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Know Your Lore: Top 10 lore developments of 2012, part 2

Anne Stickney

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.

In part one of our look back at 2012's best lore developments, we looked at the various aspects introduced to better introduce lore to those that had only a passing interest in it. While the Lorewalkers, print media and instance developments were also tremendously appealing to those that already have a handle on Warcraft lore, they also served as a method of getting the lore out to those that weren't really interested in the minutiae of mogu and mantid.

And that's honestly pretty important. There are plenty of players that play the game simply to play it, not paying attention to why they are playing at all. By implementing subtle elements that introduce the lore in an unobtrusive fashion, the developers have quietly found a way to make sure that regardless of how or why you play the game, you still have some sort of basic understanding of what is going on. Cataclysm had a story, but it was so complex that it was difficult even for those with a strong grasp of lore to puzzle out exactly what was going on and why we were doing what we were doing.

But the fun doesn't stop there -- and today's picks are those that are slightly less unobtrusive in regards to lore and story.

7. Cinematics

The good We touched on cinematics in last year's review of lore development, and talked about the introduction of what I called "mini-cinematics," scenes in which the gameplay is interrupted and you temporarily lose control of your character as the camera highlights what your character is doing. In small doses, this mechanic worked fairly well -- but in zones like Uldum, these mini-cinematics rapidly went from engaging to incredibly annoying.

We've seen more of these mini-cinematic situations in Mists of Pandaria, including some really effective out-of-body experiences in the Jade Forest, as you explore what happened to a scouting party. Players encounter the same mechanic again when they take over and play Chen Stormstout in the Valley of the Four Winds. It's a similar mechanic to The Day that Deathwing Came, a wildly popular quest from Cataclysm located in the Badlands. And it's exactly the right direction for these mini-cinematics to take.

Rather than telling a tale and asking the player to read it, players are instead shown the tale in its entirety. Players don't necessarily enjoy reading miles of quest text. Turning that exposition into actual gameplay is not only a great way to skirt around that hurdle of presenting story without words, it also makes for compelling storylines that players tend to enjoy.

In addition, there are some of the usual in game cinematics -- the end of the Jade Forest has a spectacular one, the pandaren starting zone has a couple that are equally exciting, and most of the zones in Pandaria culminate in some sort of cinematic event. Cinematics seem to be evolving into something that is used to highlight a particularly important part of a storyline, or simply streamlining the story into something that can be played rather than explained.

The not-so-good I mentioned Uldum in last year's review as an example of mini-cinematics gone wrong. The fact that you spent nearly half your time leveling in the zone watching your character walk across a sand dune rather than playing your character was a mistake that only grew more irritating with every alt that a player wanted to level. This has been remedied in Mists, and there is no Uldum in Pandaria. But it almost feels at times as though the controls have been dialed a little too far back.

Kun Lai Summit is a massive zone, but there's only a couple of these cinematic events to be found. Dread Wastes is a fascinating zone, but again, it's lacking in that cinematic content. The same applies to Townlong Steppes. It's as if the team finished up Jade Forest and Valley of the Four Winds, and then decided the in-depth treatment that those two zones received was enough, and it didn't need to be carried to any additional zones.

How things can improve The dial needs to be turned in the other direction -- not a lot, but just a little. Cinematics are a great tool, and they're best used at the height of a story. It almost feels like these cinematics should be used not just as a tool for gameplay, but also as an indication that there is something really important going on -- something that the player should just sit back and pay attention to.

But cinematics also offer something more than just a little story -- they offer a break in play. Quests are fun, and an important part of gameplay and the leveling experience, but simply doing quests for hours can get a little repetitive. Jade Forest and Valley of the Four Winds did an excellent job of breaking up the quests with just enough cinematic events to keep things engaging in a non-repetitive way, it would be nice to see future zones or events follow suit.

Know Your Lore Top 10 lore developments of 2012, part 2 SUN

6. Scenarios

The good Scenarios were introduced to the game as something that wasn't quite a solo quest, and wasn't quite a dungeon, either. They're a solution to Cataclysm's removal of any kind of group quests, and they work surprisingly well in that aspect. It's group content with decent rewards and a low wait time. And in some cases, these scenarios are also being used to introduce story along the way.

It wasn't until patch 5.1's scenarios that the possibilities of this new feature really began to show. Patch 5.1 introduced a handful of new scenarios, including four that were specifically designed for each faction -- two for Alliance, and two for Horde. These scenarios tied in directly to patch 5.1's storyline and helped propel that story forward.

The use of group quests in World of Warcraft has evolved over time from simple kill quests to the chains of group quests seen in Icecrown during Wrath, all of which advanced the overall story of the zone. Scenarios take that concept and run with it, while neatly avoiding any of the many phasing issues that plagued Icecrown in Wrath. There's no danger of eventually running out of leveling players to complete group quests -- the scenario tool finds people for you. And there's no danger of being phased out of certain areas, because the scenario itself acts as an instance would.

In between the mechanical delights is a tool that is ideal for presenting story to players in small, easily-digestible chunks that offer a reward at the end. Scenarios lead players through the content by offering a handy to-do list of what must be completed to move on. And while players complete those to-do lists, the story plays out seamlessly around them, immersing them in a lore experience that they'll notice, even if they don't particularly care about lore.

Know Your Lore Top 10 lore developments of 2012, part 2 SUN
The not-so-good There's one major issue with scenarios, and it lies in the way that they are currently implemented in the game. We saw this in stark relief when the Theramore scenario was introduced to players at level 85 as a preview of the feature. Although scenarios present chunks of story, with Theramore there was no lead-in to that story at all. It simply existed as a thing in a list of things to queue for, without any kind of exposition whatsoever.

