Redesigning these models will have a variety of effects. As a long-time player, I have my own stylistic loves and hates. Human females look astonishingly vapid and nigh-idiotic, and their animations in melee look ludicrous to the point that I expect them to fall over every weapon swing, while gnomes and blood elves have excellent combat flow. Female undead melee are awesome to watch, but I can't stand the bones poking through my gear. That's part of the complication here. The models you love, someone else hates, and the models you hate, someone else loves. That's often viewed as a cop-out -- but man, if you screw up my tauren, I will burn your world. (Note: Will not actually burn your world ... too lazy.)
Think about it. I've seen literally hundreds of players complain about tauren models, that they're too big, too blocky, etc. But those of us who play them play them for exactly that reason or because we rolled a druid back before troll was an option and got attached. For that matter, consider the troll, a model that is definitely not to everyone's taste but again has a strong base of fans who choose trolls even when it's not an advantage to do so.
Even if we ignore the very real issue of devoting development time to updated models and assume that there's a team ready to place on the project, which models get the update? We know worgen and goblins wouldn't (although some worgen females would probably want it), and its unlikely that draenei or blood elves would, either. I honestly have a hard time imagining what you'd do to update those models; they've been around since The Burning Crusade and still look pretty great.
So this leaves the original four races per faction to consider, eight out of 12 current races (13 in Mists of Pandaria), and we know some of those races aren't going to get a major overhaul. My own personal love for the tauren aside, what would you update? They're giant minotaur people, and they look exactly like that. Frankly, I'd rather see expanded options for them -- more skin colors, more horn choices, more hair/beard options, maybe that Grimtotem face paint -- than an actual, drastic change.
- What do the people currently playing those races say they like and dislike about their models? The last thing you want to do is drive people who've been playing a character for a while into feeling they no longer enjoy it. Any changes made should be made to increase their happiness.
- What about that race's model keeps people from playing it? Our own Alex Ziebart and I have constant arguments about this issue. He often plays human females; I can't stand the human models, male or female. I like night elves; they drive him insane. We've literally spent hours of our lives going back and forth on this one. I personally wouldn't want to see night elves lose their lithe, graceful animations but think they could undergo a bit of a facial reconstruction (and yes, you could shrink the hands down a bit) -- but I'd rip human models back down to the basic wire frame and rebuild them from scratch, if I could. I can only assume most players of human characters do not feel this way. (See #1 above.)
- What can be done to update those models without losing their character? This is the trickiest bit. Anyone who played the Cataclysm beta remembers when worgen models saw a drastic facial redesign to increase how feral they looked. (For a while there, we didn't have heads.) It worked for male worgen, but female worgen are a mixed bag for a lot of people, and a lot of us preferred the preview worgen women to the ones we actually got. Going forward with character updates, we want to see the essential nature of those models emphasized without losing anything we currently identify with, and that's a pretty significant task.
- How cool do they look in plate? I did say this was what I thought was most important.
So let's speculate: which races need work the most and can have said work done without radically disturbing their iconic status? We won't mention increased polygons, because that can just be assumed for everyone. Likewise, more hair and customization options would be nice for everyone. I also think WoW could take a page from other games and offer variations on body type for every race. We could have skinny humans, fat blood elves, extremely short orcs, tall gnomes. (A tall gnome would just be tall for a gnome.)
- Undead I'd say they don't need a lot of work. Undead females move fluidly and with barely leashed menace, and undead males have a nice, languid style that transforms frenetically when in combat. A few more faces would be nice, as would an option to poke through gear less.
- Trolls I like the troll model, think it's well animated and looks good, but the forest trolls from The Burning Crusade should definitely be an option here. Troll females need more faces and larger tusk options.
- Tauren Seriously, I will rain fire down upon you. Leave them alone. I definitely would like a taunka model with a fully animated face instead of the Tauren with a Big Face Mask version we have now, and a distinctive taunka female model.
- Orcs I'm on the fence here. I hate orc faces but think their models are well animated and wouldn't change their body proportions much at all. Orc females are very suitable in terms of fitting into the feel of a stocky race, but I'd like to see their shoulders broaden a bit; they look a bit like they come to a point.
- Humans Burn them to the ground, salt the earth. Complete do-over. Get rid of the monkey faces, potentially even reduce their muscles. Someone please figure out how to make a human female face that doesn't look like she just walked in on her parents in My Little Pony costumes taking turns riding each other across the living room.
- Gnomes Aside from more hair options and a face or two that looks less angular for males, I think gnomes look and move extremely well and would need minor tweaks at best.
- Dwarves For a race that catches a lot of flak, I think dwarves (both males and females) look exactly like what they are and give you an immediate sense of "Yep, those are dwarves all right" that I'd hate to see them lose. Be extremely careful here.
- Night elves Most players seem to hate their faces and hands, so consider ways to improve those, especially male night elves. Their overall body plan and animations, though -- those are very solid and require few tweaks, in my opinion.
World of Warcraft: Cataclysm has destroyed Azeroth as we know it; nothing is the same! In WoW Insider's Guide to Cataclysm, you can find out everything you need to know about WoW's third expansion, from leveling up a new goblin or worgen to breaking news and strategies on endgame play.