World of Warcraft’s most recent expansion, Battle for Azeroth, has been controversial from the explosive start. The story began with the Horde burning down a major Alliance population center in a genocide. Since then, both factions have gone back and forth in battle while the Cthulhu-esque Old God N’Zoth prepares for the end of all civilization. It’s all been appropriately over-the-top fantasy fare, the kind of drama that World of Warcraft thrives on.
But fans have issues with Battle for Azeroth’s story, specifically regarding changes to both the world and their player characters. Some complaints, like the finale of the Black Empire, are relatively straightforward. Others are much more complex, and that’s because there is no one Battle for Azeroth experience. Instead, player choice and new mechanics have created branching stories for Battles for Azeroth that vary from player to player based on a surprising amount of factors.
Who are you supposed to believe?
“A lot of the time, if [players] see something in the game, they take it for granted that it’s the absolute truth,” says lead narrative designer Steve Danuser in an interview with Polygon. “It could be a book they read on a shelf somewhere, it could be something a drunk guy in a bar says to you at one time or another. Whereas in the real world, if you ran into a drunk guy in a bar and he says something to you, you’re not going to say ‘oh, absolutely, that must be the way that it is!’”
“It’s not that we’re trying to deceive the player, it’s that we’re trying to present them with, ‘hey, here’s this living, breathing world full of real people,’” says Danuser. “Like there are in the real world, and people interpret things differently and convey things differently.”
Whereas previous expansions tended to be straightforward — find out about boss, hunt boss through quests, kill boss in raid — Blizzard is trying something more layered in Battle for Azeroth.
Prep for Shadowlands
Battle for Azeroth has multiple minutes-length CGI cinematics, the first use of player choice in the game, and the first raid where players take the role of characters from the opposite faction. There is a massive amount of labor, experimentation, and effort holding up the story for Battle for Azeroth. The more ambitious you get, the riskier that becomes, and player agency has been a contentious topic.
“You do have agency in very certain ways,” Danuser says about Battle for Azeroth. “We wanted to show that there were in-game characters in the world who were making certain decisions, and your character was going to have to react. Some things you had agency in, and other things you didn’t, because frankly, that’s how the world works. You don’t always get to make every choice you want, and you have to deal with the repercussions of the choices that people around you make.”
Many of these seeds take time to pay off. When it came time to choose between Saurfang or Sylvanas, players had to wait for months to see how it would unfold. That choice was also unevenly applied; Horde got a meaty, player-focused arc, whereas the Alliance story was focused around one or two big NPCs. It’s also clear the game is laying the groundwork for Shadowlands, the next expansion. Many of the current arcs will conclude there.
What went wrong?
Many of the issues with Battle for Azeroth’s narrative come from working around the actual game. The pre-rendered cinematics were in production for “quite a while,” with Danuser saying that they talked for “a good year about what those were going to be. There’s a long process of an initial pitch, a storyboard, an initial script, and a lot of meetings.”
While progress on these cinematics and the overall story was proceeding, developers were crafting the actual game. These two elements are designed at the same time, with team members like Danuser keeping the two cycles in sync.
Despite that care, there can be conflicts. Some Horde players were outraged they would take part in the invasion of Night Elf territory at all; they had just spent a full expansion hanging out with their fellow Druids in the order hall, after all. But the War of the Thorns was essential story content; players could either skip it altogether or take part.
Night Elf fans were also unhappy in the Alliance, as it seemed like their revenge for the Burning of Teldrassil was condensed into a single quest chain that ended in a stalemate and a Warfront.
“Fans of the Night Elves have great points they brought up about some of those things, and the intention was to never make Tyrande’s choices feel weak or marginalized in any way,” says Danuser. “But by the same token, we needed the Warfront to be fictionally something that would be engaged in for a long time. We couldn’t resolve things as clean there, but the intent was always to have her story carry forward. This isn’t just a small visual change that’s happened to her. It’s something fundamental to her character, and we’ll explore that much more deeply in Shadowlands.”
The Night Elves aren’t the only characters who had their story altered in a fundamental way to suit gameplay needs. The expansion’s first raid, Uldir, was very much a culmination of the Horde storyline in Zandalar. In the Chronicles lore books, the canon retelling of World of Warcraft’s history, raids are usually assigned to one faction or another.
“The context for Uldir is a lot stronger on the Horde side. I imagine that we’ll probably tell that story more from the Horde perspective,” says Danuser, although Brann Bronzebeard was canonically attached. That means that after the Burning of Teldrassil, the Horde canonically saved the world from a massive threat. For some players, that could have been a moment of redemption — but the Alliance had access to the same content, because they need to gear up in a raid as well.
In short, it’s obvious that the gameplay needs of World of Warcraft have altered players’ perception of Battle for Azeroth’s story. An Alliance main and Horde diehard have two different perspectives, and then each faction is split further by the dramatic events of the expansion’s story.
Occasionally these differing development tracks synchronize perfectly. War Mode was a new addition to the expansion that allowed players to toggle open-world player vs. player combat ... or peacefully coexist in the world with the opposite faction, for slightly less rewards. I started the expansion with War Mode on for maximum gold and experience, and I was ganked dozens of times. It fueled my hatred toward other players, and in my meanest moments, I was all for invading Horde cities and burning them down.
After the faction war storyline wrapped, I ended up turning War Mode off. That anger dissipated. I was working with other players now; seeing an orc or troll in the world became a welcome sight. I had previously seen War Mode as a toggle for higher risk, higher reward gameplay. I realized it was more than that; it was a way to change how my character experienced the world.
As for the common folk of the world, the little guy NPCs who sell us cheese and repair our gear, they don’t have to deal with any of these high-level concerns. A vendor in Stormwind hears about our adventures thirdhand through a guard, and they have their own problems. “A shopkeeper has to make sure that their family is safe and the people she cares about are looked after,” says Danuser. In other words, her priorities are strictly related to selling cheese and protecting her kids.
With all of these points of view, it’s no surprise that Battle for Azeroth has had its storytelling stumbles. But if Blizzard can iron out these wrinkles, there’s a lot of potential in the idea of a shifting game with over a decade of real-world history that can be interpreted in a dozen different ways.