Know Your Lore: The problem with story progression in WoW

Anne Stickney
A. Stickney|01.26.14

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Know Your Lore: The problem with story progression in WoW
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.

I've been working on an alt these past few weeks, leveling through content at my leisure and re-visiting storylines I haven't seen since the early days of Cataclysm. I started out in Azuremyst Isle, hopping over to Darkshore once I reached the appropriate level -- basically, once I'd gotten out of Ammen Vale -- and completed the entirety of Darkshore not because the XP was good, but because I wanted to see the entire thing again.

From there, I hopped to the Eastern Kingdoms, where I did part of Duskwood, most of Northern Stranglethorn Vale, and then up to the Plaguelands -- Western, then Eastern -- before hopping down to the Badlands. After the Badlands, I did a small portion of Searing Gorge, then hopped down to the Swamp of Sorrows and the Blasted Lands, where I hit level 60 and promptly went through the Dark Portal to Outland. Which is when I realized something -- if I were a new player, someone who had never picked up World of Warcraft, I would have absolutely no idea what the heck was going on. At all.

There's something really wrong with that.

How do I get into Warcraft lore?

It's one of the most frequent questions I'm asked, as someone that knows possibly too much about Warcraft lore -- how does a player who never really paid attention to the lore in game actually untangle the story and figure it all out? And ideally that answer should be to play the game, read the quests, pay attention to the world around you as you level. After all, that game should have a cohesive story that leads you through the experience, shouldn't it? WoW didn't, at first. Vanilla was a scattered experience. But in light of Cataclysm's changes, shouldn't the story be an easily understood experience?

It's not. Not for a new player. And most of that is due to the leveling experience itself. Players get so much experience while leveling, heirlooms or no, that they easily out-level the content before they finish the zone, and the storyline that zone contains. Traversing between expansions is equally as meaningless -- you can play through and out-level Outland or Wrath content without really understanding what the expansion was all about, or more importantly, how that expansion came to a conclusion. You don't learn how that story ended, or even really how it began -- you're simply shuttled off to the next continent, the next expansion, the next area that for all outward appearances is kind of meaningless.

So how do you get into Warcraft lore? Check out encyclopedic websites like Wowpedia or Wowhead for quest and story information, look at websites that focus on lore, like the Know Your Lore columns here on WoW Insider, read the novels and comics written to go along with the game lore. The Warcraft: Ultimate Visual Guide sums up game and expansion content from Orcs and Humans all the way to Mists of Pandaria in bite-size chunks that are easily understood. But there's a problem with all of these methods: All of them involve putting the game down and going somewhere else to figure out the story.

If you're playing a game, shouldn't you understand that game well enough by playing it?

Lost in time

Logically, that answer should always be yes. But when you're dealing with a universe like Warcraft, whose story content progresses through three different RTS games and their expansions before even reaching World of Warcraft and its additional four, soon to be five, expansions, there's a lot of story there to be told. World of Warcraft celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and Warcraft itself celebrates its 20th anniversary -- Orcs and Humans originally made its debut in 1994.

Given the sheer amount of story that's already been told, it's a seemingly impossible task to try and catch players up in game. But that rush, rush, rush of gaining experience so quickly that you're ushered out of zones before you complete them certainly isn't helping matters any. Combine that with the convoluted timeline that was inadvertently implemented with Cataclysm, and you've got a recipe for disaster when it comes to understanding the story behind the game you're playing.

Now, when new players begin the game, they zone in to a 1-60 experience that takes place after Garrosh Hellscream becomes Warchief, before the assault on Theramore, before Pandaria. Once these players hit level 60, they go back in time to Outland content -- before Garrosh Hellscream had even come to Azeroth. After that, they're led through the war against the Lich King, and see Garrosh as a military leader, butting heads with still-Warchief Thrall. And once that is all done and the player hits level 80, they are magically taken back to that 1-60 timeline to continue through that and head to Pandaria.

With all this back and forth between timelines, and no real explanation for any of it, it's no wonder players are confused.

Player comprehension

The question isn't really whether or not the story in Warcraft is any good -- it has a surprising amount of depth, and the individual stories scattered all over Azeroth and beyond have varying degrees of success. The question is, instead, exactly how much should story weigh in on the leveling experience? How much should story matter in the game? We've been told that story matters, but with the changes to leveling speed and individual zones, that story has been shattered into individual chunks that most players will simply skip over or miss out on entirely.

Players continually ask for stories to be implemented into the game. Every time a new novel is released, there is invariably a crowd of people asking why that material isn't something to play through, instead of something to read. And yet the material that is there and available to play through isn't integrated with the leveling experience in such a way that players can readily absorb everything that's going on around them before moving on.

