The World of Warcraft is an expansive universe. You're playing the game, you're fighting the bosses, you know the how -- but do you know the why? Each week, Matthew Rossi and Anne Stickney make sure you Know Your Lore by covering the history of the story behind World of Warcraft.
We're at the final four of our Top 10 countdown of lore development. I had to think very carefully about the top four spots and what should take them, largely because there were so many things introduced in 2011 that it was difficult to say which had the biggest impact. Our #1 spot, however, is one that I don't think anyone can really argue with -- so let's get to it!
The good I talked about this previously in the retrospective piece from Wrath, when phasing was used a little more liberally for the purpose of storytelling. Phasing took a major step forward in Cataclysm, in conjunction with all the zone revamps and with the new stories presented in Cataclysm zones. Zone phasing was fine tuned and shaped into a process that really pulls the player into the zone. By showing the changes you make to your immediate surroundings, it really feels like you've made an impact on the world through your actions.
This is particularly highlighted in areas that have a ton of story development. In Hyjal, after saving the Ancients, the world is literally changed before your eyes by Aessina as a result of everything you've done to repair the damage done by Ragnaros and his cronies. In Stonetalon Peak, phasing is used to illustrate the heartbreaking moment when Thal'darah Grove is completely destroyed by a bomb. These moments all work to draw players further into the story and illustrate that you have a definitive impact on the world around you -- and it's brilliantly done.
The not-so-good One of my major issues with phasing in Wrath was that in zones that made heavy use of phasing tended to lock players out from seeing or interacting with each other. In a zone like Icecrown that included a ton of group quests, trying to complete those quests successfully later in the expansion was an absolute nightmare. This was addressed in Cataclysm, but not in the conventional kind of way; basically, group quests became a thing of the past. If a player needs assistance killing something that is particularly high level, the game usually provides a group of NPCs to help with the task. Blizzard removed the problem of phasing and group quests not working together by simply removing group quests altogether.
Here's the problem with that. Because of this, playing through the game has become almost a solo activity. With phasing, you're never going to see every player in any given zone; players who are in different phases of gameplay are invisible. This creates the unfortunate effect that the game is a pretty sparse, barren, and ultimately lonely world.
By removing group quests, the social dynamic of speaking to other people and working together on a common goal has simply been eliminated. It makes a game that should feel massive and teeming with life feel painfully empty, particularly for new players who are leveling through this content now.
How things can improve I'm not really sure, to be perfectly honest. There is a distinctly different feel between Wrath and Cataclysm, and even between Wrath and The Burning Crusade. The game has slowly been peeling away the social aspects of simply running into another player and saying hello, and phasing has just widened that gap even further. Phasing works brilliantly for storytelling, but where it falters is in encouraging social connections. And maybe fixing phasing isn't really the solution to that.
3. Instance lore
The good In vanilla, players visited various dungeons around the world, and while those dungeons had a story to them, the story wasn't presented in a particularly dynamic way. The only way to get the real story behind an instance was by reading all the quest text and paying close attention -- it wasn't something players could simply immerse themselves into and enjoy. Instances in later expansions played a little more with lore, but in Cataclysm, it has really stepped to the forefront. The combination of storytelling to get to the zones in question and the stories told in the zones themselves make for a much more entertaining experience.
But the coolest part about instance lore was the introduction of revamped instances. When heroic Deadmines and Shadowfang Keep were introduced, players were delighted by the idea that they'd be fighting heroic versions of their favorite old bosses. What they didn't realize was that it wasn't just a heroic dungeon -- it was a progression in that dungeon's story, too. Edwin VanCleef is officially dead, and his daughter has taken over the operation. Shadowfang Keep has become the hideout for Vincent Godfrey. What this did was show us that even the dungeons around the world are capable of moving forward with story in an engaging way.
This was further highlighted by the revamp of Zul'Aman and Zul'Gurub, and the introduction of the rise of the Zandalar as a force to be reckoned with. Not only did we get two new heroics, we got a storyline leading up to those dungeons that explained what was going on -- and we got one killer trailer for the patch in which they were introduced. We have not seen a resolution to these events, but given the presence of Zandalari Isle in the Mists previews, this is not the last we will see of the Zandalar tribe.
The not-so-good Perhaps the only drawback to these interactive instances is the fact that you really need to play through the individual zones to get a sense of the story. This is a no-brainer and something that should be absolutely encouraged. Westfall is an amazing new zone, and so is Silverpine. The new quest lines introduced for the troll heroics are also a treat to play through. What gets me is that you can simply skip all that content if you use the Dungeon Finder to find a group; there's no real reason to play through those zones unless you're deliberately looking for that lore. For players leveling from 80 to 85 at the start of the expansion, most didn't bother playing through that lower-level content. Why would you? It's low-level material.
How things can improve I'm not sure how you can present the lead-up material for a dungeon revamp like Deadmines or Shadowfang Keep to a max-level player without feeling like you're infringing on gameplay. The problem here is that there needs to be a way to introduce that lore in a way that feels intuitive and not like a gateway. It's simply enough to say that doing these zones or quests should be an attunement chain to gain access to the dungeon, but the problem with that is that players generally look at attunements in a negative light rather than a positive one. Instead of being something that is fun to play through, it looks like a chore that must be accomplished. And that has a lot more to do with player mentality than design; players seem to regard anything that prolongs access to endgame content like heroics as a gigantic pain in the butt, rather than something to be enjoyed.