A Case Against the Naga

Normally, I’m advocating for stuff to get added to the game: I’d love High Elves as a playable race for the Alliance, and for Ogres to get added on for the Horde. I’m all for expanding the free-to-play options in the game to make it accessible to a wider audience.

But I’m telling you, I really don’t ever want the Naga added as a playable race.

When I originally wrote this post, it was back when “The Dark Below” hadn’t been debunked as a WoW expansion yet. Now with the new filing about “Eye of Azshara” all of this discussion is getting dredged up again, and since I never really got around to pubbing this post before, I figured it was worth getting up since the arguments are all still valid.

But let’s get this out of the way first: if there are playable naga, it doesn’t mean I break up with the game. It just means I probably don’t do their starting experience.



Here’s why Naga should never be playable:

  • They’re a race of snake-dudes all beholden to their Queen Azshara, and have pretty much been characterized as evil, bloodthirsty bastards in every appearance they’ve made in the franchise. Yeah, Lady Vashj was playing bass for Illidan and Kael’thas in their emo cover band back in WC3, but it was clear from word one that she had ulterior motives then and afterwards. **
  • Because they’re snake-dudes, they don’t have legs or feet. So if you look at the equipment slots, there’s no logical place for legs, belts, or boots to go. Yes, a bunch of races (trolls, tauren, worgen, draenei) already ignore the feet slot, since their specific feet/hoof constructs don’t really fit into boots. But because the boot texture is displayable at least partially on the lower leg, this is an acceptable compromise and doesn’t really break suspension of disbelief. Naga would need to ignore three slots instead of one, and there’s just no place for those textures to go. ** Suspension of disbelief is out the window.
  • Another note of the equipment slots: aside from the visual distortion of having belt/leg/feet slots, there’s the consideration on the player’s part. “My character doesn’t have legs, so why do I have a legs slot? Why should I have to put something there?” Experienced players are going to say “you put something there for stats” but I can see new players tripping over the concept. It breaks the immersion that a piece of gear that you should be able to equip doesn’t make sense to wear because your character is incapable of wearing it.
  • Female Naga have four arms. I know the minute there’s a four-armed playable character, you’re going to get people saying “wait, so I should have two bracer slots, right?” “I can totally dual-wield two-handers, right?” “DUDE FOUR DAGGERS GUYS”
  • If you look at every other playable race in the game, you can take off the head, feet, hands, and tail (if there’s a tail) and end up with something that could be human. You can’t do that with the naga. The reason this detail is important is that if a character is meant to be something that the player relates to, a body that’s too far from the human shape isn’t going to accomplish this. Not everyone goes in for treating their characters as a personal avatar, but players who do that are the ones who potentially connect with the game in the deepest way, and making that bond as strong as possible from an art end is clearly a part of Blizzard’s psychological strategy in setting up long-term player retention. Now, admittedly, that inability to relate to the character just means some people don’t pick naga (I don’t play Forsaken characters because I don’t feel like relating to an angry corpse) but I feel like Blizzard’s done a good job of introducing races that are readily relatable for players, in order to make that avatar bond as surefire as possible.
  • There aren’t not enough methods to customize how a naga would look; they don’t have hair for styles, they don’t have ears for piercings, and you can’t really alter their faces very dramatically. You’ve got scale color, a secondary color for the fins, eye color (though that’s really small on the male), and maybe different fin “styles” — which goes back to how having their fins poke out of all their armor would continue the whole immersion break.

Can you come up with non-evil naga? Sure. Blizzard did non-evil orcs, did semi-evil elves, did totally chill minotaurs… the part where the naga are all inherently evil is something they can work around if they want to. But I don’t think coming up with that narrative is worth it when the naga themselves are as monstrous and inhuman in countenance as they are.  Can you art a way out of all of these issues, including how monstrous the naga look? Yeah, I think that’s doable, but if you do that, are they still the naga?

