Mists of Pandaria: Chris Metzen interview

Michael Sacco
M. Sacco|03.19.12

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Michael Sacco
March 19th, 2012
Chris Metzen, senior VP of Story and Franchise Development, the man behind the story of World of Warcraft, was gracious enough to sit down with WoW Insider for an interview at the Mists of Pandaria press event. Chris discusses Garrosh and the Siege of Orgrimmar, Varian Wrynn, neutral factions, older expansion races, WoW's newfound story freedom, and more.

WoW Insider: The big thing that really struck me from your talk at the beginning was this whole Garrosh thing, because that just seemed so bold. Did you have a longstanding plan to do that with Garrosh's arc, or did it just seem like the right thing to do for this particular expansion?

CM: I would say Garrosh remaining Warchief ... his term as Warchief was always going to be ... brief. Bringing him up, you know, Alex Afrasiabi created this character for Outland, hanging out in Garadar, and he was just written so well. I just went, "Wow, this character's really bitchin'. Let's leverage him forward, let's get him going." We always knew we would make him Warchief, but that would be a short reign. It's not his Horde. So what's totally funny to me is, as we've been talking about for the past couple of days and throwing it out to people and they were going, "W-what! You can't get rid of him! We love him!" As compared to two years ago, when people went, "What the hell were you thinking, Blizzard? This character sucks! You ruined my Horde! You ruined everything! What the hell are you guys smoking over there!" So it's been funny seeing going from absolute hate, recognizing fans are so incensed about it ... We're just spinning fiction, you know? We're spinning stories. We said, "This'll be good for the franchise. It's gonna be bumpy for a while, but it'll be fun."

You take the one thing that's so solid about the Horde -- Thrall -- and you pull him out, and you just watch what happens. It was a really fun ... I guess virtual social experiment to see how people would react, but it was also a story we wanted to tell. You know this guy was never meant to be Warchief forever. And so just seeing from the level of total hate to these days people going "What? We actually kind of like this guy!" It just says a lot about the WoW community, like, I know people don't always read quest text, or, like, the lore lore. There's deep lore and then there's just what's going on, and I love that a lot of players just seem really engaged with what's going on. And I love that, after eight years, people are still engaged.

So yeah, there's always been a plan for Garrosh and his tenure as Warchief, and where it goes after this is really, really interesting. I guess I can't really tell you yet, but I guess ultimately I didn't know this would be the expansion set where we did it -- I was hedging my bets against the next one, but -- the more we got into Pandaria and started balancing themes and decided where ultimately everyone (the Alliance and Horde) would go, the theme where there was this underlying war and the pandaren were just in the crossfire, that theme really just started to demand to be foreground as we started developing all the fiction for this expansion. And we started thinking, well, what's the ultimate expression of this? We don't have a Black Temple as such. Pandaria has its own mega end events and they're really satisfying, but they're very self-contained, it's a Pandaria issue. So what's the gear-up? What's the crazy, globe-shattering conclusion?

And again, it was an Alliance-Horde issue. And someone -- I don't remember who, and I wish I did because I want to give this dude a medal -- threw it out at a meeting and we all went, "Holy cow, that's the craziest idea." That's high-stakes warfare. That's not us sitting back on our haunches and going, "Uhhhh, what about some new continent? Aliens from Planet X or whatever?" Well, I guess we did that with Burning Crusade. You know what I mean, though; that's radical, it's highly emotional. It's a city we love.

Well, the city, right now, it's Garrosh. You look at the old Orgrimmar and it's wood and sticks ...

It's almost quaint, right?

Yeah, this almost ... pastoral look, compared to this new one, all red and black iron ...

A war machine! Yeah, I remember when we did that we got the art set from Borean Tundra and I was like (deep, guttural voice), "Yeah, I like that! Let's do it everywhere!" So yeah, I love that we turned on a dime and went "this is the truth of the story." It's not about Pandaria, and I hope that doesn't translate into sounding like we're not intensely passionate about Pandaria and the events that go down there. It's just a front, and the events that transpire there, and the way it crescendoes, it leads directly to the Alliance and Horde going crazy, like the things that we find and the truth that we find kind of kicks things into overdrive geopolitically. There's a power there that shouldn't fall into, uh, some people's hands. So you know, I guess I forgot what your original question was.

I'm pretty sure you answered it! It was just sort of like, was this a long game?

It was, yeah. WoW in general we have kind of a long game, a set of themes and arcs that we know will define the franchise over time. How they actualize per expansion, well, there's a little more grey space. And that really depends on how the design's going, how we feel at the time, how we're feeling about Warcraft, if it's what we want to build, what we want to play. Certainly it's affected by what we're playing, too, and sometimes you find the right spaces to pull on these massive overarching things and this was the right space for that.

