This is a follow-up to a piece I wrote earlier on maintaining the WoW playerbase. This post focuses on something largely left out of discussions so far: narrative.
Storytelling has been left out of the discussion of WoW’s alleged ills related to declining subscriptions and player apathy. I bring it up not because I think it is the most compelling aspect of these problems, but because it is a part and has been overlooked. WoW is an MMORPG (the emphasis of this piece being on the latter three letters) and part of playing such a game is participating in its story or stories. Your avatar often starts from humble beginnings and then ventures out into a larger world and begins to operate on a much larger scale, be it slaying dragons or founding empires or exploring alien planets. Even if you, the player, have no interest in the lore as all this goes on, you likely still want the hoops your character is jumping through to make some degree of sense, and that sense comes in large part from good storytelling.
With Cataclysm WoW’s story has arguably become less compelling. I think that some of the blame rests with Cataclysm’s antagonist, Deathwing. Expansions (and RPGs in general) are driven forward and given purpose by their antagonists, their big bads. That your character has things to fight, dungeons to clear and innocents to save is all thanks to the big bad directing a new convergence of evil. Therefore the expansion as a whole suffers when you have an antagonist who does not quite measure up. And why might Deathwing not measure up? He is arguably inferior from the get-go for lack of familiarity. Illidan and the Lich King were obvious, familiar villains, developed in Warcraft III and thematically a part of WoW’s conceptual landscape from vanilla. Deathwing, by comparison, does not have that same weight of history or narrative necessity behind him. He did not come out of absolute nowhere lore-wise, but he does appear like a shelved villain who was pulled in from the novels because he’d be the best excuse for reformatting vanilla WoW’s geography (and therefore lore and quests). At the same time, he does not offer WoW much closure because he is not one of the bigger bads, Sargeras or (arguably) the old god(s). This last point is understandable given that Blizzard wants to keep this game going, but it nevertheless leaves Deathwing feeling like an excuse and a stopgap rather than WoW’s inevitable next step after WotLK.
It is not just a lack of pre-existing familiarity that is to blame, though; Deathwing’s current condition also factors in. Deathwing simply is not interesting. His expressive capacity is minimal given his unmoving face and his almost never taking an anthropomorphized form. His dialogue so far has also been very limited, overall leaving his character simplistic without any accompanying sense that there’s more to know about him. If anything, Deathwing’s interactions with players have left him appearing mindless. What villain of any intelligence pursues burning sand dunes in Uldum or the raptors in the Arathi highlands over and over again instead of, say, attacking targets of even some strategic value? He appears as a dull if powerful beast rather than the insane evil mastermind he’s supposed to be (or at least should be). He’s like a villain from a Michael Bay film: he’s just there to cause big explosions. And like with a Michael Bay film, you’re left wanting if you expected more than pointless spectacle.
Another narrative issue is that WoW has not really moved forward with Cataclysm. So far we have not come any closer to ridding existence of the bigger bads of Sargeras and the Old Gods. Indeed, we’ve spent a great deal of our time re-defeating already well-worn villains like Nefarian, Onyxia, Ragnaros and the ZA and ZG trolls. The ZA and ZG dungeons are particularly problematic: (1) they exist based on some spontaneous, artificial-feeling pretense of a troll revival that was not integrated well into Cataclysm’s overall story; (2) they take players out of the other dungeons that actually do have something to do with Cataclysm’s story; and (3) there are only two troll dungeons, they’re both only about trolls, and both are long, all of which increase the sense of Cataclysm’s tedium as players grind to their Valor caps. Alliance-Horde relations have changed a bit but not by much, aside from Thrall’s midlife crisis or whatever this was. Overall it feels like treading water narrative-wise and it’s hardly a source of inspiration for a story-driven gamer.
At times I feel like the camera was left on after the script was finished and now developers are just making things up as they go along. WoW is still profitable, so the developers are dusting off old characters, tidying up the sets and pushing on long after they thought they’d be done (which may well have been WotLK). Has WoW exhausted its lore potential? No. Has it exhausted its most fertile lore? You could make the argument that it has. In going through Illidan and Arthas already, Blizzard has cut down its most identifiable and compelling Warcraft villains. Outside of far-off planets and panda land, players have already seen most of the Warcraft universe’s known geography. You could argue that this is one of the reasons that players are leaving. It’s not that things are terribly boring now, they just don’t see where WoW can go from here.
