Because WoW is not a player-centric narrative, that means that the story ends up getting told around the various faction leaders for the Alliance and Horde. Essentially, Blizzard developers say “we can’t tell a story about each of the 8 million people playing the game, so let’s tell a story about the faction leaders those people follow.”
Obviously this can run into some problems; there are, at this point, at least fourteen faction leaders, with certain factions having two or three highly prominent characters that get more development than certain faction leaders. Additionally, economies of scale show that once you add more faction leaders, your ability to really give them (and their factions) a valuable story becomes increasingly difficult, because you’re theoretically adding story for the existing factions as well as the new ones. (And yeah, that’s not a theory that gets a lot of evidence to support it.)
Then you get to the looming character issue coming out of Cataclysm, where Thrall was essentially the hero of the narrative for BOTH factions, and neither faction really bought into it; the Horde didn’t buy why Thrall wasn’t the Warchief (and most weren’t satisfied with Garrosh as his replacement) and the Alliance didn’t buy why Thrall was supposed to be their hero when he’d been the head of the opposition for so long.
So the remix here is in looking at the faction leaders and trying to determine how the faction leaders, and indeed the various races they represent, play into a stronger narrative for the game.
Overall, the Alliance narrative is one of multiple independent sovereign nations coming together in mutual defense. That’s what the Grand Alliance back in WC2 was all about, and that’s essentially what the Alliance in classic WoW stayed being about. The greatest problem with the Alliance at launch was that they lacked a leader who made the whole union make sense, and the leaders we had didn’t really have any moments where they were engaged with the various threats facing them. With Varian Wrynn (his narrative heretofore unsatisfying), that leader has emerged, but it’s also created a situation where the Alliance is less a bunch of independent races banding together and more the Varian and Anduin Show with infrequent guest appearances from some other faction leaders. So how does that get fixed?
- Stormwind: It’s hard fix Varian now that he’s gone from being the Anti-Thrall to Thrall-With-Better-Hair-And-A-Son. If you can’t throw out the Trials story, the best thing to do is figure out how to challenge Varian and give him an opportunity to do what he does best: brawl and kill bad guys. Back in the classic game, everybody fell in love with Bolvar Fordragon because he threw down against a room full of Dragonkin and hammered them into submission. Players don’t really see Varian do this (aside from the Assault on Undercity proto-scenario that’s no longer accessible and the awful fisticuffs sequence at the end of the Tushui recruitment event), because the Trials narrative hinged upon Varian learning how to lead when various books demonstrated that he already knew how to do that. Solution: Give us a scenario where Varian and the players face off against something big. No armies, no huge buffs from just being in the King’s presence, but something that’s a challenge for a hero and his crew. The Alliance wants a leader who can express his own strength, not just show he can delegate to others.
- Ironforge: In the same way that Varian is poorly characterized in the Trials narrative, Moira and the Council of Three Hammers don’t come out any better in Blood in the Snow. First off, Muradin and Falstad aren’t there; the exercise of Moira demonstrating her willingness to cooperate with Varian when the other two leaders apparently don’t care about a Zandalari offensive in Dun Morogh is something that stretches credulity. Given that you’ve got three faction leaders who all have their own unique abilities and perspectives, find a way to show them off individually before demonstrating that in order to succeed, they’ve got to Go Go Voltron and work together. Solution: A Little Patience demonstrated the ability for player choices to alter how the scenario rolls. Remix Blood in the Snow into a scenario where the party chooses whether to follow Moira, Muradin, or Falstad up the mountain to investigate the troll threat. Showcase Moira’s Atonement build, Muradin’s Mountain King/Avatar abilities, Falstad’s Storm Hammer-driven ranged supporting fire, and you’ve got a scenario with multiple playthroughs that shows what each leader is all about.
