WoW Archivist: How each WoW expansion set the tone, part 2

The WoW Archivist explores the secrets of World of Warcraft's past. What did the game look like years ago? Who is etched into WoW's history?What secrets does the game still hold.

Previously on WoW Archivist, I discussed how the tone of Warcraft and its associated world changed drastically as time went on and the first expansion pack, The Burning Crusade, was released. Each time World of Warcraft changes its setting, the tone of the game (from the way the environments make the player feel to the actual mechanical development of the product) changes significantly. The tonal change makes WoW a unique specimen in the MMO sphere, allowing it to grow, adapt, and target a vast array of audiences opposed to growing stagnant over time. Incorporating each new tone and focus with each new expansion lets World of Warcraft move forward despite its age.

For a long time, we jokingly referred to Wrath of the Lich King as "The Frozen Crusade" because Blizzard took the best parts of The Burning Crusade and began to build the next expansion. It was hard to understand the tone of the newest expansion before you actually played it. In the beginning all we saw was two new ores, 75 more profession skill points, and greens that were going to replace our purples again. For me, the tone looked like it was going to be "here we go again" -- that is, until I first stepped into Northrend.

Wrath of the Lich King was, again, a sequel to Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne. With Arthas' rise to power as the Lich King, there was always the notion in the back of everyone's mind that one day we would have to march north and end the Lich King and his Scourge army. Where The Burning Crusade took advantage of all that was new to the World of Warcraft and brought players to locales that were utterly foreign, Wrath brought us back to Azeroth, which was a welcome change for many. Northrend was the last place we had been in Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne, making it one of the freshest destinations in terms of time since players were there.

The new task was to fashion a continent that fit with Azeroth's tone yet added in the notion of an ever-present evil lurking behind every corner of the continent. Northrend was full of traps, trials, and tribulations.

The visible villain

One of the important decisions with regard to tone that was made after The Burning Crusade was the notion of the visible villain. Illidan made his spectacular re-emergence into Warcraft with the now-infamous Burning Crusade "You are not prepared!" opening cinematic. We had not seen Illidan rendered that way since The Frozen Throne, and it gave players a sense of dread and comeuppance, knowing exactly who was beyond the Dark Portal and who we would be facing.

The reality of the situation was that Kael'thas and his blood elf followers were constantly harrowing players in Netherstorm, but Illidan was barely visible in Shadowmoon Valley. In fact, you don't even have a confrontation with Illidan until the Black Temple raid deep into the expansion. Players never connected with the villain of The Burning Crusade because most players never got to see him past the trailer.

Wrath's development took a decidedly different turn. Instead of keeping the main villain on the sidelines, the Lich King was anywhere and everywhere. Arthas popped up in every zone, finding ways to bring you to your knees when he could have ended you and set you free. It was only at the end of the expansion that we learned his plan: to cultivate the best heroes on Azeroth into his perfect undead champions.

The way the Lich King interacted with players and the world was a turning point for WoW's tone. He was always there, and when you saw him, you were excited. Sure, he was the bad guy and he did show up a good amount, but the feeling of forethought, the knowledge that one day he would be attackable and defeatable, was on your mind. Your investment in the main villain manifested itself through wanting to see where he would pop up next. His story was fast becoming your story because of the parallels present.

Many people rejected the Lich King's visibility as being too much like the villain in a Saturday morning cartoon, always cackling and running away when the heroes foiled their plans. Even Blizzard has stated that it might have overused Arthas during the leveling experience. To be honest, overuse is better than underuse, especially with a villain like Illidan who was gaining so much depth and character from the previous Warcraft games. Arthas is such a huge villain that if he wasn't everywhere, it would have been a letdown. Arthas is so big that he needs to be everywhere. He owns the frozen north. It's like the richest guy you know only hanging out in one room of his mansion.

Destruction and Cataclysm

After Wrath's somber, eerie tone based on the forgotten tundras and ancient lands, Cataclysm turned the world on its head. After the shattering left the game world in ruins and a new, revamped world appeared, players had to drop everything and relearn the world that they've been accustomed to for almost six years. Blizzard wanted to give Cataclysm the end-of-the-world vibe, tonally distinct from any expansion previous. Deathwing was ready to destroy the world, and there was nothing that could stop him. Arthas wanted to enslave Azeroth. Deathwing wanted to get rid of it. Rather than have the villain be omnipresent like Arthas, Blizzard chose instead to have him appear randomly and kill players, giving the end of the world tone more credence and ramification.

Cataclysm's tone goes hand-in-hand with its segmented story. Essentially, there are two stories being told in Cataclysm. The first story is that of the 1-to-60 levels that was recreated and revamped from the original world, pitting the Alliance and Horde against each other like never before. Players were meant to feel anger, confusion, hatred, more anger, and above all, part of a war machine fighting for the survival of their faction in a world gone to hell. For the most part, it worked. Fighting the undead with my paladin pals, riding on the back of Fiona's wagon, and confronting the remnants of the vile Scourge gave a sense of epic conclusion and drive that just worked. As you explore the 1-to-60 world, you feel as if you're living in a world changed by sad consequence.

The second story is the end of the world by Deathwing and his minions. The 80-to-85 game set the tone of imminent destruction. We are constantly on the brink in the level 80-to-85 content. We watch the World Pillar come back together, we marvel at the Maelstrom churning, and we stand our ground against the elemental armies of wind, fire, water, and earth. We watch the elemental planes themselves come crashing into Azeroth with devastating results. The tone set was terrific consequences in the face of a bleak and hopeless future, all at the hands of a dragon aspect gone insane.

And again, for the most part, it worked. The tone worked. I felt like Cataclysm was one of those expansions where I knew the stakes and reacted accordingly, unlike The Burning Crusade where I was playing the game for playing's sake. Cataclysm told the better story and set the better tone, drawing me in to the world, however short that content was. I feel that if Mists of Pandaria takes the storytelling quality of Cataclysm and mixes it with the unknown dangers of The Burning Crusade, with a dash of "ah-ha!" villainy from Wrath, the perfect tone could be set -- the perfect Warcraftian milieu.

The next frontier

Tone is important because it sets the standard for how you're supposed to feel. If you felt lost on Draenor, you might have been feeling it the right way. If you felt determined and courageous in Wrath, you were feeling the carefully constructed tone of the expansion. If you felt hopelessness during Cataclysm with the hint of revenge, you felt it right.

One day, we'll be exploring a new land with new people and new challenges, and hopefully we will be feeling the right way about those lands, as well. If Blizzard does its job, there's no way we won't.

The WoW Archivist examines the WoW of old. Follow along while we discuss beta patch 0.8, beta patch 0.9, and hidden locations such as the crypts of Karazhan.