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“Gameplay first.”

The first thing you see upon Blizzard Entertainment’s mission statement webpage is this statement, standing firmly as the first of “eight core values” that serves as the code for game development within this massive company.

It’s no secret that Blizzard has always prioritized gameplay over other elements in their video games. This core value of “gameplay first” is what’s lead the studio to being seen as a titan within the video game industry. The immersive world and fluid combat of World of Warcraft; the gameplay improvements and tweaks brought upon Diablo 3 with Reaper of Souls; the near perfect RTS elements of Starcraft; all of these worlds that have been crafted by Blizzard offer fantastic experiences in gameplay as a whole.

Despite all these obvious positives in Blizzard’s video games, what elements have they overlooked? In this case, and for this piece, there’s one element that to the opinion of several fans have always been lacking severely: Storytelling.

As an up and coming writer and game developer myself, you could say I’m biased in this regard for always wanting to immerse myself in a well written story. I don’t go to action movies for the “action”; I go to action movies if the basic plot that I’ve picked up from trailer to trailer seems genuinely interesting. I don’t purchase generic FPS games that have seemingly muddled the gaming industry in the past few years for normally repetitive gun-play; I attempt to immerse myself in these games with the hope that the story is griping, real, connected, and, of all things, logical.

In stark contrast to Blizzard’s belief of “gameplay first”, the masses continuously call for better storytelling. This isn’t a critique from myself only: this is a [common] [complaint] from the many, many fans involved in each of Blizzard’s fictionally created universes. This suggestion has spanned over the past few years; it isn’t a criticism that’s been brought up only recently (as seen from the dates on each link).

I’m going to be honest: despite my absolute adoration for the Warcraft universe, I’ve found its story and how the story has been told to have become muddled over the past few years, and I share the critiques held by my fellow players. My interest in the story though, aside from being renewed with the upcoming Warlords of Draenor, was refined over the course of Mists of Pandaria.

This may come as a shock considering to this day people still joke about Mists because it is different thematically, but the story for our soon to be previous expansion ended up developing extremely well. How did this come to be though, considering Blizzard normally focuses on atmosphere and gameplay, again, over story.

A trend I’ve always noticed in the writing of Blizzard’s franchises is that the focus is always on the villain and ending their reign of tyranny (or something of the sort); it doesn’t normally divert from that. Diablo 3 did this by using Leah as an object to further the story, instead of giving her any true depth or development. Starcraft 2 marginally did this by confusing many as to what kind of character Kerrigan truly is. World of Warcraft has been doing it since it released with villains like Onyxia, Illidan, Kil’jaeden.. etc.

Mists of Pandaria’s story was enthralling not just because it broke this pattern within Blizzard’s writing, but because it didn’t follow a type of plot that’s used in nearly every form of entertainment now-a-days: blockbuster plots. This is a plot where instead of the story being emotional, or visceral, or real, or logical, it goes for over the top semantics to make viewers say “wow” instead of offering anything of real value. Perfect example: the entire plotline of Diablo 3, and every Michael Bay film ever written and produced. Ever.

So why was Mists‘ story so starkly different, more interesting, and more well developed than the other expansions we’ve had for World of Warcraft?

Because Blizzard’s writers decided to not focus on “over the top semantics” to make the game feel “epic” while sacrificing story for gameplay. Throughout Mists of Pandaria’s patch cycle, there was legitimate character development of not just the racial leaders and multitude of races between both factions, but the player’s character him or herself. “What do we fight for?” was a legitimate question that rang through my head while plundering through the Thunder King’s Palace, and while reclaiming Orgrimmar.

Any story that can legitimately make you conscious of your decisions, and the decisions of the fictional characters within its universe, is well written. The fact that the expansion’s story itself decided to back away from the whole “focus on boxart villain and his/her plan” was what made Mists so starkly different, and much better crafted storywise; it actually gave further life and perspective to the characters already existing in the Warcraft universe.

