Thursday, December 18, 2014

Warlords, The Opening Chapter

The launch of the Warlords of Draenor expansion was probably the greatest since the game began.  Greater than Burning Crusade and possibly greater even than Lich King I realized that's quite a sweeping statement, and that the state of morpgs has changed over time, but the reason is easy to see.  All the lessons the developers have learned through the years were brought to bear on this opening experience and they got nearly everything exactly right. 

So, to back up a bit.  I started on launch day and suffered through the gauntlet of servers being down and lengthy queues, but that was sorted out relatively quickly.  It was a minor annoyance for the first few days and by now it has faded into oblivion.  I think there were three major things that came out of the initial stumbles, however.

The first message from the launch of Warlords of Draenor is that when it comes to delivering a quest-based story that is replete with vivid characters, engaging narrative, and dynamic events, Blizzard still knows what its doing and does it better than nearly everybody.

This is almost immediately followed by the thought that there are millions of players who return to the party at each new expansion, many of whom have never left.  Yes, that's caused a few headaches for us during the past week with lag issues and extended queues, and yes it makes the game a target for mischief makers.  But there is a reason why the millions return:  the outstanding quality of the initial experience.

Warcraft once again has become way more popular than anyone was really expecting it would.  Back in the doldrums of August, when the content drought had sapped everyone's will to live, the reported subscriber numbers had sunk to the 6 million range and people were openly speculating about whether or not WoW was dying and we were observing its final decline.

Suddenly,  the sub numbers jumped up to over 10 million - so many that even Blizzard didn't properly anticipate the overwhelming numbers of players that wanted to get into their game.  We see a resurgence with every expansion but these kinds of sub numbers were returning us to the heady days  when WoW boasted over 12 million players.  The glory days were back.

Second, the design of the initial entrance to the Warlords expansion was electifying.  It was all about motion and purpose.  With Khadgar, I felt the echos of the Sons of Lothar and a hint of what it might have been like the first time the Sons plunged through the unknown portal.  This was a much stronger storytelling experience than we've had in the past, and one that put the players in the main heroic role.  Yes, we were following an outsized lore figure, but in many cases we were the one taking direct action, action where we could see how our contribution advanced the plot.

And what's more, we were taking action against the named enemies of the expansion.  Yes, we were fighting for our lives, for the most part, but we were successfully striking at the Iron Horde and completing our mission objectives to close down the portal.

Third, the larger story had focus. From practically the first moment that pre-expansion foreshadowing appeared in Azeroth, we have been focused on one thing: stopping the Iron Horde.  The pre-expansion invasion gave us a clear idea of who the enemy was.  And this was coupled with the cinematics and video short series that brought us face to face with the backgrounds and excesses of these warlords, and gave us an indication of why we were fighting.  The Draenei provided an object lesson of what might happen if we didn’t succeed.

This is in sharp contrast to previous expansions.

In Mists of Pandaria, we didn’t really know who the enemy was, didn’t really know why we were supposed to be fighting.  Remember the triumphant entry on our airships?  We were explicitly fighting the opposing faction, rather than anything in Pandaria. And after the initial excitement of the landing had subsided, the narrative channeled us into what was largely a side story involving the Jinyu and Hozen, minor players who would take no part in the greater story of Pandaria.

Our brief stay with the Jinyu would almost completely sap our momentum, and whatever energy we had left dissipated entirely with the climax at the Statue of the Jade Serpent.  It was with the entry into the Valley of the Four Winds that the story of Pandaria properly began.

In Cataclysm, we had a poster boy, Deathwing, who we then promptly ignored throughout the entire expansion and who we only saw again in the final raid.  Instead, we began with the evil menace of Cho-gall who, though a key lore figure, was largely unknown to players whose sole source of information was the MMORPG. It was a lesson Blizzard learned for Warlords, with their extensive cinematic retelling of the enemies’ origins.

So, even though his picture was on the box, Deathwing was forgotten and the players moved through a series of unrelated zones, not even tied together by a common enemy.  With little through-plot to weave them into a common story, the different elemental zones appeared to be a series of separate mini-expansions.  Lacking the golden thread of a central story, Cataclysm felt confusing and ultimately dissatisfying.

Compare that experience to the first hours of Warlords of Draenor

We start in the Blasted Lands, and face an advanced guard of Iron Horde, who we battle into submission.  Then, we cross through the portal and hold these same Iron Horde at bay while we dismantle the mechanisms of the portal.  In the process, we face many of the chief generals of the opposing army, general whom we recognize from the advanced stories Blizzard showed us.

Next we establish our own base, raising it out of the native soil, building by building.  Again, this is in contrast to previous expansions, when we think we are the vanguard of our forces only to find that the place has been occupied for months and a fully fortified stronghold already exists, complete with a resident commander who we are now to become the errand boy for.

When we are sufficiently established, we join forces with the local Draenei (from the Alliance perspective) and fight off a major offensive against Karabor from those same Iron Horde we faced at the beginning.

At the end of this, we know exactly who we are: the resident commander of the primary Alliance or Horde force on Draenor.  And we know exactly what we must do: oppose and defeat the many warlord chieftains that comprise the Iron Horde and render them powerless to threaten Azeroth.  There is no confusion about where we are heading either, to Tanaan to confront Grommash Hellscream, Kilrogg Deadeye, and Kargath Bladefist.

Of course we know that new patches may introduce elements that could change the picture somewhat and we may be heading places that we can’t, now, anticipate. But at this moment, everything is clear.

And it is this moment of clarity that makes this expansion so compelling.

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