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Alex Afrasiabi on Warlords, Garrosh, and alternate Azeroth

Anne Stickney
Anne Stickney|November 11, 2014 1:00 PM
Warlords of Draenor is a little over 24 hours away from launch! Although Warlords of Draenor is seemingly a step in a different story direction for the franchise, it has never been in more capable hands. BlizzCon may be over, but we had the opportunity during the convention to sit down and chat with World of Warcraft's Creative Director Alex Afrasiabi about the new expansion, Garrosh Hellscream, Warcraft's creative direction, and much more.

What kind of creative direction would you say you bring to the table with WoW?

I feel like WoW to me is -- I don't want to call it like my child -- like a love, and WoW as a medium for storytelling is tricky. It is a persistent, static MMO, because MMO's have to be persistent and static. So telling a story in that medium and that environment is very challenging. I feel like we've done a great job of telling a story, especially since Wrath -- I kind of feel like we went on a tear with Wrath and then just got better and better -- but one of the things that I feel like we've potentially lost sight of, and it's my fault, more than anyone else's -- is the social world aspect of an MMO. Because we've made great strides in giving you more personal, meaningful stories to your character, but whenever you do something like that, in the manner that we do things like that, you risk removing the player from the social world.

We're trying to really make an effort into doing both. Because we know you can do both. You can keep the player in mind and keep the story in mind while retaining the play experience of what an MMO is, the fabric of it. That's one of the things again, that I'm pushing for -- and I don't say this as like a "I know all the answers!" -- I know that it was my fault that we started going down this path because when I kind of initiated the death knight stuff, that kind of started the ball rolling. We've done an amazing job since that, it's gotten better and better, but the perils of that is that there's that chance of oh, now I'm separating out my player base, so we're trying to make an effort to reign that in and still do amazing things with the story.

What can we expect to see from Warlords in terms of story content and delivery?

I think you'll get much of the same. Daily quests are out for Warlords -- not saying that they won't come back in, but for Warlords we didn't feel like they fit with the metagame effectively. Because of garrisons, because garrisons are so kind of interwoven into everything, and so hopefully a good bit of that, your story as a player does come out with your garrison. How you choose to build it, and the things you do, and the characters and followers you have -- I feel like we haven't even scratched the surface on that in terms of what people actually actively go for, how you make your guards that you've chosen and there's so many different things. I feel like we're definitely going to be going in that route, and then a lot of the same stuff, I mean we're not actively looking to change the entire script every single expansion -- when we find something we do well, we'll continue to do it well, and hopefully improve upon it.

Mists had some of the highest concentration of story, like you said it kind of ramped up from Wrath and now we're seeing the results of that, so we can expect more of that in Warlords?

Absolutely! You see it now in Warlords, and we worked with in-game cinematics to do, I think we did more than we've ever done -- six, yeah, and I feel like we're getting to a point now where we really understand how to use those in game cinematics to impact the story best. And I think Warlords is proof of that for sure. If Pandaria wasn't -- but it was great there too.

Scenarios were popular for both the story elements and the bite-size dungeon aspect. Can you talk about the decision behind shifting scenarios from something you queue up for to the solo style scenarios we see in Warlords?

I wouldn't call the solo scenarios on the level up at the end of a zone necessary a scenario -- technically it's true that that is a scenario, but it was more of an experiment. We're always pushing the boundaries as to how we tell stories and how we involve the player with the world, and that's what that was. It was an integration of "Well look! We can take an ending moment, a capper where classically you take a Westfall/Deadmines connection, but that requires a group and this and that, and seamlessly integrate that into a zone level up experience, and give that real big capper."

And so we've started trying to do this scenario thing. With some success, I thought it was cool, and the team did a wonderful job of getting those integrated and kind of alive. But then of course as we're talking about really actively making an effort towards embracing the social aspect of the game and trying to avoid moments where we're isolating players out, those things actually become -- they isolate players. By definition, a solo scenario just does that. So we're actually looking at now, well do we go back to doing dungeons as cappers, do we do something else, do we bring the scenarios back but they're a group, anything to kind of get the buzz going.

