One of our earliest design goals with World of Warcraft was to ensure a healthy rivalry between the Alliance and the Horde. Cross-faction communication was banned outright, even where it made little or no sense in the lore. Entire realms are dedicated to PvP. Battlegrounds and quest hubs feature prominent Alliance and Horde iconography. We want to foster a sense of factional pride, a real identity with your brothers and sisters in arms.
We want players to be proud of their faction, even at the expense of personal dignity. One time I was driving my wife home from dinner. She leaned out of the car window, threw the horns, and screamed "FOR THE HORDE!" at some dude who was standing outside the restaurant in his Horde hockey jersey. Poor guy probably forgot he was wearing it. We peeled off in a thick cloud of blue tire smoke, and I think we made him pee.
That's what I'm talking about.
So when it comes to the game's ongoing story developments, it's no surprise that Alliance and Horde fans are "keeping score." Maps and charts of territory gained and lost started showing up around the time the Cataclysm shook the world to its foundations. Southshore plagued? Taurajo burned? Oh no they didn't!
Implicit amidst most of the grumbling from either side is the assumption that Blizzard should be fairly treating both factions. Then there's the more explicit assumption: if one faction is losing ground, then Blizzard must be biased.
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Of Warcraft.
Maybe we are. A quick survey of Azeroth's history reveals that we've been punishing the Alliance for generations. Stormwind was razed by orcs back in Warcraft I. Then Lordaeron fell to the plague in Warcraft III, its inhabitants turned into a mindless mob of undead. High-elven allies were besieged by the scourge and had their city sacked and their source of power corrupted. (The survivors of both these atrocities found solace in the Horde.) The gnomish capital was irradiated. The dwarven kingdoms were shattered by a terrible civil war. I'm surprised there's an Alliance left at all.
On the other hand, those humans got off easy -- at least they still have a planet. The orc homeworld was overrun with demons and obliterated. Almost the entire race was poisoned by demonic blood. By the end of Warcraft II, what little remained of the orc race was stranded on an alien world, defeated, sullen, weak, and locked away in human-controlled internment camps.
I'm sure glad we didn't have orc forums back then! Imagine the outrage.
In truth, a historical account of the Warcraft universe reads like a war crimes trial. Empires topple, leaders are corrupted, populations are massacred, entire civilizations fall to ruin (often at their peak of power)... Warcraft is a dark place. Just ask the Draenei: We trashed their homeworld and tortured its last uncorrupted children for tens of thousands of years. We're downright cruel. I've never met a more sadistic team of story folk.
Suffering is the gasoline that drives our story engine. Why is that?
The Hero Factory
Here at Blizzard, we often talk about what we're trying to build with the fiction of the Warcraft universe. The phrase "Hero Factory" frequently comes up across all of our franchises. We want the players to feel like heroes.
The primordial soup that creates heroes never tastes of rainbows -- it's a lumpy gumbo of suffering and evil. Heroes are born from darkness, because we desperately need someone to light the way.
It's an unfair world that cries out for heroes. To bring order out of chaos and justice to the downtrodden is the hero's call. Is it any wonder that Azeroth is an unfair place? It's monstrously unfair. And it's going to stay that way.
Of Story Arcs and Storied Orcs
We can guarantee an unfair and inequitable treatment of both factions for now and in the foreseeable future. This allows us to have richer long-term story arcs, another idea that we've been experimenting with since the build-up to Cataclysm. To see the factions ebb and flow as their leaders get embroiled in all manner of heroism or skullduggery is like a reward for long-time players.
Speaking of faction leaders, that's one area where I think we can do better: Giving everyone a chance to interact with their heroes throughout the story. In creating this universe, I'll admit that we at Blizzard often fall into a trap of thinking of our main characters as "world" characters and not individual faction characters.
For example, the events of the cataclysm put in motion some major story developments for Thrall, who'd been sitting relatively idle in Orgrimmar since the events of Warcraft III. He was forced to choose between his role as warchief and as a shaman who could potentially save the world. He set aside the warchief's mantle and, with your help, he'll play an instrumental role in bringing an end to Deathwing.
But there's a price to pay. Thrall sacrificed something.
The Horde has gone through a story arc of its own, since the days when the ragged refugee orcs first stumbled onto the beaches of Kalimdor and decided to found a new capital. The Horde races have united and consolidated. The Forsaken, no longer tormented by the Lich King, have secured their borders. The tauren have settled a homeland. The Darkspear trolls, once on the brink of extinction thanks to murlocs (murlocs!), have rallied together and founded a capital. The blood elves have survived the destruction of their home, moved beyond the defection of their leader, and reclaimed the Sunwell. The Horde is absolutely ascendant.
And in this moment, as one of the most powerful groups of mortals on Azeroth seeks to define itself, Thrall is out of the picture. The Horde's mission is being defined by Garrosh Hellscream. Thrall's decision to leave him in charge is coming back to haunt him.
If you're a die-hard Alliance player, I can understand if you feel left out of Thrall's story arc. Thrall feels like "their guy," and Thrall's journey over the last couple of years may not feel like "your" story, even if his mistakes are about to send the whole world into a potential death spiral. Fair enough. Stick with Thrall as he fulfills his destiny at the end of Cataclysm, and I promise we'll catch up with other characters -- from both factions -- as we pick up the pieces in the aftermath.
Garrosh Hellscream has a vision for the Horde, a vision of a united Kalimdor that can only be realized over the ashes of the Alliance. He's craftier than any of his foes realize, and his grim determination to win at all costs -- even at the expense of his own people -- is plunging the world into chaos.
In the midst of this crisis, the Alliance is going to need to pull together like never before. At the BlizzCon lore panel we promised that key Alliance characters are going to get more time in the spotlight throughout Mists and the subsequent patches, and I wanted to reiterate that here. They're going to come out of this stronger than ever, but the road ahead won't be easy.
It's going to get worse before it gets better. A lot worse. But that's a good thing. It means we're going to need a lot more heroes to bring justice to an unjust world. We're going to need you to step up and reshape the world.
Just don't expect a Happily Ever After. We just don't do those here.
Dave "Fargo" Kosak is the lead quest designer for World of Warcraft. His job is to maintain the integrity of the Warcraft world and storyline through gameplay, while simultaneously chucking bear cubs onto trampolines. It's a fine line, but he walks it with the unwavering deftness of a quarterback on one of those old vibrating Electric Football games.