WoW Factor: The problem with World of Warcraft’s storytelling

All payoff, no setup

    
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WoW Factor: The problem with World of Warcraft’s storytelling

Back a long while ago, when I reviewed the prequel novel for World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, I noted that my general policy has been to ignore the novels and supplementary storytelling around WoW’s expansions. The policy I outlined in the introduction there was fairly simple and straightforward: If it didn’t happen within the game, something had gone wrong with the storytelling. But it occurred to me that I should probably say a little bit more about that after all.

We’re on the tail end of Blizzard’s set of pre-expansion animated shorts, and it has been noted by beta testers just how badly those shorts serve to set up the actual plot of the zones they are supposedly highlighting. But really, this is doubling down on a longstanding issue that the game has had with treating every form of storytelling as if it were all one continual chain for everyone. So let’s talk about why this is bad and highlight an obvious counterexample to the way Blizzard seems to view storytelling as a whole.

And I do mean Blizzard as a whole. For example, we still don’t know when Overwatch 2 is actually launching, but that number is in and of itself kind of ridiculous when you consider that the original Overwatch contains no story at all. Yes, there have been a lot of supplementary media adding story around the fringes, but the preview movie for the sequel makes it clear that there hasn’t actually been much forward motion at all. Calling it an experiment in decentralized storytelling is insulting to experiments.

This is not new, however. Blizzard has been doing this sort of thing for a long time. Back in Cataclysm, for example, the prequel novel established a lot of important plot points that would go on to inform major chunks of the storyline. If you wanted to know why Cairne was no longer around in Thunder Bluff, for example, you had to go out and do your homework. Otherwise, it was just a change no one discussed.

Why is this bad? Oh… so many reasons. But not some of the ones more commonly cited, ironically.

Bork.

One of the reasons I’ve seen brought up, for example, is the idea that if something important and lore-worthy is happening in the game, players should be present for it. But that isn’t entirely true. It’s all right, for example, that players don’t get to interfere with Cairne dying by accident at the hands of Garrosh Hellscream. What’s not all right is that there’s no way to know this without external reading, and a lot of the stories make no sense without that information.

Supplementary material always has to walk a fine line, of course. If it’s seen as superfluous, you’re basically telling your audience that nothing important is going to happen in the novel (or comic book or video or whatever). But making it vital is similarly problematic because you are then assuming that everyone knows something, and that’s never the case. No matter how pervasive the material, you cannot assume players will have done the reading.

The usual solution has been to make this stuff, well… supplemental. It offers additional information, but it’s not vital to your understanding. And to demonstrate this, I want to look at another MMO with an abundance of lore and published books, one that gives plenty of extra material to go through if you want to. It’s also a game that will be very familiar to anyone who reads my writing, as I’ve mentioned it for years now with an admiring tone.

I am talking, of course, about The Elder Scrolls Online.

The overall volume of lore surrounding ESO is pretty gigantic. There are novels set in the larger universe, some of which post-date the game. And yet none of this stuff is required reading or playing. In spite of my not having played any of the other games in the series, the MMO itself did a perfectly fine job introducing me to the Dark Brotherhood without expecting me to fall back on any existing knowledge about the Dark Brotherhood.

It’s not alone in that regard. Final Fantasy XIV and Guild Wars 2 both have supplementary books published (lorebooks and novels, respectively) that go into more detail than the games themselves can. In all of the above cases, it’s clear that the writers building these games are working on the assumption that what is stated in these books is true. But the relevant stuff inside is telegraphed in-game as well.

So why is Blizzard so bad at this? For that matter, why has Blizzard been bad at this for so long? After all, the original WoW comics were meant to be just as canon and were where we first met Varian Wrynn, and that even predated Cataclysm. Why does Blizzard continually make the mistake of putting vital content outside of the game?

Cargo cult.

Obviously, these are not decisions I can give an absolute reason for, so anything I have to say is by necessity speculation. But I think the answer lies in what originally made the Warcraft games so popular… and some of that comes from rulebooks for the games that were clearly love letters to dense fantasy novels, complete with hand-drawn maps, elaborate backstory and lore, and a whole lot of work beyond just the basic lore of “orc fight human.”

Consider this: The first game’s backstory is narrated by Garona with colorful verve all the way through and plenty of breakdowns and descriptions of each unit in the game. These instruction manuals cover controls fairly quickly before moving on to being a whole lot of setting information, and this continued on through Warcraft 2 and StarCraft. It was obvious that Blizzard was a team of talented, creative people who could put together a heck of a package when they wanted to.