There are quite a few of the Mists scenarios that work in the same fashion -- there is no lead-in to completing these scenarios. They simply exist. Some scenarios have a lead-in quest that can be discovered by wandering around the world, but if you haven't really been paying attention, it's easy to miss these lead-in quests. There's nothing that really roots these scenarios in the game itself. The Temple of the Jade Serpent and Stormstout Brewery dungeons are far more rooted in the game world than the scenarios are.

How things can improve That issue has already been at least partially addressed with the introduction of the scenarios in patch 5.1. In the case of the Dominance Offensive, part of the lead-in quests for the event involve the sudden appearance of Vol'jin, who is then told to head where the scenario Dagger in the Dark begins. We see this as players, and when we are asked to assist Vol'jin, the scenario seems like a natural inclusion in the storyline.

More importantly, the events that occur in Dagger in the Dark are later reflected in the overall storyline for the Dominance Offensive. What you do in that scenario, and what you witness while you are in there, has a direct effect on everything that comes after. Because of this, the scenario has weight and substance within the game world, and it feels like there is a definitive point, a reason for completing it.

It's that kind of treatment that should be applied to scenarios from here on out. They aren't just a replacement for group quests. They've evolved beyond that, and they have the potential of being a really strong vehicle for delivering story in a significant way. It's just a matter of figuring out how to weight them in the world, and I think patch 5.1 shows that Blizzard is on the right track.

Know Your Lore Top 10 lore developments of 2012, part 2 SUN

5. Daily quests

The good Cataclysm saw a marked reduction in daily quests. While some factions like Therazane had chains of daily quests that could be completed every day, others like Ramkahen relied solely on a tabard and endless dungeon runs to gain reputation. For some this was fine, for others, it felt like a marked reduction in available endgame content. Mists marked the return of daily quests in spectacular fashion, offering a dizzying array of new reputations and new daily quests to complete.

More importantly, it offered a story and a point to all of those daily quests. The Tillers, the Order of the Cloud Serpent, the Shado-pan, the Golden Lotus, the Klaxxi -- all of these factions had reasons for you to be doing quests for them. As you did the quests, stories played out in different ways. Each faction felt like it had its own unique purpose, with a unique way of grinding out all of that reputation. And each had its own story with its own unique ending, once exalted reputation was reached.

It's a far cry from the days of Therazane, where one simply did errands and didn't really get any significant story out of the bargain. Now players are doing errands and performing tasks for these factions for a reason, one that is explained and culminates in a unique climax that ends up with something good for the player, to boot. It's taken daily quests to a new space where they feel a little better than a chore that one must complete every day.

Know Your Lore Top 10 lore developments of 2012, part 2 SUN
The not-so-good You'll notice some factions are missing from the list above. It's because while Mists did a wonderful job of offering more daily quests, not all of these factions were presented in a way that worked. While some seemed effortless and fun, others didn't really offer the same experience. I did a series of reviews of each reputation grind that highlights what worked and didn't work for each, so I won't go further into that here -- but I would suggest that you take a look at those articles if you're interested in individual factions.

However, there was one other glaring error to the daily quests system that made a lot of players incredibly upset. Valor point rewards were placed behind a reputation wall. If players wanted to spend their valor points on rewards, they were pretty much required to complete the daily quests in order to unlock those vendors. While the gear wasn't necessarily needed to progress, it still felt like a brick wall placed between the valor earned, and the items they could spend those points on.

This had the unfortunate side effect of placing that stigma of "dailies as a chore" back upon the daily quest system. Because of this, it overshadowed any and all story information that was contained within that daily grind. If a player feels like they are being forced to do something, they won't pay attention to any of the good that may be presented along the way -- all they are doing is focusing on the fact that they don't want to be doing it. There's no enjoyment in that.

Know Your Lore Top 10 lore developments of 2012, part 2 SUN
How things can improve Dailies need a purpose. They stand as something that can work hand-in-hand with scenarios and story, if that's the direction Blizzard wants to take them. Or they can stand as a gating method for reputation and gear, if that's the direction Blizzard wants to take them. But blurring them into a space that is somewhere in the middle of a story-vehicle, a reputation grind, and a gearing mechanism does not do them the justice that they deserve.

It's clear when you look at the opening selection of faction and daily quests that Blizzard was experimenting with different systems. Likely it was just to gauge which methods were wildly successful, and which didn't work. The daily quests in patch 5.1 seem to reflect this, because they have taken everything that was good out of that original selection and squished it all together into a story-driven vehicle that was, quite frankly, utterly brilliant.

Operation Shieldwall and the Dominance Offensive proved that daily quests can be an enjoyable experience, if they're given the attention that they deserve. And I really think that daily quests work far better as a story vehicle than they do as a method for obtaining gear and items. We've got dungeons, scenarios, and raids to provide gear for players -- what we don't have is a tool that is designed specifically to deliver story. Daily quests have the potential to do that, if they're given the correct treatment.

Next week, we'll wrap up the top 10 with a look at the final four developments that have rocketed lore to new levels of fun in 2012.

For more information on related subjects, please look at these other Know Your Lore entries:

While you don't need to have played the previous Warcraft games to enjoy World of Warcraft, a little history goes a long way toward making the game a lot more fun. Dig into even more of the lore and history behind the World of Warcraft in WoW Insider's Guide to Warcraft Lore.

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