Warlords of Draenor makes a pretty deliberate story jump, can you explain what brought about the idea of this alternate Draenor as opposed to another new world present time? Why this particular threat?

I think it starts with Garrosh. When we first made Garrosh back in Burning Crusade, I remember Metzen and I sitting down -- and I did Nagrand, Garrosh was my guy -- and we were sitting down and thinking like, we wanted -- at that point, even then we knew, in WoW's development we knew -- we lamented the fact that we couldn't bring the Warchiefs back in Burning Crusade, and we did it by proxy, by progeny. We went look, we can't bring Grom back, but what if he had a son. And that son was Garrosh. So with that, we're like okay, we're going to do this, we're not going to just do this lightly, he's not going to just be some throwaway, he's Hellscream's kid. We're going to make him something legendary. He's going to have a fate, and there is destiny here, and we just need to figure out what that destiny is.

And originally, it was a much more heroic, redemptive arc for him, that would have potentially ended up with a strong Hellscream leader. But Garrosh became what was needed for WoW, from a story character development perspective. If you think about you had Thrall on one end of the spectrum, we needed kind of an opposing side -- and Garrosh really became kind of the heart, like if you take Garrosh and Thrall, and you put them into one person, and this is so far from the question you asked me right now, but it's pertinent ...

No, this is good, keep going.

You put them in as one person and they represent two sides of a person. We all have that depth. And that's really what we're going for is like look, Thrall is kind of the light and Garrosh is the dark. But their goals were both always to be like, for the Horde. And we started to kind of go down different story paths with Thrall's character, and that started to necessitate Garrosh becoming something other as well. And so ultimately this isn't about Garrosh -- I mean it is about Garrosh, but let's get to the actual question -- we were talking about Garrosh's seven years later -- whatever it is, gosh it's been a long time -- where Garrosh's, his arc I guess you'd call it that, ended in Siege. We discussed well look, what are we going to do with Garrosh, like we're going to have this trial, or what is the end here, what does Garrosh truly want? And that's the approach we ultimately took, and the angle. We were like look, why has Garrosh done anything he's done? Why has he done anything he's done in the last ten years, five years, whatever the timeline is now? And as we started to talk about it, which is the thing he did originally, which is why he did what he did, why he wanted to do what he did, which is ... it was for his daddy. It was for Grom. It was always about Grom. It was always -- whether that father figure was Thrall, or Saurfang, there was always somebody that he would push into that position. But it was always for Grom.

He has some severe daddy issues. And we said well look, imagine him as this kid that grew up without the dad, but wanted it so badly. How far would he go? How far would he go -- what if we enabled that? What if we enabled Garrosh his ultimate vengeance, to raise Grom as Warchief, as something like that. So initially we kind of went down the path of the undead, for the first high level creative talks we're like, "All right well what if, we're gonna give Garrosh his wish, this is make a wish for Garrosh, what if we ..." and then we just went down that creative process, Metzen, me, a couple of the other guys in the room, just going back and forth "Well okay well that sounds killer actually, we could get Grom back, players would be blown away, all the Warchiefs!"

Like we can deliver on this? How far would you go -- we're going around the room like "Chris, what about you man, how far would you go, how far would I go, to get my dad back? I'd go to ends of the earth and beyond, I'd do anything!" So then we're like well how would he do that, we're in this magical world where things can happen, well what would you do? Well look, maybe he's got the Horn of Nozdormu, and he goes to Outland, and he blows on it, and like crazy shit happens. We had a couple of iterations of Draenor where it was like, additions to Outland, and ultimately it was super weird, we started to get into weird logical problems with it and causing problems there. So we started to talk more and more about look, well hold on a second, what if it's more than just Grom? What if we take the Horde of old, what if we could bring them all back? And this time, things would be different. Things would be different for a purpose, and a higher purpose at that, there's some nobility behind what's happening here. And again, to serve Garrosh, ultimately his his kind of puppeteering behind the scenes. What if we could do that, how terrifying would that be for the world to see the Warlords of Draenor, in their prime, but united, instead of divided with various subversive dark magics and betrayals and things like that? How terrifying would that force be?

