Remix the Factions (REDUX)

In the process of doing some clean-up, came across this thing that I don’t think I ever posted here.

Even if I did, I feel like there’s still discussion to be had about the merits/flaws of a four-faction system vs. the two-faction system we ended up with.

Look, I just really like the idea of the Forsaken being “undead EVERYTHING” and high elves being able to join any faction. And Frostwolf worgen because tell me that ain’t perfect.


 

Something I consider to be a fundamental flaw in the design of World of Warcraft was the sentiment that “orcs vs. humans” needed to be preserved as a core value of the game. It’s handily demonstrated in Warcraft 3’s opening cinematic that the conflict between the orcs and the humans (and consequently the larger gathered factions of the Horde and the Alliance) is small potatoes when a dangerous third party enters the fray; quite frankly, I think WoW should have run with that ball instead of dropping it for the sake of Red vs Blue.

With that in mind, I think that WoW should have had a four-faction structure, to mirror the four different campaigns we saw in WC3:

  • Thrall’s Horde, consisting of the orcs, trolls, and tauren,
  • The Grand Alliance, made up of humans, dwarves, and gnomes,
  • The Forsaken, made up of free-willed undead of all races,
  • and the Night Elves, basically going alone because their druids can shapeshift into anything.

Critical differences? You can defect. If you want to be a night elf that fights for the Alliance, there’s a method to do that. If you want to be a Forsaken Tauren who goes to bat for the Horde, you can do that. Hell, if you want to reject the four players factions altogether and go to work for the Twilight’s Hammer, you can do that.

This also means that when you introduce new races into the game, there’s a great deal more fluidity in their narratives. Blood Elves/High Elves make sense joining pretty much any faction after the destruction of Quel’thalas, but they also make sense as an NPC faction dedicated to rebuilding Silvermoon and reclaiming their former glory. For races like ogres and goblins, you’ve always got different clans/cartels willing to align with any faction if the price is right. For the draenei, they’d have a different reason for every faction; joining the Horde is about helping the orcs reconnect with their noble history on Draenor, joining the Alliance would be about connecting with other adherents of the Light, joining the Night Elves would be about protecting their new world, and joining the Forsaken… well, undead draenei being all grumbly about being rejected by the Light in undeath would be perfect, no?

Even the worgen would make sense on any of these factions; for the night elves it’s the Druids of the Scythe; for the Horde it’s Frostwolf orcs who are taking their natural lupine connection a step further, for the Alliance you can stick with Gilneans and for the forsaken it’s a) dead Gilnears who had the curse and/or b) the Sons of Arugal.

A Response to Janet McNulty re: TPM

Some context, as in the original post, wherein the audience is asked to just get over how awful The Phantom Menace was in preparation for The Force Awakens.

I’m posting this response here because for whatever reason, I can’t post it as a response on the author’s blog, and it’s too long for an FB comment, so here goes. You are STRONGLY advised to read the original post for context.

Here goes:


 

I want to offer some responses, with the full disclosure that a) I’m not expecting to change your opinion on the film and b) I’m not really asking you to suddenly forgive all the people who didn’t give this movie a fair shake.

1) Jar-Jar: To a great extent, it’s a combination of factors that makes Jar-Jar so hated. First, he’s easily the most ridiculous character introduced in a Star Wars film to date; no character in the original trilogy was as prone to pratfalls, nor had as nonsensical a manner of speaking. Jar-Jar caught a lot of people off guard because they had no context for him from the original trilogy. Ultimately he made a very poor first impression and never recovered from it, if you were coming to TPM from having watched the original trilogy.

On the other side, if you’re watching the film without that prior context, Jar-Jar might still come across as infantile in his humour, but even then, he’s there for comedy relief in a film that was largely dealing with a fairly complicated plot. If you’re George Lucas and you want the film to excite a young audience, someone like Jar-Jar is almost necessary so the kids don’t have their eyes glaze over at all the politics. And that was the reaction for Lucas and his crew while making the film: Jar-Jar was testing well with kids (especially Lucas’ own kids) and no one found him too distracting from the rest of the flm. The problem ultimately comes from fans of the original trilogy getting whiplash from how unexpected Jar-Jar was.

2) Lack of emotional attachment: I feel like this is a more nebulous issue, but again it has to do with how expectations of people coming from the original films conflicted with what Lucas ended up putting on screen. In the original trilogy, our model for a Jedi is old Obi-wan Kenobi, replaced later by Yoda. A lot of the dogma around the Jedi Order, and how they straight-up abstain from emotion to avoid the Dark Side, was never expressed by those two characters: Obi-wan, as played by Alec Guinness, was warm and amiable when it served him and manipulative when it served him, and Yoda was an old trickster first, and a wise warrior second. Qui-gon Jinn, and later the rest of the Jedi Order, came across as cold and unfeeling, and especially as the trilogy continued, there was a lot of work done to tarnish the idea of the Jedi that had been set-up in the original trilogy so effectively.

I say all of this to indicate that I don’t think the negativity is necessarily about the audience not feeling attached to Qui-gon, or the audience being upset that Qui-gon doesn’t seem to have an emotional interest in Anakin, but more that with Qui-gon being presented as the iconic Jedi Master of this film, he leaves people feeling cold, which is not at all the sense we got from old Obi-wan or Yoda in the original trilogy. Additionally, the midichlorians concept came completely out of left field, and similar to Jar-Jar, it felt like it upended a lot of preconceived notions about the Jedi that had never really been challenged prior to that point.

So it’s not really about Qui-gon, but about the portrayal of the Jedi as a whole, and Qui-gon gets most of the bad rap for that because he’s the iconic Jedi who is on the screen for most of the film.

3) Anakin: I think when it comes down to it, no one bought Jake Lloyd’s character. He’s eight years old, he’s a mechanical genius, speaks multiple languages fluently, is the only human who can pilot a podracer, came about through immaculate conception, charms a queen who’s twice his age, and all of the scenes demonstrating his anger issues were edited out of the film. Anakin came across as unfailingly perfect, and that was just too saccharine for anyone to take seriously.

When Luke pilots an X-wing against the Death Star at the end of A New Hope, we feel like we’ve been on a journey where he’s built up to that moment pretty well. By contrast, Anakin gives a poor first impression and, by the time he stumbles into a setpiece space dogfight at the climax of the film, he doesn’t feel like he’s earned that moment. Making him older would have helped with some of that sweetness, but a lot of what Anakin did was act as an avatar for the setpieces in the film that gave Lucas the opportunity to showcase his special effects innovations. Anakin ultimately didn’t feel like a person.

