WoW Factor: World of Warcraft’s Battle for Azeroth has a weak conflict for a strong focus

The last time I saw this many people asking “why?” about a new World of Warcraft expansion was at the announcement of Mists of Pandaria. I agreed then, too; the idea of bringing in the Pandaren to the game seemed to be slipping into territory that just didn’t feel appealing to me. I’m still not entirely sold on the idea, a fact which is not helped at all by the fact that the very next expansion was so creatively bankrupt the team seems to have thrown every good idea at once into Legion.

Really, we don’t know what happened behind the scenes of Warlords of Draenor development, but that seems like a plausible theory.

So, yes, Battle for Azeroth. That is the actual title of the next expansion, one which feels almost as if it was cobbled together by drawing a few random words that usually get used with the game and hoping they assembled a coherent sentence. It seems, at face value, like a really dumb idea, especially since the very basic premise is one that you know is absolutely not going to be resolved by the end of the expansion.

Up to this point, every single expansion has had an obvious face of the Big Bad pretty early on. That doesn’t mean that it was always immediately obvious who the “final” boss would be, but you knew that The Burning Crusade was going to force us to go up against Illidan. There was enough discontent going into Mists of Pandaria that it was obvious Garrosh was becoming a problem, and the Sha burst onto the forefront with enough vigor to really take center stage right off. We know whom we’re fighting.

And in each and every case, those villains get to be put down, usually with finality, and without rising again. Assuming you do the raids, anyway. (Pay attention to this; it’ll be important later.)

It was this guy. He was the villain. He's a jerk. Let's deal with that.

Battle for Azeroth has an enemy implied by the title, but it is abundantly clear that this can’t actually be resolved in an absolute fashion. We know, as players, that neither the Horde nor the Alliance can actually win because that breaks the game. Thus, we also know that this is going to be a case where we get the football yanked away at the last second, that something bigger and more dangerous is going to start needling us in the side until we have to deal with that.

By then, what will have been accomplished? Another attempt to drive a wedge between the factions, another illustration for the players that it would make sense to work together. Isn’t that kind of pointless?

I don’t think it is. And while there’s totally a point to be made about the fact that we’ve all spent a huge chunk of time in Legion working with the cross-factions Class Orders, I think that’s entirely the point.

One of the things that bugged me from the game’s launch was the fact that Horde and Alliance players couldn’t interact in any meaningful way. That bothered me because it didn’t sell the faction divide; it weakened it. If you have to go fight a Tauren who’s out harassing Southshore, that’s just a chore you have to do; if that Tauren is your friend on the other faction whom you party with, you suddenly have a real emotional stake in what’s happening.

We, as players, have never gotten that with players on the other faction. But those of us who pay attention to the lore and have been seeing how senseless this divide really is now get to watch it claim things around us yet again. We get to see leaders who want to win at all costs take control, doing damage, and ultimately ensure that the long-simmering cold war is finally bursting to absolute heat.

But even that isn’t why I ultimately found this compelling, and I found myself struggling to figure out why my reaction to the expansion announcement was so much more positive than even the very premise would suggest. I play both factions and have long been a fan of the idea that the current faction divide is arbitrary and not great. Why would I want this to take center stage?

Then it hit me. Because every other expansion has given us an end boss.

How's everybody doing? I feel like it's my turn to be the boss now.

The goal of Wrath of the Lich King was to get up to the Lich King’s lair and punch him until he died. Period stop. Every other thing that you did was, ultimately, a side activity designed to make it easier to accomplish that goal or provide you with more power for when you reached that goal. And you either got to the top of the raid and killed the hell out of Arthas, or you let the story peter out somewhere shy of its conclusion.

In fact, that’s been something that’s bugged me about the game’s core structure for years. It was at its worst in Warlords of Draenor, where the story literally made no sense unless you were following along with the raids, but this problem has been shot through every expansion. Don’t like raiding? The Burning Crusade ends with your killing a boss you never actually faced the first time and then assuming someone else will take care of the actual Sunwell.

But the conflict in Battle for Azeroth cannot be resolved that way. If neither side can really win, you can’t have a final raid to conclude the story that’s been going on the whole time; at best, you have a final raid to conclude something else that’s been going down. Putting the focus on the Alliance and the Horde at war means that suddenly there isn’t one story to follow along; there are lots of little stories, all of them going on all over the place.

The last time that was true about the game’s story? Vanilla. Sure, Kel’thuzad was the hardest boss, but he wasn’t really the final boss. We bounced around fighting various problems all over the place, and there was no sense that all of the conflicts had been building to Naxxramas; that was just our last port of call before the Dark Portal opened.

Every conflict is important.What’s the best part of Legion’s storytelling? It’s not the “unifying” story about Illidan; it’s all of the diverse stories going on elsewhere. It’s the zone quests that let you get to know and explore what’s going on with the Vrykul, with the Highmountain Tauren, with Malfurion making all the wrong decisions yet again. It’s working to help the Nightborne rise up and fight back against a ruler who sold her people out. It’s bringing an order together to work as a unified force. It’s side stories.

