BFA and Shadowlands Lore Interview with Steve Danuser and Windows Central
interviewed World of Warcraft Lead Narrative designer Steve Danuser, sharing several insights gleaned from the
Battle for Azeroth
as well as insight on future storytelling coming in
. Highlights include a lot of discussion on the intent behind the way Battle for Azeroth told it's story, the lessons learned, and ideas moving forward. It's quite a long interview, and although we highly recommend reading it in full, you can catch our recap below, along with some thoughts on the big talking points.
Check out the full interview on Windows Central
Building a Living Story
As World of Warcraft grows, is it becoming more difficult for Blizzard to keep tabs on all the different plot threads and character arcs?
Storytelling at Blizzard is a team effort. We have narrative designers, quest designers, cinematics directors and artists, our story and franchise development team, historians, and a host of other people who all contribute to our ongoing narrative and making sure we maintain consistency and continuity in our characters and story threads.
Fans of a particular character or storyline sometimes get anxious if they don't see an immediate resolution to a plot thread. As fans ourselves, we completely understand the desire to see a resolution for something we care about. But the fact is, sometimes it's better for the game and its pacing to let these things unfold naturally rather than wrap them up prematurely.
This topic should resonate with a lot of players, as
Battle for Azeroth
was one of the most character-packed expansions to date, it still couldn't include every major character, whether because they'd recently had time in the spotlight (Khadgar), or the current roster of characters involved in the ongoing storyline was so bloated to begin with. Although seeing important characters involved in ongoing events is a good thing, the more there are tends to result in less screen time for each.
Still, some of it is simply a matter of coherency; a frequently asked question among players is why the Alliance doesn't simply use the Vindicaar to bomb their enemies from orbit, but the reasonable answer is pretty simple - it would ruin the narrative. Lore wise, we know the Vindicaar is now the base of operations for the Army of the Light and
training ground for the Lightforged Draenei
, which would imply that it's under the command of the Alliance, but would adding a space ship really add to the story being told in
Battle for Azeroth
? It's an unfortunate reality that after decades of storytelling, things that were great ideas at the time don't really fit down the road. Ideally, these plot threads are succinctly wrapped up, "oh the Vindicaar is busy dealing with the remaining demons on Argus", but it also doesn't take an explicate line of dialogue within the game to assume that there are many conflicts and priorities taking place at the same time, even if the player isn't directly involved in every one of them.
Sometimes I wonder if there's a conflict between gameplay systems and story delivery. In the Warfronts, we saw Forsaken night elves very aggressively join the Horde under Sylvanas, filled with vengeance, only to abruptly leave with Calia Menethil in Patch 8.3, after Sylvanas revealed her betrayal of the Horde. I realize that gameplay might have to come first, but is it ever frustrating trying to marry gameplay features like Warfronts with logical in-game story beats?
As a game, World of Warcraft tells stories very differently than a film or book. For us storytellers, this affords opportunities that aren't present in other types of media, but it also means our stories need to fit in with the game's structure. Features like Warfronts give us an opportunity to see characters react to intense situations and play out over a long period of time, but the needs of gameplay sometimes require us to hold off on resolving those plot points until later in the expansion. We see that as a unique aspect of this medium that we embrace.
The departure of Sylvanas didn't only affect the Forsaken who had been loyal to her for years. Some of the night elves struck down in the War of Thorns felt betrayed and abandoned; these qualities were amplified after being raised into undeath and were capitalized upon by Sylvanas and Nathanos. Now free of the Banshee Queen's command, these undead elves feel lost and hopeless, and so Calia Menethil and Derek Proudmoore have vowed to help them find a future rooted in something beyond than hatred and malice.
One of the biggest complaints in recent years has been the amount of storytelling done in books, short stories, comics, and other out-of-game media. On the one hand, it incentivizes players to seek out that content, but many players won't always want or be able to. Ideally, there'd be a compromise of sorts - in-game lore books were very prominent in the first few expansions of the game, giving a lot of context and backstory which the game itself didn't always expand on, but they've dropped off in recent years. It could be a nice way of tying in some of the out-of-game lore without adding lines of voiced dialogue or full blown cinematics.
I noticed that in 8.3, NPCs in the Horde city Orgrimmar remark and conversate about current events in the story. I thought it was a good way to make the city feel "current." Could we see more of these dynamic story beats delivered in existing cities?
