With the reveal of a new World of Warcraft expansion due next week, it’s time for another round of “What the hell went wrong here?” Oh, yeah. SPOILERS WITHIN! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
Story is king, especially in an MMORPG.
Many will cite mechanics, PvP, trading, dungeons, raids… all key ingredients in making an enjoyable experience. Consider those parts the vegetables in a nice big stewpot. You do all the work, make things good, even throw in a new idea or two with Garrisons and Followers because why not? It was there and you have no other idea what to do with it, so might as well throw it in with the rest of them.
And make no mistake about it; most of Warlords of Draenor is as polished and refined as anything you’d find in the MMORPG genre. It’s very hard to keep changing with the times, and after more than a decade in the market most MMO titles would have largely given up. The raiding in Draenor has been good, the dungeons have arguably been some of the most creative in some time and even the recent Tanaan Jungle patch was a big step forward from the old Timeless Isle, and in a good way. Character models finally got updated and things seem to be fine. I mean, if the workmanship is good, what on Earth could go wrong?
Oh, the story. Right.
In the past, Blizzard made a point of a strong thematic course running through each of its expansions, culminating in a much-teased and much-anticipated final boss we all KNOW is coming up, but because we’ve been taunted for months on end by this villainous oaf, we’re actually on board with the whole murderous final kill thing. From Illidan to The Lich King and Deathwing to Garrosh Hellscream, each expansion has made it clear who we’re meant to be fighting and – more importantly – WHY we’re fighting them. Never underestimate the importance of motivating people to actually want to go in for the kill.
Warlords of Draenor, for all it does right, fundamentally has failed on this front. Actually, that seems unfair because it didn’t even really TRY.
So, Bronze Dragon Kairozdormu frees an imprisoned Garrosh and runs off to an alternate timeline. In the course of the levelling, we are confronted by The Iron Horde, The Burning Legion and The Cult of the Damned. So, wait, what? They’re ALL there and they’re ALL dicking us about? Garrosh, badass final boss from Pandaria, gets brutally killed by Thrall in Nagrand, ending his little reign of terror. Then we find out Garrosh killed Kairozdormu, who intended to build an “infinite number of armies”, alluding to the return of the Infinite Dragonflight. After this, we finally settle down to the undercurrent of Archmage Khadgar reigniting a feud with a completely alternate Gul’dan, who frankly doesn’t even know this guy as in this timeline, the Iron Horde do not drink the corruption and never succeed in a full-scale invasion of Azeroth.
Confused yet? This is before you even get to the raiding!
Then we kick some Ogres around to get Khadgar some powerful artifacts, take down the Iron Horde base and Blackhand, before ending up in Tanaan where Gul’dan has succeeded in getting the fragments of the Iron Horde we didn’t seem to kill and convincing them that drinking the felblood is TOTALLY a good idea, and then we’re back to fighting the Legion for the last stretch again.
It’s hardly compelling narrative, is it?
Blizzard are usually good at a simple but strong narrative; Illidan is planning to invade Azeroth again, so we go to Outland to stop him. Easy. Lich King raising a new Undead army to enslave all of Azeroth. Easy. Deathwing rises from his grave and plans to destroy Azeroth. Cool, still on board. Horde act like dicks in Pandaria, culminating in Garrosh pulling some of the finest dickmoves inspiring everyone to effectively raid his capital city? Check, check and CHECK! This is what I mean; World of Warcraft has always worked best when it keeps the story straight-forward. Reasons, repercussions, actions. It gets players to go along for the ride.
Warlords of Draenor has been a constant narrative cycle of, “What the f..?!” – it’s almost like Blizzard forgot to make a story so they cobbled together bits and pieces and served them up as a vague reason why we should give a damn. Except, even from the earliest points of the expansion, most of us have wondered why we are meant to care about this Alternate Timeline at all!
You see, Kairoz fails in his plan to raise lots of armies for what amounts to kicking off the Infinite War. Garrosh gets killed for real this time, we destroy the Dark Portal before we’re even allowed free reign of Draenor… it’s been an uphill struggle to convince us that no really, we’re still in Draenor for a good reason. We could have just pulled out now, let the Iron Horde implode in on itself, let the disparate groups vie for power whilst evacuating anyone worth saving and then shutting the gates behind us and leaving this timeline to effectively work itself out. But we’re still here because… we’re fighting the Burning Legion now? Oh, but this is a DIFFERENT Burning Legion that has no real bearing on the Burning Legion from OUR timeline who we now know from the foreshadowing from Wrathion are planning a horrible new attack on our timelines Azeroth. So… we’re not actually stopping the attack on our world, are we? If anything, we’re sort of wasting time which we could be using to… I don’t know… prepare for what’s coming on our home soil? Mores the point, why is the Bronze Dragonflight limited once again to just Chromie? I love her, I really do, and have done since Vanilla WoW. But here Chromie once again feels like a discarded cameo more than an actual plot device.