But I get the sense that this was also, in some ways, a step toward overreaching. Blizzard wasn’t using its knowledge of comic books and fantasy novels and the like simply to write the backstory of video games; Blizzard had the idea that the team was entirely capable of producing a fantasy novel just fine, when what made all of this backstory notable wasn’t that it was heartbreaking in its brilliance but that this was an extra level of polish and care put into what could have otherwise been a bare-bones exercise.

There’s also the now-ongoing desire from Blizzard to make its games into a self-sustaining ecosystem. Every game has collector’s editions, and every collector’s edition gives bonuses in other games, encouraging you to try those other titles just to get everything. The goal seems to have long been some sort of media bubble where you spend most of your mental bandwidth to staying up to date with these stories, with so much to track in various forms that it fuels its own conversation in a sort of hype ouroboros.

The problem, of course, is that the net result if you stop doing the reading is that the plot no longer makes any sense. Blizzard has, effectively, created a storytelling problem through which its games are full of moments of payoff for plot points that are never actually set up in the game itself. Enemies, rivalries, and storylines are based around plot points that have never been established within the game itself. You either did all of the supplementary reading… or you get the climactic showdown with none of the setup or denouement to create emotional resonance.

And that’s the major problem here. It’s a storytelling formula meant to give players all the cacophony of big conclusions without having to do the slower work of setting everything up. It’s a story where you either never get a reason to care… or you never get the wrap-up you wanted.

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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styopa

First, does overwatch require a story, really? I mean, I don’t recall a complex narrative arc behind counterstrike, or quake, team fortress, unreal, descent or any such competitive head to head shooters. Did I miss the dramatic foundation to why we were on two opposing teams playing dodgeball in elementary school gym? Is there a backstory why my opponent and I are contending in a game of Go?

Second “What’s not all right is that there’s no way to know this without external reading,”…I’ve never read a Warcraft book in my life, and avoid wow lore online like the plague, but I knew what happened here…so it MUST have been delivered in game, somehow. It’s not an unusual narrative, the idea is as old as literature, so it’s possible they just alluded to it and my memory of the trope filled in the blanks.

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traja

I think the explanation is very simple. They just don’t have good writers. The only story aspect that Blizzard is competent at is creating memorable characters, and by memorable I mean that they are similar to superheroes like Spiderman. But writing a story that would make me care beyond the spectacle of it… nah.

WoW also has a fundamental problem of being insanely high fantasy. This is a world where a dude the size of a moon stuck a sword that would reach the ISS on Earth into Azerorth. World where there are both space ships with orbital cannons and wars fought with bow and arrow. You can never know what the limits are so consequence only becomes real after the fact when you know that some magic didn’t save the day.

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aussie_eevee

I’m a gamer. I play video games for gameplay, not story… so to me, WoW’s story is just fine.

I’ve had a bit of fun in XIV, but it’s not for me. XIV has too much story, too forced on you. If WoW was more like XIV, I probably wouldn’t play WoW.

I’m sorry if that offends anyone, but Blizzard’s policy is “Gameplay first”… and it’s a policy I like.

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Pål Einar Jensen

I quite like the storytelling i WoW.
I havent played BfA, but everything up to that was pretty decent.
I dont agree with all the stuff happening, but thats fine.
Also there are bits of story I would like to see more of, but overall I am happy with the story.
Now, I am playing WoW classic, and I cant wait for the Naxxramas event.

On a side note, SW:ToR had the best story in a game ever. The sith inquisitor story was just amazing.

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Dobablo

How much story can you tell in 144 characters?

Originally, WoW storytell was hamstrung by the lack of voices and limiting all text to a single box.
The influence of those original decisions still heavily influences storytelling, but it is fading.
The biggest current issue, as with all MMOs, is telling the story that happens when the player is not present. Cut-scenes work in some places but they are expensive and only works with big stuff. The triggered NPC chats are a solid addition to fill in some gaps, but they need to happen more frequently and give a wider range of perspectives.

The in-game storytelling is getting better, but it is slow progress.

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Axetwin .

There hasn’t been a push for better storytelling within WoW, hell, in MMO’s in general as a whole. Because the popular opinion is still “if you’re MMO’s for the story, you’re playing it wrong”.

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Oleg Chebeneev

WoW’s storytelling is top notch. Very few MMOs (TSW and what else?) can compare. They also have some excellent novels.

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Bruno Brito

WoW’s storytelling is top notch.

I find hard to believe that someone who actually liked Twilight has any idea of what good reading is.

