It’s telling that we’re now very much in the back nine for World of Warcraft: Dragonflight, and the general consensus has not shifted much beyond “it was fine, I guess.” It’s telling, in fact, because Dragonflight’s main problem has not been that there’s nothing good within it but rather that it neither excises all of the bad nor is good enough to make people forget the past several years. Incremental progress isn’t enough when you’ve spent the past several expansions pile-driving every semblance of goodwill into the ground.
However, we have to deal with the situation we’re actually in, not the one we might want to be in, and again The War Within seems to be a marked effort to improve the situation in several ways. But there are things that are going to need to be addressed in the expansion in order for it to really land, and they cover both story and mechanical design – improvements that are either halfway there in Dragonflight or still not there at all, in other words. So let’s take a look at those, and we’re starting with narrative.
Tone and consistency issues
At the start of Dragonflight, we were given a broad and interesting question with the Primalists. We are made to understand that the Primalists are, at their core, angry about the ways in which the Aspects sold their race out to the Titans. And this is raised as an actual question. Did Alexstrasza have the right to make this decision? Is it possible that the Titans are not actually the good guys?
Now, at the end, we are fighting Fyrakk, who is a destructive clowning jerk who just clearly likes being an evil trashgremlin to everyone and just wants to smash everything. There’s a problem here.
Let me be clear: I don’t have a problem inherently with either story beat. I don’t mind being made to wonder “maybe there are downsides to this decision, maybe the Titans aren’t good,” but it doesn’t land very well when all of the characters saying that just want to be evil assholes wrecking everything.
It’s not as if Fyrakk has a demonstrable reason for doing it beyond just being an over-the-top villain. It’s just that you can’t have someone doing the bad-as-I-wanna-be routine letting his freak flag fly without at least giving him some actual motivation if you want the whole “maybe the good guys aren’t actually the good guys” part to land. This is a consistent issue that WoW has had for a while as it’s tried to keep two wildly contradictory ideas floating in a way that makes both stories worse.
For the past several years, we’ve had countless examples of pretending “internally inconsistent” is the same thing as “morally grey,” which it very definitely isn’t. And it’s all right if the villains aren’t morally grey. It’s all right if the villains are just monsters we need to kill. But you can’t make them indefensible monsters and make fighting them into a moral question.
The way WoW gates its story is stupid and bad. Period end.
A friend of mine just recently came back to the game and was enjoying the story until he ran into the end of the Emerald Dream story… until the Raid Finder option opens up for him. He unsubscribed that same night and no longer cares how it ends. Why would he? He was just told that wanting to see the story didn’t actually matter.
Gating the story solely behind raids is a bad idea as it is, but if that’s how the designers want to keep at it, fine. But that also means that the difficulty specifically stated as “you get to see the story” should be opened at the same time as all the others. The slow rollout is stupid and frustrating, and it ruins story consistency for people playing the game. This is a bad habit to get out of.
How Blizzard accomplishes it does not matter much to me, but the time-gating cannot coincide with telling a coherent story. And for that matter, the current hideously disconnected state of the story as a whole cannot coincide with telling a coherent story in any fashion.
Does this mean that the game needs to force you to play through every expansion in order? No. Even if that were possible and even if everything had actually been coherent, the ship on that has sailed. But the story demands a way for people to get up to speed within the game, between cinematics and quest dialogue. You need to provide an introduction to the major characters because every time you act like everyone is supposed to remember who Alleria is (a character who, let’s be real, has had a role in basically two expansions, three if you’re very generous), the more players are just going to clock out and be like “whatever, I like your funny words, elf lady.”
Stop expecting people to read a tie-in novel or read a wiki. That ain’t the world we living in, baby. You need to make this story accessible in the here and now.
Pathfinding and space
One of the things that I think WoW has still struggled with – and no doubt will continue to struggle with – is finding a way to split the difference between its campaign story and actually letting players do some sidequests along the way.
There are definitely games that do, in fact, have a straightforward set of quests pushing you through a coherent stories with the sidequests being purely supplemental. That’s fine. But WoW has not historically been one of those games, and as the past few expansions have gotten more campaign-focused, it’s led to weird situations where suddenly you have three campaign quests that involve your stopping to kill six snow moose or whatever for no reason other than this is where sidequesting usually goes.
The problem is that between level sync and just the overall speed of leveling, this doesn’t really work very well. You don’t have a reason to go back and do these sidequests. You don’t need to do them for leveling. They’re just there and maybe people will do them in the early zones, but you know, that’s about it.
I don’t have a single coherent suggestion for how to fix this, but I think having fewer and more directed campaign quests is generally a better idea, and giving players some space to either do sidequests in their current zones or even go back to an earlier zone to reach the next level point might just work better. Instead of pulling you along by the nose, it’d help the game to feel… well, more distinct.
While WoW’s larger scope storytelling has been hot garbage for the past couple expansions (and it’s obviously still not great in Dragonflight), it has often excelled at sharing smaller stories around the margins. Creating the space to not only support that but actively encourage seeing those stories is a good thing, and I feel like it’s kind of a shame that it’s so easy to miss all of this now.
The game should be putting its best foot forward, and that means not just following one world-ending plot and hoping you bring an alt through to actually see some of the sidequests.