Community Council Live Chat with the Warcraft Narrative Team
Several members of the WoW Community Council met with World of Warcraft narrative designers Steve Danuser, Anne Stickney, and Terran Gregory,
discussing a wide range of topics
related to the development of Dragonflight stories, thoughts about what players want to see more of, and what the narrative design team is focusing on for the near future.
The WoW team always has multiple things in progress, with Dragonflight recently shipping, they're working on both major and minor upcoming patches, as well as even thinking about the next expansion, which they can't talk about right now, but players will hear more about when the time comes! The life of narrative design is thinking about both what players are seeing now, as well as what will come next, so it's a lot to keep straight, but there is a lot of fun to come.
Danuser works on the bigger overall arcs, but his personal favorite story beats are the smaller points, where the passion and care of individual developers shine through. The expansion has major themes, such as the history and legacy of the dragonflights, and many of the individual stories touch on those things in personal ways.
The narrative, quest, and content teams have all grown, so there are a lot more people working on more content in Dragonflight.
Instead of one straightforward campaign, one of the intents in Dragonflight was to create multiple major factions and player choices of which to focus on. Everyone will still see the same stories and go through the same quests, but how the order in which they unfold may be different for many players. Some things have to be in the same chronological order for everyone so that the story will make sense, but the team likes that many of the sub-faction stories stand on their own.
The team knew from the beginning that the dragon aspects would be the core characters of the expansion, though we hadn't seen much of them since the end of Cataclysm - they were victorious over Deathwing, but it left them in the back seat. Dragonflight created an opportunity to uplift and make them super awesome again. So they form the central focus of the expansion, which other characters interact with or are impacted by, inspiring more stories and branching narratives, pulling in other characters like Khadgar.
Warcraft's characters have decades of history behind them at this point, so every one that enters the narrative brings their own story along with them, and the team wants to make sure that their stories get along with the overall expansion narrative. Khadgar is the guardian, he was with the Kirin Tor alongside Kalecgos, so it makes sense that the two stories are intertwined in the Azure Span.
The shared goal of Dragonflight so far is getting the dragon aspect powers back, but each flight has it's own individual goals. From a meta perspective, each dragonflight is in a different place right now - the black and blue flights have a lot more rebuilding to do than the red and bronze, but Nozdormu and Chromie are also tied up in their own stories. The team wanted to make sure that each flight has their own specific stories, while still giving them opportunity to engage in the main plotline and the threat of Raszageth.
The main focus resonating throughout Dragonflight is legacy - Wrathion dealing with Deathwings legacy and trying to become a leader of his flight, Nozdormu is struggling with his own legacy of becoming Murozond, Kalecgos is dealing with the lost legacy of the blue dragonflight, and even Raszageth plays into that same idea through the story of the ancient war between the aspects and the primalists.
The Dracthyr's story also focuses on legacy, specifically where they belong within this new world.
in the past, a lot of cinematic time was spent on big battle scenes, and although they still exist (see: Alexstrasza versus Raszageth), there are many more emotional moments as well. Inserting the player character is another new piece of tech which we saw some start in Shadowlands, which helps make the moments feel more meaningful and personal. Exactly what becomes a cinematic can vary; there are a lot of important moments which can be expressed through quest text or dialogue, but some demand performance in order to convey emotional equity.
Each dragonflight went through something thematically different in restoring their oathstone during the initial Dragonflight campaign. The blue and black dragonflight's specifically stand out, since neither of the aspects which made their original oath are around anymore, Wrathion and Kalecgos have to learn what they means for themselves. The stones represent both the duties of each flight, as well as their bond with the titans, which plays into the initial expansion premise of restoring the aspect's powers.
Care was taken to update the Centaur and the Tuskarr both in Dragonflight, giving them more culture and representation. In both cases, representatives from different cultures helped advise the WoW team in order to help ensure they were being represented without feeling appropriated. Game development and storytelling have evolved a lot in the last couple decades, and the team is trying to put a lot of thought and care into things that might have been taken for granted in the past.
Not everyone is necessarily going to run a dungeon when they finish a zone questline, so the team didn't want every zone's story to end in one. The story in Azure Vault has a few branches, but they both start and end inside the dungeon; you get some extra story involving Sindragosa if you run the dungeon, but it's not necessary to play in order to finish the zone's main story.
Without being too specific, patch updates should help remind players of the main plotline of Dragonflight, as well as tell separate stories both in the Dragon Isles and perhaps even with rest of Azeroth, and players should see both of those things going forward.
Pandaria told a story of escalation, so going back to Orgrimmar and seeing the build up of Garrosh's forces was important to filling out that narrative. BfA also touched on that, showing characters reflect on the Makgora and we saw similar threads in the pre-patch, with the citizens of Stormwind and Orgrimmar reacting to the appearance of these new dragon-people (Dracthyr).
The team is absolutely not done with heritage armor and still have many more to do. They're always looking for more racial questlines as they fit into the current narrative - the Blood Elf chain in 9.2.5 fit naturally because the breaking of the Helm of Domination affected what was going on in the Ghostlands, just as the Dark Ranger story fit well with what was going on with the Forsaken during the epilogue. It's just about finding the right space for them in order to give those stories the attention they deserve.
The Night Elves have been through a lot, and you don't recover from something like Battle for Azeroth overnight. They didn't want a resolution to feel rushed, so a big arc in Shadowlands was about processing the trauma, with supplementary perspectives from other characters like Shandris. The story is moving along and will continue through the course of Dragonflight.
There was an issue behind the scenes with how quickly renown could be earned, so some of the encrypted storylines unfolded faster than intended, but the question of how content should unfold and whether it should be deliberately held back on a real world cadence is tricky. The ideal is a story that unfolds organically over time, which most of the playerbase experiences at about the same time, but hard gating has its own cons.
It's easy to take for granted that there's so much quest text and dialogue in the game, but it takes a lot of time in practical terms. The pre-patch Uldaman was fortunate enough to have several books already written, but the team would like to have more books and bits in the world that players can interact with in order to get more story. Without giving spoilers, something related to that should be coming soon, and the team loves doing it when they can.
The narrative team loves the idea of a journal that players can collect and fill with all the lore notes, books, and pages found throughout the world, but it would take a lot of time and effort from a lot of different departments - narrative, art, UI, and more. It's one of those things that may be difficult to understand from the outside, but it would be a big undertaking. That said, Dragonflight didn't set out to update the UI, it just so happened to align with a time in which they had the time not only to do it, but to do it
The thing that differentiates writing from narrative design is the gameplay. The writing is important, but the world that you play in and travel through also needs to be able to tell it, so that you can see what's happening and pick up on visual cues of the story before you read anything. This comes through in the environment, the creatures, the art, all of that helps the story and the world come to life. It's an interactive process from day one, and down the line, the actual words start to come into play.
Everyone on the WoW team is a narrative designer, whether they're an engineer, an artist, or designer - everything players see, do, and experience helps tell the story and when those things all come together, it creates a world. Dragonflight is the epitome of that so far, and the team is very committed to telling the story through everything that they do.
Believe it or not, they do remember that the sword is still stuck in Silithus and when the story calls for it, there will be more to tell. It's not forgotten, it's just in queue.
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