Missteps in Cataclysm: Misfired Story Arcs, Blizzard's Failures at Understanding the Medium of a Narrative
A recent interview with Tom Chilton has revealed Blizzard's intentions for the opening event for the Mists of Pandaria expansion. The Horde is going to destroy Theramore. This will be the next in a long line of defeats for the Alliance at the hands of the Horde, dating back the very first zone of Wrath of the Lich King. This has created a significant uproar on the official forums, with over 150 pages of posts debating the merits of this choice of action. Many players, and the CM Zarhym, have begged the players understanding to allow blizzard to tell their story in what they feel is the most effective manner. I feel that this choice of action is the next step in a line of missteps that dates back to Cataclysm Beta that shows a fundamentally flawed understanding of the requirements of storytelling within the constraints of the WoW model.
In any immersive model of story telling there are three fundamental rules, while there are niche games that flaunt some of these rules, WoW is not one of them. You don't build 13 million subscribers by aiming at niches.
Rule 1: The majority of people do not like playing the villain.
This is evidenced by the outcry from Horde players over their sudden turn towards Saturday morning cartoon style villainy. The torture quests, pretty much the entirety of the new storylines for the Forsaken, and major horde questlines in stonetalon have caused quite the uproar, and while there are some players who revel in the role of the villain, most players who have commented on the change have found the Horde's turn to an unabashedly evil faction to be disturbing.
Rule 2: The majority of people do not like playing the victim.
This is evidenced by the amount of rage that's been emanating from the Alliance players in the aftermath of Blizzcon. The Horde has inflicted a chain of atrocities on the Alliance dating back to Howling Fjord. Alliance players have too often wound up the designated losers and through no choice of their own get handed defeat after defeat. With the leaked plans to raze the Alliance's non capital portal city, and primary port to the continent of Kalimdor, there doesn't seem to be an end in sight for their suffering.
Rule 3: No one likes inconclusive endings.
Cliffhangers and Bolivian Army endings are all well and good in passive media such as movies and books. It's a legitimate tool to craft the narrative. However, in immersive media, the hero is you, and when they're dissatisfied, you're dissatisfied. Dissatisfaction is not a good emotion to try and elicit from people you're trying to get to play the game. This can easily be seen from the frustration that stemmed from the ending of the Throne of the Tides instance. Neptulon gets kidnapped by the Kraken, and when pressed on the issue at Blizzcon, Chris Metzen merely remarked "What happens in Throne stays in Throne. There are no plans to continue that storyline." No one was satisfied with that answer.
These rules apply to the overwhelming majority of games. There are also a three rules that apply to persistent story driven dual faction worlds like World of Warcraft.
Rule 1: Victories over player characters cannot be final.
The day either the Horde or the Alliance actually win the war is the day WoW dies. Everyone knows this. All storylines must be sustainable. The player might wipe, but the boss is still there waiting for him, the lockouts always reset. Likewise, aside from the inconclusive end to Throne of the Tides, even on the quests where the player is duped into helping the enemy, you still come out on top. You help Gorefiend break out? Kill him in BT. You help Loken capture Thorim? Kill Loken in HoL, Kill Thorim's mount and free Thorim in Ulduar. You helped Drakuru enslave DTK? Kill him in Zul'Drak. Play directly into the Lich Kings hands? Deliver 25 champions to become his strongest warriors in history? A dead king will return to break the grip of final death upon you. That's how far the story will go to protect you. The story always has you win in the end.
Rule 2: Both factions must be interesting and engaging to play.
Zarhym mentioned this specifically in his commentary about the debacle surrounding Theramore. The player base generally splits down between faction lines fairly close to 50/50 overall in terms of total population. Alienating a significant portion of either faction would be a catastrophic loss on Blizzard's part.
Rule 3: The story must unfold in a manner that is possible within the budgetary constraints of the project.
This is the one that a lot of players forget about when they make outlandish demands of where they think the story should go. Zones that were just recently updated will not be overhauled again to update the conflict in real time. Unfortunately, this does lead to a lot of situations like the Wolfheart novel, where the Alliance breaks the back of the Horde assault into Ashenvale. This, unfortunately, is completely invisible within the game world. It will probably never be seen, and as such, it doesn't motivate the majority of players.