It turns out, it's pretty terrifying, so we really went down a whole lot of difference exercises in how we're going to do this. Then we started talking about the world, because if we're going to do this, and we're going to do Draenor, then we're not going to just do this in Outland because we've seen Outland. But think about when you were in Outland. Think about what you thought. And we really did do this exercise, where I went look, I remember walking into Nagrand and thinking like, holy shit this is awesome. And this is in Burning Crusade I mean -- I wonder what this place would have looked like before this? And then we're like wait a second, did this place have a sea? And we're looking at old maps and like, yeah, it did, there's an ocean here. And Hellfire wasn't Hellfire, because the world was sundered and cracked by the warlock dark magic. And we're like, why aren't we delivering on this.

I take it we're going to see the rest of Tanaan Jungle eventually.

Yeah, we are, we're working on it. But that's the detailed kind of high level overview without too much detail as to how we got where we got with Warlords. It was a desire and a passion to make this happen.

So we've heard there's only going to be two raid tiers this expansion, does this mean we're looking at something faster than usual?

We're always trying to make content faster and more efficiently, so that's never going to stop.

What kinds of concerns did you guys have -- were there any concerns about how players would respond to the idea of alternate universe/time travel?

There are always concerns. But the confidence lies in the fact that we know that after the theorycrafting is over and the people have kind of come up with their own stories and ideas that once they got into the world that it would not be wrong to them. And I would challenge people that play Warlords to prove me wrong.

It makes a heck of a lot of sense once you're in it.

Yeah! And that's the thing, we knew that, we were like yeah, no, we get it, like it's a little crazy, but once you're in the world, it just immerses you because our worlds do that, and I think we nailed it with that one. It's cool regardless of time travel, no time travel, it's a cool experience, an awesome expansion.

What would you say were the biggest challenges to keeping this kind of story feasible and believeable for players that may not be as into the lore or the story or the old Warlords, maybe even didn't play the original Warcraft games?

Those are the easy ones though right, when you think about it? Because players that aren't into the lore or the story and they're just playing the game for any number of reasons, for their own enjoyment, whether we explain or not doesn't really matter to them. Because the world is the story anyway. And that's something we constantly improve and make better regardless -- so for them, the experience should just be better.

What about the people that do follow the lore?

We absolutely consider that as we go through. For us again it came down again to look, when you get down into Draenor, and you get into the practical experience of playing the expansion, maybe for some of the most staunch of the lore advocates it may still remain -- lingering questions may remain, but we felt pretty confidently that people would just be immersed by what's happening around them. Because the problem with anything, with a time travel hook, is that once you start trying to explain it, it becomes worse. So you start down this kind of slippery slope of, well clearly it's this, and because of this and because of this -- and we didn't want anything to do with that, because it would have detracted from everything that's happening.

I still get the same question over and over again -- is there an alternate Azeroth to go with the alternate Draenor?


Are we going to see it?

I would never say never, but it's not planned right now.

I'm kind of wondering what that place looks like. I imagine it's really interesting.

Absolutely, and this is a precedent here, that there are alternate worlds across the multiverse. There is a multiverse, right, I mean it's something we bounced around the previous Caverns of Time stuff sort of -- like we kind of skirted it -- and we embraced it with this one. Like this is what we're talking about here, right. And if you're a true time travel nerd, you understand that's the only way time travel works anyway.

