One of the major things that vanilla World of Warcraft struggled with was a compelling story. Yes, we had a particularly epic tale spun with the release of Ahn'Qiraj and an even greater tale with Naxxramas. But while Onyxia, Molten Core and Blackwing Lair had stories that were interesting enough, it was difficult for players to pick up on those stories and follow them in a coherent fashion. Ragnaros in particular had a story that was entrenched in several different leveling zones as well as a few instances.
Meanwhile, the zones that you encountered from level 1 to 60 by and large didn't have a coherent story to tell. Each zone had little tidbits of story here and there, but nothing seemed really dire or important beyond a few epic, sweeping quests. As for faction leaders -- well, they did very little beyond sit in their capital cities and occasionally send players on errands. This is something that has continually changed and improved with every expansion that has been released. The story in WoW has never been as accessible as it is now.
But Mists of Pandaria has the potential to completely blow everything before it away.
The blank slate of Mists
Mists of Pandaria includes a brand new continent we know nothing about, several new races of creatures we know nothing about, and a rich, developed history that, well, we know nothing about. This is the first time we've ever had an expansion that contains a completely blank slate from a lore perspective. The Burning Crusade followed the continued adventures of Illidan, Kael'thas and Vash'j, as well as Maiev and Akama. While there were a multitude of new zones to explore, a lot of the lore from The Burning Crusade referenced earlier Warcraft games. So players with a handle on the lore were incredibly excited to see these characters come back again and interested in seeing what they had been doing all this time.
In Wrath of the Lich King, the titular character was the star of Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne, a game that ended with Arthas' ascension to the Frozen Throne and the acquisition of a shiny new hat. We never knew what happened to Arthas after that point. Wrath showed us what happened, as well as expanding upon events in Warcraft III, whether it was the moment Arthas found Frostmourne or the ghostly tales of Matthias Lehner. In addition, it introduced a return to the Old God tales from Ahn'Quiraj and plenty of Titan lore, while finally answering the question of just what happened to Dalaran and the Kirin Tor.
Cataclysm brought back Deathwing, the corrupted former Aspect of Earth, and brought to light the continued struggles between Horde and Alliance. It answered the question of what happened to Gilneas and its citizens, shut behind a wall since vanilla WoW. It brought about the return of Malfurion Stormrage, who had spent all of vanilla, The Burning Crusade and Wrath trapped within the Emerald Dream. And it revamped the 1-to-60 experience into a streamlined, concentrated burst of lore that tied directly into the Cataclysm expansion itself. Faction leaders were now an active part of leveling and endgame.
With Mists, we have no idea what's coming. Nothing in Mists so far references any earlier games, save for an appearance by the Zandalar that hails back to the events in patch 4.1. Chen Stormstout is present, but there's no reference to his travels with Rexxar or the events at Theramore in Warcraft III. What we are dealing with here is a wholly new, blank landscape that has nothing in the prior foundation of Warcraft lore to support it. That makes players a little uneasy -- but it also means that lore fans have nothing to look at and try to figure out what will happen next. It means that there is no sense of history.
Blizzard's done a wonderful job of addressing this by integrating lore and exploration. Hidden throughout Pandaria are dozens of shrines that explain the various stories of this mysterious land. Finding the pieces is half the fun; the other half is in reading the pieces and pulling the story of Pandaria together. It's an interactive experience that combines gameplay and lore, rather than setting the lore in a book separate from the game that must be purchased and read.
It's a fantastic development, one that is sure to be a big hit with lore fans. But there are a few other things that Blizzard could easily take advantage of to knock this expansion and its story completely out of the park.
1. Cinematics and patch trailers
Some of the best stuff we've seen has been in the form of cinematics and patch trailers. Expansion trailers have always been a hit with fans; the over-the-top graphics and gorgeous details are something that players look forward to seeing with every new expansion that's released. At the moment, expansion trailers play through in full the first time you install and play the new expansion. After this, they are available for viewing from the login screen, which is great -- players can always go back and watch their favorite expansion cinematic again if they want to, with no issues.
Patch trailers are also a fan favorite, provided they're done correctly. Every patch trailer for The Burning Crusade remains firmly on my favorites list. Blizzard introduced a little bit about the back story behind the patch, then expanded into a tasty hint of what players could expect in the patch itself. Wrath of the Lich King continued this, with patch trailers that were by and large incredibly interesting and advanced the lore. The Ulduar trailer was the pinnacle of Wrath's trailer cinematics. The introduction of Ulduar was artfully tucked into a confrontation that would not be forgotten. The events of that patch led directly to Cataclysm and possibly beyond.
In addition, Wrath introduced event cinematics and large-scale, multiplayer events. The Wrathgate, followed by Battle for the Undercity, was a perfect example of a multiplayer event. The first few days of the event were swamped with players, but since the event contained powerful NPCs with powerful buffs, even players later in the expansion could successfully play through the event in a solo capacity. The launch of Ahn'Qiraj in vanilla WoW was a huge, server-wide event, but because it was concentrated in one area, server lag continually booted players offline. With Battle for the Undercity, players were shunted into the event in shifts, and it worked incredibly well.