I agree wholeheartedly that sprinkling in that street-level view of the world gives tremendous authenticity to the inhabitants of Azeroth. It can be easy for us, as omniscient players who know the lore and watch videos out of game and read spoiler sites, to forget that the merchant or banker in Stormwind or Orgrimmar only hears about most of our adventures secondhand.
What is their view on the Old Gods and dragons and demons and everything else that has messed with the world? Their perspectives are awesome to see.
The aftermath of the mak'gora in Orgrimmar felt like a time when we really needed to show how major characters were reacting, as well as the commoners in the streets. We intend to keep adding elements like that as the story of Azeroth continues to unfold.
These were really nice touches, as both the
had several added lines of dialogue which show the impact of the war campaign on the rest of the people, which varied greatly much in the same way as player reception, and helps make the game feel like a living world that changes with events. One of the most difficult parts of the game's coherency is juggling all the moving parts - Horde players should be very familiar with the Orgrimmar Throne room containing Warchief Sylvanas (abdicated), Warchief Garrosh (deceased), Saurfang (deceased), Sauranok (deceased), and Nazgrim (deceased)
all at the same time
. Because the game uses different NPCs for different quests which players may or may not have completed, the narrative is easily broken without completely redoing all of those scripts and quest associations every time there's a change to the story. While some of these inconsistencies might end up necessary evils, adding dialogue and changes to help sell the idea that the NPCs within the world are aware of the evolving narrative.
Shaping a Virtual War, and the Cycle of Hatred
For me, the way the story throughout Battle for Azeroth shifts focus between Sylvanas, Azshara, the faction war, and the broader Old Gods plot seemed a little haphazard, was it always planned out this way or was there a change in direction at some point?
The actions of Sylvanas were inexorably intertwined with the war between the Horde and the Alliance. From the epilogue cinematics that introduced Azerite in the last content update of Legion, to her actions in the novel Before the Storm, to the novellas we released on our website and in the Collector's Edition, to the Battle for Undercity that kicked off the expansion, Sylvanas was at the center of it all.
But Azshara and the Old Gods were in the mix from the beginning as well, seeded into Stormsong Valley and the Uldir raid. It was always our plan to delve deeper into those storylines, even though the faction war was the instigator that kicked off the action of Battle for Azeroth.
We often scrutinize our previous work in an effort to improve our storytelling as a team. Looking back, I think we could have done a better job of making sure both factions got a deeper context for where the story was going so that the threads that connected all the elements were clearer. But the major beats of the story were intended from the beginning, and we feel good about how the players got to experience them.
This is another place in which storytelling can get discombobulated over time, especially in video games which section out their storytelling over patches with several months in between. Even for the heavily invested players, it can be hard to keep up with when that story jumps between multiple narratives and plotlines in between. It's hard to claim that more narrative focus is a bad thing, but there were both benefits and drawbacks to
Battle for Azeroth
having such an ambitious story with so many characters. The story certainly moved forward in grand fashion, and looking back on it will probably be seen as very story intensive, but living through it wasn't the smoothest process.
is a good example - while relevant to the topic of Sylvanas and the faction war, it also points to a Shadowlands tie-in, which wouldn't be relevant until more than a year later.
Battle for Azeroth's character arc with Sylvanas feels a tad familiar to how Garrosh Hellscream played out in previous expansions. How do you feel about accusations that Sylvanas is becoming a "Garrosh 2.0?"
One of the major themes in this expansion was expressed by Sylvanas in the opening words of the Battle for Azeroth trailer: "Ours is a cycle of hatred." To demonstrate that there is a cycle, we created a story structure for Sylvanas that, on the surface, echoed many broad strokes of the road Garrosh took. A warchief promoted under questionable circumstances. A brutal act of aggression that instigated conflict. Distrust among the inner circle that led to an uprising. These parallels were intentional. But it's within the nuance that we sought to show the story grow and change.
The Horde believed that, by putting the wise Vol'jin in place as warchief, their future was secure. But they hadn't changed the underlying structures or practices that enabled Garrosh's tyranny in the first place. The untimely passing of Vol'jin and a bit of manipulation in the aftermath of his death were all it took for the pattern to begin repeating.
Similarly, the Alliance found itself with a new leader after King Varian's fall on the Broken Shore, but Anduin was so focused on living up to his father's legacy that it blinded him to certain truths. Those blind spots proved costly and will be something he has to come to terms with going forward.
