WoW Factor: Why Blizzard’s line about story beats is so frustrating

    
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All over again.

So the most recent roundup of interviews with World of Warcraft’s staff deeply hurt me on a fundamental level. Like, this was the sort of hurting that doesn’t go away; it just sort of roils in your gut and leaves you gently weeping in the bathtub for far too long after you’ve already drained all of the water out. If you missed the specific line, I’m just going to quote it again from the post itself so we’re all on the same page:

“We had the sense that players would be contending with Sylvanas for a while now, that they would be delving into and learning more about the nature of the Maw, and the Jailer’s power in this first major content update. But, the specific details of the twists and turns the story is going to take, who the bosses in the raid are, even some of the major narrative moments that we’re going to see play out in the coming weeks are things that came together at the end of last year, and the beginning of this year.”

To me, as a writer, it is bracingly self-evident why this is such an enormous problem. But maybe some of you aren’t writers or just don’t see why this is such a big deal. Thus, today I’m going to explain why this is a big deal, why this hurts me, and perhaps more importantly, why it’s fundamentally a repudiation of every “wait and see” attempt that Blizzard has attempted regarding its overarching story over the past several years. Buckle up.

First and foremost, I think it is important to note that this particular quote is coming from Ion Hazzikostas, who is the game director, not from the narrative designer, Steve Danuser. It is possible that there’s some miscommunication there. That having been said, I think it’s highly unlikely, and it’s also important to note that Hazzikostas is the person who would be signing off on all of this. While it’s definitely possible that he misunderstood something, I think it’s more fair to say that he may have overstated something.

However, even that seems unlikely because… well, Hazzikostas is a lot of things, but “prone to misunderstanding” is not one of them. The man speaks precisely and doesn’t display ignorance about what’s going on beneath him, nor does he have a tendency to say something in one interview and then later claim he misspoke or used a poor turn of phrase. It’s far more likely, at least in my mind, that he knew exactly what he was saying.

This is kind of a big deal!

And set.

See, let me let you in on a little secret: It’s actually not all that uncommon to start a writing project without being entirely sure of the ending. This is what’s known as the first draft. You start writing without knowing how it’s going to end or how it’s going to get there, you work on a story, you reach a satisfying ending. Then you go back and you add in things to make that ending come together in a more satisfying manner. You add foreshadowing, you make sure all the narrative threads pay off properly, and so forth.

By the time you’re getting to a version that strangers are supposed to see? You know what you’re doing. The story that’s being released is one where you have a clear beginning, middle, and end, with foreshadowing and elements to build up to what’s happening next.

What that line says to me is that Blizzard has not done that. Blizzard has written the start of a story, and then later the studio figured it would put together something that works and pulls stuff together while it’s still live. Starting a story and putting it live while you still don’t know where you’re going with it is the sort of thing that is reserved for hacks, contract writers who don’t actually care about the long-term health of a project, and J. J. Abrams.

Like, seriously, this is how you get The X-Files. Do you want The X-Files? How did that narrative end, exactly?

(Badly. It ended badly. There was no narrative payoff and its name became synonymous with disappointment. It still didn’t end well after it got revived, twice.)

The defense of this statement, of course, would be the modifier “some.” Hazzikostas isn’t claiming that the narrative team had no idea what was going on or anything; he stated that some of the major narrative beats hadn’t been decided on. But even that doesn’t work because in the same statement he also makes it clear that a lot of specific details weren’t decided on and that the team only had a “sense” of where the next raid would lead players.

That’s the really damaging part here. It doesn’t just torch the idea that this particular story is being planned; it also torches the idea that there’s enough long-term planning to make the team’s long-favored defense of “wait and see” work with regards to the game’s story.

See, if the team had a clear picture of where things were going next and how things were going to play out, then “wait and see” might be wrong, but it’s defensible. You might not actually like the revelation once you get there, but you can at least nod and admit that everything had logically built up to where the story had been going and that the full picture did add some nuance.

