BlizzCon 2017: Battle for Azeroth, the Horners, and Questioning My Fandom

BlizzCon is once again upon us. After an utterly cringey video trying to sell the Blizzard community as some warm and welcoming place (a notion easily disproved by 30 seconds in WoW), the announcements started coming hard and fast. And yet in all that news, I found very little that excites me.

The official logo for World of Warcraft: Battle for AzerothThe Battle for Azeroth begins:

Let’s get the biggest news out of the way. The next World of Warcraft expansion is Battle for Azeroth, focusing on the war between Alliance and Horde.

Again. Seriously.

Sigh…

So many awesome expansion ideas. So many potential plot threads. And they decide to once again flog the same dead horse they’ve been trying vainly to resurrect for over ten years. What a waste.

The thing is, we know this is a story that can’t go anywhere. No faction can either win or lose. We already went down this road in Pandaria, and while there was some great story-telling along the way, it was a story that ultimately went nowhere and changed almost nothing.

It makes the characters out to be such numb-skulls, too. By working together, the Alliance and Horde just defeated the most powerful army in the entire universe and saved countless trillions of lives. And now they’re back to clubbing each other over the head for land. Sure, that makes sense.

I do like her new outfit, I'll give you thatAnd honestly, it’s just depressing. Every day I wake up to news of the world spiraling deeper into hatred and despair, intolerance and paranoia spreading like wildfire, conflicts that will never be solved claiming more and more innocent lives. Do we really need that in our entertainment, too?

Urgh…

To add insult to injury, Azshara will be in this expansion as a raid boss, but that means we’ll never get an expansion all about her. The most legendary and exciting villain left in the Warcraft universe is being thrown away as an afterthought. It’s like if Wrath of the Lich King had been just one tier.

Now maybe — maybe — if she’s the last boss of the expansion, if it turns out everything else builds to her, maybe they might be able to do her justice. But I’m not hopeful right now.

I’m not sure if this is a silver lining or salt in the wound, but a lot of the actual features of the expansion are things I like. There’s two new continents this time, Kul Tiras and Zandalar, and those are both places I’ve wanted to see in the game for a very long time. I just wish they weren’t tied to such a pathetically dull meta-plot.

This time the continents are actually faction-specific, though you can access the other at max level. My guess is as an Alliance player (for example) you will never have access to Zandalar’s main stories, but you will be able to do world quests and dungeons there.

A preview of the new World of Warcraft expansion, Battle for AzerothThe most big ticket feature, at least in my view, is the oft-requested sub-races, though Blizzard is calling them allied races, and mechanics-wise they’re closer to full new races. There will be six at launch — including two new types of Elves — with more coming later.

Oddly, you’ll have to unlock the right to play these new races. The cynic in me is expecting some terrible pointless grind, but maybe it will be more story-driven like artifact quests, in which case it could be fun.

The new content types -Warfronts and Island Expeditions — are the sort of thing I’ll need to see in action to form an opinion of. And we’re getting a new artifact, but this time everyone gets the same artifact, and it’s a necklace. So basically the artifact system is continuing minus everything that made artifacts interesting. Sure, why not?

There will be leveling changes, as well, and at least some of these will be available before the expansion launches. While they’re not implementing the “One Azeroth” system I dreamed of, they are expanding level-scaling to give the old world broad level ranges. Legacy content is still irrelevant to max level players, but at least leveling will now flow a bit better. And you can skip Outland.

It’s unclear what, if any, other changes there will be. The plot of the expansion includes massive geo-political changes, most notably the destruction of Teldrassil (which means Horde are bad guys again, because absolutely everything about this has to be as tired and stale as possible, apparently), but there’s no talk of actual world changes. Will it be a phased thing? Will it only be in lore and not reflected in gameplay? You’d think if they were doing another Cataclysm, that would be a big headline.

The new Void Elf subrace in World of Warcraft: Battle for AzerothBattle for Azeroth is also missing a lot of other things I was hoping to see: No playable Vrykul, no new character customization, no new classes or specs.

Eh… I don’t know, man. I can’t muster any enthusiasm for any of this right now. Not even new Elves, and that’s a red flag if ever there was one.

Warcraft classic:

Here’s something no one saw coming: Blizzard is finally caving and planning to implement official vanilla servers.

There are a lot of people with a lot of very strong feelings on this. I’m not one of them. Honestly I never really saw the appeal. There are a few things I’d like to able to revisit about classic WoW, but it’s not enough of a draw for me to want to actually put in the time needed to actually level through it all.

I just don’t have much to say about this. I’m including mention of it for the sake of being thorough, but I just don’t care either way.

StarCraft: Meet the Horners

If there’s one thing about this BlizzCon I’m unabashedly excited for, it’s the new StarCraft II co-op commander(s): Matt and Mira Horner.