Once the plot was put into motion, the differences in the stories of Garrosh and Sylvanas began taking shape. The theme of change was brought home by Saurfang's words in the cinematic that preceded the mak'gora: "Breaking the cycle." Horde players were given the opportunity to see both sides of the conflict and decide which they wanted to follow. This time, the army that gathered at the gates of Orgrimmar didn't raid the city; they caught a glimpse of what Sylvanas had been working toward the whole time.
The structure of the Horde's leadership was fundamentally changed, and they now have a real chance to prevent history from repeating once more—though they still have their share of challenges ahead. The Alliance is showing fractures that have not healed cleanly, and that storyline will continue into Shadowlands.
The aftermath of a war is always messy. Expect repercussions from the Fourth War to carry forward for a long, long time.
The Alliance had an emotionally tumultuous, but fairly seamless (from a narrative perspective) transition of power, while the
Horde's rebellion and transition to a council
was considerably more convoluted. Again, the resulting storyline was a pretty good one - mistrust, suspicion, discontent and eventual rebellion in the middle of a war, but the steps to get there were a little disjoined. Garrosh was another character which many players felt was misused; not that it resulted in a bad story arc, but because the character was simultaneously presented as both an immature/arrogant bully and a wise/capable leader (an inconsistency which Alex Afrasiabi has spoken about at length already), and Sylvanas seems to be going down a similar path. There's also a very real concern that rather than going the way of Garrosh, she will instead follow in the footsteps of Sarah Kerrigan from
, with an 11th hour redemption twist revealing all the terrible things she did were for a greater good. The truth is that she is a very popular character, even more so than Garrosh, and no matter which way her story plays out, someone is bound to be left unfulfilled.
The Alliance seems overly accepting and forgiving of the fact the Horde burned down Teldrassil and genocided the Elves, in my view. I feel a bit like that is glossed over, perhaps?
In the epilogue scenes in Visions of N'Zoth, we wanted to show that Tyrande clearly has not forgotten what happened and will not accept any treaty that doesn't see Sylvanas—and the Horde—answer for the crimes of burning the World Tree and the murder of innocents.
Wars have a way of changing the world and those who inhabit it, in ways both broad and subtle. These changes do not resolve cleanly in a short span of time; that wouldn't feel genuine or true to the deep wounds inflicted by the Fourth War. So, while many fans are eager to see the resolution of what happened at Teldrassil, there is a lot more story that needs to unfold before it can be fully addressed. These characters have a long way to go, and many more lessons to learn.
This is another place where many players were hoping for some kind of radical shift, such as a changing/splitting of the factions, though the degree to which and how feasible that kind of change would be is a bit questionable. There were also many lines of dialogue about
not forgiving or forgetting
Sylvanas' actions, so it shouldn't be too bit of a stretch to imagine it will be a major plotline in Shadowlands (also very similar to following Garrosh to Draenor).
Becoming the Maw Walker
The cinematics throughout Battle for Azeroth and into Shadowlands are absolutely incredible, with Saurfang and Zekhan. Will we see more of this in Shadowlands, or was that something planned just for Battle for Azeroth?
Our amazing artists who create the fully rendered cinematics do such awesome work, and we're always thrilled with how our expansion trailers resonate with players. Seeing them debut at BlizzCon is one of the greatest joys of my job. I get to stand in the crowd, listening to the cheers and gasps with tears of happiness in my eyes!
Early in the development of Battle for Azeroth, we recognized an opportunity to create a series of cinematics that could allow the Saurfang storyline to unfold in a way we'd never done before. We had a great story we wanted to tell, and the prerendered cinematics team was excited for the opportunity to bring it to life.
In the future, it would be great if the opportunity arose to tell another tale in a similar fashion, but we want to make sure we're choosing the right stories and the right moments.
Blizzard cinematic TV series when? There's really nothing more to say here; the Blizzard cinematics department continues to impress, and the community reaction to characters like
Zekhan aka Zappy Boi
are a testament to their storytelling ability.
I'm not sure I always like how the player character is referred to as the "Champion" and is known throughout the land as some kind of superhero. The game felt a little bit more grounded in vanilla, where you're just a soldier of the Horde. How do you feel about how the player character is presented?