Despite Mists being a step in the right direction for Blizzard’s storytelling for World of Warcraft, it didn’t gain the attention nor praise you would expect to normally encounter with an expansion. Because our community is sometimes unable to differentiate “cultural touch” from “childish endeavors”, most people didn’t pay attention to the story, nor read any quest text because they didn’t like the fact that the expansion focused on… Pandas.

Sunwalker Dezco

And it’s sad, really, considering the depth of the story. The entire theme of the expansion being “What is worth fighting for?” drives not only the player but the NPCs that surround you and quest with you throughout Pandaria. Within Krasarang Wilds, you have a Tauren Paladin, Sunwalker Dezco, and his pregnant, prophetic wife, Leza, at the center of a storyline quite literally filled with despair.

The climax of the questline ends Leza dying during childbirth and the despair and fear that Dezco may lose his child feeling almost real. A heartwarming touch though and ending to this story is Dezco’s child actually surviving, and the birth being revealed to have offered up twins.

Now, to those of you who still criticize Mists’ story for lacking any form of depth and being a straight up tale for children, I say this to you: maybe the expansion and its face value isn’t the real source of childish behavior here.

Unfortunately, though, with the next expansion’s release date fast approaching, “woulda, coulda, shoulda” is all we can say towards Mists at this point. There’s a lesson to learned from Mists and its approach to Warcraft’s story, though: storytelling within games, specifically an MMO, is difficult, and any developer for anything wanting to take a bit of a “different” approach towards their creation is always met a bit sourly.

Mists, again, was a step in the right direction for World of Warcraft’s storytelling, but it stumbled all due to its cover art not being some famous figure from Warcraft’s history, and instead being a “fluffy kung-fu panda”. Keeping all this in mind however, a question is beckoned from the sudden appearance of legitimate, connected, and in-depth storytelling within World of Warcraft: after so many expansions, why wait until now?

The answer to this is quite simple: storytelling in MMOs is fucking hard. No, this isn’t an excuse that purges Blizzard of all blame for not producing a story that’s wonderful, emotional, and grounded pre-Mists. It, in fact, gives us context as to why it took this long, and why better storytelling happening presently in-game is the best time possible for it.

What I am about to say I state as a very, very small time game developer myself, and my own observations while trying to create my own game(s), and comparing them to other games on a much larger scale than anything I’m creating (in other words “online games” and MMOs specifically).

Let me elaborate further:

A name issue with this and the whole problem with interpretation plus immersion when it comes to telling stories in MMOs is how the story is displayed. When it is only text, upon more text, upon more text, upon more text… it becomes the most droll and boring thing to experience in the world.

Sure, the story could be wonderfully written and not have a single plothole, but the actual context for the story can be misinterpreted because of how inefficient of a method that is to tell the story and explain all of its details. Switching things up with events like cinematics or rare encounters in-game that offer lore information give the storytelling for a game (specifically an MMO) an edge and much higher interest factor.

As most of us know, the story of an MMO isn’t focused on one central character (you). The quests you receive and the cinematics you witness, of course, centralize around your character, but the universe itself and how the story of it develops doesn’t revolve around just your character. MMOs are about having an open world that EVERY PLAYER contributes to. There’s no true single player experience we find in wonderfully written games like The Last of Us or The Legacy of Kain series.

One MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic, proceeded down this route of focused single player storytelling. While the story was marginally interesting for the universe that the game offered, there was genuinely nothing (at launch) to do after hitting maximum level and experiencing all of the single player focused stories via cutscene after cutscene. Since releasing, SWTOR has gone Free-To-Play, and by many has been garnered as a failure due to its average writing and poor content/gameplay.

The game legitimately focused on telling the story, but didn’t do much more than that; coming from a former heavily invested player of the game, there was a distinct lack of endgame and disturbing lack of excitement in the actual combat and how the classes worked. Others have followed suit in regards to this focus on storytelling, such as Guild Wars 2 and The Elder Scrolls Online, by learning from the mistakes of SWTOR and offering more engrossing experiences, yet both games are still unable to reach the heights and financial success of World of Warcraft.

Fears of what happened with SWTOR is, what I believe, to be a common fear harbored by all developers and writers for massive scale, online video games. The story that you’re forging for whatever universe your online or MMO game is offering is going to be interpreted in different ways; much, much different than it would be in a single player focused game.