4) Plot holes: I’ll try to take these one at a time.

  • a) Midichlorians: As I said earlier, I don’t think the issue is as much that people didn’t understand the concept of midichlorians, but instead that it didn’t fit with how the Jedi had been characterized at any point in the entirety of the Star Wars universe up to TPM. To an extent, it’s the way that it dispels part of the magic of the Force that’s more aggravating than the concept of space bacteria.
  • b) Palpatine as a manipulator: You’re right that Palpatine manipulating people really shouldn’t be that unbelievable. I wonder if people were upset about it because it again deflates the effectiveness of the Jedi when they couldn’t sense the great disturbance in the Force that Palpatine himself would be at the center of.
  • c) Anakin’s mechanical hobby: This feels like another expression of how much of a Mary Sue character Anakin comes across as, in addition to shoe-horning C-3PO into the film. Put another way, I don’t think the complaint is as much that Anakin, being a slave, wouldn’t have had time for his hobbies, but instead that no one bought the idea that 3PO started as a garage-built protocol droid that we saw identical mass-production models of multiple times in the original trilogy AND earlier in TPM. Part of 3PO’s entire character was predicated on him being an assembly-line constructed interpreter, but it seems dissonant that Anakin would be able to construct a perfect replica of that from junk on a backwater planet.
  • d) Lack of continuity: This seems like an odd complaint. There would have been no dramatic reason to reveal Vader being from Tatooine in Episode 4. It’s not something that fit into Luke’s arc, and Luke was really the star of that show.

5) Darth Maul: There’s two responses when it comes to Maul. First is that he encapsulates a ton of surprises about the Dark Side of the Force (“an evil ALIEN dark Jedi?”) but he’s also incredibly cool, because martial arts and double-bladed lightsaber. I imagine a lot of the people who are upset with the lack of Maul’s character are coming from the position of “we wanted more Maul in the movie and it sucked that he ended up dying to Obi-wan.” Which helps to explain why Maul ends up coming back in the Clone Wars TV series.

The other response is more behind-the-scenes. Ray Park was hired because his skill with wushu allowed for a very cinematic and crowd-pleasing performance, and because adding this dimension to the lightsaber duels would dramatically up the ante from where they’d been in the original trilogy. The difficulty was that Park’s accent made him difficult to take seriously (and from seeing his speaking roles in later works, he’s really not a particularly good actor when it comes to drama) so it was much more effective to make him this nearly-mute antagonist who was just something of an evil force of nature. Again, because Maul popped off the screen so wonderfully, people were disappointed to see him come to an end so readily, especially when it was a bit of a big deal when Vader was able to just fly away from the destruction of the Death Star in Episode 4. Maul appeared poised to be the new Vader for the prequel trilogy and that just didn’t happen.

6) Too much CGI: To an extent, yes, there are people who just get taken out of their immersion when the film just looks completely unreal. And you’re right that getting bent out of shape because a director went for digital effects over practical ones in the modern era is basically shouting at the waves at this point.

That being said, Lucas was always a special effects innovator first and foremost. The special effects in the original trilogy were part of what really rocketed that part of the film industry to the forefront in the late 70s/80s, and Lucas and ILM were always a huge part of that. The part where I feel like the “too much CGI” argument holds some water is that there are certainly moments in the prequel trilogy where it doesn’t feel like we’re looking at something that’s real anymore: everything from the actors to the sets to the props is digital, AND LOOKS LIKE IT, so the artificiality of everything becomes too much to bear. And if we’re not hooked into the film because of an emotional bond to the characters (and we’re not, because so few of the characters in this film give us anything to connect to) then it feels like we got all hyped up for an ILM tech demo, and not the rolicking space epic we were expecting.

7) Lucas did it his way: I’ve never heard of the notion that Lucas didn’t like giving up creative control for Eps 5/6. My understanding (and sadly I don’t have a direct source to link on this) was that both writing and directing Episode 4 was too exhausting and he simply didn’t believe he could pull off doing it on another film at the time. Overall, though, you’re right that Lucas basically had no one telling him “no” while he was making the prequels, and the results are what they are.

Closing Remarks

All that being said, the purpose of film critique (or any kind of critique, really) is generally centered on whether a film contributes something beneficial and/or new to the world. The fact that an entire generation had been groomed on the original trilogy meant that there was no way that the films could have lived up the expectations of the audience, but I think there were a lot of critiques that came from a honest craft standpoint, asserting that there were functional problems with how the films were structured, cast, and written. Lucas is in his element when it comes to shot composition and special effects, and he knows who to trust when it comes to music, sound design, costuming, make-up, and editing, but the performances and the script are where the soul of the film comes from, and those ended up coming across so poorly that the films felt soulless.

It’s from that soullnessness that a lot of the amateur critique and fan outrage comes from, and that tends to drown out all of the other more reasonable critiques of the films. People are trying to find anything they can to express why these films left them feeling so empty, and they’ll latch onto continuity problems or Jar-Jar’s awkwardness or an immersion-breaking amount of CGI as vehicles for doing that.

I guess the best way to wrap this all up is to say this: you’re not wrong for liking TPM or the prequels as a while. If they worked for you and fed your creativity, then there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

By the same token, I don’t think people are wrong for disliking the films either. There’s a lot of reasons to be disappointed with them, and while some of those reasons are ill-informed, some aren’t. Ultimately, if the film fails to entertain when you watch it, that first impression is never going to leave you, even if you come to appreciate elements of the film later. There’s value in coming out of a film feeling like you could have done better; maybe that feeds your creativity to write an original work, or it feeds your desire to write your opinions for the benefit of others (because as the film critic industry demonstrates, people listen to critics, for better or worse).

That said, there’s value in coming out of a film and feeling like you went on a fun ride.

Thank you very much for writing this critique, and I appreciate the opportunity to offer a response, which I hope did not come across as condescending or ignorant of your sensibilities as a creator or consumer of content. I look forward to the Force Awakens and will be interested in your thoughts on Abrams’ interpretation of the story. Take care. ^_^

How Much Dungeon Is Too Much? Too Little?

