Saturday, December 3, 2011

When Your Reach Exceeds Your Grasp: Rushed Development Hurts the Story

One of the prominent points I made in my previous post was that the rushed development cycle of Cataclysm was extremely destructive to the cohesiveness of the Alliance story line. I listed two prominent examples, the Twilight Highlands and Worgen starting experience. There's a prominent disconnect between the story that you could see Blizzard trying to tell, and the story they wound up producing.

Twilight Highlands is especially egregious. The Alliance story in TH is disjointed, and incoherent at times. After the wacky ride with Fargo, you wake up in the unfinished Alliance base (which never actually gets finished) under attack by the Horde. After fighting the Horde off, you go to the shore where you are attacked by the Horde again. After defending yourself, you then proceed to spend the rest of your time in TH planning a Dwarf wedding, trying to save your alcohol from the Horde, and eventually making it to the Red Dragonflight, who are really angry at you for some reason.

The whole zone is spent pushing to Bastion of Twilight and Grim Batol in an offensive against the Twilight's Hammer. The Horde attacks are barely acknowledged. The closest Alliance players come to replying to the constant attacks is when they steal a bolt of cloth from a goblin zeppelin, which is used in the Dwarf wedding. There's also the puzzling problem with the Red Dragonflight being so pissed off at me. What did I ever do to them, besides assist them against the Mad Aspect of Magic in Northrend, and rescue Calen from that dank pit in Silithus?

The problem lies in unfinished content. This video has datamined sound files from the Cataclysm Beta client. The first half are lines from Thrall that eventually made it into the Goblin starting zone. The second half are lines from Varian in what was supposed to be the Alliance's Twilight Highland's intro.

Varian was supposed to uncover Benedictus as a traitor in a quest line that echoed of the old Great Masquerade quest. A high ranking traitor using their influence to spread dissatisfaction among the people of Stormwind? That links together most of the internal problems that were faced in the Human starting zones, in particular in Westfall. Furthermore, note the direct instructions to not engage the Horde. That fleshes out Varian as a character, and most importantly, it ties the entirety of the Alliance questing experience in TH together. You're not lashing out at the Horde because your King commanded you to focus on higher priorities. That little scene was the keystone for pretty much the entire human questing experience in Cataclysm, and Blizzard dropped it for a cheap reference to the lead quest designer. Way to go.

This still leaves the unusual welcome you get from the Red Dragonflight. I'm a hero to Alexstrasza, Exalted with the Wyrmrest Accord, and I get treated like I've been associating with someone who kills baby red dragons for fun and profit like the Dragonmaw Clan. The quest makes complete sense for the Horde players, who just spent the whole zone rampaging with a group of orcs best known for imprisoning the Dragonqueen against her will and using her children as weapons of war, to be used until broken, and then discarded. Blizzard just never got around to making an Alliance version, and the Alliance story suffers because of it.

Just as painful was the treatment of the Worgen experience. Everyone remembers the plans for the Worgen District in Stormwind, it was planned to be in the park. It made sense, because after the Gilneas set, then the Worgen players could quest in Duskwood, WPL, EPL, and the Blasted Lands, you know, the parts of the game that have Worgen involved quest lines? Instead, Blizzard deleted the park, and sent them off to Darnassus where they sit in a tree and get handed green and grey quests in Darkshore, where the quest givers call them Night Elves. That was how rushed the transition was for Worgen players. They didn't even code the race into the drop box for some of the quests in the zone they exiled that race to.