When I’ve had this discussion with friends and colleagues in the past, the response I get from people who are jazzed about the naga is that all the equipment slot shenanigans aren’t an immersion break for them. I understand that for some folks, stuff like that doesn’t kick you out of the game. For me, though, coming out of playing tabletop D&D, the paperdoll on your character sheet being a map of your equipped gear is a big part of the character fantasy, and half that equipment being superfluous on a naga just doesn’t compute for me. I’m willing to buy “this chestpiece will magically vary in dimension based on the race and gender of your character, and it’ll even look tattered if you’re undead because reasons” but when you say “this pair of pants is now a big mail sock because snakes can’t wear pants” I’m just NOPE.

When it comes down to it, I think introducing the naga as a playable race would also setting a bad precedent, since it opens the door for other non-bipedal races to become playable races. People have talked about the centaur, dryads, keepers of the grove, dragonkin, tol’vir, nerubians… basically any race that’s ever expressed sentience has been floated as a possibility. Largely speaking, aside from all the same problems I listed above about paperdoll dissonance and avatar potential, I don’t think a ton of value gets added to the game when a race gets shuffled in and then has zero relevance after the starting experience is completed.  That’s an argument to not add any new races ever, and I get why Blizzard will likely continue to add races as expansion features, but I also feel like it makes it much easier on Blizzard to focus on races that don’t require a ton of handwaving to make functional as playable entities and have greater avatar potential.

I get it. Some people want to play snake dudes. I am not one of those people. I think adding snake dudes to the playable roster would be a misstep. However, I would likely still buy the game if I’m still interested in playing it, and I don’t see my interest going away.

I can probably talk a great deal more about the potential behind this “Eye of Azshara” expansion, but I’m loath to spend my limited resources on it when we’ll have proof of its (non-)existence in a few days. Stay tuned.

**: Granted, those motives basically never got revealed and came to nothing when Vashj’s plot in Burning Crusade boiled down “hoard all the water on this shattered world” and she got shanked in the neck by a 25s team.
**: Yes, I know, the engine is built to allow leg textures to work on some naga mobs so they have more costume options. I still feel like this places an illogical constraint on the artists to come up with armor that looks believable on player characters.


6 thoughts on “A Case Against the Naga

  1. “They’re a race of evi snake dudes.”

    Come on, this is Blizzard. The orcs were Evil with a capital E before WarCraft 3 brought in Thrall and hippy shamanism to return the orcs to their “noble warrior/shaman roots.” The draenei are literally playable eredar with a different name and skin color; the eredar were so evil they invented warlocking! The worgen were feral werewolves with no sentience before a retcon of “druid curse, now you can be worgen and not a crazy wolf monster, yay.” Lore has never been and will never be a reason not to do something. If there needs to be a breakaway faction of less-evil snake dues, there will be. They have said this repeatedly. It’s honestly one of the reasons I jumped ship on the idea of WoW lore at all; because the creators of that lore have repeatedly pointed out it’s a secondary priority to gameplay. Is that the correct approach? Actually, I don’t think so, but I also don’t have a billion dollar game franchise so who knows.

    You said you don’t think value is added for playing something that’s shown to be monstrous and inhuman and evil. But there are some players who love playing bad guys. They don’t want to be happy hippy minotaurs or noble savage orcs; they want to be evil undead, the more evil, the better. My undead warlock was not a misunderstood loner, was not a monster with a heart of gold, was not a tragic character. He was a villain, an evil, vicious, nasty, violent monstrosity of a creature, and I loved playing him that way. I loved that archetype; I loved the idea that the only reason he and his kind were ever tolerated was because it was better to try and aim him at something even worse than to try and stamp him out. For me, that’s a fun fantasy experience. I should be able to have experiences like that. If that’s not your preference, you always have the choice to make something else. But right now, I don’t have the choice to play an evil naga. I’d like to have that choice.

    It’s been shown repeatedly that the new races are never the reason to buy an expansion. Sure, they get all the marketing buzz and they get their starting zones, but the increased level content is always the meat and potatoes of the experience. I rolled a goblin and a worgen, never made it past level 10 on either. I never rolled a panda. I still got my fill out of the expansion.

    “They don’t have feet, legs.”