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Oleg Chebeneev

Here come self proclaimed experts at what good reading is

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Bruno Brito

Considering you can’t write, i’m highly sure you suck at reading too.

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Oleg Chebeneev

Can read well enough to see how triggered you are every time I post

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Bruno Brito

That’s the alcohol making you delusional.

Alyn
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Alyn

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John Artemus
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John Artemus

It’s because at Blizzard, story is an afterthought. Always has been. And credit to them. They know their audience. In general, people that play Blizzard games are not doing so for the story. They are doing it for the gameplay and the loot. Whether that’s an MMO or an FPS or an RTS, it’s about the gameplay. Story – if you can even call it that – is just tacked on to provide some sort of reason why things are happening. But no one really pays attention to it.

I’m very big on story, but when I used to play WoW, I never played it for the story. But today I play FFXIV, where story is pretty much everything. So in a game like that I have very high expectations.

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Khrome

I respectfully have to disagree. The reason why the vanilla game and the first 2 expansions have been so popular wasn’t just because of the game, it was because there were a lot of moments of payoff for events that happened in WC2 and WC3 – In the games that people have played before, and arguably the games that made WoW as big as it is now. There’s reason why especially ICC lingers in the memory of many fans, it was the payoff for one of the first missions in WC3 and a storyline that was literally years in the making.

There were still story snafu’s, but the story as told ingame was largely coherent and followed directly on the original games (some exceptions not withstanding).

It’s from Cataclysm onwards that Blizzard went off the deep end with making comics and books which told all the critical plot points for the rest of the game’s existence, where plots became completely incoherent and unfollowable except maybe for the red shirt guy – Who basically exposed that even Blizzard no longer knew what was happening in their own game.

The focus on mechanics and mechanics only resulted basically in what MoP, WoD, and BfA were: A game all about mechanics stacked on mechanics with zero story. Legion gets a pass because the Burning Legion at least has had a massive presence in the game ever since WC1, but even that has had issues.

IMHO it’s a significant contributing reason to WoW not being as popular as it once was. People just don’t “feel” the game anymore as they used to, as nothing that’s happening in it right now connects to the nostalgia for the original idea of the Warcraft lore.

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Jeffery Redcloud

Only reason I still play wow is to see where the story goes, more out of an obligation after spending years in the game and not wanting to abandon my character I’d put so much of my time into than actually being enthralled by the story. I’m more interested in the lore itself rather than the quality of the writing, because let’s face it, it’s awful. I get my good writing fix from ffxiv, the latest patch of which made me ugly cry like two separate times.
But I agree with you on that I think most of the playerbase doesn’t care about that. I have no interest in the Gear treadmill outside of transmog in any game, xiv included, so I might be in a minority haha

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rosieposie

Blizzard themselves don’t see the story as an afterthought. They firmly believe that their writing staff are master storytellers. Their delusion knows no limits. It’s like they believe that everything they do is automatically great because it’s Blizzard.

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Bruno Brito

Yeah. No. People played WoW to be Arthas, to be Jaina, to be Grom. They wanted to be Paladins, Blademasters, Hunters, etc. The Warcraft legacy is EXTREMELY strong in WoW, and a lot of people started playing because of it. There’s nothing that says afterthought there.

Blizzard lore was NEVER an afterthought. They just realized that gameplay can’t be constrained by lore and has to be balanced ( a problem they themselves created by focusing on parses ).

Blizzard lore is bad. That’s most of the problem. The sidestuff and foundation is really good, but the main core is cheesy as hell, and it gets to you. It has some good moments, but the bad ones are heavy.

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Pandalulz

Also, and I don’t know how much of this still pertains to the new expansions since I haven’t played in a while but… uh… “You have been crit by the wall of text!”

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Bryan Turner

I wouldn’t tout GW2 story telling when you have to watch a season one recap video made by Woodenpotatoes or Dreamyabbadon to figure out the jump from Orr to Season 2.

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Khrome

I think that’s more because Season 1 has been removed rather than it being a matter of ‘all the lore has only ever been in outside merchandise’.

I still hope they bring it back at some point.

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Bryan Turner

That was still a poor story telling decision, right up there with Cataclysm wiping out Vanilla WoW.

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Axetwin .

Season 1 was Anet’s first attempt at a Live Service model. Their idea was if we make this content temporary, then players will rush to do it and stay interested when we drop new parts at random times. As ideal as it is to bring back Season 1, unfortunately, there’s nothing to bring back because they didn’t bother keeping it after each part finished its run.