- Darnassus: Speaking of A Little Patience, the big issue most people bring up is how Tyrande was reduced to a foil for Varian, which did nothing to repair the damage to her character when she was essentially a non-entity in her own faction leader story. Kosak et al have argued that Tyrande is being consistently hotheaded as she was in WC3, but the problem here is that her hotheadedness is being treated as a character flaw instead of a character virtue. Solution: A Little Patience needed to be about Tyrande being a smart leader, not buffing Varian’s High King narrative. The Night Elves have been accused of being somewhat xenophobic in the past, so that’s your angle: Tyrande has to work with gnomish, dwarven, and human forces in order to lay a trap for the orc forces that have taken over the temple. The Night Elf Sentinels ALWAYS go it alone; can they, with Tyrande at their head, be a part of a team?
- Gnomeregan: There’s a problem you run into when it comes to characterizing Gelbin Mekkatorque, and that’s this: you can treat the character seriously and give him a somewhat introspective and meaningful piece (I’m looking at his faction story “Cut Short”) and you’ve got his wacky hijinks and blatant comedy sidekick adventure in the Operation: Gnomeregan proto-scenario/event. It’s hard to really strike a balance between those two extremes in gameplay, I think, but the best way to do it is to play to Gelbin’s strengths. Solution: An Arms Race scenario where the Gnomes and Goblins are essentially playing Destroy Build Destroy, with various steps involving sabotaging the other team’s build and then, ultimately, a showdown for who’s ramshackle mecha is superior. It could pull double-duty as a showcase for Gallywix, as well, with one critical difference: Gelbin is all about the intellectual challenge of an on-the-fly, off-the-cuff build, and any sabotage done by his team is purposefully kept out of his sight. Gallywix, on the other hand, would play the more ruthless card of straight-up ordering his team to cross the line.
- The Exodar: We really haven’t seen Velen in play since the Sunwell, and I’d argue that’s because Blizzard doesn’t really know what to do with an ancient Eredar prophet who likely has a power level on par with Kil’jaeden and Archimonde. The Draenei really needed a secondary racial leader, like Vindicator Maraad, General Tiras’alan, or someone in the Hand of Argus, to demonstrate that while yeah, Space-Goat Gandhi calls the shots, it’s going to be a paladin in full Justicar Armor swinging a crystalline mallet through the face of the enemy. Solution: If we have to stick with Velen, I’d argue for something that showcases that while Velen can predict the future, he’s more concerned with how servants of the Light approach problems without that foresight. I’d prefer having a more non-passive racial leader for the Draenei, allowing Velen to be the neutral guide that Blizzard seems to want him to be.
- Gilneas: Perhaps the greatest problem plaguing the Worgen right now is how when they aren’t considered humans with a fur problem, they’re night elves with a fur problem. The asspulls necessary to tie the worgen origin in with Gilneas and the Scythe of Elune completely sapped Blizzard’s apparent willingness to work with the faction, resulting in them getting almost zero play in-game since their introduction (even though they’ve gotten an excessive amount of attention in non-game products). So how do you make the Gilneans stand out? Demonstrate that they are willing to break the rules a bit. A lot was made of the Worgen becoming the opposite number of the Forsaken for the Alliance; a more unscrupulous faction, owing to their isolationist culture but contrasted against their dependence on the rest of the Alliance for continued survival. Solution: Part of Genn’s campaign to reclaim Gilneas from the Forsaken involves reducing the number of reinforcements that Sylvanas can potentially raise against him. A scenario that capitalizes on Genn leading a team of worgen to destroy a large mausoleum to prevent the corpses from getting raised for Sylvanas would be a way to demonstrate that no one else gets to defile the dead of Gilneas.
- Tushui Pandaren: I debate whether or not this needs to be included here, because Vol’jin: Shadows of the Horde did a lot to dispel the inference that only Tushui-leaning Pandaren off the Wandering Isle joined the Alliance, while only Huojin dudes joined the Horde. The primary functional problem of the playable pandaren factions, though, is that they have zero personality in and of themselves after you leave the Wandering Isle; Aysa and Ji literally have zero importance, though their narratives are getting touched on (and potentially ended) in the Siege of Orgrimmar. Ultimately, you might not need to try and give the pandaren more characterization, when Chen, Li Li, and all of the other factions on Pandaria have done that for us pretty completely. And perhaps that’s the best solution.
Horde version coming up next. What would you do to give the faction leaders an in-game showcase?