles in all the zones of The War Within, they meld well with the throwback elements.

Despite the nostalgic themes, the team worked hard to make sure the zones feel unique, he said.

"They definitely have their own language, down to the types of shapes that we use for the rocks, the tile sets that we paint on the ground," he said. Isle of Dorn owes as much to New Zealand and Scotland as it does to Warcraft's Dun Morogh or Dun Algaz.

"I think one of the challenges we have in World of Warcraft, when it comes to making the zones, is that World of Warcraft is coming up on 20 years," Gonzalez said. "There are tons and tons of zones that we've already done and explored. It's always a challenge to find something unique and special to introduce some of these newer zones. But for the Isle of Dorn, we were trying to channel some of that classic fantasy."