Your head may be hurting now. But consider that this has been what loyal players have been subjected to from the start of Warlords of Draenor. Comparisons have been drawn to Cataclysm; which is unfair, for as strong as the narrative was in Cataclysm, the mechanics of dungeons and raids were up to Dragon Soul actually pretty poor. Warlords of Draenor is a solid expansion with good mechanics, but the story never manages to connect all these disparate dots together into a cohesive bigger picture.
This was the big failing of Warlords of Draenor; a threadbare plot trying to drag us along for the ride, and the damn thread keeps breaking, so they throw out other threads. After a while you just long for a proper sturdy rope to grab onto.
Whatever Blizzard do with their new expansion, one thing is very clear; the narrative this time is going to need to be EXCEPTIONAL. The mechanics can be built on; Garrisons can evolve into a proper town-management idea. Dungeons and raids, realising you can’t keep just brick-walling with more health, will become more inventive with fight mechanics. We do still like large areas to explore and do our dailies in (keep them self-contained in one zone), it’s something Blizzard have been getting better at so I’m expecting more impressive things whatever comes next!
But story in an MMO is key. Blizzard is charging people shy of £10 a month these days with additional expenses of expansions, pets and mounts, premium account services et al. With that money comes an expectation, and in an MMO of this calibre, you want people to be signing in and you want them to be doing things. A good story, with a good villain and the right motivation can be a real winner; you’re building up to the grand finale, so you keep chipping away at it. Without a narrative compulsion, people will get kind of bored with everything and wander off. Which we’re seeing in the drop in the games subscriber figures. PC Gaming is enjoying a golden age, no matter what the likes of Warner Bros. Interactive try and do to torpedo it. World of Warcraft is no longer the only game in town, and with regular sales and a selection of Free to Play options, Steam provides alternatives to people looking elsewhere for their gaming fix.
World of Warcraft is still the biggest MMO in the market; of course it is, and it continues to make Blizzard plenty of money. With that said, they can’t afford with dropping subscriber numbers to be this sloppy again in the future. Warlords of Draenor is a mistake worth making; it’s good to realise that a solid story is still one of the most fundamental aspects of any RPG or expansion, and with hindsight, I’m pretty sure Blizzard will agree that this time it’s all been a bit messy and a bit wet behind the ears.
Going forward though, I also think Blizzard have to consider where to take this and do something new. Draenor was too much relying on lots of past bogeymen to be threatening, bogeymen it happens we’ve kind of already beaten in prior expansions so it’s a little hard to take THAT seriously. To move on, Azeroth needs new villains to rise through the ranks; we need new threats and dare I say it, new lands. This will be the real challenge; Azeroth is going to need to find a better way to expand its universe than wibbley-wobbley timey-wimey… stuff. The Infinite War is the end point; we know what happens there. We kind of already know how Azeroth ends (thanks, Bronze Dragonflight!). And we know The Burning Legion is still coming for Azeroth, because the Legion is too proud to admit defeat. And we also have Wrathion still plotting… something.
But these elements themselves don’t broaden the world as it were. Blizzard is reaching the crunch-point in World of Warcraft where there are fewer roads left to take and fewer wilds left to tame. After ten years of this stuff, it’s fair to say that this is an inevitability. Expansions will have to take longer, or get smaller and more focused, but eventually all roads will lead to the End Time; the destruction of things is unavoidable as it has already been written. And we also know, as it had many figures from the Azeroth we know, that the End Time is also not a far-flung future; it’s coming.
It’s a corner Blizzard have painted themselves into narratively. It’s really cool stuff, no doubt about it, but I also think for all the hope for future expansions, we also need to accept that in time, World of Warcraft is going to have to end. Blizzard have already effectively written it into the game. We went to the End Time. It happened.
And if Warlords of Draenor has proven anything… fans of this game don’t like loose ends…