The core issue I have with this response is that from a design perspective, it appears to ignore the principal reasons why the “superdungeon” design used frequently in Classic WoW was replaced by the “instance hub” design used in Burning Crusade and afterward.

  1. Players got lost in superdungeons like Blackrock Depths. It wasn’t laid out in an intuitive way.
  2. Spending 3-5 hours clearing 5-player content wasn’t conducive to a playstyle where a normal dungeon was something you could do casually over a lunch break.
  3. The art assets and encounter design manhours invested in creating 5-player content were similar to the resources invested in a 10/25-player raid, and yet raids were intended to offer greater staying power as content.

Hence, the instance hub design in BC addressed all of these problems at once.

  1. Dungeons were inherently more linear, and the frequency of divergent paths or optional bosses was far lower.
  2. Constraining boss counts to less than 3-4 made lunchbreak runs more feasible for a somewhat coordinated team.
  3. Reusing art assets allowed encounter design to be the chief delineating factor between the dungeons rather than visual style, which put more pressure on the encounters team to churn out unique fights but freed the art teams who generally seem to have a longer turnaround on generating deliverables.

Because we’re talking about a paradigm shift that has largely been maintained in expansions since BC, I think it’s safe to say that it’s probably the paradigm that Team 2 intends to stick with for the rest of WoW. To be fair, though, asset reuse has been set aside in lieu of making fewer dungeons that are nonetheless unique in their visual style AND encounter mechanics. The fact that this has resulted in fewer dungeons proves the point of the instance hub concept, which is that art resources are expensive.

I think the concern about the world feeling stitched together is completely valid, but I’m willing to accept that feeling principally because it means the developers have to strike a compromise somewhere between an immersive and believable game world and a world where players don’t have to spend a lot of time traveling before they get to gameplay.

Put another way, the sense of being in an immense and immersive world isn’t the core objective of the game; instead, the core objective is combat on a diverse set of stages, and in providing a mostly seamless transition between those stages, the game world must shave some corners. I still think Blizzard does a great job with the scope and fidelity of their zone/instance design, but I know not everyone agrees with how much they choose to invest (or not invest) on that particular aspect of the overall design.

The Tragedy of Ordos

Word of the Waterspeaker’s vision spread across Pandaria, circulating among the wise of the many races. Soon it reached the ears of Ordos, a high shaman of the yaungol, and without delay he sought the counsel of Niuzao, the Black Ox and guardian of the west.

“Great One,” pleaded Ordos, “fire shall rain from the sky! We must rise to face this threat and defeat it!”

The Black Ox was unmoved. “Do not let your fear guide your actions, friend. Stand against that which threatens you, and you will see that from courage comes fortitude, but from desperation comes only despair.”

The high shaman misliked Niuzao’s counsel, however. He consulted the elemental spirits, telling them of his fears: that this wretched fire would come down from the heavens and blacken the steppes that the yaungol called home.

The Spirit of Earth echoed the sentiments of Niuzao: “The mountain does not break before fire, but instead weathers the storm.”

The Spirit of Water cared not for Ordos’ fears: “There is no fire that water cannot extinguish. Let this rain fall! We shall wash it away into steam.”

The Spirit of Air merely laughed: “Let us ride the winds to the far-flung corners of the world! We can rise above this fire and remain free of it for all time!”

At last, when he spoke to the Spirit of Fire, Ordos finally heard agreement: “A rain of fire, you say? What blasphemy is this? Fire is our domain. No one else may wield it save by our will!”

Ordos was overjoyed. “Then you will aid me? Shall we fight this fire with fire, together?”

“We shall,” said the Spirit of Fire, “though there will be a cost. You must give yourself wholly to the flame if you are to be the agent of the Fire Lords. But if you do, you shall be a force unlike any other on this world.”

Ordos agreed, and together with the Spirit of Fire, preparations were made. When the Eternal Brazier was complete, Ordos stood before it and prepared himself, knowing that if he did not embrace this power, his people were surely doomed. Already the rain of green fire had begun to the north.

Then Ordos stepped onto the Eternal Brazier and entered the will of the Fire Lords. He writhed in untold agony, his very being alight with flame, and in his mind the Spirit of Fire exulted: “yes! You are the avatar of the Fire Lords! Bring destruction to these infidel invaders! Let naught but embers remain!”

Ordos fought through the torment, driven by his certainty that without his sacrifice, the yaungol would perish. And as he waded into battle against the invaders, the purity of his flame overcame their depravity. Day after day he burned and yet he could not be overcome, until at last the invaders withdrew from the blackened plain where he stood.

His every breath was pain and fire, but nonetheless Ordos looked back towards the Steppes, and saw the Black Ox standing on a cliff, unshakable. In his mind, he heard the words of Niuzao once again: “You will see that from courage comes fortitude, but from desperation comes only despair.

Strange mists began to coalesce around the Steppes, and Ordos could see that they stretched all over Pandaria. He ran, desperate once again to return to his home, but his battle with the invaders had drawn him too far away.

As the mists closed in, Niuzao stamped a mighty hoof, and a piece of the Steppes broke away from the land and came to rest in the sea. Ordos came to rest on that island as Pandaria faded into the mists, and recognized what he had done: if he had listened to Niuzao and stood with courage and faith, he would be hidden behind the mists, safe with his people.

Instead, Ordos had given in to his fear, and let his desperation drive him to a pact with the Fire Lords, for which he knew he would suffer forever.

Upon that timeless isle he built his temple, waiting for the time when his agony would at last come to an end, and he could return to the land of his ancestors.

Remixing Draenor’s History, Part 1

Similar to how I once manipulated the Zandalari narrative, I wanted to take some cues from Warlords of Draenor to tweak the history of politics on Draenor. Principally, it’s about trying to justify the world we see in WoD with the world we originally saw presented in Rise of the Horde, which was in turn a big iteration on how the world had been characterized during the Warcraft RTS series.

I want to start first with the arrival of the draenei, because that’s where I think the more interesting narratives for Draenor really start. So we’ll cover this section from an in-universe perspective, and then I’ll break into some analysis for why this serves the overarching narrative of Warcraft.


 

The War of the Exiles

 

The draenei didn’t intend to land on the planet they called Draenor. They’d fled their previous planet much more hastily than usual, which left D’ore, K’ure, and K’ara depleted and left the draenei with very few options on places to crash-land the Genedar. Normally they chose planets without sentient races, but in this case, they landed on a planet with a very old civilization already in place: the Gorian Empire.