But if there isn’t that long-term plan in place? “Wait and see” is no longer a defense and an implication that there are twists coming you can’t see just yet. No, it’s a defense that Blizzard’s narrative team is going to try to find ways to wrench everything into a shape that you’ll like even if you don’t like where things have been going thus far. It’s not the defense of a team that knows more than you do; it’s the defense of one that’s stalling for time.

No custom.

It also makes so, so much more sense to look at the entire overall story this way. Why is there suddenly the setup for a redemption arc for Sylvanas? Because this team loves writing redemption arcs, even though it makes zero sense for the character as she was written through the last expansion, and since she’s still popular, this must be a good option. Why are we being told now that the Dreadlords were serving a greater force than the Legion? Because we need to believe that the new threat is bigger than the old threats, a symptom known as “shonen anime villain expansion.” Why are we being told to wait and see? Because the actual ending isn’t written yet.

Unfortunately, it also means that the hopes of any long-term investment are equally dashed. If you know that nothing is being planned ahead more than one patch at a time, there’s no reason to really care about any of these long-term hints. They’re not foreshadowing; they’re just story threads that may or may not get picked up later. There are at best obvious signs of where the story is going next based on the few things that have been decided on, and everything else is just empty speculation.

It’s really, really disappointing. And I know, none of this is going to stop the people who always speculate about this stuff from doing so. But it means that it is, essentially, trying to predict the future with people who haven’t actually done the planning yet to reward that. You can’t guess where the story is going next because it’s being made up as they go.

If anything, it answers the question of how you can have such good people in a narrative department that still produces bad storytelling. All the skill in the world can’t help you if the plan doesn’t extend beyond the immediate future. And that’s just depressing.

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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Ken from Chicago

He broke me at “… and J.J. Abrams.” 🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣

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T

As someone who tried their hand at writing (nothing professional, and only mildly successful in a very limited pool), this is an excellent way to explain what’s going on and why the WoW story feels so haphazard. I do feel there may be some blow-back from how poorly BfA was received tho, as they really planned to continue those story threads, but with how wildly unpopular they were, they might be scrambling to change course as well. That’s just a guess tho, and maybe giving them too much credit.

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Ken from Chicago

When I’ve dabbled at amateur writing, I’ve preferred the MEOWS method:

Main

What’s the main point of the story, the hook? If someone asked me what’s the story about,, this would be it.

Ending

How does the story end? I’m the author. I chose the ending. Yes, in writing I may tweak the details but I have a goal in mind. Only if I come up with a significantly better ending would it change.

Outline

What are the main points in the story? The main events? The main characters and what do they do?

Write

Now time to flesh out that outline by writing in the details. Put some meat on those narrative bones.

Start

Sure, the beginning of the story after fleshing out the details may be good enough. If not, I go back and decide how to dive into the story. I absolutely utterly despise the “[X amount of time] earlier” beginnings–where it’s explicit. I love when it’s NOT labelled and you in the audience realize it.

I wrote what ended up being a novella because I didn’t care for the abrupt ending of the alien occupation COLONY tv show. I ended up doing character-based segments that also jumped around in time, namely, the segments started at different points in time spread out over years as well as time jumps forward and flashbacks within a character’s story and characters crossed over into one another until they finally met up in a grand climax.

It could still use some polishing but I ended up doing what Eliot mentioned. I was writing individual sections then going back editing it to fit the timeline. It was about a dozen characters ranged in age from college freshman to mid-fifties in a time spread out over roughly 5-6 years. I had rework segments for crossovers and like in LORD OF THE RINGS, sometimes characters didn’t run into each other but the consequences of their actions did (eg, a group of characters suited up to fight against mutated creatures only to discover they were already “dealt with”).

