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World of Warcraft’s Shadowlands is just the first step in new character customization

Fans love leaves in hair, tattoos, and other small tweaks

World of Warcraft - the four plate armor sets for each Shadowlands covenant, on assorted player models Image: Blizzard Entertainment
Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

If you follow the news coming out about the next World of Warcraft expansion, Shadowlands, you’ll see lots of headlines and previews of sweeping new zones, deep gameplay systems, and big boss fights. But more important than all that, there are a ton of new character customization options! For some World of Warcraft fans, the biggest news right now is the ability to add leaves to their night elf’s hair, dark skin to a Sin’dorei, or tattoos to a dwarf.

Character customization is a big part of MMORPGs; if you look at Final Fantasy 14, a big part of that game’s success is the carefully crafted aesthetic. World of Warcraft, a game that’s over 15 years old, hasn’t had that same versatility. Blizzard has upgraded parts of the character avatars over time — such as making new high-res versions of the original character models — but players have largely had to compromise with their characters. Everyone’s picking from the same small pool of hairstyles, and facial features are locked to preset configurations. I can’t give my character a scar or a tattoo, which is a low bar for character customization systems these days.

Shadowlands is finally rectifying this by giving all of the base player races tons of new customization options: Scars! Tattoos! Glowing eye colors! Face paint! Players can finally make their dwarf into a Wildhammer clan member, or create a Sandfury troll. The new system finally allows for Black humans or elves, making it easier for players to create characters that look more like themselves.

Image: Blizzard Entertainment
World of Warcraft - a new image of racial diversity in human characters.

These changes, which are being tracked and mined continuously at Wowhead, are a big deal to players, who have been controlling and role-playing these avatars for years.

Art director Ely Cannon notes that the team’s “main priority” is on creating endgame content, new zones, mechanics, and bosses, but cosmetics will remain an ongoing focus.

“Whenever possible, we’ll keep expanding on [customization],” Cannon said in an interview with Polygon. “We’re really, really happy with what we’ve achieved so far and super positive that the community is so positive about that.”

Why will these large-scale cosmetic drops keep coming? Because Shadowlands overhauled the way that cosmetics work; it’s no longer an exponential increase in effort to keep adding systems like the Night Warrior cosmetics. Now everything is on the table — including options like Forest Trolls or Blood Elf hair colors on Void Elves.

We are still waiting to see datamined options for several races in the Shadowlands beta, and then the expansion itself is planned to launch in fall 2020. For now, players are keeping an eye on what’s next, so they can plan and update their main accordingly.

“I think we’re going down the list of races that haven’t been updated yet, getting them into alpha — soon to be beta,” says World of Warcraft game director Ion Hazzikostas. “But that’s an effort that’s gonna continue after Shadowlands is out the door.”

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