What I find most frustrating is that they had the tech to make it a compelling story. Hell, they had the story to make it a compelling story. Instead of blithely shipping the Worgen off to Kalimdor, what they should have done was make the Worgen's next questing zone another phase of Gilneas. Instead of the Night Elves showing up, have the 7th Legion show up. Leveling through Silverpine, one of the most chilling moments was during the phased incursion into Gilneas, when you find a field strewn with shattered Elite Abominations and the dismembered corpses of Deathguards, with one survivor left, who recounts the story of the men who came and destroyed them without mercy, and left him alive just to spread fear among the ranks. Through the magic of phasing, the worgen players could have been there, fighting the ugly war, the guerrilla war. Give them phased incursions into Silverpine, just as the Horde players got into Gilneas. While the Horde players rez Godfrey, Walden, and Ashbury and tear through the Alliance forces, the Alliance players should be stalking them with Crowely and Ivar, seeing the damage they wrought, and seeing the story out to its conclusion, the forced withdrawl of the GLF to Stormwind. It would have been great, it would have set the tone for the Alliance quests in Shadowfang Keep, and it would have put the Worgen in a position to experience what little questing they had outside of Gilneas. Just a couple more phases, and a few more quests. That's all that was needed. But they ran out of time.

These mistakes break down the fabric of the story. They break immersion, and make things much less interesting for the players who have to deal with these jarring, fractured, and frayed transitions. Perhaps more damaging than the damage to the story is the damage that things like this do to Blizzard's reputation. Cataclysm took a lot of luster off Blizzard's good name. There was a running joke when it came to Blizzard, Soon™. Much like Valve's "When it's done!", Soon™ meant that Blizzard wouldn't do this. They wouldn't rush an unfinished project out the door to make it in time for the Christmas rush. When players asked a question and got Soon™ for an answer, they knew that they were in for a wait, but they knew that the wait would be worth it (Except for Starcraft:Ghost, but what's a little vaporware between friends?). With Cataclysm, Blizzard has lost the trademark to Soon, and with it, they've lost the trust of the player base.


  1. I managed to find my way here off a link on WoW's general boards.

    To make it clear, I've always played both sides of the game to get the most out of ALL the stories. However, your entry here has really, REALLY hit the nail on the head. Early Cataclysm content for the Alliance just felt...undone. "Something's missing" is a really hard thing to convey in a logical discussion with someone. But you've managed to hit just what was missing. The Horde quests, especially around Gilneas, maintain the classic WoW feel; that is, immersion on a grand scale. The Alliance, meanwhile, feels like the game is on a bad connection, but on the Lore-side. It's broken up, choppy, and jumps around.

    If they'd done the right thing and waited, heck, even just another three months, they could've completed this expansion and hit a home run. But they chose to get the quick double by releasing it prior to Christmas. Sure, a man's deep on base...but now you've gotta get him home.

    And for all the reasons you said, it's more like this expansion's in a pickle between third and home.

  2. The giant, elementium-armored, fire-filled elephant in the room is that Blizzard's writers just haven't kept pace with their other advances.

    They've been striving to improve their gameplay, their graphics, and their storytelling tools, but they have not been striving to improve the level of stories they are telling. Their core team of writers remains largely the same. There's been very little in the way of experienced writers from other companies being hired to help Blizzard's story-writing. They certainly brought in new people to do the 'grunt work' for the sheer mass of text that their new games contain - but the big ideas still come from the same people.

    Those people haven't grown as writers at all.

    Chris Metzen is becoming a victim of his own success. He's reached super-star status within the company - and it's becoming pretty clear that he's not getting the same sort of peer-reviews on his work as he did in the past. He does not have any peers left, except perhaps those decidedly mediocre writers they tapped to do work on their novels. His ideas seem to leap from his head to full out implementation with hardly a break in-between.

    The Cataclysm expansion has been centered almost entirely on his favorite, most personal character. There should have been people involved able and willing to tell him that this was a bad idea. The game's scope makes it completely impractical to focus to closely on a single person. There should have also been people able and willing to tell him that the plot he was putting out was just plain bad, and that, maybe, this character really wasn't interesting or compelling enough to carry the whole thing.

    They have writers more than capable of telling simple, effective stories - but as their games have grown more complex and their tools have grown more elaborate, the stories have turned convoluted and self-indulgent.

    It isn't strictly a WoW problem. Starcraft II story was beautifully presented, well-told, and extremely poorly written.