— Ken from Chicago

P.S. To be fair to JJ, he’s great at being inclusive in casting and writing characters, having quippy dialogue, snappy action scenes, however the world-building and the resolution of mystery boxes (which I admit he is fantastic at setting up but) the reveal of what lies inside is often quite wanting. In a tv series, you can get away with that if your ending is several seasons away. You have time to course correct or pick up the baton that’s been passed to you from earlier season if not from the pilot episode itself. That assumes audiences may not remember the details of what was initially set up vs the final reveal. The new Star Wars trilogy proves Eliot’s point by showing how cosmicly bad things can get when you don’t plan things out in advance.

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* bag

The contrast is so stark when the last story Blizzard actually told was with WOTLK and that whole expansion revolved around the story.
The later expansions are only thematic.

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Tee Parsley

Bad writing and bad lore kept me from playing WoW at all. Guess that theme has continued.

miol
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miol

– “… there’s no reason to really care about any of these long-term hints. They’re not foreshadowing; they’re just story threads that may or may not get picked up later. “

This makes so much sense! How many abandoned threads in MMOs and other long standing media have I encountered over the years! Thank you!

This must be the reason most of the time, because you can save money when you plan far ahead enough and have e. g. 2 finished threads instead of 4 loose ones for the same price!

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Ken from Chicago

Guild Wars is an mmo that barely mentioned guild wars in the game.

And I don’t think they were mentioned much, if at all, in GW2.

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Utakata

I was thinking about this today when doing the new patch 9.1 content storyline. And asking myself why am I enjoying this so much…compared to other content of pointless grinding, Mythics, raid or dying, etc. Because the strength of the given MMO is it’s story. Which to me at least, makes the game feel engaging, organic, and makes it feel I am a part of something. Even if the story is full of what-writers-should-never-do pitfalls and plot holes…

…so what sucks for me, is when the game starts to lock behind gear requirements, group instances, faction rep and the as for mentioned pointless grind. It is when I feel the soul is getting sucked out of the game. And when I can start to agree with everyone’s points below me…including the current set of WoW devs just don’t get it. And they have been serving us the same treadmill drivel since Cata. That is, gear, grind and grouping.

The story is least of it’s problems, IMO.

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Unnar Thor Thorisson

As much as the confirmation is new information, it’s also not really surprising. Like… How could anyone look at Cataclysm and say they clearly had a plan from the start? Or Mists, or Draenor, or anything that’s happened since?

I don’t mean to seem callous here. I loved this game for a long time, and I played it even longer, up until about a few months ago. But through all that time, it’s been growing clearer for so long that the story just was not being thought through, and the fun I had was in spite of the overarching metaplot, not because of it.

The bad parts were contrived and felt like they didn’t lead up at all; the “good” events that I was supposed to cheer for felt tepid at best; the worldbuilding, which an MMO should present countless opportunities for, was weak at every turn.

Sylvanas has been just the absolute pinnacle of this writing style from start to finish. They flip-flopped on every single decision. She was the Grim Leader the Horde Needs, then she was a random cackling monster, and now she’s getting the most half-assed redemption arc in Warcraft’s long history of not remotely understanding redemption arcs… Well, aside from Grom Hellscream. Not sure it counts, since he didn’t HAVE an arc, but apparently he’s just our new buddy at the end.

And the rub of it is that I STILL like the setting. A lot! It’s one of my all-time favorites for its diversity, its high magic style, its colorful worlds, and its potentially-interesting-but-utterly-unexplored cultures that I’m projecting onto very heavily. But I want to be clear: I like it in spite of this team, not because of them.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

Huh. I’m totally surprised in the same fake way Blizzard writes their characters. Shocked.

I’m wondering, what does the writing team do all year if not write the storyline?

Okay, enough snark. No one’s surprised by this. They’ve been violating their own narrative for years. You can’t trust a single one of their storylines. The only character that remained true to himself during his lifetime was King Varian Wrynn. I cried when he died. Such a great, heroic character. Of course Blizz killed him.

I’d like to give Blizz a piece of advice and a suggestion. The first, there’s no shame in reaching the end of your story. Even the Sopranos ended.