The whole idea of alt universe and time jump -- were there ever any concerns that this was taking it too far away from that story that we've been playing the past ten years, the one on Azeroth, with the Aspects and the Old Gods and everything else? Is this removing it too far, or is this actually going to tie back into all of that in a cohesive way?

Well at its most basic, at its simplest level, it absolutely ties back into it, right, because why would we go back there in the first place? We had to go back there though as a reaction to Garrosh pushing forth, or the Iron Horde as it were. It was an active an immediate threat to Azeroth. So in that regard, in its simplest form, there was a grander threat. Just like every expansion.

But there is a grander threat that we as the heroes of the world are trying to fend off. That's no different with Warlords. That's absolute truth -- it's probably paramount in Warlords. That is the ultimate threat. But, with that said, are there other possibilities that open up now, with an alternate Draenor? Yeah. That effect Azeroth? Yeah, probably. We'll see!

There are a lot of new strong characters like Yrel and others, including old characters like Durotan, Drek'Thar, that we haven't seen in their prime. Last time we saw Drek'Thar in Azeroth, he was in a wheelchair --

--You can thank me for that awesome moment by the way! (laughs) You can thank me for that moment -- the wheelchair moment. I showed that to Metzen, and he looked at me, and he just gave me, like him and I, we got a language of our own at this point, and he just gave me the like "You shithead," look and just walked away, and I'm like what?! What man? Drek'Thar can't walk anymore! (laughs)

That was the saddest part of The Shattering! So -- we've got all these strong new characters, are we going to see any more of them once we leave Draenor behind?

We should, right? I don't know.

How long do you think we should be planning on being away from Azeroth? Do we need to be packing our bags for a lengthy trip?

This is a tricky, tricky question. Play Warlords, have fun in Warlords.

Do you have a favorite spot and/or quest in Draenor?

My favorite quest is going to sound stupid. Because people will go "Is it the finale for Nagrand "-- that's the obvious one. It's such a mighty moment. People will say this is a stupid answer. I thought it was awesome. In Nagrand, it's literally a side quest, and you're doing -- there's these archaeologist, these goblin archaeologists, and they're searching for like, a runestone I think it is. It's basically like, it was a fun quest, the mechanics were cool and it paced well, it was a couple of strung together, maybe three quests. And it ends in this moment where the goblins, to excavate this relic, they set up this crazy weird contraption and they do this Ghostbusters thing and the chief goblin there is like, "And THAT'S how you do archaeology!" and I was like "This is the greatest quest I've ever done." -- that moment was just so perfect, I'm like I wish that's how you did archaeology. I would do archaeology way more often if that's how archaeology were, just an awesome, a perfect goblin like, Yo! That's how we do it! That was an awesome moment -- I said it would be a silly quest.

Is there anything in Draenor we should be paying particular attention to for any kind of future reference?

Come on now! (laughs) Everything!

So Garrosh was yours, huh? From beginning to end?

Not quite from beginning to end.

Cataclysm seemed like he was going in a different direction for a while there ...

He was.

He was? Tell us about that -- why he had that shift.


So Stonetalon ...


You did Stonetalon?

I did Stonetalon.

I didn't stick to that path with Garrosh. I didn't -- not everyone was on board. Not everyone got the memo as it were, as we were designing -- and that was my fault. Because when you're doing, when you're trying -- because I was actually trying to bring Garrosh around, and Stonetalon was going to be the first of that. Cataclysm was pretty crazy time for us.

You had so much to do.

We did quite a lot of work. So I feel like there was a little bit of miscommunication on my part that kind of led to Garrosh going down another, darker path. So there's an interesting tidbit for you.

It was interesting though, in the aspect of seeing that glimmer of what he could have been.

Well he was good at the other way. He did well at that. He was a good killer and plunderer and murderer.

He definitely was. Thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to chat -- we're looking forward to Warlords of Draenor!

Alex Afrasiabi on Warlords, Garrosh, and alternate Azeroth