14 Oct 2011

How Warcraft Will Never End

As Blizzcon rapidly approaches there’s a ton of speculation about what will be announced. Hopes are high for a new World of Warcraft expansion, although details are sketchy about what it may contain. The trademark ‘Mists of Pandaria’ has been suggested as a name following trademark registration, but this was later dismissed as being ‘wildly overhyped’ by the developer.

Regardless of what the next expansion is called, the important thing is where it takes the story and what possibilities open up. Is it possible that the upcoming expansion will close the book on the Warcraft universe, or are we looking at the prelude to something even bigger?

I’ll be the first to confess that I’m no lore expert, but regardless of the story intricacies at play I think that there’s a rough way in which the current Warcraft story arc will conclude, including how it’ll be the jumping-off point for something far bigger.

As always with discussions of this type, this is pure tinfoil-hat speculation. I’m not saying that this is an accurate idea of what will happen, just that it’s an example of what could happen. Don’t go placing any bets off the back of this.

Coming Up Next

Back in the mists of time an internet legend emerged. A list of expansions and associated levels had been produced sometime in early alpha or beta, posted on a forum only to later vanish. Some say it’s a genuine article while others claim it to be fake, but it’s worth looking at.

Whether the list is real or fake, it’s become clear from previous expansions that the story drives what zones are developed and what content gets included. What’s less clear is what drives the story, which is where strategy comes in.

I’ll come on to what the strategy is shortly, but I think Anne Stickney’s predictions on the upcoming expansion are largely correct. The next expansion is likely to feature the Broken Isles, Kul Tiras and all the other oceanic areas that weren’t included with Cataclysm. I think that Queen Azshara and the Old God N’Zoth will be the concluding bosses of the expansion. There may even be some play between Azshara and Sargeras, drawing the Burning Legion back into the game.

The Grand Finale

With the remaining Old God influence dealt with and the Naga finally eliminated, Azeroth remains safe from itself. Attention can then focus on dealing with the Burning Legion once and for all, with players finally able to give Sargeras some much-needed payback.

This is the expansion where we get a chance to recapture the Burning Cidatel and defeat Sargeras. This is where Velen’s prophecy plays out. This is the final chapter in the story, the point where Azeroth becomes safe and where the heroes can retire.

Or is it?

The defeat of Sargeras doesn’t mean that the Burning Legion is wiped out. There are thousands of worlds out there that have been conquered, destroyed or become allied with the chaos army. While one story might end with a fifth expansion, there are a whole stack of unanswered questions and untouched worlds left out there.

Insert Coin To Continue

If the story finishes on the Burning Legion homeworld then what’s the reason behind it? Why lead the players to that location and finish the story arc there? Ultimately it’s because it represents an ideal moment to make fundamental changes to the way World of Warcraft operates.

At Blizzcon 2012 it’s likely that we’ll see the announcement of their next generation MMO. It’ll probably follow a similar model to World of Warcraft, being subscription based and featuring content patches and periodic expansions. What’s more interesting is where this leaves Warcraft, as it’s likely that players will just simply trade up to the next Blizzard game.

This leaves two options: either use the same monthly subscription for both games or switch Warcraft to a free-to-play model. In this case I think it’s the latter that will happen, and I think Blizzard are already laying the groundwork for it. The Guardian Cub is one such example.

The remaining question is how Blizzard will fund and deliver future Warcraft content. It makes sense to offer players a selection of downloadable content, but the traditional prerequisites of needing an earlier expansion pack before a later one can be played has to be removed. Capturing the Burning Citadel makes perfect sense for this.

Think about it. The place is probably littered with thousands of arcane portals, each linked to another world. Some of these portals might be working while others need repair. Either way, each one provides a method of providing a story and a chunk of content packaged neatly as a unit. They don’t even need to be part of existing lore, providing designers and story writers with huge amounts of creative freedom.

Each content pack behind a portal can then be sold individually on the Blizzard store. If one story doesn’t appeal to you then you don’t need to buy it. If anther sounds engrossing then you can bag it and quickly start experiencing it. Blizzard already had the technology to sell you new content and ship it to you quickly through in-game streamed downloads.

It’s the ultimate move to episodic content – stories that can be experienced as part of a larger arc, but which can just as easily be consumed on their own. It would be similar in foundation to Stargate or even Mr Benn, where through each magical portal lies a different story and adventure.

Death Has Been Cancelled

There’s been a lot of talk about one game or another being the death of Warcraft. Whenever a new MMO came out it would be heralded as a ‘Warcraft-Killer’ before promptly tanking. Nowadays we have smarter marketing men who tend to shy away from drawing too many comparisons.

The conversation has since moved to how Blizzard would kill Warcraft, either through bad game design or a lack of new content. It’s even been suggested that the only thing to kill a Blizzard game would be… another Blizzard Game. Diablo 3 or Titan may yet pull away a substantial block of the Warcraft playerbase.

The real truth that videogame veterans know is this: great games don’t die, they just grow old. I would not be surprised to see World of Warcraft still being played ten years from now.

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