When we, again, look at a game like The Last Of Us, a major selling point for it before it was released was that it was going to offer an immersive, well written story that would have you gripping your seat by its conclusion. And, genuinely, it did considering the amount of awards and scores it received at its launch.

This gives more explanation and meaning for why Blizzard’s philosophy has always been “gameplay first”: because by focusing on gameplay, by offering the players an immense setting, fun combat, a wonderful art style, and well developed, replayable, addictive content, many more players focus on that than the story being told to them.

In other words: people would rather focus on having fun than getting caught up in the details (ring some bells from the Blizzcon unveiling of WoD, anyone?), and by having fun, it distracts you from anything extraneous or even mediocre.

That’s why Mists was such a breath of fresh air for the game. Instead of following the usual “same, but fun, combat, additional endgame content, new gameplay features, initially strong then brittle story” mold that exists in every expansion, Mists gave us all of the normal features we’d expect (same combat, further endgame, etc.) along with a well told story that never fell apart or truly felt disconnected.

There was legitimate and real meaning to be found in World of Warcraft for once with the story, but not many experienced or appreciated it because they either quit the game due to “childish pandas” or just didn’t seem to care.

In the past with the story, whether it range from “Vanilla WoW” to Cataclysm, there’s always been glimmers of a robust story in the cracks of what’s being told.

When you look at Vanilla WoW, we had no true purpose purely because the game was so new and large that no one villain or faction could be labelled as the “main antagonist”. Since there was no true anchor to latch the ongoing story of Warcraft onto when World of Warcraft initially released, the story started to become disjointed; there was no framed narrative, even though there was obvious effort to do so.

Gandering back on The Burning Crusade with rose-tinted glasses, you see the story is just as jumbled as the base game of World of Warcraft was. The expansion was supposed to centralize and culminate with a grand battle vs. Illidan and his forces upon the Black Temple, but it instead turned into a small raid that we received at the BEGINNING of the patch cycle instead of the end.

It didn’t even feel like we were given a proper conclusion to this so called “main villain” that Illidan had been turned into. Before we knew it, we were suddenly being pointed towards reclaiming the Isle of Quel’danas and the Sunwell. Epic, sure, but by logical terms for story? No. We were given another disjointed narrative that squandered the potential for a very in depth and emotional story.

As Wrath of the Lich King crosses most people’s minds on occasion, I see them reminisce upon it with fond memories of the story. Wrath did have an interesting story to tell because it had a legitimate framework to follow, set up by Warcraft III, whose story had always been a subject of intrigue for the community. Arthas, a fan favorite and star of Warcraft III, was the star of the expansion; the boxart villain, the final boss… everything. And the expansion’s progress followed this framework that existed since Warcraft III (mostly) to the absolute detail.

Right off the bat from the expansion’s unveiling, we knew where we were headed: into the heart of Northrend to weaken the Scourge and eventually (and finally) obliterate the Lich King. Of all the expansions we’ve had so far, Wrath was legitimately the first to offer some reason, non dysfunctional storytelling and story. Furthermore, Wrath was the first expansion to have an in-game cinematic, which was the absolute first swing in the right direction for all of this discussion on Blizzard’s apparent improvements with storytelling.

I remember watching the Battle at Wrathgate for the first time in my room when all my efforts in Dragonblight had culminated in a full assault on the entrance to the Lich King’s fortress and kingdom. It gave me chills and gave an entirely new level of context to the story that is starkly different than anything quest text could do.

Honestly, if the expansion had offered some real development for Arthas’ character instead of him being a mindless entity that he himself was lost in, Wrath would’ve been the full step in the right direction that Mists was and Warlords is shaping up to be, instead of just being a partial footprint in the path towards proper storytelling in-game.

And then… there’s Cataclysm. Cataclysm started off so strong with a multitude of storylines present in the game, easily able to be tied up in a smart manner before the expansion’s end. The clash between Deathwing and Alexstraza in Twilight Highlands will forever be a favorite cutscene of mine, but reminiscing on the expansion… what else was there?

