“Because the writers suck.”
That’s the simplest answer. It’s a correct answer, in my opinion, but even a great writer would have a hard time working within the framework of modern WoW to produce a good story, much less good dialogue, quest text, etc.
World of Warcraft was never known for having exceptional writing, but the past versions of the game were quite sharp and effective, producing long-lasting memories of characters, places, and events, while newer expansions have produced a grey blur of forgettable babble from interchangeable blobs of characters. But why?
The emphasis on how the game is played, and how the writing functions within that gameplay, has changed over time, which has, in turn, changed how the writing operates in practice. The majority of the writing still takes place in the form of quest text, but players have slowly disengaged from the quest text to the point where now it is irrelevant filler or simply an annoyance. The game has sped up. It has simplified. The world has been nerfed. It’s been shrunk.
Nobody needs to read the quest text to complete a quest, so most don’t. The objective is marked clearly on the map. The player just needs to zip over to the highlighted area and do what their quest tracker says. They don’t need to read to get directions or read how to use an item or see what exactly they need to kill. It’s all listed on the right hand of the screen, with quest items conveniently placed for a quick click. Because they don’t need to read about the what and how, they also don’t read about the why.
Writers, take note because how you sell a story, how you make it compelling to the reader, is in the why, not so much in the how. Think of a heist story. It can be terribly complicated as far as plot goes, but if there is no reason for the character to steal the item in question, there won’t be any story tension. One last job for an old friend, one last heist to pay off the bad guy, etc. Motivations matter.
I found it funny that many players don’t realize that the newest expansion (Dragonflight, as of now) is full of homosexual couples and trans dragons. The quests are so ignored by the player base that the insertion of obnoxious woke politics into the game doesn’t get noticed. If you are wondering why I noticed, it’s partly because I was forcing myself to pay attention to the quest text, just trying to get engaged with what is, in terms of story, an exceptionally bland and uninspired expansion. I also noted these quests because (perhaps more importantly) the writing surrounding them was terrible. The dialogue between the gay couples came off as camp, unintentionally hilarity derived from attempts at seriousness. It’s not the couples being gay on their own that is funny, it’s that they appear to be written by a 12-year-old imagining what love and romance are like but having never experienced any human relationships (note: there is an irony to this as only one of the relationships is exclusively between humans in-game).
I can’t help but laugh when societies fighting generations-long race wars have the morals to completely and perfectly accept gay relationships and modern trans identities. The gay Mongol centaurs were particularly silly.
There was an exception to this, which was the few time-travel quests featuring Chromie (who is now trans). These had a few clever and informative moments while not beating you over the head with Chromie’s sexual identity. It’s subtle in the form of her dragon name (Chromdormu, a male moniker), which you can ask her about. She has a very annoying voice actor, but that’s not the writer’s fault.
I suppose that’s what you need to break through the haze of WoW: writing that is either exceptionally good or exceptionally bad. Unfortunately, the new expansion is filled with the latter. But it wasn’t always this way, was it?
No, at one point, the stories in World of Warcraft were engaging tales that connected you to the game and lent depth to the challenges of the endgame PVE and PVP content. If you want one expansion to point to for when it really fell off the rails in terms of story, it’s Warlord’s of Draenor.
This was accepted by most players to be one of the “bad” expansions despite having the bones to be one of the best. The story was a misfire on every level. The large conflict, which involved time travel and alternate history, screamed, “we’re out of ideas!” (A note for the observant: time travel episodes almost always pop up in a series when the writers are short on good stories) Warlords also changed its story direction multiple times during its long, low-content run, ending up in a place that was totally divorced from the conflict exposed in the intro quests and the initial leveling experience, which, though competent, were far from a complete story.
The problems began well before Warlords, however. When I say it had the “bones” to be one of the best, I mean it. It was gorgeous to look at, and each zone was packed with lore-rich areas, including cities like Shattrath or Karabor, all of which ended up being totally ignored. The problem was that the emphasis had changed before 2014 from the world to the story. Or, as I have said in the past, from your story to the story.
You have to consider how the player interacts with an MMORPG. It’s through exploration, not through narrative per se.