If a character has existed for any length of time in WoW, they've probably had a hand in toppling some of the big bads of the Warcraft universe. Over the years, the player character's role has evolved in the world significantly. With Warlords of Draenor, it made sense given the nature of the expansion for the player to be referred to as "commander" of their garrison. With Legion, the character became leader of a class order, so was often referred to by a special title. And in Battle for Azeroth, "champion" was used to refer to the player's status as a hero of their faction.
Still, it is nice to sometimes feel like one part of something bigger. In Shadowlands, the player's character becomes known as a Maw Walker, though this is not a singular title; fictionally, a number heroes of Azeroth like yourself have demonstrated the ability to enter and leave the Maw. We want a sense that it will take many heroes working together and strengthening all four covenants if there is to be any hope of achieving victory over the Jailer.
Our new player experience, which will debut when Shadowlands is released, shows the beginning of the hero's journey through Azeroth. The player is not heralded as an all-powerful champion, but rather as someone with great potential who has an exciting adventure ahead of them.
When World of Warcraft started, the player was an unknown element, a nameless adventurer who found themselves caught in events bigger than themselves. Over time, they became the focus on the story, as it wouldn't make much sense to ignore the impact of their events or prestige they'd gained along the way, very similar to the Dungeons & Dragons centric roots of the game - level 1 players starting out are nobodies, but by level 20 they are living legends. There will always be a division between players who think one of those narratives is better than the other, but the real rub is when the so-called Champion of the world is tasked with collecting mud pies or other ignoble tasks. Some of that is typical Blizzard humor, but it's hard to feel like other NPCs matter when your character is the end-all-be-all of the story. The
Battle for Lordaeron
Battle of Dazar'alor
both did a good job of showing the contribution of the Alliance and Horde military might, but it's easy to overlook the importance of other NPCs when the players feel like they too important to solving the story's problems. The hard part is both making the player feel important, but not more important than every other character in the world.
What are things you've learned from Battle for Azeroth that you hope to improve as we move into Shadowlands, from a narrative perspective, if anything?
We're proud of our storytelling in Battle for Azeroth, but by no means do we think our work is flawless or that there weren't aspects of that narrative we could have done better. The nature of what we do is very iterative, so the good news is that we have the opportunity to learn lessons that we can carry forward. We always strive to improve.
As you mentioned previously, Battle for Azeroth covered a lot of ground over the course of its content updates, from Sylvanas' burning of Teldrassil to the rise of Queen Azshara to the return of an Old God N'Zoth. And while on one hand, it can be really exciting for players to be experiencing these kinds of unexpected turns, we've also heard criticism that some of the connecting threads between these content updates felt unclear at times, or that we could have done a better job balancing clarity around Sylvanas' intentions at Teldrassil with maintaining the mysteries around her long-term plans. We love hearing that kind of feedback, and we always try to take lessons from it when crafting the next chapter of the story.
In Shadowlands, we've set out to tell a focused story with an arc that will move through all the updates and culminate in a compelling conclusion. We set the stakes for our big questions and major characters right at the start, and while there will be twists and surprises along the way, our goal is to tell a story over the course of the expansion that feels natural and cohesive. Once again, you'll see major characters undergo crucial developments that will have implications beyond the Shadowlands. Certain long-running threads will conclude, while a host of new mysteries and possibilities will be discovered.
As mentioned previously, this style of an evolving story line is fun, but easy to become disjointed when a story is told in short snippets over several months. Just like game systems use catch-up mechanics to help returning players jump right in, this is another place where in-game lore books and a simple patch synopsis goes a long way to helping players keep up with what is going on.
Battle for Azeroth
had a lot of story to tell, but the major flaw was the way it jumped around, from finding new allies to help with the faction war, investigating Old God threats in Uldir, back to the war in Dazar'alor, to dealing with N'Zoth in Crucible of Storms, then the emergence of Azshara in Nazjatar, and finally N'Zoth himself in Ny'alotha.
While all of these events were narratively intertwined, the individual pieces sets didn't always show how the pieces of the puzzle fit together. Surprises and plot twists are always fun, but it would be nice to see the story of
be a bit more direct in focus.
Taking Risks, and the Future
The biggest barrier I encounter when trying to persuade friends and family to try WoW is the levelling experience, which is disjointed from a story perspective to say the least. Could it be time for another Cataclysm-like revamp, that replaces quests with Garrosh and Sylvanas with random generals that could perhaps fill the same role? It could future-proof it a bit, and keep the storyline consistent for new players.