The patch cycle tore the story’s flow apart by randomly diverting us back to Zul’Aman and Zul’Gurub, despite this narrative being able to set up the Zandalari’s influence in Mists of Pandaria. When Firelands finally arrived, we were given a poor questline to apparently venerate Thrall further than he already had been. I’m a Horde player who absolutely adored Thrall and I’m saying they made him into a straight up Mary Sue to try and interconnect the plot of Cataclysm as it was falling apart.

To top all of THAT off, we were thrown the final patch of the expansion out of nowhere and were being rushed to fight Deathwing as soon as possible. It felt like, literally, the story jumped from 4.0 to 4.3 without any context; Firelands and the Zul’Aman/Zul’Gurub patches could’ve been skipped. There was such a lack of proper development for the main villain between them.

Cataclysm had a similar framework to Wrath, but said framework was not fleshed out as well as Wrath’s had been. It felt like at one point Catalclysm’s story couldn’t even identify what it was about in and of itself. And don’t even get me started on the ending cinematic, which was a step backwards after Wrath’s leap forward with both the game’s first in-game cinematic (after a pretty epic questline, too) and first raid cinematic (to conclude to expansion).

Finally, Mists came along, and with it a genuine breath of fresh air to the game. The expansion didn’t have a framework really, aside from the fact we knew we’d be randomly uncovering Pandaria via shipwreck and somehow the expansion would culminate in an effort to dethrone Garrosh Hellscream. However, for the first time of all these expansions, the story wasn’t about just being coherent and truly offered real development not just, again, for the main villain, but instead for a myriad of other characters, INCLUDING your own.

Wrath, like I had said, was a legitimately good expansion because it correctly played the cards it already had in its hand due to Warcraft III’s existence, but didn’t offer much more than that. Mists of Pandaria was literally forced to write its own story, its own lore, its own history, and somehow tie that in with the rest of Warcraft’s lore, AND find a way to have our conflict against Garrosh make sense. On all accounts, whether or not you agree it was well done or not, the effort was there and true development was, too.

This isn’t a matter of debating if it was well done or not; this is signifying that there was actual effort and consciousness in the story’s development and culmination. Between lengthy lore questlines with every major patch that spanned over weeks or just a few hours, to dialogue and narrative in each raid (and even after, with the Legendary Questline guiding the story), the work was there to give World of Warcraft the focus it always lacked with proper storytelling.

So, where do we go from here with all this understood and under our belts? What has Blizzard truly learned from all of our feedback regarding storytelling with Warcraft’s universe and World of Warcraft in general?

Well, that’s where the upcoming expansion, Warlords of Draenor, comes into play, because the fruit that’s been bared from all these years of feedback has finally ripened.

We all know the story of Warlords by now, but there’s much more to it than a simple “multiverse” or “alternate timeline” tale. I personally find time travel stories are complete bullshit. I was immensely skeptical when I heard about the new expansion, because I felt it would just be another Cataclysm, utilizing a number of famous names within the lore, and ruining said names by involving too many famous figures at once.

In other words, I figured this expansion’s story would collapse on itself due to the size of itself and the major characters involved, and the game would fall back into its trend of boring and disjointed storytelling.

I was so wrong.

Something continued to evolve with the writing of World of Warcraft between last expansion and this. Retaining the well done storytelling from Mists‘ patch cycle, it seems that the development team made it their mission and goal to have legitimate character development woven into the leveling experience upon Draenor, along with still progressing said development for MANY characters at maximum level.

The new character models packaged in with the upcoming expansion have given the developers a new refined avenue to tell the story: cinematics. Though cinematics are in no way new to World of Warcraft, they’ve never been implemented in-game to the extent that they are in Warlords of Draenor. With Wrath of the Lich King, there were a total of two in-game cinematics.

Cataclysm had one cinematic, and Mists had four. Warlords has TWELVE CINEMATICS.

There aren’t cinematics like those experienced in any of the past expansions, either. Each and every one engrossing and placed at absolutely key points in the story; they’re in the exact spots they need to be to carry the story properly and have it told in the right manner, instead of just being through quest text and the usual boring means we’ve always experienced. The cinematics themselves aren’t each used to describe insanely massive moments of the story, either.

