On the Continuity Problems of Azuremyst Isle

Cyntilate_-_reborn_at_the_exodar_crash_site

I’ve been letting my son play a bit of WoW. He’s 6, and I’m not sure if this is an entirely good idea, but I sit there with him while he plays it, reading quests with him, talking through different moral dilemmas presented by the stories, and helping him out when the mechanics of the game get too much for him.

We’ve gone through a bunch of the starting areas together – he tends to peter out on a toon around level 10-15 – so after finishing up his Worgen mage, he decided to roll a Draenei Warrior. I’m cool with that, warriors are always good in my book, and the spacegoat animation isn’t that bad (though I prefer the female night elf melee animations, personally).

The Worgen starting area is pretty intense for a 6-year old. Near the end he just got completely overwhelmed by stuff and was like, “Dad, do this one for me.” Normally I make it a policy not to do quests for him, but he wanted to see how the story turned out SO MUCH that I made an exception, and, as much I don’t think I should have, I did it. He really struggled with the railroading storyline. Why can’t I go back and save the city? I held off Worgen in the Cathedral for days, how could they have gotten me? Why do we keep evacuating when we keep winning?

Then there are the continuity flubs. Why are the stained glass windows intact again, Dad? Who fixed them? Why can’t we go in through the windows like the Worgen did? Who leads the Forsaken again, Dad? Oh, the one we saw in the cathedral? (I’d forgotten that scene.) Why didn’t she just release the plague right away, maybe from the ships? It’s a gas, right? Couldn’t they just release it and let the winds carry it over the cities?

So I promised him he’d see the end of the Battle for Gilneas, which he did, and which sent him reeling because he was like NIGHT ELVES WHAT, which, truth be told, was pretty much my reaction too. I said on twitter and I’ll say it again: the problem with Gilneas is that there’s too much story there and it goes by too quickly. If I took less than a year to tell that story in a traditional RPG I’d eat my GM hat.

My son is 6. He’s experiencing the starting area no more than an hour at a time, spread out over weeks (he’s only allowed to play on the weekends with me.) He’s paying attention to the story. He is trying to make sense of all the stories, it’s really quite interesting to watch.

It’s off of this that he rolled a Draenei and we headed over to Azuremyst Isle, a place I actually know pretty well. I’ve rolled maybe a half-dozen Draenei over the course of Wrath – two of them became decent or good twinks – but none of them really worked out, and they always end up getting deleted. I’ve yet to connect with the race, and I’m not sure why. Suffice to say, I know the starting area pretty well, and can burn through it quickly when the need arises. I settled in for the opening movie.

Holy. Moly. What?

Basically, the opening film says: things have been settled in Outland, and now the Draenei have decided to stay in Azeroth to help heal it, especially after the Cataclysm. Then you’re thrown right back in time to when the Exodar crashed.

What happened next was predictable, if you’ve ever been around a kid who is trying to reconcile two incompatable stories. Wait, Dad. What’s this ship that crashed? I thought we had already landed on this planet and made it our home? Why are we trying to find out about the mutations? What’s a mutation? I thought we were had already started healing the land?

Cynwagon_-_crash_site

Ammen Vale, back in Wrath, was in a somewhat tricky spot chronologically. You started out in BC, then went back to Vanilla, then back to BC when you hit Outland, then on to Wrath afterwards. I found the expansion hurdles to be quite jarring when I first did them leveling Cynwise, insofar as the timeline didn’t make sense, even as a Human. Adding in starting in one time zone and moving backwards if you were a Draenei made it even more challenging – but at least you could suspend disbelief for levels 20-58, as there weren’t direct contradictions within the timeline. You got in and moved forward, and once you completed Outland and moved to Northrend, you were back in current time.

I’m watching my son struggle with this story as he’s out killing corrupted root lashers. He started in Cataclysm, and is now back in the past (BC). That, right there, is a lot to take in right at the start. What the heck is the story really about? The quests don’t match up with the racial introduction at all. There’s nothing wrong with them, except that they are all about discovering this strange new world – that your race supposedly already knows about, cares about, works to protect and is their new homeworld.