What makes me excited is that Battle for Azeroth does seem to have the weakest overall thrust to “here is the big bad.” But the result is that there’s lots of space to do everything. It was the sort of wide-open feeling that we actually got when Mists of Pandaria launched; when you don’t have to bend everything to “kill the baddie,” you’re free to focus on other things.

In truth, it feels like a features-based expansion. There’s a lot of different new systems being put forth here, and glory of glories, they actually seem to be mechanics that can carry forward if the designers see people like them. Artifacts became too top-heavy almost instantly; Warfronts, by contrast, are a type of content that actually could continue along in the future. Ditto island exploration. Ditto allied races. You get the idea.

And that makes it a breather expansion. A welcome one, in a sense, one that feels a bit more grounded than it otherwise would be. There’s a conflict here, but it’s one that we’ve given rise to ourselves, a case where compassion and forgiveness is sidelined. It’s the classical definition of a tragedy, where we all know the consequences and the fact that things could be better even as we see things not being better.

But it’s also a conflict that doesn’t have a good guy and a bad guy to beat up. It’s a chance to explore things where lots of individual parts all have relevance to the present.

Bringing the game back to its roots, to me, means bringing it away from everything being about fighting the central bad guy. It’s about central conflicts that don’t get resolved by one side (ours) winning and the other side losing. It’s about a world where a lot of things are going on, and the player characters are special not simply by virtue of special artifacts but by being able to act outside of the chaos.

So I’m all right with this. Even if that title really is terrible. Seriously, why not just go with World of Warcraft: Tides of Darkness? It at least makes sense.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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61 Comments on "WoW Factor: World of Warcraft’s Battle for Azeroth has a weak conflict for a strong focus"

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Battle for Azeroth has multiple meanings, the most important of which is the titan world soul Azeroth. She’s currently dying (well, will be–after the events of Antorus) and so the actual battle is to save her. That is the central point of the expansion.

Oleg Chebeneev

>Then it hit me. Because every other expansion has given us an end boss.

This expansion will also have end boss. We gonna fight Queen Azshara and probably Old God. Im surprised you didnt mention it since it was in dev panels on Blizzcon

Malcolm Swoboda

Dude this is just a light camoflage for an Old God behind it all. Spoiler I guess lol.

Kevin Smith

Actually feel the opposite of most of the article. I think they needed to go back to a more horde vs alliance feeling. That was the premise of the game to begin with, not some lets hold hands and run through the field crap we have gotten the lately. They needed to concentrate more on the rivalry an bring back that feeling my faction is the better one for a lot of people. The level scaling is the only thing that I don’t really like, because it will destroy going back and running older content for transmogs solo. Don’t want to have to get a group together to go run a raid from 4 or 5 years ago so I can get a weapon skin. On the flip side of that it is a way to make older content a little more relevant, but shouldn’t be done this late in the game.


I just want an expansion that doesn’t center around badguys with green fire, green goo, or some other form of fel energy. I’m tired of evil green magic.

Ben Stone

I think the Old Gods and the Void will end up being the main villains in the second half of the expansion, once the cross faction conflict has played out.

Bruno Brito

Call me crazy, but i’m optimistic. The open-endedness that this xpac info has is something i’m expecting to surprise me in a good way. The leveling changes are something i’m really hyped for.


The title is a play on words, we will fighting some kind of threat for sure.


Welp…titles such as “Battle for Azeroth, Because We’ve Run Out of Ideas” sounds a little bit too self defeating if not wordy. Where as titles such as, “Making Azeroth Great Again” has already been done by some internet dev with 200 k petition in hand. Or, “Azeroth Hardcore, Cupcake” may scare off the dedicated playership…while only appealing to the 1% old skool raid/PvP types, might just end up hurting Blizz’s bottom line. And so on…

…so BfA, a vague title which could allow Blizz to do anything without upsetting the core players too much, while attempting to capture some of the “lost” magic of the original game in all its mediocracy.

Or tl,dr: Blizz might be looking ass backwards again. And we know how that worked out for Warlords. /sigh


I find it really hard to get excited about BfA. It’s still early days yet and we don’t really know much about it, but it seems a much less interesting idea than Legion. From facing off against the Ultimate Bad to facing off against… each other. Didn’t we already have that MoP? I think part of me is just tired of the unending Alliance v Horde conflict because we all know that one side will never decisively win and it seems more like the kind of expansion Blizzard put out while they’re working on their next cool idea. Kinda like WoD was a filler expansion to give them time to work on Legion.

Malcolm Swoboda

MoP was facing Sha (helping Pandarans before we make it worse there) then facing each other then facing Garrosh With Sha Power.

BfA looks more like facing each other (more focus than ever, other than Vanilla’s lovely open world PvP haha), then facing Old God behind this. The ‘battle for Azeroth’, is the hint. Its the title. They don’t want to give away the villainous plot this time.

Warcraft has always had facing each other and it’ll always have that in the future. It is franchise essentials. Humans vs Orcs, then Alliance vs Horse, and gradually All Sorts vs All Sorts (though maybe not in this game as much as a future game would).