  3. Its very unfortunate that I think that the disjoined quests and "afterthoughts" are a result of Blizzard simplifying the questing process. Back in classic, you had to quest through almost every zone in order to reach max level. Now Blizz seems to be pushing fast levelling to endgame content with the release of heirloom gear, less xp required for levelling except for the most recent expansion. That you're allowed to complete, somewhat. But in their desire to create a "vast" world, they created a lot of "Extra" content that just seemed tossed in and only for the sake of farming quests, not for people who actually paid attention to storyline.

    Chris Metzen obviously favors Thrall, but he also created Varian who's a clone essentially of Thrall, but the alliance NEVER gets that deep insider information of the bipolar Varian. We just dont CARE about him. We know he was imprisoned. But what did he do? Oh he was forced to be a fighter? Really? When is that embedded in our storylines like Thrall being a slave and forced to fight was? I dont even PLAY Horde and I know Thrall's story inside and out. Varian's story? I had to buy the WoW books, read the wiki just to get ANY information about Varian.
    Sure we have alliance CHARACTERS who get attention paid to them, but our faction LEADERS are left behind in the story. Varian seems like he could be such an interesting character if the alliance got to interact with him more. Tyrandre also seems like a facinating character. But you use her as a quest turnin point. Gnomes and Dwarves have a much closer tie to their leaders than humans and elves ever do. Humans least of all.
    Because humans are portrayed as the "jerks" of the warcraft universe, even "I" hate the humans and two of my characters ARE humans! The closest we know about stormwind is how VanCleef helped rebuild stormwind. That's about it though. You never get that close racial feel, no pride in being human. Every other race has that pride. Humans, not so much.

  4. Excellent, excellent post. Anything I say in praise of it would just be mirroring the comments of others, but I think you really zeroed in on what exactly about Cataclysm has felt so lousy to me.

  5. I was disappointed by the Worgen experience, disappointed by "revamped" Stormwind (ESPECIALLY when compared with the rebuilt Orgrimmar), disappointed by the invisibility of the Alliance leaders, disappointed by the Gnome starting experience and hand-waving involved in Gnomes getting Priests, disappointed with the Twilight Highlands, etc., etc.

    However the worst part for me was the moment when my proud Gnomish mage had to stand there while the Dragon Aspects gathered to praise Thrall and force me to rescue him...Why did my Alliance character have to save Thrall? Why did I have to get lectures and instructions from his wife and hear him rage about the state of "[his] Horde"? And why did my Alliance character then have to stand there after a long, arduous battle for an orc shaman's soul AND WATCH HIM GET MARRIED? WHY WAS I THERE?!? None of my characters care about Thrall, and that's because I PERSONALLY don't care about him! But Metzen & co. can't imagine such a situation.

    This expansion has been masturbatory, a chance for Metzen & co. to fondle themselves while thinking about how glorious their Thrall & their Horde are. Again, let's look at the "Thrall's In Trouble!" pre-Firelands quest-chain: Nozdormu was supposed to be missing, Alexstrazsa was supposed to be convalescing, and Kalecgos wasn't supposed to have been elected as an Aspect yet... Blizzard ignored all that lore they'd already established (storylines they'd spent years meticulously developing) so that they could have the Apsects stand around and behave towards Thrall as Homer suggested all other characters behave around Poochie. It felt like they were there just to praise Thrall and try to convince me as a player that Thrall is the most important character ever. They ended exciting and well-constructed plot-lines and shoehorned three missing Aspects into that scene just because they love Thrall so much. It was nauseating and a tremendous let-down.

  6. Absolutely excellent and accurate. Blizzard has lost the faith of a very loyal fanbase. I was one of that fanbase until the egregious storytelling simply was too much for me, and I had no more reasons left to stop me from unsubscribing to a game I've steadily paid for since release '04.
    I left because the company isn't the company I was unshakeably loyal to. This new version seems happy to release an unfinished, rushed, poorly written product, and rely on making extra $$ through outsourced novels to tell an even less compelling story than they've failed to convey in the game.
    If they can't hear the valid arguments and rational issues their fans have time and time again brought up, perhaps the final place to educate is through the pocket book. If they care so much now about making money that they would rush their product to its own incredible detriment, then that's the only place left to demonstrate how badly they've handled their product.