    There are enough examples of armored serpentine creatures in fantasy. The foot item becomes an armored band around the tail. The leg slot is a kilt or a sheath or whatever. I seriously cannot believe “it would look weird” is a reason to not try to do something creative. To me, the fact that it’s weird would be a nice shot of adrenaline to a cast that’s otherwise fairly stagnant and vanilla. Some people love playing weird monsters! Give those people a weird monster race. If a person can’t relate to a snake-dude, they pick one of the other 10 damn races. But you know what? As a player who isn’t feeling particularly enthusiastic about any of the more monstrous races, it’d be nice to give me a choice to play something like that.

    Fun fact: I’ve never made a pandaren. I tried, but I couldn’t get past the creation screen. I just don’t like them, I don’t like their style, I don’t like their visual design, I don’t care about this joke race that was elevated so far purely via catering to fan service. And yet there they are, and my solution is simple: I haven’t made one and never will.

    “Female naga have four arms.”

    Lore is mutable. Flavor is mutable. Maybe your wrist and hand slot items just show up on all four hands! Wait, that wouldn’t make sense, why would my gloves turn into four gloves just by equipping them? Why does a piece of full plate armor for a male turn into a plate mail bikini for a female? Once again, that stuff is mutable.

    “Lack of customization.”

    I’m assuming that you haven’t played Skyrim, which really demonstrates how much you can customize a reptilian face. It’s not just scale color; you can do fins, horns, spikes in different styles, tendrils to make weird little beards, eye shape, eye style, basically everything you need to make something unique and different. How many different ways can you customize a worgen? They’re just wolf people covered in fur. Oh, actually there’s a lot you can do with them since the models are high quality.

    “Introducing other non-biped races.” Why is more customization a bad thing? Why shouldn’t people be able to play what they want? Blizzard has very clearly abandoned the silhouette idea for the factions when they made the pandaren.

    The fact is there should be a reptilian analogue of some sort. Most fantasy games go the lizard person route instead, since it’s easier to model around. There are certainly more than enough lizard bipeds to choose from and I’d be happy with one of them, too. But naga represent something new and unique. It’s a chance for Blizzard to do something bold and daring. Everyone mocked Mists and the pandaren (including me), but I respect a creative decision that isn’t more of the same elves and dwarves standard fantasy package. Everything that you’ve listed as a reason not to do naga, I see as a reason to try.

    The only consideration that will matter to the design team is this one: is this fun to play? If they can come up with a neat mechanic around the naga, they will add the naga. If they come up with a cool aesthetic that will make people want to play one, they’re in. Because this is the company that said “let’s add playable werewolves” and everyone said “okay, sure.” There was no discussion about “are the werewolves sentient, why would the werewolves wear armor, how can you make a werewolf face fit under a helmet.” They just did it because “playing a werewolf would be cool.” That’s the only consideration. “Let’s add fat panda people to the game!” “Is that fun to play? Okay, sure!”

    To be perfectly honest, I don’t think we’ll ever actually see naga. Blizzard has access to the data showing how much time players spend doing different things and I bet the data for Vashjir shows players don’t like too much acquatic stuff. An expansion focused heavily on water wouldn’t make it past the concept stage. I doubt we’ll ever actually see them, although I will be very happy to be proven wrong.

    Naga would be unique and different and creative and I think they should try to do them, because I’ve wanted to play as the naga in some form since that mission in WarCraft 3: the Frozen Throne that had you controlling a joint army of night elves and naga. Barring that, adding some kind of reptilian analogue would fill a needed hole in the character options. Because, honestly, I played Elder Scrolls Online for a while and even though the gameplay left me completely cold, it was a terrefic few hours getting to roam around as a lizard man. It would be nice for more games to give players like me that option.

    • “They’re a race of evil snake dudes”: I made the caveat that Blizzard could conceivably do a non-evil naga faction, for the same reasons you pointed out. Ultimately, if they really want to do playable naga, they’ll do it, and whatever story they weave in order to justify it will be what it is.