Thus far, Blizzard has made several major mistakes with the direction of the narrative. They have failed to make the Alliance a very compelling faction to play. A lot of effort went into the horde storylines in cataclysm. Noticeably less effort went into the Alliance storylines. Goblins get a cool starting area, and once they leave it, they go to Azshara, a zone custom built to continue the goblin experience. Worgen players get a cool starting area, and once they leave it, they're shunted off to Darnasus where they follow the same story pattern as the Night Elf players, aside from a couple minor quests, there's no Worgen designed content in the main game at all. Even where the Alliance has new content, it's a drastically different tone that those the Horde enjoy. A new undead player moving into Silverpine Forest will enter a phased Gilneas and get to go toe to toe with the 7th Legion, the Elite soldiers of the Alliance, and win. A new human player goes to Westfall and gets to see five years of work on Sentinel Hill get burned to the ground by a homeless mob in five minutes. It's a well done storyline, and it does a good job introducing the new Deadmines, although it doesn't actually give you any quests to go into Deadmines, strangely. But at the same time, where the Forsaken player gets a very empowering storyline, Human players get a very demoralizing storyline.
The Horde gets two new storylines where they win WSG by capturing Silverwing Post, and win AV by nuking the Stormpike Brigade. The Alliance gets a new storyline about how they lost WSG. In Twilight Highlands the Horde get several storylines about taking the fight to the Alliance in the new region. The Alliance gets quests about the Horde trying to steal, or in some cases, simply burn, our beer. Even in the new region where the Alliance was supposed to be taking the fight to the Horde, in South Barrens, the Alliance players arive to find Camp Turajo in flames, and we get quests explaining about how the General didn't intend for it to be such a bloodbath, and then we go arrest criminals trying to loot the ruins. This is framed by a run in with a Horde general who wears Alliance Worgen scalps as a hat, and the Horde assassinating the general who tried to help them and blowing up the oldest Dwarf settlement on the continent. Even when the Alliance is supposed to win, they wind up getting guilt tripped and defeated.
This train of events makes the Alliance perspective a very dull one to play through, and is a problem via rule 2 of persistent game narratives. Blizzard has lost nearly a million subscriptions since Cataclysm came out, and I'd be willing to bet a good chunk of those subscriptions were Alliance players who simply didn't like the leveling experience.
This leads into the second major mistake that Blizzard has made with the narrative. Rather than focusing the story on a villain, which has been the standard throughout the game thus far, they have decided to make the conflict between the Alliance and Horde the focus of the upcoming expansion. This is a mistake for several reasons. First a faction conflict centered story is a model that has been tried before, and failed many times. Warhammer online tried it, and their subscription numbers plummeted to the point where the game had to go free to play. All Points Bulletin tried it, and the game folded completely within 6 months. That's because making the focus on the conflict between two player factions becomes a lame duck due to rules 1 and 2. Niether faction can actually lose the war. The Horde isn't going to burn Stormwind down like they did in WC1, nor are the Alliance going to wipe the Horde out like they did in WCII. It's going to end in a stalemate. That's not a major issue when people are focused on the Burning Legion invasion, or the war on the Lich King, or the fact that Deathwing just rearranged the face of Azeroth. But when you put it front and center, it's like watching a show in HD TV, you can see every crack and flaw in the actor's face.
The razing of Theramore will exacerbate this problem because of the way it interacts with several missteps that Blizzard made in the Cataclysm Beta. There were three ways that a faction could lose territory in the Cataclysm. It could be destroyed in cataclysm, like Kargath or Auberdine. It could be seized by a third party, like the Defias in Westfall, or the Grimtotem in Stonetalon. The final method was it could be destroyed by the opposing faction, like Southshore, or Camp Turajo. Southshore in particular is important because all the way through the Alpha and most of Beta, the story was that Southshore was taken out by a tidal wave in the Catalysm. Come release, it turns out that that was changed in favor of the Horde and their penchant for biological weapons. Instead of losing something to Deathwing, the villain we all know we get to kill, they lost it to the Horde, whom we all know we won't get to wipe out. That became one more notch in the Horde's belt for things that they've siezed from the Alliance. It's become a very long list, and the list of things the Alliance took from the Horde is a very short one. This gives the Horde a lot of momentum going into MoP.
Zarhym has asked players to look at the Razing of Theramore as the opening move of the war, and many players have likened it to the Alliance's Pearl Harbor. It's supposed to fit in the context of the story as the impetus for the Alliance to go to war. The problem with that is that the War has been here for going on 4 years and 3 expansions now. This isn't so much Pearl Harbor as it is Dunkirk.