At first, Velen sought to approach the ogres diplomatically, informing them of the dangers of the Legion and the inevitable invasion that was sure to catch up with them. However, the Imperator was taken with the magical technology the draenei possessed, and in typical ogre fashion tried to kill Velen in order to subjugate the aliens and take their power for himself. Velen, of course, saw this coming, and the draenei defended themselves.

The ensuing war taxed the Gorians immensely, because their magic simply wasn’t as refined as what the draenei had practiced for millennia. And that magic helped to make up for the difference in brawn and numbers between the draenei and the ogres.

In addition, the Gorian patricians had built their empire on the backs of a drudge race called orcs. Within the downtrodden orcs and their shamanic traditions, Velen saw an opportunity, and ordered his rangari to help foment rebellion against the ogres. The orcs, having been subjugated for so long that they barely had their own culture anymore, gladly joined the fray once the promise of freedom was on the table.

Between the draenei’s superior abilities and the massive numbers of the orcs, the Gorians were swiftly beaten into submission and surrendered. The draenei, to the surprise of the ogres, didn’t want to conquer them, but instead demanded that the orcs be granted their freedom, and of course that the ogres wouldn’t dare to try attacking the draenei again. The Gorians agreed, under the condition that the orcs would be given the savage northern continent where the draenei had landed as their new home.

When the orcs landed on the southern shores of Nagrand in the juggernaughts granted to them by their former captors, their first act of freedom was to set those ships on fire, ensuring they would never go back to their lives as slaves to the ogres. The draenei, seeing the fierceness of the orcs and their elation at their independence, left them to their own devices, leaving the door open for trade but not wanting to give the impression that the orcs had traded one group of masters for another.

Over the next few centuries, the orcish diaspora throughout the northern continent led to a loose clan structure. Instances of internecine warfare over local resources brought about the institution of the Kosh’harg festival as an opportunity for peace and cultural exchange. And as the clans stayed out of each other’s way and developed their own individual subcultures, that loose connectivity seemed set to continue.

All the while, the draenei kept to their holdings in Talador and Shadowmoon Valley. The rangari kept watch everywhere, but the draenei knew that when the Legion came (and come they would) they were better served to be concentrated together for the sake of safety. And no one went into Arak; the arakkoa were content to let other races have the rest of the continent, but the Spires were sacred, and otherwise impenetrable if you couldn’t fly.


 

Analysis: 

The chief mechanism of this origin is to lend some additional gravity to the events that happen later on. But it needs a bit of additional context first.

On Azeroth, we saw a similar master/slave dynamic between the mogu and the other races of Pandaria, where the mogu subjugated the pandaren and basically beat the culture out of them. The pandaren, after overthrowing the mogu dynasty, had the August Celestials to offer guidance and help them establish a new culture for themselves. On Draenor, the orcs only had themselves, so the culture they created is, to a great extent, a shadow of the culture they knew under the ogres: authority comes from strength, victory and personal honor are highly prized, and it’s more important to die gloriously than live in disgrace.

Consequently, the orcs were always waiting for the other shoe to drop with the draenei. They never trusted the draenei’s altruism, because it was so incredibly alien to them; ogres never do something unless they stand to profit personally, whether it’s through wealth or food or ownership of something. To the orcs, the draenei had to have an ulterior motive. The fact that the draenei were strong enough to beat the ogres but chose not to dominate them never made any sense. And the fact the draenei stayed so aloof from the struggles of the orcs (which the draenei did so the orcs could have agency in their own destiny) was interpreted as arrogance at worst and ignorance at best.

So when Kil’jaeden (through the guise of Rulkan) convinces Ner’zhul that the draenei are surely a threat and the only way the orcs can survive is to destroy the draenei wholesale, Ner’zhul doesn’t have to work too hard to sell that narrative to most of the orcs. “They’re just like the ogres, watching us struggle and die for their own amusement. They let us believe we’re free, but they’re keeping us from realizing our destiny.”

Ultimately, the orcs aren’t inherently evil. The abuse they suffered at the hands of the ogres, however, made them suspicious, and Kil’jaeden was able to play upon that suspicion to make them his cat’s paw. And the part where he was creating a proxy army that would play into Sargeras’ plans for Azeroth was really just icing on the evil Legion cake.

As a corollary to that, Grom’s declaration that the orcs will never be slaves is representative of the orcish racial narrative more than anything else: in WoD, all Garrosh had to do was spell out that Gul’dan was selling them into slavery and that was a more compelling argument. Taking that as an inspiration for orcish culture in the MU, that offers a few important critical notes:

  • Part of the lethargy of the orcs after they were beaten in the Second War stems from the group realization that they had become enslaved to warfare at large, and the Legion in particular. Aside from the physical withdrawal symptoms they suffered, there was the mental anguish that self-reflection brought on. You can see that reflected in Eitrigg and Saurfang and even Grom, to a certain extent.
  • It helps to drive home how ogre-like (read: heedlessly evil) the Dragonmaw and Blackrock clans became during the Second War. Keeping slaves for bloodsport (i.e. as the Blackrock/Dragonmaw recruits did with the Theramore refugees in the Siege of Orgrimmar) and the many gross abuses of Alexstrasza and her brood show that while they had a racial narrative that was opposed to slavery, the influence of their circumstances allowed some subcultures to develop that were okay with it.

The final point: Kil’jaeden’s manipulation of the orcs was not just about using a local force to do the Legion’s handiwork, but instead a gross inversion of the draenei’s own kindness and altruism. If Velen and his followers had taken the Legion kool-aid, they would have just subjugated or obliterated the ogres AND the orcs. Choosing the “virtuous” path had just left open an avenue that allowed Kil’jaeden to visit their long-overdue doom upon them.

He’d love the poetry of that.


More remixing the history of Draenor to come. Let me know what you think in the comments. 

 

Re: Artifact Chains & the Broken Isles

Kinda have a few random thoughts I wanted to get down. This is not going to be terribly organized because, without going into too much detail, the next couple days are going to be kinda stressy and hectic. So this is me trying to clear the decks in my head a bit, which means a bit of wordsplatter about the Artifact weapon chains coming in Legion and some miscellany about the Broken Isles within the context of Azeroth as a whole.