At the time of Cataclysm's development, it made sense to set the revamped Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor zones into the timeline of that expansion. In hindsight, having a level-up experience that was more agnostic to the expansion timeline would have been a benefit down the road.
The new player experience coming with Shadowlands is intended to be just that—a standalone moment in time that easily flows into Battle for Azeroth, as well as other expansions to come in the future.
However, the major characters and events of Cataclysm are so intertwined into the experiences of the old-world leveling zones that to switch them out would be a major undertaking. Merely swapping out a few characters, especially ones like Garrosh and Sylvanas, wouldn't make sense without a substantial rewrite and redesign. At that point, we'd basically be redoing those zones yet again to bring them up to current quest standards.
We never say never, but at this time we're focused on creating new content and letting those older zones exist as their own slivers in time. They are preserved for anyone who wants to delve into them, while new players to World of Warcraft can experience the most recent content as their path into adventuring through Azeroth.
This is again a place where the frequently evolving storyline is hard to always keep current. Both from a narrative and development standpoint, it's not really practical to rewrite the entirety of the game every time there's a change, and it would also threaten to lose bits of the story which led up to those events along the way. Of course, making new content should take precedence over the old, though it's nice to see when recent events have an impact on old zones, such as the
Old God assaults
on Uldum and the Vale of Eternal Blossoms.
I feel that N'Zoth seems to go down without too much of a fight, given that him and the dark city of Nyalotha have been built up since Cataclysm several years ago. Are there more to his plans? Could he return in the future? Some of his in-game whispers are pretty foreboding....
The tendrils of N'Zoth have been constricting around Azeroth since the time of his imprisonment. From hints in the Puzzle Box of Yogg-Saron, to the machinations of Deathwing and the Twilight's Hammer, to whispers seeded by Il'gynoth in the Emerald Nightmare, until his liberation in the battle against Azshara. Our Visions of N'Zoth update shows a world on the cusp of being transformed into his idealized future of the Black Empire reborn. Every dream made real.
While the Light can only conceive of one true path, the Void sees endless possibilities. Strategically, the Old Gods always have plans within plans, waiting for one door to close so another can open. To believe there can only be a single outcome to the struggle against N'Zoth would be to ignore the lessons he was trying to teach us.
"All eyes shall be opened." Do not allow yours to be closed.
We've frequently heard that
death isn't final
within the Warcraft universe, and we're about to go into an expansion which revolves around that exact concept, though it is easy to agree that the multi-faceted story in Battle for Azeroth left each individual part feeling a bit rushed. Ny'alotha and the Old God invasion of Azeroth could have been an expansion in of itself, with different zones coming under assault and evolving as time went on. That said, even with the possibility of the Old Gods returning, we probably won't see them again for quite some time, because at least for now their story is complete. That isn't to say the reverberations of their influence and actions won't continue to be seen, and at times it could even be said that the storyboard impact on the game world isn't far reaching enough - it would have been really interesting to see a type of "Cataclysm 2.0" with Azeroth left irreparably changed by the assault of the Old Gods and reemergence of the Black Empire.
Despite a lot of the criticisms we see flying around the internet, I have enjoyed Battle for Azeroth overall and felt engaged with the story. Perhaps this is less of a question and more of a thank you note. I am intrigued to see more of what comes next.
Thank you for being a part of our journey! And don't worry; we will continue to tell ambitious stories that take risks and push the heroes of Warcraft into new frontiers.
One of the greatest aspects of this universe is the vast number of beloved characters that fans identify with, and we intend to keep introducing new ones to love—and some to hate—as we keep moving forward.
We're really proud of the stories we're telling in Shadowlands, and are already laying the groundwork for what will come after that.
Of all the things to complain about, the wide-reaching story within the World of Warcraft isn't one of them. While there are occasional missteps, that's to be expected with such a wide reaching narrative that juggles so many intertwined stories. With
Battle for Azeroth
alone, we've seen the
of a major character's storyline (Saurfang), and the culmination of far reaching plot points tying into both novels and previous expansions (Azshara/N'Zoth/Old Gods). Certainly a lot of people don't play for the story, but it's nice to see the way all of these spaghetti-stringed stories come together over time and speculate what impact they'll have on the future.
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