The WWII references being thrown around within the thread are very telling. A lot of games are set in WWII. It's a very compelling story. It is however, a story that cannot be replicated in WoW. In WWII, the US turned the tide after Pearl Harbor at the Battle of Midway, and pushed on to purge the Japanese home islands with nuclear fire. Japan was disarmed, occupied for years, and has American soldiers stationed there almost 70 years after the fact. Likewise, in Europe, after being pushed out of Europe at Dunkirk, the British held on for two years until the 2nd Battle of El-Alamein and the entry of the US and USSR into the war allowed them to turn the tide on the german war machine. Germany was literally hung, drawn, and quartered. The leadership of the government was tried and executed, the infrastructure of the nation was gutted to the point where tens of thousands of Germans starved in 1946 because the country couldn't feed itself, and the nation itself was partitioned into 4 quarters that were each given to a different allied power to rule over. In both theaters, WWII is the story of the heros being pushed to the brink by unadulterated villains, and overcoming all odds to win a complete victory. People eat stories like that up.
The problem with ramping the stakes in the Alliance/Horde conflict up to WWII levels is rule 1. Because neither faction can actually lose the conflict, a WWII ending is impossible. The orcs aren't going back to internment camps, and the humans aren't fleeing the remains of SW again. It'd be the death of the game. So ultimately, the best we can hope for is a WWI armistice style ending. Do you ever wonder why there are so few games set in WWI? Because it's a terrible story. Millions dead in a futile effort that left no winner, just Germany sulking for 20 years, and the allied powers becoming complacent. No one was happy at the end of WWI. As such it's a weak model to emulate.
This leaves Blizzard in a very rough position. Right now the Alliance looks uninspired and defeated, and the Horde looks unstoppable. Because we know the Alliance can't actually lose, they're going to have to turn the tables. Because Blizzard needs to make the Alliance look interesting, it can't be the result of the internal strife storylines that have been running through the Horde as of late. If the Alliance gets saved by Vol'jin assassinating Garrosh, or Thrall returning to demote the rash warchief, the Alliance is pretty much permanently emasculated. So the Alliance has to come up with a legitimate military strategy that will allow them to overcome the momentum built up by the Horde. This in and of itself presents another challenge. While the British went from the brink of Annihilation during the Battle of Britain to breaking the German line at El-Alamein, once El-Alamein took place, the Allies used their new found momentum to crush the German nation. Obviously, this can't happen, so something is going to have to happen to stop the Alliance who will be even more unstoppable than the Horde is now. At this point, we're going to be treading into rediculous Deus Ex Machina territory. Like Rhonin riding on sentient raptors or Varian having a repeat of his unfortunate bout with mercy at the end of the second war levels of unlikeliness. Maybe Thrall shows up in a giant robot forged from the remaining scales of Deathwing and the Shards of Frostmourne? I don't know what it'll be, I just know that it'll be hackneyed, unconvincing, and a complete ass-pull on Blizz's part.
Blizzard already missed the timing to make an actual compelling story out of the conflict. They were setting it up all throughout Wrath, and if they had made a straight up open war, rather than this one sided beating, then they could limit the momentum of either side, and ensure that any actions taken were beleivable. Both sides would be convinced they could win, and both sides would be afraid they might suffer a strategic loss. The Forsaken push through Hillsbrad and into the Arathi Highlands, Danath Trollbane returns, and with help from the Wildhammer Dwarve from the Hinterlands, he reestablishes control of Stromguard, pushes the Horde back into Hillsbrad, and holds the line at Thoradin's wall. While the Alliance would be taking the worse of it in the grand scheme of things, but they'd have a heroic defense to point to. The Horde would be asking just how they were going to break through the defense, rather than their current situation where the big question they're asking is why exactly they stopped at Arathi. Most importantly, it would leave Blizzard in a stable position. There isn't any need for topping things. It's believable that the war bogs down on those lines. The Horde feels good for having taken territory in Hillsbrad, The Alliance feels good about having their hero return and securing Arathi.
It's not too late for Blizzard to repair their flawed course of action. Throw us a Sunwell style emergency tier to tide us over after 4.3, and build an actual villain for MoP, write an opener that doesn't impart more momentum to runaway characters, and work hard to ensure that they don't leave one faction in the dust again.