Artifact Weapon Chains

Something we can automatically tell about the Artifact chains, at least from what little we’ve been told so far on the class preview blurbs, is that all of them are going to involve going to some old and new locations in order to perform some of the steps necessary to acquire the artifacts themselves.

Without coming up with an exhaustive list, we’ve got what appear to be Legion-inhabited world(s), Icecrown Citadel, Karazhan Catacombs, Dalaran, somewhere under Tirisfal Glades, the Terrace of Endless Spring, and Light’s Hope Chapel, aside from a bunch of new locations in the Broken Isles themselves. We can probably assume that this is going to be a lot of solo scenario-driven questing that uses assets that are otherwise used elsewhere in the game. But it’s pretty interesting to consider that there’s a team of quest designers who sat down to generate 36 unique experiences that are meant to deliver on an epic, personal and meaningful story about an artifact weapon of immense power.

It’s just surprising to me to see that they don’t seem to be trying to find ways to use multiple locations for the same artifacts. From an asset creation standpoint it’d be more profitable to do it that way, and yet if the existing blurbs are any indication, we’re not going to see much duplication if any. Depending on how long these artifact chains are, it’s really a pretty broad amount of content that’s going to be wrapped up in this.

The disadvantage, of course, is that for players who really only focus on a single main character, that means the rest of the questing experience has got to feel full. Players who alt at all run the risk of being overwhelmed, but players who don’t alt are at risk of feeling like the content is once again not thick enough if the artifact chain fails to deliver.

At the same time, I think this is a good experiment for Blizzard to embark upon w/r/t content creation and I really want to see how it turns out when they double-down on it.

The Broken Isles

Okay, so, here’s where I start waxing poetic about the shape of the world of Azeroth.

Part of the immersion problem I’m having with the Broken Isles right from the get-go is the part where they don’t really seem to be a group of broken islands. Thal’dranath and the Broken Shore? Sure. But aside from that, all the rest of the territory in the continent appears to be largely contiguous… y’know, like a continent and not an archipelago. Someone says to me “Broken Isles” and an archipelago of really damage landscapes is what comes to mind, and that’s without considering how the Broken Isles have appeared previously in the game canon.

Now, of course, it’s easy to argue that Blizzard has got every reason to diversify the expansion content, especially when it comes to building on places that only had a bit of representation in the RTS games; not all of Draenor was a dry red wasteland, just as not all of Northrend was an arctic hellscape. So if the Broken Isles are really more than just a cluster of islands that were barely big enough to hold some Stormreaver bases and the Tomb of Sargeras (and some random ruins from Suramar) then quite frankly that’s perfectly fine.

The other problem I run into when it comes to the Broken Isles is the part where we haven’t really got a compelling reason as to why this place hasn’t been on the map until now. We all knew Northrend was in the world when WoW started, but no one went there because the Scourge owned the place. The whole narrative about Pandaria was that a) everyone on Pandaria thought the rest of the world was wiped out in the Sundering and b) anyone who could remember that Pandaria even bloody existed in the first place couldn’t find it because Shaohao’s mists hid it from everyone. So those places had a pretty good reason to be off the map.

The Broken Isles are probably slightly west of the Maelstrom, occupying the space between it and Vashj’ir. It just starts to strain credulity that something the size of the continent we’re seeing in Legion would be completely missed by all of the air and sea traffic headed to and from the Eastern Kingdoms. And we’ve been given no indication that the continent has been concealed as Pandaria was or is as out of the way and outright hostile as Northrend was.

And overall, when we look at the conceit we’re being given for the expansion (find the Pillars of Creation hidden in the Broken Isles in order to seal the Hell Rift that Gul’dan tore open over the Tomb of Sargeras) then the questions just keep coming. Why were the Pillars localized to this particular area of Ancient Kalimdor? Isn’t it convenient that these areas survived the Sundering/Shattering so effectively? How do the Pillars relate to the Halls of Origination in Uldum and bloody HOW can the Titans’ technology be so distributed across the surface of the planet with no discernible connectivity between them?

It’s possible that some of these questions get answered, but it’s also possible that a lot of them won’t be, in lieu of focusing the narrative on the fight with the Legion in the expansion. But with how many links are getting drawn between the Broken Isles and past content, it’s interesting to consider the possibility that we won’t see things like ruins of a Stormreaver base from Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, or anything about why Deathwing didn’t go to his own lair and chose to flee into Deepholm instead.

None of that impacts my excitement for the expansion, which is still pretty high. It does drive home the idea that the method Blizzard has used for worldbuilding in WoW basically requires a certain malleability, and consistency in certain areas takes a backseat if it gets in the way of gameplay. Which is ENTIRELY Blizzard’s prerogative, and I don’t say this to impugn what they’re doing at all. It takes a certain kind of nerd to even notice that something doesn’t add up, because in a lot of cases it has got exactly zero impact on the story being told.

I still believe that aside from all of the other ways that I feel rewarded for being a part of the world of WoW, I’m always going to appreciate the opportunity to watch it evolve and change over time, and really get a sense for what a long-form development looks like from the outside. It’s really remarkable, and it’s hard to articulate why.

That’s likely a whole post unto itself, though.

Re: the LEGION Leveling Paradigm

One of the revelations from the first LEGION panel that really stuck with me is the idea that players will be able to choose how to advance through the leveling zones instead of having a strict order to work with. So once you finish the Broken Shore starting experience, you’ll choose one of four leveling zones to go through, and then continue however you like until you reach max level, when Suramar, the endgame zone, will unlock and provide the gateway into raiding content.

What I love about this paradigm is that it allows for the zone stories to really stand on their own, making them modular adventures in and of themselves. This feeds into the idea that the expansion is really more similar to a sourcebook or campaign setting from the old D&D days, which provides a set of locations and plot hooks to engage your players without specifically saying “you can’t go here until your characters are this tall.” It makes the expansion into more of a true “expansion set” that augments the existing world of the game and gives new landscapes where stories can be told.

Of course, one of the first things I came across after hearing this announced was players commenting that “only four leveling zones demonstrates how little content will be in this expansion.” What that made me think of is wondering what past expansions would have looked like if the same paradigm had been applied, where you had bookend experiences in the form of a starting experience and at least one endgame zone, and everything else was modular and complete-able in any order.

