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

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?

Before we learned about Mists of Pandaria and where we stalwart adventurers would be exploring in the coming months, I wrote a post discussing how an expansion about Pandaria, specifically its title, would change the tone of World of Warcraft. Mists of Pandaria would be the first expansion that does not directly reference or reveal the main villain of the expansion's storyline. Blizzard and the WoW development team has been incredible stewards of tone, from the early days of Warcraft to Cataclysm's world-breaking motif. Tone is one of the most important aspects of the MMO because your game world needs to be compelling enough to call back players at any point. Good MMOs set good tone.

Tone has evolved in WoW after each expansion pack, changing considerably each time we swap settings and install the latest content. Alex asked me to write an article that spanned the history of World of Warcraft, and I could think of nothing more dynamic than the tone of the story and how masterfully Blizzard has handled it.

Warcraft before the World

Long ago, in a time long forgotten by memes and YouTube, there was a world of Warcraft before World of Warcraft. The Warcraft universe uniquely blended the RTS genre and its complexities and strategies with a brand of humor that compelled players to click, click, and click until every unit was milked of its hilarity. The look, feel, and especially the tone of the Warcraft games was one of the most talked-about features and aspects of the games. "Stop poking me" became a quick classic. Missions would send Orcs from another dimension after Human settlements to capture pop references and funny-named characters, all in the presence of a goofy voice from outer space. The Humans were so stark and proud, with the manner of the greatest medieval cosplayers the early '90s could offer. It was jokey with a hint of war.

Even in the transitional Warcraft III, where the series' story began to take on a more serious, cinematic vibe, the humor stayed. The tone shifted toward suspense and overwhelming danger while still retaining the old Warcraft humor and quips, even in the face of a darker world. Arthas stormed into his father's throne room, murdered his king, and ascended to his future as a death knight, all in a world where Goblins rode turtles, Humans joked about joining the army, and gyrocopter pilots could see their house from all the way up in the air. The key point is that both of these types of events existed in the same universe almost seamlessly.

World of Warcraft

The original World of Warcraft's tone was less about the world and more about the mechanics. The Azeroth that we first stepped into back in 2004 was an Azeroth built from the ground up with the previous generation of MMOs in mind. World of Warcraft was going to be the best of the old guard with new ideas and technology to create a mostly loadless world where the horrors of the MMO were a thing of the past.

Vanilla was, for all intents and purposes, a continuation of Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne in terms of tone and focus. We were the lab rats set free in this Azerothian maze, with a focus on questing, fighting, exploring, and finding our old favorite places from the previous games. We compared maps, marveled at our favorite heroes rendered in the new world, and gracefully said goodbye to a lot of the awful MMO tropes of the past generation.

Tone in the classic game was a carryover from Warcraft III. The serious moments mixed in with the pop culture and the humor equally in the quests players would complete and the storyline shifted from the dramatic retelling of Darrowshire to the jokey fun of Booty Bay. The one constant was that this was undeniably Warcraft, from the bad to the good. Vanilla was the origination of how we would approach the game from here on out and understand the direction that the developers would take.

While the title of the original game "World of Warcraft" never told us who the enemy was or who the big bad causing all of the problems was, we had enough information in that this was Warcraft. The raid game began to take on a real set of ideals and its own tone as players embarked on the quest to end Onyxia and venture into the Molten Core. The stakes were high and felt real, culminating in Ragnaros' emergence out of the Firelands and into his little "too soon" pool. It was suspenseful.

Blackwing Lair was similar in scope and tone. Nefarian was teased during the game in humorous ways and, as a villain, he was Warcraft's first troll (except for the Trolls ... you know what I mean). While Nefarian's presence was daunting and suspenseful, his joking and mannerisms made the whole instance feel fun in the presence of a world-threatening evil.

Ahn'Qiraj and Naxxramas let the WoW development team put the tone of the next content updates in front of the players in a very real way. As Orgrimmar and Ironforge began to build up their resources for the coming war, physical manifestations of the fight would begin to appear in the cities. Resources piled up, hides stacked high next to a mint's worth of ingots. When the gong was rung and the gates swung open, a real war had begun. We felt it. We worked for it, and our payoff was war. The tone changed to immediacy and wonder as we passed through the Gates of Ahn'Qiraj and stormed the floating citadel of Naxxramas, all while C'thun whispered to us our deaths and Kel'thuzad screamed about his slain kitty cat.
Burning up in Outland

World of Warcraft's first expansion was actually a sequel to Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne, where players saw the culmination of the stories from another expansion and finally got to see the planet Draenor. The tone of The Burning Crusade was set the second you walked through the comparatively small portal in the Blasted Lands only to emerge a tiny speck in the shadow of the Outland's portal. On top of that, the armies of the Burning Legion ambushed your forces at the gate, prompting a hasty retreat behind the enemy lines as the action began immediately.

Outland's tone was all about the unknown. Wonderment was key. Blizzard had to convey a sense of wonderment and newness to a game that was very familiar to the Warcraft fanbase. The Burning Crusade's biggest hurdle was that it looked nothing like Warcraft but had to fit in a well-established universe. Many players feel that Blizzard succeeded, especially in molding in the new, alien races into the Warcraft canon. Draenei were just weird the first time we saw them, but their mannerisms and story eventually blended well. The expansion set a unique tone on a unique world -- what is this place, and how does it make you feel?

The Burning Crusade's tone worked for me and affected me. The way this expansion made me feel was, in a word, revitalized. The aim was to show something new and convey a sense of wonderment, and it worked. Warcraft had already been a colorful world, but Outland turned the colorful nature of the universe on its head. There is an entirely purple zone. Think about that.

The title of The Burning Crusade also started the trend of letting the player know and understand what was at stake straight from the title. When you bought the box, you knew what you were in for: The Burning Crusade. If you were a Warcraft fan, you knew who the Burning Legion was. You understood their crusade, and you knew the main players. Illidan, Kael'thas, and Vash'j were commonplace heroes in the Warcraft lexicon at this point. How did The Burning Crusade make you feel? It made me feel excited to fight demons on another world as the character I had adventured with from the beginning of the world.

Next week, I'll discuss the change in focus and tone that brought about a golden age in World of Warcraft with the release of Wrath of the Lich King, as well as the ever-presence of the main villain in the game after an expansion with no clear-cut enemy.

The WoW Archivist examines the WoW of old. Follow along while we discuss the lost legendary, the opening of Ahn'Qiraj, and hidden locations such as the crypts of Karazhan.

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