Mira Han-Horner in StarCraft IIThe idea of Matthew and Mira Han being a joint commander has been floated in the community a couple of times, and I’ve loved the idea from the beginning, but I never imagined Blizzard would actually do it. That they have is just delightful. The banter, people, think of the banter!

The gameplay video makes them look so fun, too. You can crash a space station into your enemies!

They will also be implementing the winner of the fan-made co-op map contest, though at this point I think I want a map veto more than I want new maps, so I’m not so excited for that.

The other news is that StarCraft II is about to go free to play… which is a little confusing, because it already is. And while the new update will relax some of the restrictions on non-paying players, it won’t eliminate them entirely, so really this is just a marketing gimmick more than any meaningful change.

But if it gets more people in StarCraft II, that can only be a good thing. Even if it’s winding down now, SC2 is one of the best things Blizzard’s done in the modern era.

The rest:

Blizzard’s other titles have gotten pretty much the news you would expect. Overwatch is getting a new map and hero.

The new support hero, Moira, in OverwatchThe map is BlizzardWorld, a theme-park based on Blizzard’s non-Overwatch games. It’s the most meta thing in the history of meta. The Protoss section is so beautiful I almost cried, though, and I admit I did laugh at “Snaxxramas.”

The new hero is an evil Scottish scientist named Moira. She’s a support.

They also had another animated short (about Reinhardt this time), which once again gives a hint of how amazing the Overwatch universe could be if Blizzard actually did anything with it, but they aren’t, so my ability to care is pretty much gone at this point.

Heroes of the Storm announced some general tweaks, including what appears to be massive nerfs to all stealth heroes, plus two new heroes: Overwatch’s Hanzo and Warcraft’s Alexstrasza. My enthusiasm for Heroes is greatly diminished these days, but I have to say the cinematic for those two was absolutely nerdgasmic. Man, I wish my Elven characters in WoW could look like Alex did there.

I’m probably reading too much in, but I was also intrigued by the repeated hints to “events in the Nexus” that will be unveiled at a later date. Not sure what that means, but it sounds important. Again, I may be reading too much in.

Finally, Hearthstone is of course getting another expansion, Kobolds and Catacombs. This was mainly amusing for watching the developer tie himself in knots trying to describe an expansion based on Dungeons and Dragons without using the phrase “Dungeons and Dragons.”

Alexstrasza the Dragon Queen in a Heroes of the Storm cinematicEngage cynicism:

I have to be honest: Mayhap soon the disappointment will wear off, or things will turn out better than I expect, but I have never questioned my Blizzard fandom as much as I am right now. This is a pretty big BlizzCon for news, and the only thing I’m genuinely excited about is a minor patch for StarCraft II. That’s bad.

It boils down to this: I became a Blizzard fan for the stories. Say what you will about Blizzard’s story-telling, but it always made me happy, since I was a little kid. But now we’ve reached a point where every single one of Blizzard’s franchises seems to have given up on story altogether, except Warcraft.

And Warcraft? Well, the Legion’s gone. Azshara’s about to be gone, and apparently she’s just being thrown away as a side story instead of being treated as the epic legend she is. There’s still N’Zoth, but as much as I’ve enjoyed the build-up around him over the years, I don’t really have much emotional investment in him.

It’s hard to imagine a future where I’m not a WoW player, but I think Blizzard may have finally run out of stories that I want to hear in that universe.

And I just don’t know where I go from here.

Advertisements

RPGs Versus Progression Games

Has it ever occurred to anyone that the video games we refer to as role-playing games, or RPGs, are spectacularly mislabeled?

Scott Ryder in Mass Effect: AndromedaLet’s look at what that term actually means. “Role-playing” refers to assuming an identity or personality other than your own. To pretend to be someone else, usually to act out a scenario or tell a story.

While most RPGs incorporate at least some element of this, it’s very rarely the focus. It isn’t what defines the genre. In video game terms, RPG elements are considered to be things like character levels, stat sheets, experience points, and unlockable abilities. All of these things have little or nothing to do with role-playing.

I understand that the ingrained terminology of the genre is not going to change just because a chubby blogger in Toronto says so, but I would like to outline why I believe that most if not all video games we call RPGs are mislabeled, and how this goes a long way to explaining my love-hate relationship with the genre.

Stop, drop, and role:

I know quoting Wikipedia is in the same realm of tackiness as bringing 7 Up as a wedding gift, but while looking for definitions of role-playing, I found this one pretty apt: “A role-playing game is a game in which the participants assume the roles of characters and collaboratively create stories.” [Source]

I would argue that video games eliminate the need for other players in the creation of your role-play story, as scripted NPCs can fulfill the same need. That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t role-play with other people, of course; it just means they aren’t a necessity.

My party in Sword Coast LegendsEither way, role-play is about assuming a role and telling a story.

Now what does that have to do with level grinds and character stats? Nothing whatsoever.

