Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Well, That was Unexpected

Back in pre-history, when people still loved the live action version of Game of Thrones on HBO, the question arose what would happen when the showrunners ran out of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice as source material. After all, George wasn't known as the speediest of authors, and anybody could see that the series on television was going to finish long before the books were.

Well, it was revealed back in 2014 that the showrunners had met with George and already knew the broad strokes going forward, including how the series would end.

And while Season 7 had its moments --including the Hodor masterstroke that the showrunners confirmed was George's idea-- we all know how Season 8 ended the series.*

I was thinking about that debacle, where there were only broad sketches of what came after the books ended, when I read Kamalia's post about the existential horror surrounding WoW retail's upcoming Shadowlands expac reflecting on Battle for Azeroth. Namely, exactly how much of the Warcraft/WoW story is planned out ahead of time?

And when I mean planned out, I don't mean for an entire expac, but rather years in the future.


As I commented on Kamalia's post, back when I was in college --and even before the red beard itself-- I'd read about how soap operas were plotted out. I was curious about this because I developed an addiction to Days of our Lives my sophomore year in college**

Yes, it was really this cheesy.

and I wondered just how much of the plot was planned in advance and how much was just made up as they went along. In spite of the "bad acting" that goes on in those shows --and when you consider that they film/record them day in and day out with very few outtakes due to the schedule, it's actually pretty good-- the plots, stories, and scripts are written months in advance of actual filming. Add to that the shows frequently had months of filming already "in the can" as the saying goes, the storylines were frequently plotted out about a year or more before airing. While this isn't saying a lot for a regular prime time television show, a soap is broadcast almost without fail, five days a week, 52 weeks a year. At maximum, that's 260 possible episodes, but in reality --due to holiday programming and other factors-- the number is somewhere between 200 and 260. For a 24 episode prime time season, that's 10 years worth of episodes, and for a BBC or cable type of series that's more like 20 years' worth.

To keep everything straight, therefore, long term plotting is essential.

Now, let's translate this into video games.

An MMO such as LOTRO, which is based on a completed series of fantasy novels, has a great advantage over MMOs that are on the Game of Thrones plan. You know the plot, you know the characters, and you even know the geographic locations and the potential for in-zone quests. All you have to do is fill in some of the details and extrapolate based on the author's works (and in Tolkien's case, both finished and unfinished). While I'm not saying it's easy mode, for a developer it's far less stressful to fill in a portion of Middle-earth than it is, say, the Star Wars universe with SWTOR.

Sure, there's a lot of potential reference material out there for SWTOR, but there's also a huge amount of freedom for a developer to change things around. The Old Republic era of the Star Wars universe doesn't have to tiptoe around the old Expanded Universe novels (outside of the Revan ones, obviously), it doesn't have to worry about any of the movies in terms of settings and plot, and it certainly doesn't have to worry about the vast majority of Star Wars fans upset with either the jettisoning of the EU or the direction the prequels and/or sequels took.

But it is under constant scrutiny by everyone and their grandmother for whether SWTOR is "Star Wars enough" to be considered Star Wars.

Between that and the constant pressure SWTOR's development staff is under, courtesy of Bioware executives and EA overall, it's no wonder that the direction of SWTOR's story has swung wildly over the years.


Warcraft and WoW fans may not be as rabid as the Star Wars fanbase***, but they do have definite ideas on how their beloved franchise should progress. However, unlike SWTOR and LOTRO, WoW's fanbase dictates a bit of a different focus than what you'd come to expect.

Remember the maxim "the game starts at max level"? For WoW, that means the focus is on Endgame more than anything else. However, I personally don't think that Endgame itself is Blizz' focus, narratively speaking.

If you look at the expacs for WoW --at least the ones that I've played up until I dropped by subscription-- it seems that Blizz's focus is toward specific set pieces, and plot/narrative is driven in service of those specific set pieces.

From Burning Crusade --with the dramatic conversion of Lady Liadrin prior to taking up the leadership the Shattered Sun offensive-- through Wrath with the Wrathgate event, and even into Mists with its multiple video cut setpieces (and the Siege of Orgrimmar), that seems to be what drives the WoW expac.

But for me, the question is whether there's an overall narrative plan stretching across multiple expacs, or whether their service to the set piece means that the set piece is developed first and then the expac is developed around it.


The reason why Kamalia's post is so important is because she lays bare that the upcoming Shadowlands expac takes all of those dramatic death scenes --or moments of sacrifice/suicide missions-- and makes them horrifying because death isn't the release people thought it was.

And yes, I agree with her completely on her point.

But I don't believe that was a primary objective of the expac; it was merely a side effect of the WoW expac development process.