      Blizzard’s always had catered to the anti-hero player character: orcs were anti-heroes in WC1/2, and when they did a face-turn in WC3, the anti-hero job was taken by the Scourge/Forsaken campaigns and then by pretty much everyone in Frozen Throne. The Forsaken, as written, are more borderline evil now than they ever have been in the past, but it doesn’t get a lot of prominence because the narrative doesn’t really focus on the Forsaken at large. So I don’t have an issue with Blizzard catering to anti-heroic characters. My statement about the naga being monstrous and inhuman is more about the inability for players to relate to them visually as a personal avatar: I get that this isn’t a problem for you (Mr. “I’m an angry corpse, #dealwithit”) but from a design standpoint, if part of the objective of announcing a race as an expansion feature is to draw in new players, that’s not something that’s going to have universal appeal.

      When it comes to embracing anti-hero player characters, I think Blizzard could stand to do more with it; even if there were something as basic as a Paragon/Renegade system as in Mass Effect to delineate the experience between “this guy is a Boy Scout” vs. “this guy is a Bad Boy” then I think there’s gameplay there, but it means Blizzard has to write quest text four times instead of only twice.

      “new races are never the reason to buy an expansion.”: There’s a lot of reasons why new playable races are an expansion feature. It looks great on the feature list. It gives new players the sense that they’re starting on equal footing with veteran players. It gives the devs the opportunity to showcase the enhanced graphical quality and technical feats of the new expansion by having the starting experience put them to work: hence all the phasing tricks and lush environments in the goblin/worgen starting zones, or all the cinematic work in all of the post-Wrath starting zones. New player races are, thus, a gateway drug to the rest of the expansion. The max-level content is what’s going to keep you there, yes, but if Blizzard’s objective is selling as many boxed expansions as possible and then converting those purchases into subscriptions, the new starting experience is a solid method to do so.

      “They don’t have feet, legs.” : We’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one. I think asking the artists to figure out how to make armor look good on the naga while also making it look good on all the other races is less of an artistic challenge and more along the lines of torture. I could be wrong and there might be artists who’re excited about the prospect, just as there are players who wouldn’t experience any dissonance about it.

      “Female naga have four arms.”: It’s not only about having the bracers show up on all four arms. It’s the player who says “I have four arms, so I should be able to equip two different sets of bracers and hence get the stats from all of them.” Yes, the simplest solution is to not allow that and let those players be grumpy, but for me it’s another line item for why non-humanoid races shouldn’t be playable.

      “Lack of customization.”: The worgen are a bad example of character customization, largely because character customization in WoW is a decade behind customization in a lot of other games. Now, the better counter to my argument is to point out that Blizzard created a whole new worgen model for the playable race instead of sticking with the monstrous model used for the worgen mobs previously. Since Blizzard would presumably do the same thing for the naga, building in that kind of customization wouldn’t be difficult. I’ll concede on this one, though the worgen aren’t a good counter-example since the only notable customizations you can do with the worgen form is a few different fur-braid configurations and fur color.

      “Introducing other non-biped races.”: More PC options isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it creates a lot of additional work for the art team that I don’t think is a good investment of resources. Also, comments from Tom Chilton, the game director, imply that the pandaren ended up being an exception to the silhouette rule specifically because there was no way to justify giving them only to one faction. He’s all but stated that they wouldn’t do another neutral race in future expansions.

      On design challenge: Blood Elves ended up on the Horde because it was a way to get a typically heroic fantasy race on the anti-hero faction, with the blood elf narrative in BC really driving home the most unscrupulous qualities possible for the elven archetype (short of going drow). The draenei, by contrast, were an exercise in giving a monstrous race to the Alliance to counterbalance all of the trope-y hero races on that faction, even if the end result was Russian Eredar Boy Scouts. The design challenge with the worgen was “can we make a transforming race?” So yeah, I’ll buy that offering a design challenge is a way to keep the artists engaged with a fifteen-year-old production, but I think the sum total of the challenges presented by the naga in particular are a bridge too far.

      On consideration: I think you’re being dismissive of Blizzard’s design choices when you boil it down to “let’s add werewolves and fat panda dudes for the lulz.” I think if they were as simplistic as that, we’d have seen playable naga years ago. We’d have seen ogres years ago. Design paradigms like silhouette probably wouldn’t even be a consideration if their philosophy boiled down to “CAN WE ADD IT? LET’S ADD IT.”