A somewhat tangential issue with WoW’s story is Blizzard’s decreased interest in immersion. WoW is increasingly giving up on a rule of immersion in RPGs that players in a fictional universe are bound by that universe’s physics and internal logic. For example, say you’re in a sci-fi RPG and you have a spaceship; it may go really fast, but it still can go no faster than whatever the physical laws of this game allow for its faster-than-light travel. WoW used to care a bit more about such conceptual coherence: you had to travel to dungeons because the dungeon was physically a part of your character’s world; quests took you all over the globe and were a pain to complete because, well, that’s how quests work; dungeons like BRD were intricate and huge and non-linear because, well, a dwarven underground city would indeed be intricate and huge and non-linear; mobs dropped useless, worthless items because sometimes pockets contain useless, worthless items. I offer these examples not to pine in nostalgia for vanilla WoW or to rant about the present state of WoW. Rather, I offer them merely as anecdotes that point to WoW’s movement toward a model of MMO where player covenience and reduced barriers to entry take priority over immersion and conceptual coherence. We can expect this to continue in the future because it is often the case that things that are implausible to game lore are appealing. Inexplicable things like the teleportation and matchmaking of the random dungeon finder are appealing to existing players and entice jaded former players to return because they increase the game’s fun factor. Long trips to dungeons and waiting long periods of time to replace people `make sense,’ so to speak, but they aren’t fun.
This gradual abandonment of immersion is troublesome from a storytelling perspective because of what it tells players about what their priorities should be. Developers are saying with the random dungeon finder that WoW is not so much about forming a band of adventurers and traveling out into the world to fight evil; no, it is about the streamlined acquisition of loot, maximized uptime of blowing stuff up and never having to leave your faction’s home city. This is now even true while leveling, the time when players are supposed to be exploring and learning about the world. Nowadays you can level and get geared in a full set of epics without once leaving a capital city. The dungeon journal implicitly tells players that discovery in-game and trial-and-error is not a priority and that implausible prior knowledge of villains that your character has never seen before is something that developers are more than happy to provide. The new quest tracking features enable players to ignore quest text almost entirely and turn questing into an exercise of following dots on a map and thoughtlessly doing whatever is in the bullet point. The implied priorities in these examples are not neccesarily bad for a game, but they are bad for storytelling because they suggest to players that the story really doesn’t matter. They make it so that the story intrudes less and less upon gameplay, which is in turn more and more about immediate gains like loot and experience. In doing this, Blizzard is allowing if not incentivizing players to disregard what could be a motivation for many players to stick with the game over the long term even as the luster of gold and purples wears away. The sense that you’re part of a story, that you have an impact on the game world, that seeing the end of the story is worth your time and that it matters if your character saves the day or not can be powerful reasons for continued gameplay. In progressively sidelining those potential motives I think that Blizzard is doing itself and its players a disservice.
I don’t want to be entirely negative with this post and I think it is only fair to point out that Blizzard has done some things very right with Cataclysm’s narratives. Low-level questing and the stories that motivate it have been vastly improved (my favorite chain is The Day that Deathwing Came). There are still plenty of “go get 10 of these things ‘cuz I said so” quests, but they are usually paired with quests that are much more engaging than the questing we saw with vanilla or BC. Indeed, Outland and Northrend seem like a drag after the 1-58 questing experience. Now is arguably the best time ever to level up via questing, and that makes the current reliance on the random dungeon finder to level a bit sad in my opinion.
The goblin starting zone is another storytelling success. I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it, but it is the best starting zone experience in the game in my opinion. You begin in the midst of goblin society and your progression is driven forward by your character’s very gobliny motives and through very gobliny methods. The overarching story is relatively interesting and the individual quests themselves are often quite fun. Like the DK opening quest chain, the goblin starting zone is something you might want to create a character for just to see. An added nice touch is that the characters from the starting zone show up in later zones and actually remember the player (as opposed to the old problem of Tirion/Jaina/Thrall/whoever implausibly never remembering the player no matter how many times they have saved the day together).
That these new and revitalized zones, where so much of Cataclysm’s narrative depth rests, are barren of players is something of a tragedy. If Cataclysm feels a bit empty and bland, it is in part because much of its richness is in these places that many players do not look. Cataclysm has centralized player resources and functions into Stormwind and Ogrimmar which, combined with the random dungeon and BG finders, has left players with little reason to ever leave their capital cities. Players do not go out and visit the re-wrought game world and I cannot but wonder if that partly explains the current complaints of stale content.