I find it very hard to believe that all of those raids, starting from Wrath onward, that have bosses who die and exclaim that "[insert end boss here] controls me no longer", would have led to this existential moment where death turned out to be a horrifying alternative. Instead, I believe that Blizz said "Okay, let's do [XXX] set piece. Cool, isn't it? Now, how do we get to there?"

That's the thing about these set pieces: they only work if they are part of a cohesive whole that extends from expac to expac as part of a long term story that Blizz wants to tell. Right now, it certainly seems that Blizz is creating these set pieces without any sort of long term plan.

Why would I say that? Because if the set piece creates some jarring plot holes large enough to fly a zeppelin through, then maybe the set piece is the one that needs to change.

Speaking of set pieces that
drive expacs (or movies)...

For example, in the lead up to Mists there was the "mana bomb destroying Theramore" set piece. On the face of it, a major Alliance city so close to the Horde capital city would naturally be a military target in an Alliance vs Horde war. However, if you played the Horde (post-Cataclysm) questline in Stonetalon Mountains --which made use of another mega-sized bomb-- the total destruction of Theramore makes absolutely no sense, as Garrosh (in an earlier set piece) executed the Stonetalon Horde leader for displaying a lack of honor in slaying non-combatants. And, as everyone knows, there are plenty of non-combatants in a major Alliance city --with a sympathetic Alliance leader-- that had in the past sided with Orgrimmar over their own faction's potential interests.

Because someone decided edgier is better.
Hmm... There's something about that statement
that fits right in with the DC Universe....
(From metacritic, of all places.)

But when set pieces (and to a lesser extent the endgame) rules the decision making process, plot holes happen.

Just ask all those Daenerys fans about Season 8 of Game of Thrones.

From Vanity Fair.

Or maybe not.

*And that's coming from a guy who had no interest in reading or watching either version. George takes maniacal delight in killing off characters, so I took a wide pass on any of his writings.

**I only overcame this addiction when I was watching an episode and blurted out loud after a supposed major reveal "That was incredibly stupid!!" It was then that I realized bad storylines couldn't keep me engaged forever.

***I'd imagine that Blizz employees would beg to differ on this point.


  1. I enjoyed pre-Cataclysm Stonetalon Mountains, but I still haven't managed to play through post-Cataclysm Stonetalon Mountains on either side of the faction divide -- and part of it, by now, is having read much about that zone story ending and how Garrosh's plot in Mists was inconsistent with it.

    Speaking of Garrrosh, it does seem like Blizz has been trying to build more continuity between expansion plots since the end of Mists. I somehow don't think they're planning in nitty-gritty detail very far ahead, though. You've got a really good point here about the expansion plots being built around set-pieces -- which reminds me of Kaylriene's dissection of the fragmented nature of the BfA plot -- and how the stuff in between the set pieces within an expansion and from one expansion to the next doesn't necessarily hang together very well.

    It also reminds me of the fairy tale retelling comic that I began to plot when I was about 13 that never got farther than several pages of notes and a handful of character drawings because although I knew what some of the major set pieces of the story were going to be, I couldn't quite figure out how to do the development of the story & characters that would need to go in between those major events.

    1. Developing a cohesive story from around set pieces is hard to do, but no more difficult than outlining and writing from the beginning. In fact, the set piece can keep someone writing. I know this from experience, because when I wrote One Final Lesson, I had two set pieces in mind: the moment Card realizes what Evelyn is (plus the portal scene in the Mage Tower), and when Card puts everything together and casts successfully at the critical point in the story. But between those two set pieces there was a lot of story, and that story shifted quite a bit.

      But even then, I was open to changing the set piece around to serve the story, and if you'd seen the early drafts of both you'd not even recognize their finished form. That, I believe, is what Blizz needs to do more often. While we don't know what the early versions of the set pieces were, the fact that they were so wildly inconsistent with each other, the previous storyline, and then the subsequent future story direction, that I feel that they need to stop being a slave to the set piece and focus more on narrative consistency.

      And less "wouldn't it be cool if" thinking and more "let's remain internally consistent for a change". This also means the constant churn of killing off or making big changes to major NPCs throughout WoW's run, such as the almost constant killing off (and then reintroducing) main NPCs, or turning good ones to bad, etc. Now that I think about it, WoW's major NPCs really are caught up in a soap opera plot....

      And speaking of soap opera plots... For pete's sake, making EVERYTHING revert back to being one of the Old Gods' fault is just a worn out excuse in retail right now. This makes it seem that in the end people in Azeroth simply lack agency, and that over time everybody gets corrupted. If there's one part of the Cthulhu Mythos that I can't stand --outside of the racism Lovecraft baked into it-- it's that people are gonna be corrupted and there's not much you can do about it. Who wants to play long term in a world where none of your decisions ultimately matter?