If you want to see what I mean, consider starting a new character on a classic server—humans are a great example, but each race has these elements. When you spawn into the world, the first thing you are greeted with is a quest to kill some wolves. It’s simple, and easy to understand, but it begins a basic conflict: Northshire Abbey is threatened. You can resolve that conflict by killing things. First wolves, then kobolds, then thieves in the Defias Brotherhood. Through that sequence you learn about who lives in the abbey, why you are doing the quests, and what the larger world is like. Milly’s grapes have been stolen! But who are these masked Defias fellows?
In a tiny area you get setting, characters, and plot, all interacted with in an RPG like fashion. You also, I should mention, have the opportunity to ignore them completely and walk away to somewhere else, or to just grind. Once you leave the newbie area of the abbey, things open up. You get a city (Stormwind) full of NPCs that (when the game launched) had dialogue you could explore to get a sense of the setting and characters there. You could pick up some quests in Goldshire, and if they were too hard or annoying, you could skip them and do something else. There were a few quest chains, but nothing you couldn’t simply ignore if it didn’t interest you. And most importantly, you had to pay attention to what the NPC said to know how to do the quest.
In short, the earlier versions of the game had a dynamic where the player joined a complete and persistent world, rather than witnessing a railroaded story with a set plot sequence that had to be followed exactly. In the process of leveling, you could experience a multitude of stories with deep lore roots. The Defias Brotherhood introduced in Northshire Abbey becomes an early antagonistic force, and the conflict culminates in several large PVE engagements, especially killing Edwin Van Cleef at the end of Deadmines, one of the earliest dungeons in the game, which begins another sequence exposing corruption in Stormwind. Getting the complete Defias story took a long time and involved a lot of exploration and challenges.
And there were many other stories like that in the game. All of the big threats were present in some form in classic: dragons, undead, Old Gods (ripped from H.P. Lovecraft), bandits, enemy factions, elementals, bugs, and demons.
The shift away from this style of story began with WoW’s second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King. This was the first time the game’s meta-story focus revolved around a single character and conflict, and it was a great character in the form of Arthas from Warcraft III. That being said, that focus wasn’t as persistent in the game itself. When you landed in Northrend, you were greeted with new conflicts auxiliary to the central conflict, yet still interesting in their own right. Most of them had something to do with the Lich king, and while there was significant quest chaining, there were plenty of small stories off the beaten path that were very interesting to interact with. In fact, the best dungeon in the expansion, Ulduar, was unrelated to the Lich King story arc and dealt with another persistent threat introduced in Classic: the Old Gods.
Wrath of the Lich King was a great expansion, but it introduced many of the things that cause the current rot in the game, like auto-queueing dungeons and multiple raid difficulties. Like these changes, the topic of this essay, the story, was not bad in its original form, but the form rather caused the game and the player base to change in a way that harmed it. There are other things from Wrath that harmed the game permanently that had nothing to do with Blizzard’s decisions and came in the form of user mods. One of these was “Gearscore” which boiled players down to an item level. The other was “Quest Helper,” which marked the location of quest objectives on the player’s maps. Unfortunately, the ubiquity of both these mods caused Blizzard to incorporate them into the game as features.
WoW, like other competitive games, is about player power. Giving the player the option to skip quest text, ride (or fly) to a specified area, and then dismount to click on an object or kill a monster represented a power boost. It meant you could level more quickly, thus increasing your power with greater speed than you otherwise would. It was hard to resist. Like flying, eventually, it became non-optional since it’s tied to power level, which is the main point of the game. Reflexively, as quest text gets ignored more, it becomes less important to make it functional. At best, it becomes some obscure exposition about some area in the game; at worst, paragraphs that say nothing. It’s not that the developers embraced all this overnight; like features in general, the story declined over time until there was only one path: the campaign.
The campaign, which is a series of quests that make up the “main story” of the expansion, has been a feature since Warlords of Draenor, and now it is an unavoidable part of the experience. Other games, notably Final Fantasy XIV, use this style of story presentation, where the player moves through various areas in the order dictated by the campaign, doing side quests as desired, but always following a linear narrative. It works great there. I can honestly say that Final Fantasy XIV has the best MMO story I’ve seen and is a very solid story for any JRPG, yet that approach falls flat in World of Warcraft.