You could say, hey, that’s a throwaway movie that doesn’t matter, but I’m watching him going, yes, it does matter. Blizzard tried to update the Draenei starting area by adding a new voiceover, but by not changing the quests they made it even worse than before. Now it’s Cata (movie) -> BC 1-20 -> Cata/Vanilla 21-58 (those jumps back in time in Dustwallow Marsh make all our heads hurt) -> BC 58-67 -> Wrath 68-80 -> Cata 81-85.

Call Chromie, the spacegoats are time traveling again!

There are certain MMO conventions which I think adults handle better than kids, or young kids. Give my son an engaging quest to save 8 people, he’ll do it and then want to spend the next 30 minutes rescuing people. Why can’t I save more of them, Dad? He grudgingly accepts the convention, and gets that the world resets itself and we have to pretend that a lot of things that are happening on screen aren’t what the world would really be like. But that’s because the story pushes him forward – he saves Tauren braves and moves on. He kills Ice Trolls and moves on. The story demands it.

But this particular convention, he’s not getting.

I tried to explain the logic of expansions with absolutely no sucess. Dad, what do you mean they changed some parts of the story but not others? How can a story work like that? Why didn’t they change it to all fit? What are development resources? Why? Why?

I dropped it for now and showed him how to use Charge, which distracted him for a little while. But I know he’s still thinking about this.

I know I’m still thinking about it, because … well, I had a big problem with expansion continuity when I leveled Cynwise, and that was all forward motion. (I still have a problem with it if I think about it too hard.) Now there’s forward motion, backward motion, forward, backwards…

I feel like I’m playing Back to the Future MMORPG sometimes.

Cyntilate_-_life_as_a_pirate

I’m not going to sell my son short on this – while he’s confused now, I think he’ll eventually make the cognitive leap to deal with the problem of the Draenei, like most players do. (Or he’ll ignore it, which is a way of dealing with it.) Most adults go, okay, that’s strange, but deal.

But should we deal with it?

Blizzard has a reputation for polished games, but I have trouble reconciling that reputation with the product I see in front of me. One of the playable races’ stories falls apart during the first 10 minutes of game play. (It’s a popular race, too!) How would you evaluate a game where you get contradictory timelines when you start out? Or of asking players to follow along with one story, and then completely disrupt it after they’ve played for a few weeks when they get to Outland?

I look at the mess inflicted on the timeline by the expansions and go, how is this a coherent product? As a story-driven game, how can this be defended as a good experience? How can you stand up and say, yes, we want character’s stories to be fragmented as they level through our game, and we are proud of it?

You can’t. Blizzard can’t. To their credit, they aren’t proud of it, and they cite very reasonable arguments as to why certain zones got revamped and others didn’t. The BC zones are in pretty good shape from a quest flow perspective, after all, and others were much worse. Resources are limited and you have to prioritize features. The story problems inherent to BC/Outland content are a low priority to fix.

I’m reminded of my mantra when dealing with vendors who fail to deliver.

This is just business; it’s not personal. I don’t care about your other customers if they’re taking away development resources on things I’ve paid for. I don’t care about your process problems which cause you to be 6 weeks late in installing a circuit, and then cause you to do it wrong. I don’t even care if you’re going to take a loss on the transaction. None of those are my problem.

Trust me. I understand that there are development constraints both from a product development and coding standpoint in any software package, games included. I get it.

I also have a 6-year old who is very interested in the story of this game, though, and wonders why it contradicts itself right at the very beginning of his new character’s story – especially coming off a story where it didn’t. Gilneas may feel rushed, but at least it’s consistent. Azuremyst Isle is a well designed zone which doesn’t make any sense.

Let’s say I wrote a book, and each chapter is internally consistent chronolgially – excpet the time each chapter is set in might vary. (Let’s call this book… Cryptonomicon.) I could tell several stories this way, with different characters, or a younger and older version of the same characters. If I did it halfway decently, and tied it all together at the end, it would be an effective storytelling technique. But that’s not what WoW is doing because of the linear progression expected out of leveling. You start off as “young” – level 1 – and progress through experience. You can’t jump around in time, go relive your adventures at level 20 and then come back to 85 (unfortunately.)

