WoW Factor: Steve Danuser was not really the problem with World of Warcraft

That doesn't mean he was good at it

    
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It just keeps happening.

So I don’t want to sit here and say “oh, things were going so great” before the news that Steve Danuser had actually left World of Warcraft a while ago broke because that would be a lie. But I wrote that news story, and then I was about to respond to a comment when I realized that dang it, this is going to need to be a whole column, isn’t it? Then I cursed a bit.

I didn’t curse because I have nothing nice to say, although most of what I have to say is not going to be particularly kind; it’s more because this is a nuanced situation that is still kind of easy to break down into simple, easy-to-understand, wrong statements. This is not an enthusiastic or even lukewarm defense of Danuser’s work on WoW so much as it is an honest assessment accompanied by an urge for tempered understanding.

Let’s start with the most basic facts. Steve Danuser worked at Blizzard on World of Warcraft from 2015 onward, which means that his work was featured in everything from Legion to Dragonflight at a bare minimum. His leadership role comes closer to the end of that tenure, and I cannot say for certain how much of his personal imprint is on Warlords of Draenor, but the slice we do have there points to one expansion with a well-received chunk of story followed by worse storytelling as it went on, then two expansions that are widely perceived to feature some of the worst writing the game has ever had. And then there’s Dragonflight, which is very much a Most Pretty Much Fine Expansion Possible.

WoW has never been a game that has consistently had great writing, but Danuser’s approaches to stories and storytelling weren’t among my favorites. Battle for Azeroth and Shadowlands both suffered from poor characterization for the long-time NPCs involved, narrative handwaves, unconvincing stakes, and just general bad writing. And while obviously not every single line was written by Danuser – he had a whole team at Blizzard – it is worth noting that overall, it wasn’t great.

Of course, it wasn’t great before him either.┬áIt is, in fact, possible to take something that was never great and earnestly make it worse, and that’s kind of what we got here. From laundering pet theories about Nathanos and Sylvanas to whatever kind of sense the Kyrians once made to the entire tacked-on Sylvanas arc awfulness, real damage was done to this setting and these characters. While I do not know what lies within Danuser’s mind-prison, it’s clear to me that no matter his talents, he was not a good fit for this game’s writing.

But I also think he does, in fact, get unfairly blamed for it anyway.

Hello, Thanos Lite.

The reason I led with negativity here is because it’s important to not fall into some idiotic revisionism where actually the Jailer was a good villain or anything of the sort. There was bad writing on display. But I am willing to bet dollars to donuts that Steve Danuser was not the one person who walked into the office and said “our next expansion will involve our going into a poorly defined afterlife to put paid to narrative threads we have conjured out of nowhere that make no sense.”

Nothing that he wrote or directed others to write slipped in by accident. People above him approved every part of it, and he was working not separate from other designers but hand-in-hand with them. And the reality is that if you cut out every incredibly dumb and poorly written piece of Battle for Azeroth‘s content and replaced it with something penned by a great writer, that expansion would still have been awful.

Danuser’s overall narrative direction often gets highlighted as a problem because it’s very much in-your-face when you play through this content. It’s easier to focus on the nonsense of Sylvanas turning Stupid Evil than it is to really articulate all of the ways in which the gameplay loop turned into rewarding players with artifact power they don’t want to improve gear that isn’t fun. You could rewrite huge chunks of these expansions and they’d just be bad in terms of gameplay all the same.

And the thing is that a whole lot of the hate train for Danuser comes, at least in part, because Steve Danuser is not Chris Metzen. This is also problematic because Metzen is not actually an earth-shattering creative titan whose every written word is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.

Watching Metzen on stage is an experience; the man has charisma to spare. On-camera he is like the polar opposite of Ion Hazzikostas. Rather than seeming faintly uncomfortable at being watched, he seems to thrive on it. He’s a fantastic hype man and exactly the kind of guy you want to have up on stage at a convention telling everyone how unbelievably cool the next thing coming out is going to be.

I’ve also mentioned before that Metzen, as a writer, has an amazing knack for tapping into an adolescent mindset. That is not nothing, either! It means that he has lots of really cool ideas, and he’s constantly doing something new. But it also means that he’s more concerned with “this cool setpiece I came up with” than with anything approaching long-term consistency. Emotional arcs and long-term payoff are nice, but what really matters is this awesome showdown with a demon lord we just met five minutes ago.

Shoulder touch.

None of this is to say that we lost something irreplaceable on the WoW team, just to make it clear that even if you disliked Steve Danuser’s writing – and I did – the reality is that he is not some third-act villain who made the seas boil and the streets run with blood. The problem with the expansions that he was writing for are not as simple as “Danuser bad, Metzen good,” and framing things like that does a disservice to someone who was genuinely doing his best to wrangle a very large and messy story into a long-term shape.

You can think the results of those efforts were not particularly successful, which is a thought I am in agreement with, but Chris Metzen’s return is not inherently the moment that WoW’s writing turns Good Again. And someone else writing the game is not why the expansions were so bad for so long. That has to do with every part of the product. Writing, yes, but also design, pacing, gameplay loops, goals, so many other things. Replacing one part does not fix everything.

I won’t miss his work now that he’s gone, but I also won’t pretend that he was the only or even primary problem, nor will I pretend that the game was never bad when Metzen was at the helm. What’s going to make The War Within good or bad is going to be a collection of many factors, too. Retconning the worst plot points of the past eight years out of existence won’t magically rescue the game, just as those plot points alone weren’t what made the game so unpalatable in the first place. That’s just not how storytelling works.

Yes, it would be kind of satisfying on a meta level to just find the one person making WoW bad and getting a dozen of your friends to go get rid of him. But that’s not how the world works.

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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