FF14 has a distinctive story-telling style that is superior to WoW in a number of ways. They use dialogue boxes rather than big walls of quest text. They use lots of cutscenes, voice acted and silent. That slows the player down; it makes him or her pay attention. Since the player can level every class on one character, he doesn’t need to repeat any of the story unless he wants to. And FF14 still uses quest tracking on the map.
These techniques are not why FF14 blows WoW out of the water in terms of story. WoW has had big cutscene-focused campaigns. And yet the stories still stuck.
Here is where we circle back around to the original point. The WoW writers are bad. The big difference between Yoshi P. and company and Blizzard Entertainment is that the FF14 team knows how to write a story. They know setting, characters, and plot; all three of these things are shaky in WoW post-Lich King.
Consider the Scions of the Seventh Dawn in FF14, a group of NPCs that the player doesn’t just encounter a few times but who go on repeat adventures with the player. The Warrior of Light (their term for the player character) is a silent protagonist, a blank slate. It is the central cast that is the real stars, and you really get to know them over the course of the campaigns. They are the real protagonists, working to solve the central conflict of each story arc. Some friends even die along the way, and their deaths matter to the world, the player, and the other characters. Each conflict is clear, and the event sequence leads to a correct and satisfying conclusion, always as a part of some multiplayer encounter. The gameplay reinforces the narrative.
WoW shifted into a campaign-style presentation of story arcs and the writers never really thought about characters. With Classic WoW, the world was the star, and how you played made your own story take president, but as time went on and the game became equal parts solo grind and lobby game rather than an old-school persistent world MMO. That original feeling of being a nobody exploring a dangerous, epic wilderness was lost forever. NPCs are now items you click on to get a quest and a quest reward, not an extension of a world that felt like it could be real.
And so here we are at Dragonflight. The characters are the dragon aspects, who, being paragons, don’t function as companions in an adventure. They are quest-givers. They sit in a tower, just like in Wrath of the Lich King, and send the player to fetch things for them. There’s no protagonist since the player character has no real reason to do anything, and the quest-givers are passive. Nobody is doing any “protagging.” It’s just endless renown grinds directed toward nothing in the story. I can’t tell you the name of the barely present antagonist (some sort of primal dragon), who shows up in two cutscenes and whose motivations amount to “I’m big mad about you becoming pals with the titans twenty-thousand years ago.” I’m sure in two years, when the devs get around to putting out the final raid, we’ll finally get to kill him/her/xer.
The central conflict is hardly coherent. There are no characters engaged in the conflict in a meaningful way. And the plot? There is no plot. You arrive on the island and then are shuffled through a few zones, doing quests in various hubs, solving the problems of forgettable NPCs. Who is going to be the new black dragon aspect? You gotta beat the bad centaurs! The walrus people and gnolls are fighting (gnolls are bad, kill them all). Kill some wildlife for me, please. None of this moves you anywhere closer to solving the conflict of the bad dragons, and none of it is interesting on its own. It’s all recycled ideas from older versions of the game, so even the setting is boring now. Not even leveling moves you closer since your real level is now your item level, and the content that could move the conflict forward isn’t out and won’t be out.
All of this would be more forgivable if the game were like it once was, but the modern design doesn’t allow for such things to be sufficient, even if they weren’t so poorly done. So that’s my conclusion. The writing is the worst it has ever been, even if the gameplay is slightly better than it was, and the structure of the world is only slightly better than it was last expansion. It still feels like an empty solo grind game with nothing holding its various well-rendered parts together, a game whose core design has rendered any story moot and superfluous to the players (and the players like it that way, I guess). The sad part is that it’s all huge wasted potential in a game that has much history and lore and the Warcraft universe. As a player, I suppose you have to enjoy it for the raids and gear grind.
I write a lot of stories besides making content on writing. Here are some of the newest: a collection of short stories about Generation Y, a classic tragedy told through a high-fantasy setting, and the third book in my Moonsong series. You should also check out my manual on creativity if you are a writer, artist, or musician.