Speaking of the Alliance, people have been really interested in hearing about Alliance lore progression. We had Cataclysm, and that was about Thrall. There was obviously some Alliance stuff in the background, and you have Varian's issues coming up, stuff like the books -- but with the Jaina book and with Mists of Pandaria, what can Alliance fans look forward to?

We said at BlizzCon, there's a big marquee quest line coming up that takes great advantage of the scenarios that Dave and Scott were talking about today that adds this sort of new place between solo questing and dungeoneering. And we call it the Trials of the High King, and hopefully at the end of this thing, leading right up to the gates of Orgrimmar, Varian's really gonna find his feet and he's really gonna become ... You know, like when I look back at Warcraft past and I see guys like Uther and Lothar -- Stunning, Chris, how many vowels and "th" sounds can you throw into your names? I guess we're just lucky there weren't any apostrophes in there -- but I very much always wanted Varian to become like those characters, you know? He's a little younger than they are, but there's a stud in there, a rock inside that kid, that could be a better king than his daddy was, a better king than we've ever seen.

We started him like Garrosh, you know, weighted. He's pissed off and he's got this Wolverine overdrive kind of personality, and by design, you know? You can't just start him off perfect, there's nowhere to go from there. So I wanted him to be a little gritty, I wanted him to have some deep issues he could work out over time, and Pandaria, with this quest line, is where we finally see him work them out. And in the novel Wolfheart, and in the short story too, we've been seeing him work it out. We were working hard to dimensionalize him as a character. And the community only sees certain things that are evident at certain times.

They see the Wolverine.

Right, yeah. And he has acted like an asshole, much by design. But now it's time for him to pull it together, because the world is acting like an asshole, and it's all teetering on the brink. And he's gotta find that next gear and really become this king that all the Alliance races unequivocally tell, "Yeah, we will follow you to the gates of Orgrimmar and beyond." So I'm really really excited about Varian and about the Alliance in general.

Here's an interesting thing -- I'll go ahead and say this even though we haven't built the encounter yet so anything can change, just to illustrate what we mean by Varian's growth and his change of heart and the change to the way he fights. Everything we've set up at story level in this expansion is about why and how we fight, because you can go Garrosh style and beat the tar out of them and beat them so bad that it'll (goofy voice) "leave a hole in their racial memory"... you know, the grandkids are gonna out dizzy. You can fight war that way, but ultimately, you betray everything you were fighting to protect in the first place, which is the heart of this.

And a way I like to illustrate this, even in the Orgrimmar encounter (bounces up and down in his seat a little, excited), I have asked the guys to have one of the main objectives, you know like when you're going through a dungeon and you have those little side quests? Well, one of the main side quests is Varian being very specific: "Protect the kids. We're not here to conquer these people; we're here to bring down a guy that needs bringin' down." So imagine artillery, imagine the soldiers -- it's gonna be horrific -- but Varian saying, "We're the good guys. We're not here to massacre or enact vengeance on these people. They've been put upon by a bad man."

So in a way, I want even the gameplay to indicate that Varian is fighting a very different kind of war than Garrosh, remembering what the Alliance is supposed to be about. This lawful good overdrive. We're supposed to be superheroes, you know? Have we lost our way a little bit with all this roughin' up? And I want players to feel that overdrive -- we're in it to make the world a better place. And I think also the Horde will have its own version of that, you know, stopping to consider what's happened the past couple of years and what's been lost and fighting its feet again, spiritually. And that's gonna play out in ways I think people don't expect yet, which is really exciting to me.

But I definitely think we're coming with some Alliance love. They'll be proud to be Alliance by the end of this thing.

In the past couple of expansions and even going back to vanilla WoW, you guys have employed neutral factions a lot as a way to get the Alliance and Horde to work together. Has that historically been a development timesaver or a story decision to make everybody cooperate?

At its root, it's probably a little bit of both. When the time is right ... you know, I would argue that things like the Argent Dawn and Crusade, with Tirion up in Northrend, felt right to me. Tirion had to deal early on with the whole "the Russians love their children too" kind of thing -- you know, orcs are just like us, only meaner and greener, that kind of thing. So in so many ways, that certainly fit the game design, but that certainly was the right concept, and I loved that all these armies, like in Warcraft 3, needed to come together under a specific banner to stand against the Lich King.

Sometimes, examples like that get a little more mechanical. I don't remember having an emotional attachment to, like, the Shattered Sun Offensive. It was well conceived, it was totally cool, I love their tabard, gravy gravy. And there was nothing wrong with that, it was really cool, it just didn't really sing to me, you know? It didn't feel like franchise-defining moment, it was just totally cool and facilitated what we wanted to build. Where something more like Argent Crusade was more like Warcraft at its best. Sometimes one leads, sometimes the other leads.