I’m just struck by how lazy it is. I’m sorry to put it like that, in deference to development time, but it’s saying – it’s more important to us that we get new raiding tiers out than it is to have a fundamentally sound game from 1-85. (And perhaps they’re right!) Content revamps are these huge, expansion-wide things, and while there’s talk about revamping Outlands/Northrend to fit in with the Cata timelime, there’s no indication it’s a priority. Why should there be? The mechanisms are in place to completely skip those parts of the story (LFD, PvP, gathering.) They’re dead content zones. They’re places to skip over, instead of part of the whole. Blizzard effectively said, players can deal with the flaws here, leave them untouched, do other things. That’s lazy. You can call it “correctly prioritizing new feature development over maintenance on current systems” if you like, but as a customer – I don’t care about your development constraints. I shouldn’t care about them, asking me to care about them is insulting. Provide a good product. Period.

It would have been interesting if Blizzard had taken a different design route with Ouland/Northrend in Cata – instead of thinking, we have to revamp these zones, provide players with a story-based way around them. Leveling through Outland it feels like I do HFP, a bit of Zangar, and a bit of Nagrand before hitting 68 now – why not make that two zones in Azeroth? Maybe Silithus needs to be expanded to give you some reasons to stay, to level up to 64 there. Maybe Kul Tiras could become a zone that gets you to 68. Providing an alternate route for the story would still let people do the old content if they wanted, but they could also have a consistent story that takes them through Cata the entire way. Players are tired of Hellfire Pennisula! Give them another way to go through those levels and they’ll probably take it!

That still leaves the problem of Azuremyst Isle, though.

I don’t see how to reconcile the story of the zone with the place of the Draenei in present-day Azeroth without changing either the quests – or putting it all back in BC.

I just know that the way it’s handled right now – with the Cata intro and the BC quests – makes it even less likely I’ll click with a Draenei anytime soon.

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14 Comments

Filed under Cynwise's Field Notes

14 responses to “On the Continuity Problems of Azuremyst Isle

  1. Pike

    This was a really interesting post. I’d sort of just “lived” with the draenei starting area, but it had never occurred to me how a younger player might view it (and have problems with it!)I always sort of assumed that Blizzard has got an Outlands-revamp expansion coming sooner or later and that the draenei (and maybe blood elves) would get revamped alongside it. Either that, or Outlands has to become sort of melded into the old world in terms of leveling content for that level range. I, too, am sick of Hellfire (and of all the Hellfire dungeons that I’d just chain run in order to bypass all the Hellfire quests.)

  2. Lycanthrope

    I do not know how they “fix” this problem. Starter zones are there to introduce a race, tell their backstory, and show how they fit in to overall Azeroth. Revamp Azuremyst and it seems you take out half of that. How do you avoid going back in time, and yet show how the Dranei established themselves on the world, and with the Alliance?The new intro cutscene was a bad, bad idea true. Better to have left the zone in the past as the introduction it was intended to be. The only good way I can think of to revamp it is to COMPLETELY revamp it. Start from scratch and do a complete new introduction to the race in the context of their current place in the world. And you know the odds of Bliz making that kind of effort to what they consider outdated content.Yes, I did write this at the hour it indicates. This has been a bad stomach/head night….

  3. Druidis4fite

    They lost a good opportunity to explain why you’re going back in time in the introduction, unfortunately. Here’s my stop gap measure, which I prefer to just removing or revamping BC/LK completely. (I actually take a lot of comfort in hanging around LK now, as a wrathbaby. It’s soothing and familiar.) It’s already in game, it makes perfect sense: the Infinite Dragonflight. Add a few quests at the transition of each expansion that explain that you’re going back in time. Explain that the remaining enemies facing azeroth are too strong for an untested adventurer like yourself, and you need to prove your worth, gain Garrosh/Varian’s trust, and acquire better gear. Right now, you’d either be wasted or cannon fodder, and you’re too valuable to let that happen to you.Put Chromie next to the dark portal, explain that additional resources are needed in the timeline of early BC to stabilize the Sunwell, which is under attack by the infinite dragonflight. It might seem redundant but we just gotta have more pig blood and kill more demons. You could even have her reappear every few levels, just to check in. Maybe add a phased event at level 68. Then send us off to go relive the glory days of Wrath to ensure Arthas’s eventual defeat. Ideally there should be some indication this is going down in 20-60 and 80 content, too. Maybe you discover the infinite dragonflight is working with the Twilight Cultists – they have similar goals. There’s a lot of unexplained lore about the infinite dragonflight, they could be alligned with the chromatic dragons, or Neltharian, or Deathwing. Maybe we get a new CoT five man and some drake bosses in 4.3. It could work and would require not THAT much extra work and doesn’t remove all that content, that Blizz is still proud of, from the game.Would it work for everyone? Nah. Is it as “smooth” as being 100% chronological? Nah. I’ve never really felt like I’m living in a chronological world anyway – Rhonin fought in the War of the Ancients, and II killed Marrowgar 53 times. Sometimes, I turn into a human and run around Stratholme. I can go Red Rocks, covered in magical gemstones, enchanted leathers, and bearing the banner of the horde’s greatest heroes, and they send me out to bonk ostriches with a stick with calves still learning to hold a shield.