If you want to see the entire story behind a particular zone, more often than not that zone's quests are going to be green before you get there. You'll find yourself hitting 60, 70, or 80 -- even level 85 and 90 -- well before you finish all the quest content there is to do. Outland is no longer a cohesive story, it's simply a choice of which zones you'd like to play in before you invariably hit level 68 and move on. You can stick around until level 70 if you like, but you'll find yourself missing out on Netherstorm, or Shadowmoon, or even Blade's Edge by the time you hit max level.


Here's the problem: players want it both ways, and there doesn't seem to be a good way to present it both ways. Players would like to be able to level through old content on alts with a good amount of speed, and new players would like that experience to be fairly quick as well. When you want to play with your friends, the prospect of going through 90 levels of content before you can get there is daunting, to say the least -- making that process as painless as possible helps curb that apprehension. Yet at the same time, players would like more story in the game itself -- and they'd like that convoluted timeline addressed as well.

Is there a simple solution? Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be. Tuning experience to balance with the length of an average zone might help a little, though. It's not just a matter of XP gained from quests completed, it's also a matter of mobs and rares in individual zones offering gigantic chunks of XP as well. A quest asking you to kill 20 of a particular critter right now gives an astounding amount of XP between the quest turn in and the mobs you have to kill. That amount of XP could probably be shifted a little so that quests don't turn green and players feel like they're still getting a good chunk of XP and a challenge while finishing out a zone.

As for the timeline, there really isn't a good way to solve that issue, not without revamping the entirety of Outland and Northrend. That simply isn't feasible -- the 1-60 revamp alone took an entire expansion team to complete, and while the results were amazing, there simply weren't enough people going back and doing that old content to make it feel like it was a significant contribution to Cataclysm's overall story. And with Warlords offering players both new and old the chance at a brand-new level 90, all that story is going to be left behind, unless players choose to go back and experience it -- in which case, it's still going to be as convoluted as ever.


On the other hand, there are marginal ways that the story experience could be improved. Players don't see the transition between expansions or understand what happened in each of those moments in time. Players that complete the last raid of an expansion have long been treated to cinematics or story experiences -- in Sunwell Plateau, players saw the Sunwell restored. In Wrath, they saw the fall of the Lich King -- and even players that hadn't completed the experience could see the cinematic by clicking on a statue in Dalaran. Cataclysm offered the same, and now Mists offers the chance to view each factions ending cinematic.

What if there were cinematics introduced at each level break that took a couple of minutes to explain what was going on? This could be implemented, and the timeline convolution fixed to some small degree, by having level 60 players visit the Caverns of Time or even a Timewalkers NPC before going to the next area of content. The NPC could explain that the timelines must still be preserved, and offer to show the player what was going on, triggering a short cinematic that explained the story behind Burning Crusade. Upon hitting level 70, the player would then see a cinematic that explained the resolution of that period in Azeroth's history, thanking them for keeping the timeline pristine.

And once they'd completed that experience, another visit to the same NPC would then trigger a cinematic that explained the storyline going on in Wrath's timeline, and reaching level 80 would trigger another completion cinematic. Rinse and repeat with every prior expansion to date. More importantly, as new expansions are released, continue implementing these kinds of cinematics for players that are still choosing to level before reaching the new expansion's content.

In addition to this, put patch trailers in the game so that when players first log in upon a new patch being released, they immediately see the trailer for that content and have some sort of understanding of what's going to happen once they finishing logging in. Then leave that trailer accessible and viewable via the cinematics tab on the main screen of the game. That way, players don't have to track that information down via Youtube -- they can access it directly, without having to tab out.

Time management

Would any of this solve every story comprehension problem Warcraft has seen? No -- but it would at least address the issues with the timeline as it stands, and offer some kind of easy method for players to get a handle on all that story that happened in the ten years prior to picking up the game and choosing to play. For players that are simply not interested in learning the content, allow the cinematic to be skipped so they can move on if they please. But again, there's the issue of time -- not the in-game timeline, the time it takes to actually create a solution, fully test it, and then implement it.

That time spent doing all this work takes time away from creating current content. So we really have to ask ourselves -- is it worth it? Is this something we'd really like to see? Those that repeatedly ask for the timelines to be changed, or complain about written works not being included as in-game content may be fairly loud, but they definitely don't represent the entire player population. There are far more people concerned with getting current content and getting it regularly than with old storylines left in the past.

Which leaves us where we are today: staring at a problem that can be identified as a definite problem, with no way to easily resolve it other than address the issue out of the game, whether it be via website or published material. And that's a little disappointing, because hours upon hours of work were poured into writing and developing all of those old stories. New players just picking up the game are far less likely nowadays to play through that content and see it as we did, once upon a time.

Although there's no clear solution to this puzzle, it's still one of those issues that I wish were deemed important enough to address. It's also an issue that's only going to become more of a problem as the years go on, and more new content is introduced, leaving all those old stories in the dust. World of Warcraft has spent 10 years telling us its story -- I just wish there were a way to tell that convoluted tale to those who are just now joining us on that journey, without resorting to telling players to take a break from the fun game they're playing in order to go find it.

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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