The draenei and blood elves had their own world, their own expansion to themselves, but they've been kind of in the background since then. Goblins feel like they're a part of the horde proper, the worgen maybe haven't felt as connected to the Alliance as some other races. Is there a place for pandaren after Mists is over, and are there any plans to bring some of those previous-expansion races not necessarily back into the spotlight, but into the players' eyes?

There's almost like three answers to that, or there's three vectors of that. One would be that, in a weird way, it depends on the racial kit and how harmonic it is to the faction kit. Goblins are a no-brainer; they feel like Horde even if they weren't part it. And their starting zone is two feet outside of the capital city, so in pretty much every way, that feels right.

Worgen and draenei are a harder sell. Worgen have no homeland, they're currently squatting in the night elf tree. And they're werewolves, right? It's not exactly an easy fit into the Alliance spectrum of broad fantasy vectors. Draenei are maybe the weirdest fit for an Alliance race, and their homeland's pretty far away. So there's a lot of factors in how races feel closer or further away from the core of their faction. And that's always gonna be a weird space for us.

And pandaren, relative to that, well, there'll always be the Wandering Isle and everything. But those pandaren that have joined red or blue really live amongst red or blue now. They have their cities out there, but they've really chosen to be red or blue. And they're about as weird as werewolves or draenei.

I'm trying to think of Horde races. I guess only blood elves feel like the odd man out for the Horde. I hope that we've engineered that into it as deftly as we could, but you know, it's the equivalent of a bunch of white chicks hanging out with goblin or tauren. It's weird. The Alliance races are a little pushed, but I think we're finding that balance with pandaren running around Stormwind, you know. Like "hey, it's those guys!" We just think it's cool they're hanging around with us.

The other part of it was older races getting time in the spotlight. We've got all sorts of story vectors for draenei, blood elves ... them in particular, for ... down the road? We'll see how those play out, but their big moments may not necessarily be a big part of Mists of Pandaria. But there's definitely mega-stories to tell for both of those races. We're keenly aware that there's inherent cool in all of this stuff, all of these characters. It's the same argument that could be made, you know -- Thrall was front and center in Cataclysm. Garrosh and Varian are gonna have some awesome moments in Mists. Even other characters like Vol'Jin are gonna have some cool stuff to do after all these years.

We know there's inherent cool in all these guys, but it's not always the right time to bring all these flavors to bear. But we're committed to the races and doing things with them, and all the other characters that don't have a lot of screen time.

So, you guys have essentially wrapped up the Warcraft 3 loose ends, in terms of Lich King, Illidan, stuff like that, so much so that WoW sort of now has freedom to tell stories that aren't necessarily tethered by Warcraft past. Is this a relief, an opportunity to create bigger and better, or more of a concern, not having the cushion of those loose ends?

I think it's always a balance. I think what's wonderful about Pandaria is that it's not necessarily standing on the pillars of the past, at least the box product. It's really taking its own shape; it has its own vibe. It's certainly a new place that's not encumbered by EK, Kalimdor, etc., so I think it's a breath of fresh air. And it's definitely needed right now, after stuff like Lich King and Cataclysm, that were rooted in the past and in familiar characters.

But I wouldn't count classic themes out! I think where Warcraft has gone is as important to the franchise as any new hook we could put in for the future. I think the success of the franchise is gonna hinge on a deft balance of both, because I think there are still themes in play that people have seen but haven't seen the true face of. For instance, Outland. Who was the bad guy in Outland? Was it Illidan? Was it the Legion? Did we really whomp the Legion, or did we just whomp Illidan? Was he really Legion, or was he more a mob boss just trying to stake his territory? There's still just tremendous content and stuff to pull from. Lich King, you know? That ended with a real cliffhanger, Bolvar on the throne and all that. There's some equity there! Deathwing and Twilight's Hammer, we averted the Hour of Twilight, but there's ... arguably still an Old God out there, right?

I'm just gonna cause some shenanigans, so I'll just say that embedded in the past of Warcraft is a lot of really, really fertile ground. I don't see it as going over the same stuff. Like, not necessarily talking about SWTOR here, but just as an example, does it really feel like Star Wars if there aren't any guys in stormtrooper armor running around in one permutation or another? It's totally cool to beat on a stormtrooper, and if you rip all that out, it doesn't feel quite the same. So if you go, "Well, we did that before, it's all used and done," and just write off classic themes -- well, maybe that's a mistake? So Mists is taking Warcraft and pushing it boldly forward, and hopefully over time, a balance between legacy issues and totally new looks at the content can be met, and everything will be perfect.

It's open warfare between Alliance and Horde in Mists of Pandaria, World of Warcraft's next expansion. Jump into five new levels with new talents and class mechanics, try the new monk class, and create a pandaren character to ally with either Horde or Alliance. Look for expansion basics in our Mists FAQ, or dig into our spring press event coverage for more details!

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