Now the suggestion. Each and everyone of you yahoos needs to get this book and, like, read it.

The Worm Ouroboros; by E. R. Eddison

Two things are striking about this book. It starts off with an Englishman who is mysteriously transported to Mercury where he becomes witness to the power struggle among Demonland, Goblinland and Witchland. Except he doesn’t, because after the first chapter he entirely disappears from the story and is never heard of again. But Eddison, writing in the early 20s, couldn’t figure out another way to get his readers to Mercury.

The second thing is the absolutely satisfying and ingenious ending. After a story full of pageant, beauty and war, it ends. By this time, you are in love with one of Eddison’s main characters, Lord Juss, Spitfire, Goldry Bluszco or Brandoch Daha. Ending spoiler:

Spoiler
And just when you think you have said goodbye to them forever, the same messenger arrives with the same message as began the story. And it begins from the beginning, all over again.

It would take some fortitude for Blizz to actually end the story of WoW. But it really, really can’t be any worse than the mutilated mess they have now.

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Tridus

They could learn from FFXIV in this regard. The story there has been focused on a central thing for its entire existence… and it’s getting to a point where it can’t really go on that much longer without getting tired. So what’s happening? That entire plot is ending in the next expansion. Finished. Done.

The game itself isn’t ending, of course. They’re just going to conclude the central story and then start a new one.

Blizzard just refuses to do that in WoW, so the same tired things keep getting recycled over and over again. Sylvanis is the paragon of everything they’ve been doing wrong for a very long time.

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Travis Holmes

Are we surprised at a company who corrupted all of their scout-type heroines with long-ranged weapons into an evil force that turned out to be horribly maligned and ultimately became the shining beacon of good that saves the universe by fighting deities? The moment they decided to shoehorn an elf race into the Horde just because “everyone loves elves” shows that they have no respect for their own writing. Oh! And that’s for an expansion a decade ago which introduced spaceships into a fantasy series! Come on, you can only blame yourself for still being stupidly invested at this point.

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Danny Smith

Honestly, to rip the band aid off and call it for what it is, i cannot believe in 2021 there are people that still give a shit about WoW’s story anymore. Its the worst elements of anime shounen power tier garbage, zombie ip “n-no THIS was the real villain!” losing control of scale/scope and new writers putting in self inserts and simping for characters they have an unhealthy attachment too.

Its bad. Its very, very, very, very bad. It should be no surprise it plays out like a bad D&D Dungeon Master padding for time because the games ran longer than expected and they need to bulk out the plot with on the fly random horseshit because thats basically what it is.

We beat Arthas, Illidan, The Old Gods, Even Sargeras. Its done. But as long as its still making money this phoned in garbage will keep being farted out to give a reason for your next loot pinata. Don’t worry [STAND IN MADLIBS ALTERNATE TO CHAMPION] its really the actual threat this time!

Its a hollow shell imitating shit directly lifted from other media. I mean the current crux is the angry bald man is going around collecting all the maguffins before peacing out through a portal to complete his infinity gauntlet. Its barely better than plagarism at times.

Part of it is the new writers who simply can’t tell a good story with the structure they have to work with and the other is a game where your character is a stagehand moving shit around for the small handful of npcs they choose to make relevant this expansion and pick them out of the storage void to act out their roles on the stage like the writing equivalent of super smash bros. Its a limiting power fantasy. Something destined to self sabotage and feel totally neutered and redundant when its format is a bi yearly update gear treadmill or faction grind.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

Yup.

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Rndomuser

Honestly, to rip the band aid off and call it for what it is, i cannot believe in 2021 there are people that still give a shit about WoW’s story anymore.

Yea, it’s still strange to see people care about this, especially considering the stuff Blizzard continues to pile up on top of it just to keep the game going. Personally I never cared for story in this game back when it was released, or at any other time after its release. To me it was always about “Red vs. Blue”, especially with extremely forced and restricted way the factions are implemented.

The CGI trailers were nice, though.