In the early days of tabletop role-playing, things like character sheets and stat rolls and such were necessary to give the experience some degree of order and consistent logic. Video games, on the other hand, have the ability to keep all that under the hood and provide the player a seamless, immersive experience.

But because the genre’s origins were rooted in numbers and stats, gamers and developers have come to conflate the two. The character sheets and dice rolls continued into the digital space, and now they’ve taken over the genre entirely to the point where they’ve shoved out the actual role-playing.

Consider MMOs. Traditionally developers have had to designate special servers (usually a minority of the total server pool) for role-playing, and increasingly they’re not even bothering to do that.

Those who do role-play in MMOs are often viewed by other players as strange or even deviant, and openly mocked. They are a minority, and like all minorities in gaming, held in very low regard.

My rogue in RiftDoes this not seem incredibly bizarre to anyone else? If we’re to believe the name of the genre, role-players are the only ones who are actually playing the games correctly, and I say that as someone who is at best only on the barest periphery of role-play.

I think this proves the games we call RPGs aren’t about role-playing at all. Most of them incorporate RPG elements, but that doesn’t make them true RPGs.

To give you an idea, I think Life Is Strange is much more of an RPG than World of Warcraft. It’s all about playing a character and making choices as that character to shape the story. I’m not sure it’s a perfect example of what an RPG could or should be, but it’s certainly much closer than most of the games we call RPGs.

So what should we call them?

I name your true name:

I would argue that the genre we have come to call RPGs should instead be known as progression games.

The core concept that unifies the genre is that of progression, of growing more powerful and improving your character’s performance. You level up, unlock new abilities, get better gear, and so forth. This is true regardless of whether you’re playing Mass Effect, Pillars of Eternity, Diablo, Aion, Persona, or whatever other example you want to give.

A screenshot from the RPG Titan QuestProgression is the mechanic that purists of the genre cling to. I’ve often heard complaints that level-scaling such as was introduced to the Elder Scrolls Online with One Tamriel is bad because it makes games less of an RPG. That’s an absolutely ridiculous argument; level-scaling makes a game more of an RPG by eliminating ridiculous scenarios like slaying a dragon with a single punch.

But level-scaling does make it less of a progression game. We have conflated RPGs and progression mechanics to the point where people are unable to separate them, but in truth it’s little more than an accident of history that the two are related at all.

Pretty much the only area where the two concepts meet is when constructing a character build. Your choices of which stats to stack and which abilities to unlock help express the identity of your character, and that is an element of role-playing as well as a means of progression.

For example, in World of Warcraft, my warlock actually hates demons. As a result, I choose the talent Grimoire of Sacrifice whenever possible, allowing her to sacrifice her demon minion to increase her own power. This enhances the fantasy of the character. To her, demons are simply a resource to fuel her own quest for vengeance, and Grimoire of Sacrifice lets me express this concept through the gameplay.

But even then performance concerns in progression games can often cause you to make compromises in your character concept in order to ensure your character is strong enough to overcome the challenges before you. This is especially a problem in MMOs, where there’s an element of social pressure to conform.

My warlock cosplaying as a demon hunter in World of WarcraftStalled by progression:

Understanding the difference between role-playing and progression games goes a long way to explaining the love/hate relationship that I have with the genre we tend to call RPGs. You see, I’m a big fan of role-playing games, but much less fond of progression games.

Certainly progression provides a very strong psychological hook, which is why nearly every game of every genre now has at least some small element of it. We are as a species keyed to appreciate reward structures like this.

But that doesn’t necessarily make it interesting gameplay, and the more time you spend with it, the more transparent it becomes. After so many years of playing progression games — especially MMOs, where the treadmill is at its most naked and cynical — I have almost entirely stopped caring. I’ve gotten so much phat lewt and heard so many level dings that it’s stopped meaning anything to me at all.

I still like making builds, and earning new abilities is the one part of progression that still consistently excites me, hence my two Panoptic Cores in TSW (RIP). But for the most part I’m reaching the point where I just want to establish a good build as quickly as possible and then focus on actually playing the game.

Progression inhibits role-play at least as much as it enhances it. It’s a distraction at best, a roadblock at worst. Hence my eternal frustration with a genre I otherwise love. What I want is to inhabit a character, to immerse myself in a world. Most of what we call RPGs offer this, but not always to the extent I crave. Too much focus is put on the numbers, not enough on the texture and character of the world and its story.

Jeyne Kassynder in Dungeon Siege III. Ah, Jeyne, we hardly knew yeI think this is what keeps me coming back to Bioware, despite their inconsistencies. They’re progression games, but they haven’t forgotten their RPG roots. They’re still, at their heart, about people, places, and stories.

And that’s what attracts me: Exploring new lands, getting to know characters, and living out stories. Those are the experiences I crave. That’s what role-playing games are truly about.