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?
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.
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.