That ends up looking something like this:

Burning Crusade

  1. Introduction: Hellfire Peninsula
  2. Leveling Zones: Zangarmarsh, Terokkar Forest, Nagrand, Blade’s Edge Mountains
  3. Endgame: Netherstorm, Shadowmoon Valley, Isle of Quel’danas

Wrath of the Lich King

  1. Introduction: Borean Tundra or Howling Fjord
  2. Leveling Zones: Dragonblight, Grizzly Hills, Sholazar Basin, Zul’Drak
  3. Endgame: Storm Peaks, Icecrown, Hrothgar’s Landing

Cataclysm

  1. Introduction: Mount Hyjal or Vashj’ir
  2. Leveling Zones: Deepholm, Uldum
  3. Endgame: Twilight Highlands, Mount Hyjal (Molten Front Remix)

Mists of Pandaria

  1. Introduction: Jade Forest
  2. Leveling Zones: Valley of the Four Winds, Krasarang Wilds, Kun-Lai Summit, Townlong Steppes, Dread Wastes
  3. Endgame: Vale of Eternal Blossoms, Isle of Giants, Isle of Thunder, Timeless Isle

Warlords of Draenor

  1. Introduction: Assault the Dark Portal –> Frostfire Ridge or Shadowmoon Valley
  2. Leveling Zones: Gorgrond, Talador, Spires of Arak, Nagrand
  3. Endgame: Tanaan Jungle

Now, clearly there are differences when you compare this directly to the LEGION model.

LEGION

  1. Introduction: The Broken Shore
  2. Leveling Zones: Val’sharah, Stormheim, Azsuna, Highmountain
  3. Endgame: Suramar, Thal’dranath

First off, we know that the Broken Shore is going to be a scenario-like experience, similar to the Assault the Dark Portal experience from WoD. That doesn’t compare 1:1 with a full questing zone like Jade Forest or Vashj’ir, but at the same time, if you compare something like Jade Forest with Vashj’ir, the former has much more content and a more fragmented story rather than the very linear experience of the latter, and that difference is important, since it also shows that not all questing zones are created equal.

Second off, we’ve got situations where you have two complete zones that are used as the entry point into the expansion. Borean Tundra and Howling Fjord are both very thick zones, on par with what Hellfire Peninsula was in BC. The difference between that and the experience in WoD, where Frostfire Ridge and Shadowmoon Valley were faction-exclusive zones, also means that strictly counting up the number of zones isn’t really a fair comparison.

And it’s important to point out that while it appears that Cataclysm really lacked for zone content (PS: it really did) the fact that so much of Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor were also altered dramatically means that it just wasn’t brand-new content that was added. That doesn’t forgive the dearth of the content, but it really has to be noted that there’s a reason why it happened.

Now, taking all of that into consideration, and also knowing that Blizzard could conceivably add additional patch content beyond Thal’dranath in LEGION, what can we conclude?

  1. Four leveling zones isn’t exactly unheard of. If you discount the opening zone of the game, then BC, Wrath, MoP, and WoD all had at least four zones dedicated to advancing from the starting level to the level cap.
  2. Having two endgame zones was more common than having one. In BC, both Netherstorm and Shadowmoon Valley set up the endgame raids, while Wrath did the same thing with Storm Peaks and Icecrown. The Molten Front addition to Mount Hyjal in 4.2 of Cataclysm doesn’t really match up with an entire zone, but as patch content it’s on par with something like the Isle of Quel’danas or the Timeless Isle in terms of intent. In MoP, Dread Wastes feels more like a leveling zone rather than an endgame zone, even though it does set up Heart of Fear rather meaningfully.
  3. Yes, it’s reasonable to argue that LEGION will only ship with five questing zones and doesn’t have the problems of Cataclysm‘s Azeroth revamp to blame for it, but WoD was effectively only five zones if you didn’t choose to play a character of the opposing faction.
  4. However, comparing any of the zones in WoD (and it’s reasonable to assume that Broken Isles zones will be more similar to Draenor zones than to anything prior) to older content isn’t a 1:1 comparison: bonus objectives, rare spawns, and discoverable treasures are all content that simply weren’t used in older zone design paradigms. So while it’s reasonable to say that LEGION might not have as many zones, the fact that the zones will likely be more content heavy per square foot than other zones will likely be true as well. And the statements made by the devs that this gives them greater opportunities to employ the leveling zones as endgame content (without having some area of it cordoned off for endgame, as was done in WoD, sounds pretty compelling in and of itself.
  5. If past expansions had used the LEGION paradigm, it probably wouldn’t have looked that different, but you’d have had lots of content still around to be endgame content. Remember the Venture Bay PVP area in Grizzly Hills? Imagine if that had stayed relevant in Wrath‘s endgame.
  6. And maybe LEGION has less questing content per square foot, but it’s entirely possible that the reason for that is Order Halls, profession quests, and Artifact quests, which unlike Cataclysm‘s issues are actually all relevant endgame content.

I think given the struggles we saw with content saturation in WoD, it’s reasonable to be skeptical of Blizzard’s professed intentions with LEGION. But as always, where I draw the line is when one property of the design (in this case, the number of zones) is removed from the context of the rest of the design and used to bludgeon the devs. Players were convinced that having only five experience levels to advance through in Cataclysm and MoP meant that there was less content than in BC/Wrath, which had ten levels, and yet the experience wasn’t the reason for that. Numbers mean different things once you consider them in context.

I’ll never say no to more content in the game, or to more player choice and agency in the game. But I’m willing to grant the devs some grace when the car looks smaller but I haven’t had more than a glimpse at it.

But y’know, that’s me, acting like the devs are people again. *shrug*

BlizzCon Reactions: Class/Order Halls

I like the delineation about what went into their process for picking locations for the order halls (and yeah I’m going to stick with order halls because it just sounds cooler). The Fray Island example is perfect because for a certain set of warriors, the place has got nostalgic significance, but for the total set of players, it doesn’t really have any visual significance.

What’s interesting about the Dreamgrove is that we didn’t really see enough of it to really get the sense of how it’ll be different from other druid hotspots, like Moonglade specifically, or the Emerald Dragonshrine, in terms of places that are intended to be close to the Dream. It serves as a good model, though, and what Craig communicated about how it’ll be much more centered around accentuating the class feels like it could really pop. We’ll have to see, though.