Cataclysm seems to have implemented a combination of event cinematics and gameplay, and it's effective in some ways, as long as it isn't overly used. The end of Vash'jir was the culmination of the zone. The cinematics and the events that played out finished the tale of Vash'jir perfectly and led to the instance for the next bit of lore. However, the event in which players assist Aggra in reuniting the scattered spirits of her beloved didn't quite play so well. This wasn't because the event was planned poorly. It was largely because Aggra is by and large an unknown figure to those that haven't purchased the novel The Shattering, in which Aggra is introduced.
Regardless, the events in Wrath worked. Both the death knight starting zone experience and the Battle for the Undercity were tremendous, and I'd love to see more large-scale events along those lines in Mists. More importantly, however, is the subject of patch trailers. These patch trailers do an excellent job of presenting the next patch of an expansion as well as tying in lore -- yet the trailers are only available outside of the game. I'd love to see patch trailers introduced as part of the game experience. Think about it: Wouldn't downloading a patch on patch day and being presented with a trailer when you logged in be pretty cool?
2. Keep the mystery alive
In an article earlier this week, I noted the unspoken bonus of the Raid Finder. With the Raid Finder, anyone can access endgame content. This means that the problem with villain exposure in an expansion is effectively a moot point. Issues like Illidan's being sequestered in the Black Temple and not visible to those who don't raid just aren't issues worth considering anymore. I think this is a fantastic thing -- largely because the situation with Illidan was a moment of mystery as far as the story was concerned. We didn't know what he was up to. We had to raid the Black Temple to find out.
In Mists of Pandaria, the Raid Finder is going to be there right from the moment we begin the expansion. That's fantastic, because it means virtually anyone that wishes to can see the story of the expansion and the raids as it plays out. Since the complaint of villain exposure is no longer a sticking point, since the lore of raid zones has become so readily available -- why not play up the mystery?
Keep the bosses a secret. Keep the stories a secret. Keep those major events secret, and hold them close until they're ready to be released. Patch trailers? Implement them in the game rather than releasing them on YouTube, and don't patch in those trailers until the patch is released. Keep PTR servers focused on development, not story -- keep the story out of it entirely. Don't let people see all of this stuff in advance. Don't let the dataminers have an opportunity to nab the information before it's ready to be released.
What this does is create an air of excitement and buzz about upcoming story changes. Currently, what we typically see is important story elements released by various datamining resources. While datamining isn't a bad thing -- it can certainly build excitement and create a lot of buzz about new abilities and encounters -- having story information before it's actually in the game is like reading the summary of a movie before you watch it. When you have that information beforehand, it trivializes the experience of actually playing through it.
Think about it: How often do you enjoy reading a new book when you already know how it's going to end? While we carefully place spoiler warnings on everything we report regarding the beta, that information is still out there for people to see. On top of this, there's the added problem of players getting upset by leaked story information. The problem is that players aren't seeing the story as a whole. They're seeing bits and pieces of it -- and the pieces they do see cause them to automatically leap to the worst conclusion possible.
It would be far more entertaining if story elements were simply left to the last possible minute before being patched into the live game. That element of mystery is an integral part of what makes a story riveting -- removing that mystery just makes the story fall flat.
Cataclysm really raised the bar on the lore accessibility front. The revamped 1-to-60 leveling zones all have overarching themes that play off of and intertwine with the Cataclysm story itself. Some raise questions that have yet to be answered; others touch on themes that players will see once they hit level 80 and begin leveling through the Cataclysm zones. But they all have one thing in common: They're absolutely riveting. The new zones, while admittedly linear, all have a thematic element to them that leads players through the zone and culminates in an ending that may or may not be satisfying but is certainly fascinating.
But one of the biggest standing issues for those who follow the lore is that there's no real way for them to actually gather all of the pieces of a story in the game and keep it for reference purposes. Sure, sites out there like Wowpedia let you look up the various bits of information, but for things like in-game books or quest items with important letters or documents, you have to resort to copious screenshots or addons like Gryphonheart Items to copy and store the texts in-game for future reference.
In-game books are something that have been around since vanilla WoW, and there is absolutely no reason a player should have to use an outside addon to keep track of them. There's no reason a player should have to alt-tab out of the game to look them up. And it's certainly a drag to have to go find the book in game to give it another read. Mists of Pandaria has dozens of shrines with interesting text to read through -- but again, there's no way to store that information. At the present time, players will still have to revisit these shrines to read them again or use an outside addon.
The way that lore and story was presented in Cataclysm was revolutionary for World of Warcraft. For those who like to follow the lore, it's never been more readily available -- and there's never been quite this much story development in a single expansion. From completed storylines to intriguing story threads that have been left dangling, Cataclysm reshaped the way Warcraft tells a story, and it did so remarkably well. Mists is shaping up to be an incredible expansion rich in story as well. I'm really hoping it continues to advance lore development and using the game as a medium for storytelling purposes, while giving those of us interested in the lore some new innovations to look forward to.
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.