Well, dear readers, I was totally wrong. All of you predicting that this expansion was a waste of time were right and I was wrong.
Long-time readers know that I put my predictions front and center and own them when they play out. If I’m right, I will point to being right, but just as important in my eyes is being willing to own a prediction in which you didn’t see something going a specific way and you were wrong. And when it comes to World of Warcraft, my predictions about Battle for Azeroth ultimately hinged on the idea that the game’s story wouldn’t be a complete waste of time.
Instead, the latest Q&A session contained the one answer that actually made me angry by saying that no, the game’s faction restrictions aren’t changing at all, and any hopes of things being slightly different were not going to be borne out. This means that yes, when combined with the upcoming level squish and such, this expansion was a complete waste of time for everyone involved. I predicted otherwise. So much for that.
Let’s make something clear: As much as I dislike the faction divide as it exists in the game due to its regressive and backward design, I don’t actually care if it goes away. That’s fine. Yes, it’s intensely silly that Star Wars: The Old Republic has at least made talking to the other faction possible since launch while WoW still requires you to buy an elixir in-game to make that possible, but while I will happily point out the fact that this is dumb (due to the fact that it’s dumb), it’s not one of the game’s more egregious design choices even in the arena of bad calls.
So I am, to some extent, glossing things over to say that I was angry about the lack of changes to factions during the Q&A panel. It’d be more accurate to say that I was angry because that’s what the entire thrust of the storytelling centered around.
I’m serious. The entire takeaway and point at the end of the war campaign hammers this point home over and over. We get repeated scenes insisting that your home isn’t Stormwind or Orgrimmar; it’s Azeroth. There’s the whole constant development between Saurfang and Anduin. There’s a big cutscene in which Thrall gets the swell of music as he explains that there could be peace now because we’re different now than the last time.
This isn’t reading between the lines; this is just reading the lines. “Something is different now,” the cast says. Except nothing is different, really. All that’s changed over the course of Battle for Azeroth is the number of locations you can visit and the number of living faction leaders.
I mean, this isn’t even the first time that we’ve literally had a bad Warchief taken down by a cooperative venture between the Alliance and the Horde. It’s literally the same plot we’ve already gone through. The only difference between this and Garrosh is what Sylvanas left to go do and whether or not she was jailed first. No change, no novelty, nothing. There’s no sense of Sylvanas slowly changing into a villain (remember, Garrosh changed over the course of three expansions to become a villain in Mists of Pandaria). Even if we’re told this ties back into something that happened around Cataclysm, it hasn’t been evident in her actions, which jumped from “she schemes” to “she commits genocide openly without any pretense about why” at the drop of a hat.
There’s nothing about what’s happening now that requires Battle for Azeroth. Remove Sargeras stabbing the planet and jump straight to Shadowlands, and the plot still lines up just fine. “Oh, Sylvanas needed to create more deaths.” The Burning Legion was invading; I’m pretty sure there were plenty of deaths during that particular occasion. Even if it’s not actually a retcon, it sure feels like one.
Since players noticed all this, characters in the story had to notice it, too, filling the story with meaningful sounds like “no, Azeroth is your home” over and over. But then nothing actually changes, which means that players rolling their eyes about it were right the first time.
It’s even worse when you consider the fact that literally every single expansion has featured at least one major story arc about putting aside factional differences and uniting to take down a common foe. For all this talk of the faction war being a pillar of the game, it really isn’t. It’s the justification for PvP and having a handful of different storylines in an expansion that largely follows the same beats every time. Remember how the Alliance and the Horde had one slightly different opening in Stormheim and then basically ceased being distinct entities for the remainder of the expansion?
Oh, and let’s not forget that the designers will happily knock away any and all other pillars the moment it feels momentarily convenient. So that isn’t even an authentic justification.
I’ve already done the idea of having an alternate story play out here, so I’m not going to go through all of that over again. But the real problem here isn’t just the story being one we’ve already seen before or any of that. It isn’t even that the end of the story features both factions coming together for the umpteenth time. It’s that the story tries to get away from accusations that we’ve seen this before by assuring players that this time, it’ll be different.
And… that was a lie. It’s not different at all.
The weirdest part of all of this is that it’s actually not just reducing player agency but reducing the feeling that could actually be done by embracing a genuine change to the status quo. It’s always felt vaguely creepy that Blizzard has driven the idea of faction identity so hard for players, hammering on the notion that if, say, you like cow-people, you must also like brutal orcs, corpses, and periodic genocide. But if you actually remove that after 15 years?
Some players are going to refuse to play with players on the other faction. Some are going to be suspicious. Some are going to be welcoming and try to be peacemakers. Some aren’t going to care. And it’ll be widespread enough that you barely even need to touch on this tension in any sort of game-wide storyline, especially if you have this be a feature that unlocks only in the Shadowlands. Players will actually drive the story entirely by themselves.
At the end of the day, of course, Blizzard can do whatever it wants with the game’s mechanics. But by insisting that a story will be different while demonstrating that it’s exactly the same as it has always been, you throw away any pretense of authenticity. You really do double down on the idea that the story doesn’t matter at all, that what matters is entirely down to what the designers feel like doing and some story gets hand-waved to justify it later.
Much like credibility, that’s the sort of thing that’s way easier to lose than regain. And telling your most ardent fans that they’re stupid for investing in your story doesn’t seem like it’ll prompt more connection in the future.
So what’s wrong with not merging the factions? Nothing… aside from confirming that this expansion was, in fact, a complete waste of time. Sorry, people. I expected better.