World of Warcraft’s newest expansion, Battle for Azeroth, is all about returning to the roots of Horde against Alliance. In order to get there, the team needed to make some bold choices, including burning down Darnassus, the home of the night elves. Add in the new Allied Race system, which forces factions of old allies like Legion’s Nightborne and Highmountain Tauren to pick sides, and a massive story-based campaign through both Kul Tiras and Zandalar, and there’s a lot of kindling there for players to get mad about online.
People have indeed gotten very mad at certain parts of the story, but Blizzard said that it sees this as a victory, as it sets out to tell its most ambitious set of stories yet.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for the Kul Tiras and Zandalari campaigns in Battle for Azeroth.]
Putting the “War” in “Warcraft”
“Having people feel strong emotions about something is the point of that faction alliance.” Kevin Martens, a designer on World of Warcraft, told Polygon. “With Legion, we had to work together against the more existential threat against the Legion and it’s great to do that once in a while. But the core of the game, that red versus blue content, it’s good to come back to that. For people to feel something about that, that’s special. That’s hard to do!”
After 14 years, the biggest problem for Blizzard is to keep players engaged. The war setting is a way for the developers to return to a primal conflict and create emotional touchstones. The Nightborne have turned their backs on the Alliance; Sylvanas has destroyed not one but two cities; the Kul Tirans have cast Jaina Proudmoore out as a traitor; and Taelia Fordragon is starting to ask questions about her father, Bolvar, whom she has been told died in a war against the Lich King. (She does not know he has become the Lich King.)
The Kul Tiras and Zandalari stories are almost unrelated to the Horde-against-Alliance conflict, instead serving as a way for both factions to gather strength and allies after the pre-patch massacres of Darnassus and Lordaeron. Martens confirmed that more straight-up story conflict is on the way.
“The goal is to watch people have a visceral reaction, and care about what happen, and even argue with each other.”
Martens is clearly invested in the story himself; he seemed hardly able to restrain his excitement when he spoke to us about it.
“Here’s an example: Some players are mad about what Sylvanas did, and they’re represented in the game by people like Saurfang, who are saying, ‘This is bullshit. This is dishonorable.’ There’s a whole cinematic for that.
“Then there are people who are like, ‘No, this is war, they brought it on themselves! Anduin is a hypocrite who cares about peace when it’s convenient for him, and he can win.’”
There are so many races and characters, so many stories spread across so much material, that any point of view can be argued. Why should the Tauren stand shoulder to shoulder with their fellow druidic race, the Night Elves, when the Tauren were left to the brink of extinction by the Night Elves after being allied 10,000 years ago? Why should the Forsaken care about Stormwind when they were left to die in Lordaeron, with their escape route to Gilneas walled off? And how can the various elves reunite when there’s 10,000 years of bad blood and ancient grudges between them? The developers admittedly love watching the players choose a position and entrench themselves into it for internet arguments and proud declaration of allegiance ... which, after potentially 14 years of a commitment to a side, can feel pretty emotionally powerful.
New territories and characters
Despite the fact that Battle for Azeroth has a massive cast of characters — including newcomers Flynn Fairwind, Taelia and Talanji — two of Zandalar’s main cast, Rastakhan and Bwonsamdi, completely steal the show and set up the conflict that brings us into Uldir, the first Battle for Azeroth raid.
Of course, in the middle of everything, there’s still you, the player. Your hero is embroiled in the action, making deals with Bwonsamdi or helping Genn Greymane coax Katherine Proudmoore into the Alliance. Sometimes this works well; it’s great to delve into a zone like Nazmir and uncover horrors as part of an expedition, dealing with the dead spirits of Gods and making deals to deliver souls. Other times, you feel like you’ve been stapled on to the story of the continent and are along for the ride, picking up bear skins and killing pirates.
As for characters who haven’t shown up yet, Martens admits that “we have to pick our battles.”
“Players will ask, ‘Shouldn’t so-and-so be involved in this?’ Yes,” he said. “But we can’t tell 85,000 stories — sometimes we have to tell 75,000.”
Battle for Azeroth wraps up some of the final stories left hanging from Warcraft 3, and that means those characters get the stage. Martens was coy about future Horde versus Alliance plans, especially in how they relate to raids. “There will be more raids, more head to head […] and maybe some other stuff. I don’t want to say too much.”
Re-raising the stakes
At the end of every expansion, the narrative has escalated to a climax — usually one that’s wild and extreme. Battle for Azeroth resets the narrative by having us enter new frontiers that are hostile to us, and we have to earn our place and their trust in this new land. So, once again, we’re collecting turtle shells and helping kids with their day. But with Uldir out and Queen Azshara waiting, things are certain to pick up again.
“Our general approach of everything is to go too far, cross the line, and then pull it back before the game ships,” explained Martens. “I find it’s far too difficult to come up to the line of ‘too awesome’ slowly and then push forward. We find it works better to push too hard and then pull back from there.”
As for the impassioned arguments on social media? That might be just one of Blizzard’s best marketing tools right now. As Martens puts it, “If people are talking about it right now, and it’s passionate about it, you know it’s a good time to jump in and players are passionate about the game.”