World of Warcraft’s story has been, for the most part, a strange jumble of character-controlled action and player-controlled action. Sometimes things are done with players and NPCs in conjunction, but most deeds are simply tossed up to the hero or heroes of Azeroth — that’s you.
This kind of storytelling comes with problems, ones that players have been facing since the early days of the silent video game protagonist. Players in World of Warcraft have so much agency and choice when it comes to their own characters and how they build them. But despite their importance to the world itself, they can do nothing to change its story.
That lack of storytelling agency may soon change with Patch 8.1, Tides of Vengeance, which is coming to Battle for Azeroth soon. While there are plenty of fun gameplay changes that should make the expansion better, one of the most interesting additions is that of choice. In an upcoming quest, players will be able to choose whether they want to support Saurfang or Sylvanas — essentially honor or evil — in the struggle for Horde warchief.
At BlizzCon 2018, we sat down with World of Warcraft lead producer Ray Cobo and senior concept artist Jimmy Lo to talk about the upcoming patch, and how it may appease players craving to make a real impact.
When we asked Cobo about how the team plans to re-unite the Horde and what happens when one of the two warring sides wins, he paused.
“It’s challenging for sure,” said Cobo. “but I think that, ultimately, we have to look at what’s at the core of the faction [...] Everything is about honor when it comes to the Horde, and as the story unfolds and you start to learn about the motivations behind Saurfang, or the motivations behind Sylvanas and why she’s doing what she’s doing, it starts to create a perspective around, ‘Is that the kind of person that I want to follow?’
It’s true that the Horde is honor-based, but only when you talk about the Horde that Saurfang believes in, not the Sylvanas-led one. While Blizzard is giving players the choice of who to follow here, it seems like the studio is set on which faction will inevitably come out the victor.
“It really just comes down to that [identity of honor], and it’s hard to say, you know, what happens if we end up in a place where you have some faction of Horde that does not agree with the direction,” asked Cobo. “ [...] I think we’ll have to cross that bridge when we get to it.”
It seemed like the Horde players at BlizzCon sat divided during the opening ceremony Before the show started, players cheered for Sylvanas Windrunner, the current, evil(-ish) warchief of the Horde, when her picture showed up on screen. But when the Lost Honor cinematic played and Saurfang talked about “wanting his Horde back,” the audience had a massive, excited reaction.
The World of Warcraft playerbase is cut in half, but not in the usual “Horde versus Alliance” fashion. Instead, Horde players themselves seem at odds with what their faction actually stands for. Cobo and Lo suggest that this mismatch may be hard, if not impossible, to fix. Someone is always going to be disappointed, and with Cobo’s talk of honor being at the center of the Horde, Sylvanas-stans will probably have a disappointing time with the expansion.
So what is Blizzard giving those players — the ones who like playing the villains in a game all about heroes — to make up for it?
“We give them PvP,” laughed Cobo. But as for it World of Warcraft is always going to be a game about playing Azeroth’s greatest superhero, or if the players around us with darker intentions will ever have anything to do, Cobo had a more serious answer.
“I think that there’s a lot of gray in the game and in our world, right,” asked Cobo. “And so I think that tapping into that and making things reflect the complexities of the relationships that we have between these key characters and then the player itself, and having the player be able to experience that from their perspective, is really what is one of the strong connecting hooks of World of Warcraft.”
Players’ relationships with the NPCs around them have been hit-and-miss over the years. One of the original issues with Thrall, the Horde’s original Warchief, is that players began to refer to him as “green Jesus,” because of how infinitely powerful and infallible he was. But he’s been gone since the Warlord of Draenor expansion, and with the death of Varian Wrynn and Vol’Jin at the start of Legion, the old guard hasn’t been there to guide players the same way as it used to be.
The diverging choices and the lack of old characters in power give the champions of Azeroth a chance to influence the world as the primary actors. But it seems like Blizzard may not be entirely ready to give up its control over the story to the players that want to know what happens when they break bad.
While it’s clear that Blizzard is eager not to spoil the future of Battle for Azeroth, it seems pretty unlikely that players who want to be pure evil will ever get their day to shine in World of Warcraft. Despite the decision being added into the game, the good guys will likely win and the threats to Azeroth will continue to roll on by, getting knocked out by players one at a time.
The difference here is when it comes to consequences.
“For us as game developers and makers of the game, what we want to do is we want to create an environment where players feel like they have the choice to do something meaningful and impactful in the game,” said Cobo. “Ultimately where that choice leads them — is it the right choice? Is the wrong choice? I don’t know — but that’s the whole point, right?
“That’s the impetus behind everything, is to just make sure that players feel like things that they do in the game will have great consequences or great victories or whatever it’s going to be, right? Ultimately, our job is to create a world and environment and mechanics that support all that stuff. And however the players choose to make their choices is really up to them.”
While we don’t know what will happen to players that choose to side with Sylvanas when she’s ultimately toppled from power, it seems that their actions will make some kind of difference on the game — consequences that could mortally harm one of the troll’s heading up Saurfang’s rebellion, Zekhan (introduced in the “Old Soldier” cinematic, he won the community’s heart and has been rechristened “Zappy Boi”), who is primed for Sylvanas’ crosshairs after opposing her.
Battle for Azeroth is just getting started, and players will likely have to wait a little over a year before they have a concrete idea of where the story of the expansion will end up. But it seems that World of Warcraft will always reward the good — but that some will have to pay the price for the bad apples among us all.