Class-specific content is a great addition, and it really feels like that’s a guiding force in this expansion. Class-specific content in the order halls, spec-specific artifacts with their own narratives… this expansion appears to be all about putting the focus on the character, and that’s a cool follow-up to the Garrison Commander story we got in Warlords of Draenor that was pretty cool, even if it was generic for all of the players in the game. The isolation that was inherent with that story is completely absent with the order halls, because even if you as a specific class can’t go to another class’ order hall, there’s still a sense that they’re in the world, and it’s really twelve orders of heroes all aligning against the Legion rather than you, a singular commander with fort full of soldiers and followers fighting against all the threats on Draenor.

The Scouting Map, combined with the World Quests system, gateways into a broader discussion of the impact of Diablo III on LEGION‘s changes for endgame content, so I think I’ll get back into that one later, but as an advancement over the quest hooks you got from your garrison in WoD, it feels like a solid way to go.

Every class getting a Death Gate feels like a great addition, if for no other reason than this: it was always something that was AWESOME about Death Knights, Druids, and Monks, and if this expansion delivers on the concept of world-spanning orders for all of the classes, I think it’s a great way to tie into that.

Something that Craig didn’t really delve into was how the order halls will be different from Garrisons, but a lot of that seems to be subtly communicated in other ways. Professions won’t be in play, because they appear to be going back to Dalaran (more on profession stuff later). While we still don’t have a lot of specifics on how class champions will work, Craig is quick to point out that they’re going to be different from followers because they’ll be more prominent characters and act as a gateway to content rather than robots you send out to do content for you. At the same time, it also feels like “Garrisons” has become a dirty word with a lot of negative connotations to it, because it was clearly a huge focal point of WoD and it just didn’t end up gelling with the playerbase. So I think we can expect a LOT of elements in Order Halls to be a different beast from Garrisons if for no other reason than the say “look, we know it didn’t work out, let’s try something else.”

Personally? My dream scenario is having a system like the Garrison that exists throughout the game, but that’s another post entirely. Let’s move on.

BlizzCon Reactions: Artifact System

So I was too busy at BlizzCon to really generate reactions while they were being announced, but I still wanted to get my thoughts written down on how the announced changes are going to play out. Expect me to hit a bunch of different subjects on this, though I don’t know if I’ll get to everything.

First off, the Artifact system: it’s amazing to get a clearer sense of how this system is going to work.

For anyone who didn’t watch the panel, here’s the rundown:

  • Every spec has a specific artifact, complete with a spec-specific questchain associated with acquiring that artifact. And you can preview that artifact on the official site.
  • The artifact has what basically amounts to a talent tree, complete with unlocked active abilities and multiple ranks of passive abilities that augment powers that you already have as that spec, or new passives that grant effectively new mechanics.
  • You advance through the tree by gaining artifact power, which you get by completing content like dungeons, raids, winning battlegrounds, etc.
  • You can also continue pumping artifact power into the weapon after you’ve maxed out the tree in order to increase it’s power.
  • Relics will grant additional ranks in specific passives to allow for further customization, but the artifact has a limited number of relic slots.
  • You’ll have the ability to customize the appearance of the weapon, unlocking variant models and color tints depending on the content you complete.

First impression: to a great extent, this brings back pre-Cataclysm talent trees, but mitigates many of the issues that were inherent to the original talent design.

  • Because the abilities are keyed to the artifact, you can’t dip into another spec’s abilities to complement what your spec can do; that was something the devs struggled with because some versatility within the class was expected, but a lot of builds just weren’t feasible if the player had that wide of a choice matrix to work with.
  • Because talent points were granted by level, it meant that there were a limited number of points, which enforced decision-making on the part of the player. However, the devs noticed that a) some the decisions weren’t really decisions, since spec-defining abilities were always taken, and b) the prevalence of people looking up optimized builds online further automated the choices players were being asked to make. Having artifact power being a virtually unlimited resource that you can generate means that eventually you can unlock the entire weapon, and the only optimization is going to be “what do I pick FIRST.”
  • It also encourages play by locking more player power behind going through content, which the old talent system couldn’t do once you hit max level. This puts a greater emphasis on endgame content, essentially supplying an alternative advancement system, gated by the volume of content you engage in.
  • Part of the rationale behind the abolition of the old talent system was that hitting a level and choosing to make a dot crit 1% more often didn’t feel like a cool reward for leveling up. It’s interesting to see passive talents that modify baseline abilities crop up in the artifact because it feels like it’s a similar trap, but the fact that you’re spending a resource on those ranks rather than getting the rank as a reward for leveling up feels like a subtle distinction. It’s a GOOD distinction from a psychological standpoint.

However, I feel like there are some unanswered questions and potential drawbacks to the system that I’ve got concerns about.

  1. There’s a looming fear that people are going to be expected to fill up the artifact before their character is complete (or, to an extent, before the character is raid-worthy). If the implementation of the system makes it so that it’s a very labor-intensive process, then you’ll see a lot of players burn out under the pressure. However, if the implementation makes the process overly simplistic, it just feels like a hassle, begging the question of why we needed to resurrect talent trees in our weapons rather than just bringing back talent trees.
  2. Because of the emphasis on the quest for the artifact, and the specific relevance of the artifact to the overarching narrative of LEGION, I feel like there’s a risk that when we get to the end of this expansion and start up the next, folks will be wondering “wait, so, am I going to be unlocking a new artifact in 8.0 that’s going to have a whole different spread of abilities?” It’s similar to people wondering if the Garrison was intended to be an expansion-locked system or if it was something we’d have with us later. I can appreciate that Blizzard wants to get the expansion out there first and see what the system does before saying exactly how that’s going to play out, but the bottom line is that Blizzard doubled down on Garrisons in WoD and it didn’t deliver on the promise well enough, so doubling down on artifacts might also potentially blow up in their faces.
  3. I’m not looking forward to coming across a version of the artifact that I love but that requires me to do content that I don’t enjoy. To an extent, this is the same problem as having unique armor sets for stuff like challenge modes and PVP advancement, but with how central the artifact is being made, it feels like it’ll take on even more importance for players because they really don’t get to look at another weapon for the entirety of the expansion.

Overall I’m very excited to get to play with this system and really see it in action, so here’s to hoping I have the opportunity to join the beta test.

RE: BlizzCon 2015

Let’s go down the list.