  4. Cynwise of Stormwind

    @pike: Yeah, it’s interesting playing with a kid who wants to know about ALL the quests and stories. He gets upset when I skip quests on my main. I’m like… dude, those are dailies, I don’t do dailies anymore. He’s like, DAD JUST READ THEM TO ME OKAY????/sigh/does Molten Front, hates itI’m glad he’s made me question a lot of what I see. I can’t wait to get him into a real RPG to straighten him out.@lycanthrope: I agree with you – either drop the new intro and leave it in the past, or revamp the whole thing. It actually makes more sense as staying entirely in BC than it does now, and that doesn’t make much sense at all.Phasing would allow some of this to be fixed – by phasing Azuremyst, you can have it be either contaminated (BC) or healed (Cata), depending on the quests you complete. That might look kind of interesting, to be honest.

  5. Cynwise of Stormwind

    @druidis4fite: That’s an excellent idea. I don’t have any problems with time travel as a plot device – hey, it’s in there, may as well deal with it – and it would help provide coherence to a player’s story.I don’t want to lose the old expansions, either – I still haven’t really played BC, or finished Wrath. That’s why I thought having an alternate leveling path around them would provide a nice transition. But a few quests to move you through time is a more elegant, less resource-intensive solution. Me likey!

  6. Druidis4fite

    I’ve been spending my time in game in Outlands lately, again. It’s super low commitment, since Puppy needs constant attention. I’m finishing up some of the achievements I couldn’t solo at 80, and doing orcheology. I’m getting to see the heroics, finally. It’s a cool place and I really don’t want them to radically revamp it, it’s just not necessary. No one leveling “normally” would ever even see it. Who does the Arcatraz key quest anymore? How many people do Shattered Sun dailies? Who’s still running around with the Staff of the Archmage? (Rades, that’s who.) It’s like unlocking free bonus levels!I do wish they’d made new Azeroth go up to 62, at least, and/or shifted the level requirements of the other zones down. Everyone is sick of Hellfire Penninsula. I *like* HPF and I’m tired of it. (HFP is the place I am most grateful for my computer, I leveled the first time on a laptop where you couldn’t see 6 feet in front of you, I got felrevered countless times. By comparison, I can’t help but see the beauty of the zone with decent view settings. Then again, I thought Phoenix was a gorgeous city. Massive digression, hooooo.)You should be able to go through the dark portal and basically go straight to Zanger or Nagrand, which would give people time to level in SMV or Netherstorm if they wanted. With heirlooms, the mobs don’t hit hard, but you can’t get the quests til 67 or 68 at the lowest. Just make Nagrand 63+ and SMV and Netherstorm 65+. Move the first few mobs down a few levels if you need to. I’d LOVE to see more dynamic phasing used to explain things, but I don’t see it happening. You could definitely write a Drae starting zone where you can select in the first quests “I have just crashed on Azeroth, what’s going on?” or “I’ve come from Northrend to check up on my home.” You wouldn’t even need to change the quests much, just a bit of text. “We have owlkins. What’s the deal with Owlkins?” versus “Remember those Owlkins? They had babies. Go tag them, too.”