      Now, that being said, if they come up with a fun hook for playable naga, and if they get jazzed up about it like they did for the worgen and the pandaren, then yeah, sure. They’ll be in the game. I find that unlikely.

      On the addition of a reptilian race of any kind: I think there’s untapped potential there, and I think there’s something to it. I think that the dragon-man model they introduced with Maloriak in Cataclysm, or the saurok they introduced in Mists are both possible seeds for future races. The fact that both of those models use the male worgen skeleton (and the part where they’ve re-used that skeleton yet again for the saberon in Warlords) makes me think that those particular options are less likely than something completely original, or would require at least the same amount of work.

      I’m not against a reptilian race, because a lizard walking around upright is only as monstrous as a bull-dude or a wolf-dude or a demon-lady who bellydances. I’m against the naga in particular because I feel that having a snake-body is too dissonant from the appearances of the other races for them to be a proper avatar for players.

      I would be down for playable saurok if they got a fresh model and a solid story. You never saw me do my Lizardman dance from the SC2 ending, because I’m really down with lizard-dudes as a concept. BUT SNAKE DUDES ARE RIGHT OUT.

  2. “On design challenge: Blood Elves ended up on the Horde because it was a way to get a typically heroic fantasy race on the anti-hero faction, with the blood elf narrative in BC really driving home the most unscrupulous qualities possible for the elven archetype (short of going drow). The draenei, by contrast, were an exercise in giving a monstrous race to the Alliance to counterbalance all of the trope-y hero races on that faction, even if the end result was Russian Eredar Boy Scouts. The design challenge with the worgen was “can we make a transforming race?” So yeah, I’ll buy that offering a design challenge is a way to keep the artists engaged with a fifteen-year-old production, but I think the sum total of the challenges presented by the naga in particular are a bridge too far.”

    I think that’s a retroactively applied reason for adding Blood Elves to the Horde; they added Blood Elves to the Horde because at the time, the Alliance overwhelmingly outnumbered the Horde. If I recall correctly, I believe the night elf population alone on some servers was greater than the Horde. Blood elves were a chance to break that up and get faction balance into equilibrium, which absolutely happened as a result of Blood elves, even if suddenly the Horde was “Blood elves and their monstrous friends.”

    Blood elves were added to the Horde for gameplay and the writers were told “make it fit.” So suddenly the betrayal by Garithos is the worst thing in the entire world, so egegrious that the blood elves all turn to the Horde even though the Horde races (especially the trolls) had been their enemies for generations. If the blood elves do work as a race in terms of lore, it’s because the writers were able to take those constraints and churn something good out of it. The blood elf narrative was a garnish added to a design decision.

    The draenei pretty much fail as a monstrous race. Visually, they might be monstrous but nothing else in their aesthetic or their archetype suggests they are monsters. They’re the noblest of all, even more ancient than the night elves, etc. etc. They basically took the archetypes of “paladin” and “ancient” from the humans and night elves respectively and combined them. Nothing was really added to the Alliance other than Eastern European accents.

    It’s a fifteen year old game. I think there isn’t a bridge on this planet that’s too far when you need to keep coming up with new things. The only real challenges to naga are the model; but since you pointed out that player worgen don’t use the same model as the npc version (and neither do blood elves, come to think of it), while it might be an impossible challenge to generate a player character on the aging naga model we have now, that wouldn’t be an issue since the new model would be crafted from scratch and could be designed from the ground up without those limitations.

    Snake dudes are interesting, they’re established in the lore, they could do something that hasn’t been done before. SNAKE DUDES SHOULD BE IN (but probably won’t be as I very much doubt Eye of Azshara is the new WoW expansion).

    • Blood elves are a weird case when it comes to their models; all of the blood elf models that were in the game prior to BC coming out were reskinned Night Elves, but post-BC they were all updated to the new blood elf model. Now the interesting differentiation is that even in Wrath and afterwards, any High Elf characters used the blood elf models with blue eyes, but always used Night Elf NPC voice emotes, while any Blood Elf NPCs (which almost universally had green eyes) used the standard Blood Elf voice emotes.

      Or it’s Sylvanas, who just got a custom model because reasons.

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