World of Warcraft: Legion

Breaking the past tradition of WoW expansion announcements at BlizzCon, Blizzard sent a crew to Cologne, Germany, for gamescom to announce Expansion Six, named LEGION. Blizzard is being more conservative with their release of information about the expansion in development; essentially, a couple of the big PR flubs that happened during WoD’s development have burned them on showing too much of their hand too early. That being said, game development is about iteration, so while we probably won’t have the same explosion of information that we’d get with an announcement, we can probably expect a good amount of time to get spent on expanding on what was revealed at gamescom, as well as showing if there’s been any evolution on ideas like the class halls, class champions, and artifact weapon systems.

Aside from all the LEGION talk, expect some discussion about how Team 2 is going to maintain interest in WoD while we’re all waiting on the beta.

Predictions: The concept of Artifact weapons being the only dropped weapons in the game sounds like something that’s going to get walked back. That feels a little too weird. That said, a more solid date for the LEGION beta feels like it might be announcement worthy, given Chilton’s last-minute announcement at gamescom about a 2015 beta.

Diablo III

The total absence of demo stations and panel presence for Diablo already sends a signal that there won’t be any major announcements. Speculation is certainly there, however, that Blizzard might choose to forgo doing a boxed expansion and just incrementally add features to D3:RoS over time in order to keep interest in the game. Even without doing that, though, the great success of Patch 2.3 certainly will keep players invested for a solid amount of time to come: if the game laid fallow with what it has now, it would certainly still have players by the time Blizzard unleashes whatever the next entry in the franchise will be.

Predictions: More info on Patch 2.4, and that’s really it. There straight up isn’t time for anything else.

Starcraft II

Legacy of the Void‘s release date is imminent, taking the immediate post-BlizzCon spot that Warlords of Draenor had last year. At this point, there’s nothing more to talk about with the game’s release, just as there was nothing more to say about Warlords last year with only days remaining before it went live. That doesn’t mean there won’t be nothing, though: expect plenty of lip service about what Team 1 plans to do to keep interest in SC2 alive, both for eSports players and everyone else. And a lot of that lip service is probably going to come true, eventually.

Predictions: Future plans for Allied Commanders and other multiplayer options like Archon Mode feel likely. It’s far too soon to speculate on future boxed expansions for SC2 (what do you do at this point, a Xel’naga campaign?) and SCIII feels like a barely a dream at this point. Personally I plan to ask about if the mod community is going to get any love or whatever happened to the Warcraft 1/2 compatibility updates discussed years ago.

Hearthstone

The possibility for a new adventure feels like it might be there given the amount of presence and buzz the game is generating, but there haven’t really been any hints about it so far, and The Grand Tournament has barely been live for six weeks as it stands. It doesn’t feel out of the question, but I don’t know if Team 5 can really support churning out content as quickly as they have during the first years of the game’s wide release.

Predictions: Expect some rage over the Warsong Commander nerf to pervade any Q&A, but aside from that, the championships ought to be fun to watch as always.

Heroes of the Storm

With the release out of the way and one very successful franchise-oriented expansion already in play, I think the big thing we can expect from the first post-release BlizzCon will be an emphasis on Heroes‘ staying power as an eSports MOBA. Given how long Eternal Conflict has been out, it feels like it might be the right time to talk about the next free expansion, though whether that’s something that lines up with another franchise is certainly up in the air right now.

Predictions: Time to double down of Heroes eSports presence, and maybe give a clearer sense of how the team can keep making new maps without making the game too complicated for non-professional players.

Overwatch

The closed beta is opening in less than two weeks, meaning the hype train going into BlizzCon will be IMMENSEExpect Twitch streamers and fansites to be leading the charge in the closed beta, similar to what the Hearthstone beta looked like, and know that Team 4 is going to have to squeeze a LOT of discussion into only two panels.

Predictions: Given how recently Junkrat and Roadhog were revealed, I don’t think new characters are anywhere near guaranteed. That said, I strongly suspect that with a release of the game coming in 2016, we might see some indications of the transmedia plans that Blizzard has: could be comics, could be a TV series, could just be webisodes, but everything they’ve done with Overwatch so far screams accessibility outside the game alone.

Warcraft Movie

Nothing’s been said yet to solidify the idea that Legendary will release the full cinematic trailer on us at BlizzCon, but between Duncan Jones lobbying hard for just that and all of the grousing over SDCC exclusives, it feels like it would be a great way to generate early buzz for the film and build some bridges that Legendary has otherwise been ignoring. I don’t expect blood in the streets if there’s no trailer, or if the trailer is viewable at BlizzCon but not on the DirecTV stream, but you’ll hear opinionmakers screaming about it either way, and that’s going to shape the community’s feelings on the matter.

Predictions: No panel presence says we shouldn’t expect any new information, but I’m 50/50 on a trailer or teaser trailer.

Overall

I’m excited to go to the con this year without the added stress of bearing a press pass. That was a lot of fun last year but it was also exhausting, moreso than I was expecting, and given how the last week has been and what I’ve got in store between now and the show, I honestly really need BlizzCon to be a vacation and not a work trip.

All that being said, this is shaping up to be a pretty strange show, since it really feels like it’s going to be something that lacks a major product announcement in the opening ceremonies and instead capitalizes on maintaining the excitement for current and announced projects. That makes it sound similar to BlizzCon ’08 and ’10, where the major announcements took the form of D3 class reveal videos and Metzen’s glorious “Geek Is…” speech, but I also feel like the community might actually be willing to appreciate something that Blizzard struggled to hammer home in those years (and in 2012, when there was no BlizzCon): the show is about the celebration of the community that’s grown up around Blizzard’s games, and it’s not just supposed to be a hype machine for their products.

So if we go into the show just expecting a fun weekend where the devs are mixing it up with their biggest fans and dropping lots of science on Blizzard’s IPs without doing something designed to boost the stock price, then I think that’s ultimately fine, because it gets to the heart of what Blizzard is about.

It’s not about making new games, it’s not about making the best games, it’s not about making genre-redefining games that alter the landscape of gaming forever. It’s about fun, and the joy of gaming, viewed through the lens of Blizzard’s games, both new and old.

I’m looking forward to it, just as I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of friends and colleagues whom I wouldn’t have the pleasure of knowing without Blizzard’s games to knit us together.

So I’ll see you guys in Anaheim.