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Creating World of Warcraft-Inspired Environment for Blizzard Contest

Cherlin Mao told us about the Sporelight Marsh project – their entry to the Blizzard Environment Art Contest – and showed how to texture the scene and make a new creature in the World of Warcraft universe.


Hello everyone! My name is Cherlin (Qinglin) Mao, and I am an Environment Artist and Art Lead with a rich background in both traditional painting and 3D art. My journey into the world of art began at the tender age of 6 when I was exploring the depths of traditional painting, and later, I pursued a BFA degree at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts. My exploration into 3D art and game design was carved through my academic journey in the Game Arts Master’s Program at the University of Utah. Although my career kicked off as a Character Artist at Telltale Games, my fervent passion for environment art navigated my path towards becoming an Environment Artist.

Since 2008, I've been deeply immersed in the world of World of Warcraft, captivated by its stunning props and mesmerizing environments. I knew I needed to find a pathway to become one of the creators behind these beautiful virtual worlds. My admiration for World of Warcraft is extensive, encompassing its art, storytelling, gameplay, and intricate design details. Moreover, I hold a deep affection for the community that envelops the games. Having been inspired by pieces from past contests, I've long harbored a desire to create an environment piece set in the WoW universe. Undertaking my first solo project was not only a fulfilling journey but also a victorious one, as I clinched the runner-up prize in the Environment category of the Blizzard Art contest! In this article, I will delve into the breakdowns of this project and share insights and applications from my personal projects.

The Sporelight Marsh Project

Zangarmarsh, from WoW’s The Burning Crusade expansion, was a pivotal source of inspiration for this project, owing to its atmospheric and shape language that has always captivated me. This expansion wasn’t just my first play; it was a journey that bestowed upon me a plethora of unforgettable memories, especially the narrative, quests, and design related to the Sporeggar and Murloc. With a desire to craft a scene about a mystical place nestled in Zangarmarsh – one that doesn’t exist in the game yet – I envisioned a scene for a creature that is a hybrid between Sporeggar and Murloc, which I fondly call Murggar. My process began with gathering in-game references and exploring ArtStation, followed by sketching a quick concept to bring my vision to life:

After I completed the scene concept, I had an impulse to create a character who lives in this scene. So, I drew the concept art for the character Murggar:

The Murggar are small, gentle creatures who have forged their society in close symbiosis with the water that pervades their marshy home. Despite their peaceful nature, the Murggar remain shrouded in mystery, their existence unbeknownst to the world beyond the marsh. They live quietly, cherishing the tranquility and isolation that Sporelight Marsh affords them and passing down the traditions and knowledge of their people through the ages.


Upon finalizing the concept, I embarked on constructing the environment, utilizing Maya to model the majority of elements, with the exception of the tree. The tree was sculpted in ZBrush, providing enhanced control over its details and overall form.

The scene evolved through several iterations from its initial concept and blockout, with components such as the house, mushrooms, plants, and terrain being meticulously crafted, adhering to my original concept. I executed a preliminary blockout in Unreal Engine 4. At this moment, my focus was not heavily placed on modeling detail but rather on the silhouette and proportion of the object, as continuous modifications and refinements to specific model details would be undertaken during the texturing process.

For character development, I use ZBrush to sculpt the shape, followed by Maya for retopology and silhouette refinement.


Texturing was indeed a crucial phase. I predominantly used Photoshop for this, although 3DCoat was employed to bake the AO, create the Top/Down Gradient, and erase some seams. 

3DCoat has a particularly great feature that allows you to switch back and forth between 3DCoat and Photoshop, and it updates in real-time on the 3D model. This is extremely convenient, as I can effortlessly utilize the brush tools and color adjustment tools in Photoshop to achieve more ideal effects.

The scene experienced a few texture iterations. Initially, I was quite swift with the first one due to my eagerness to complete the project. However, feedback from friends and further reference studies made me realize that my texturing needed to elevate to meet Blizzard's standards. It demanded more flavor, color variation, and a reduction in contrast.

Currently, there are too many unimportant details in the image, and the colors are too chaotic, causing a lack of unity in the entire image and the main object is not prominent. Therefore, I have removed many unnecessary details, cleaned up some excessive colors, and made the main object stand out more:

Texture call-out sheet overview for the scene:

For the character, I adhered to my original concept for the character, I opted to modify the glowing eyes to a yellow hue to better harmonize with the scene:


Lighting was indeed a challenging puzzle to solve. I utilized Unreal Engine 4 for setting up the scene due to its user-friendly interface and its capability to create high-quality renders and videos. My aim was to emulate the dark, cold, and grim ambiance of Zangarmarsh without diminishing the impact of my texture work. My initial setup was too bright and the texture contrasted significantly, so I had to scrap it and restart.

Given that the hand-painted texture already had light information baked in, it was imperative to ensure light sources in the scene were subtle, avoiding overly strong contrasts that could obscure texture details. Additional lights were strategically placed to amplify the window glow and generate some blue light bouncing from the flowers. Furthermore, a blue-ish fog was incorporated to blend elements together and encapsulate that quintessential Revendreth ambiance seamlessly.

The finishing touch was applied using the post-processing function to fine-tune the overall color and contrast of the scene.


This scene was a monumental learning curve for me. Creating a scene that not only visually appeals but also tells a story and fits within an established universe (WoW) was a valuable exercise in storytelling through environmental design. The biggest challenge was resisting the urge to settle for less in terms of quality due to the desire to complete the project. It’s vital to understand that in a studio environment, you’ll often be asked to modify parts of your textures and there will always be feedback. Learning how to accept constructive criticism is crucial as it propels our growth as artists. The necessity to scrap and restart elements of the project, like the initial lighting setup, underscored the importance of iterative design and being open to significant changes for the sake of the end product. I hope my journey provides some useful insights and aids others in their future hand-painted projects.

Cherlin Mao, Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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