There are some for the actual introduction to Draenor, so that all players have context as to where they’re headed and who they’re facing. There are cinematics that actually congratulate your character on their efforts upon Draenor against the Iron Horde, and reward you by causing your Garrison to grow and become more powerful.

But it’s not just cinematics. Your Garrison, one of the crux features of the expansion, isn’t a simple “housing” hub used cosmetically. Your Garrison is like a living, breathing town, that has its own stories, its own denizens with their own tales, and its own grand scale quests that lead you to learn more about your enemies. Furthermore, prominent lore figures will visit your Garrison randomly, either just to drop by, offer some dialogue, or even offer a quest that gives even FURTHER development and FURTHER context to the story.

The loregasm I had when I visited the Inn (a possible building for your Garrison) of my Garrison to see what quests or work orders I could fulfill or send off for the day only to find Darion Mograine waiting for me in the corner with this quest: (Shadowy Secrets).

If that doesn’t entice you or prove to you there’s legitimate story development and storytelling for Warlords, maybe telling you he’s there to task you with collecting information from Ner’zhul’s lair to understand more about his former dark master, the Lich King, and how to unlock the power of the Frozen Throne will entice you further. Ranger looking for Alleria

The quests and avenues for storytelling don’t end with Darion Mograine. The likes of Lilian Voss, a Night Elf sentinel searching for Alleria Windrunner, Sunwalker Dezco, and even Gamon all make appearances, randomly, in your Garrison and Inn.

Each has unique, story driven quests that give more context to a multitude of facets that haven’t been touched upon in a few expansions or at all really in years. It gives closure, explanation, and further development for even MORE major (and minor) lore characters that have been created, or have continued to exist, over the years.

This method of using measures that hadn’t ever been utilized fully, or had been expressed rarely, is pushing World of Warcraft’s storytelling forward. Blizzard didn’t have to do this with the story; they could’ve left these characters out to dry per usual, as they have in the past (did someone say Aggra post Cataclysm, Med’an, or Garona post Cataclysm?).

This effort shows a distinct focus on normally improperly displayed story aspect for World of Warcraft, and this idea of focusing upon an aspect of the game that’s normally been on the backburner all due to this ideology of “gameplay first” is refreshing and fantastic.

I love playing WoW. I’ve always enjoyed playing it. The combat, the universe, the art style.. it’s all well done. The story, though, is where I’ve always thoroughly sunk my teeth into. The universe that has been forged since Warcraft: Orcs & Humans has always captivated myself and many others.

Blizzard choosing to go above and beyond with methods to prolong the story, make it further interconnected, and develop it to new heights with new machinations is wonderful to see after so many years of feedback and criticisms. For an expansion whose story seemed barren, illogical, and nonsensical at its first unveiling, it’s doing a pretty damn fine job standing on its own two feet and offering a hopeful outlook toward the Warcraft universe’s future and storytelling.

All of these factors allow for those involved in the game to constantly be obtaining new interesting ways to experience the story and immerse themselves. It’s marginally similar to Mists, taking obvious cues from the previous expansion’s proper character development and focused storytelling, yet stands as something new and evolved.

Wrath was the first baby step forward; Cataclysm backtracked a bit; Mists stayed straight and progressed with larger strides; Warlords is sprinting full force forward with Blizzard’s new focus and methodology for storytelling at the front.

And as a fan of this franchise since my childhood, I couldn’t be more joyful about the prospects of what’s to come with the story presently than I ever had been before.

Anthony Armenio

An upcoming Creative Writing major who has always had a genuine passion for any of the universes Blizzard has created. Theorizing, analyzing, and crafting original works based in Blizzard’s universes has always been a focus for me. Warcraft is a brand that I grew up on and immersed myself in almost endlessly as I matured. I’m constantly looking for any plausible way to immerse myself further by coming up with my own, personal stories and works based in the wonderful worlds forged by a company that offered an entire universe for me to be as creative as possible with.

Aspiring to write for Blizzard and their franchises.