  7. wowopa

    Great post and comments regarding the continuity of things in the game; however, what I like most is the view from your son’s eyes. I have a 7 year old at home and not long ago, started letting him play with me (I can not tell you how many sub-level 10 toons are strewn across Azeroth, half of them ghosts, lol); I wish I had written down the things he’s noticed and said about the game.At first I tried to be as hands-off as possible to let him explore, etc… but gradually encouraged him to quest instead of run around and kill every Kobold or Scorpid in sight. It was great hear him read the quest and make funny comments or questions about it and get excited about the quest rewards and gear choices, which encouraged him to do more quests and now is quite motivated to complete all the quests in his log. :-D

  8. Rhoelyn

    I thought this was a really interesting perspective, and unique. And true.I’m not sure Blizzard has always made the correct story decisions, always put it high enough on their priority list. But in a way, they’ve done this to themselves by being so ambitious about the story. Sure, it may not quite be a smooth transition, but there is transition. Forward motion. Even new things like phasing to literally make the world change because of what you do. So say they did something like @Druidis4fite’s idea? It really works well… unless you want to share your world with someone higher-level. How do you explain that you can go to Stormwind and see Doug, who’s level 85, when you’re living in the past? Or why is level 2 Bankorama there? Why can you buy goods off the AH that are from Hyjal when in YOUR timeline, the mountain is inaccessible?It’s a great baseline idea to utilize the time-traveling dragons among us, but it still can’t eliminate the inconsistencies from WoW. It only puts them somewhere else.I guess all I’m saying is that I’m not convinced laziness is the problem. There are real logistical issues that have yet to be solved about progressing an MMO through time, forwarding the WORLD’S story while still accommodating new players, new toons, and do-overs.And maybe, just maybe, Blizzard is learning as it goes to make the next one better at this.

  9. Tonk

    Sorry but I don’t buy the “development constraints” argument.Back in the dark ages of teh interwebz, you needed a programmer to put a picture online or fix a typo on your website because they were the only ones with the access and technical knowledge to do it right. Everybody knew it was a waste of resources to do it that way but the intern with the English degree simply couldn’t do the job. Fast forward a decade and those programmers had created blogs and other content management tools that empowered the intern to take a more active role in content creation and freed up the programmer for more technically demanding challenges.WoW wasn’t built for the long run so, when it launched, I have no doubt that it did take a developer to update a quest to kill 8 rats instead of 10 or kill murlocs instead of wolves. And if that developer was also the same one to work out the details of a new boss mechanic, well then 10 wolves it was. We don’t know the details of how game content is managed but it’s not a huge leap to suggest that some of the reconfiguration tasks could be done by non-technical people. Yes, it still takes time and money and there would probably still be a need for god-like input from time to time but you’re not sucking resources from the end game because the primary skill requirements are different. I want writers and editors and artists to revamp a quest line. I want engineers and raid experts designing the next end boss.Maybe Blizzard hasn’t invested in virtual world content management tools. Maybe quests still need raid designers to update them. But if that’s so, then Blizzard has been quite lazy indeed.

  10. Lycanthrope

    Development is not nearly as simplified as some may believe it; and to compare creating optimized code for a huge MMO to putting up a web page is vastly understating the differences. True, using C++ and JavaScript tools is much easier than the old days of rigorously tuning assembly language code. But a huge project like WoW has to be optimized to handle thousands of player actions every second and respond to thousands and thousands of requests, special sub-routine calls, and instantly access databases with millions of items. Sorry, but you just cannot get minimally-trained IT staff to slap that t

  11. Lycanthrope

    ogether with hope and bailing wire. Yes, they have powerful tools to aide the artists and programmers that work on the graphics. But it requires highly-skilled and experienced staff to make efficient and optimal use of those tools.And never try to do complicated work like responding on a phone keypad. Disaster. Simply disaster….

  12. Tonk

    I didn’t compare “creating optimized code for a huge MMO” to putting up a web page. I said that smart organizations create ways to eliminate bottlenecks by matching skills to tasks.Part of what made blogging possible was the separation of function, content and presentation. In the early days, these were all mashed together. If a task is primarily editorial, writers and editors can be empowered to do what they do best. Assigning functional or presentation resources to a content job is a fundamental mistake. Blizzard doesn’t do this.The problem with disjointed timelines isn’t so much how it looks or works but the explanations and the meaning. A consistently rewritten story line can use stock functions and existing art. It’s mostly an editorial job that ought to be possible with no changes to the code.