WoW Factor: Chris Metzen’s uphill road with World of Warcraft

We all become done.

So, last week there was a bit of unusual timing. I had finished my column about World of Warcraft’s Trading Post, and on the same day we got the announcement that Chris Metzen would be returning to Blizzard after all as a “Creative Advisor” for the Warcraft team. This was, of course, a surprise, but it came too late for me to write an entirely new column. And frankly, I wanted to think about it a bit before writing a column about it anyway because this is a complicated situation across the board. If the timing had been slightly different, maybe I would have written an additional column the next day about it, but… come on, folks. It’s the holidays. Touch snow.

The thing about Chris Metzen is that he is, in multiple senses of the word, the origin point for World of Warcraft as a whole. It is difficult if not actively impossible to separate thinking about the game from understanding him as a creative force. And at the same time, Metzen’s own actions and legacy have become tainted, and his return speaks to a rot deep within the structure that may be too severe to scoop out successfully.

Let’s start with the simple facts of the matter: Chris Metzen is, indisputably, a very creative man with a distinct style who has been the focal point of creating basically everything you currently think of as “Blizzard.” His role was smaller for the original Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, but he was responsible for the lore expansion and refinement of both the manual and later the sequel. His handprints are all over the game from that point onward, and taking into account that alongside Diablo and StarCraft, it’s clear that Chris Metzen might be better at tapping into the adolescent male id better than anyone.

That might sound disparaging, but it isn’t. I’ve mentioned before now that there is a fundamental adolescence at the heart of WoW and elsewhere. It’s not a value judgment but a fact of existence. Metzen writes, draws, and creates exactly the sort of things that are meant to appeal deeply to exactly that mindset, and he is impressively good at it, creating parts of the mythos and lore in every series that are so revered time has hardly tarnished them.

And you know, his work is a big part of why I personally connected with these games so completely when I was younger. The first Blizzard game I played was Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, and I was so enraptured that my 13-year-old head became fixated on this title and its characters. I wanted to know more, to explore this world in more ways, to find out other things about the inhabitants and understand the world as a whole. Seeing a huge world through a tiny view like that was truly breathtaking and astonishing.

So speaking purely from a creative standpoint, I agree Metzen has had a huge impact shaping this game and its legacy.

She's a little bored.

But there are two issues with Metzen’s return, and the first is George Lucas.

It’s hard to reconcile the various ages of George Lucas. Lucas was a huge, powerful, and original creative force who produced some timeless classic films above and beyond the space-centric fantasy story that made him famous. No one with THX 1181, American Graffiti, Willow, Labyrinth, and Raiders of the Lost Ark in his filmography can be discounted as an amazing creative. And then time passed, a series of bombs went to the theater and failed, he revisited Star Wars in a trilogy of bad films, and he was an out-of-touch punchline.

What happened? Some of it was no doubt the result of environmental effects. Lucas seems to be a better story writer and producer than a director, for example. Some of it was also that it’s wrong to assume that just because someone’s strange and idiosyncratic tendencies toward approaching stories worked once, they will work again. But a lot of it, I think, is the simple reality that every creative person eventually runs out of things to say, especially about the same property.

You can see this in a lot of places. Chris Claremont wrote numerous legendary stories when he had a massive run on the X-Men titles through the 70s and 80s, but when he came back to the book much later… well, I bet you didn’t even remember that happened because while his stories were interesting, they didn’t really match his prior heights. Hideo Kojima wanted to stop telling Metal Gear stories after Metal Gear Solid and increasingly wanted to troll people demanding he do more. Leonard Nimoy wanted people to think of him as anyone other than Spock.

The fact of the matter is that however creative you might be, eventually you just kind of run out of things to say about a given fictional universe. It doesn’t mean you dislike it; it just means that you don’t have an endless font of ideas flowing forever. And while I don’t doubt that Metzen genuinely loves the Warcraft property, let’s not forget that he was also there for some pretty bad parts of WoW.

But the other issue is the elephant in the room.

Oh no snail.

Chris Metzen’s name has not come up among the numerous serial harassers and bad actors within Blizzard’s rank. My tendency at this point is to assume that it’s probably not going to come up; if someone were going to name Metzen, it probably would have happened by now, and no one has come forward to paint him like, say, Afrasiabi. So that’s good.

But what’s not good is that his apology last year suggests that he was somehow unaware of the magnitude of the incidents taking place in his proximity, under his leadership, on his team, with his own colleagues, for many years.

Metzen may not have been the monster in the closet at Blizzard HQ, but just like Mike Morhaime, he had authority and the power to act and either ignored, neglected, or downplayed Blizzard behavior that he surely knew was inappropriate at the time.

In other words, simply an apology for inaction and the clarification that he didn’t personally abuse any women does not absolve Metzen of consequences or culpability. And while his departure was unconnected from the company’s harassment scandal, his return puts him back under a microscope, especially since he’s implicitly the big name in the room.

So I am not saying that Chris Metzen is bad and having him back is an inherently bad thing. But when you consider all of this and the fact that Metzen is indisputably part of the game’s past, it’s not really a slam dunk to say that he is instrumental in shaping the game’s future. It’s clearly an effort to win back the crowd, to appeal to lapsed fans, to say that LeBron is back and now we can win again… but that doesn’t necessarily track with reality.

I’m not against the idea, but Metzen has an uphill road ahead of him to prove that he’s going to bring something of positive value to the modern teams and future games beyond name recognition. Is that possible? Sure. But I’m not going to get excited about all this just because I really liked Warcraft 2.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with almost two decades 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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