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The Narrative of the Player Character: From the Many to the Few

June 28, 2011
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(Click here and here for the first and second posts in this series, respectively.)

WoW has come a long way since its release in 2005. There are any number of angles to take in examining the ways it’s evolved and developed, but, this being my series on player characters vs. narrative, what I want to explore is how the role of the player character has changed over the course of the last six and a half years. In looking back, what strikes me the most is the declining emphasis on collective efforts as necessary for in-game accomplishment, and by extension, experiencing the game’s story. Perculia commented in this post how Cataclysm strongly focuses on the player-as-hero, and while that framing has always been somewhat true in World of Warcraft, in this latest expansion it seems to have grown even further in importance. What’s changed? What’s the path that has led us here?

I believe this shift is one of the interesting cases where mechanical game design ultimately affects how the story is perceived and experienced. A medium shapes the way a story is told, and every medium has its own limitations. In World of Warcraft’s case, the primary limitation at work here is accessibility for the single player.

Blizzard developers have commented in interviews that much of the early drive to create World of Warcraft came from their experiences playing Everquest. Everquest is somewhat infamous for requiring enormous groups of people for much of the end-game content and this influence is strongly reflected in WoW’s early builds. 40-person raid teams were the norm, and group quests were extremely common. With no random dungeon finder tool dungeon groups had to be acquired the old-fashioned way if your guild wasn’t into it—by shouting into the “looking for group” chat channel and hanging out by a meeting stone until you had enough players to summon. For story-based, PvE content, your server was your ultimate community. This collective player effort reached its pinnacle in the events of patch 1.9, which added the Ahn’Qiraj raids—but only if you could unlock them. Opening the gates of Ahn’Qiraj required a server-wide effort on behalf of both factions, plus at least one guild progressed and dedicated enough to complete the old Scepter of the Shifting Sands quest line. That guild was responsible for piecing together the item that would allow the gates to be opened, but the rest of the server needed to collect various resources in sufficient amounts before the Scepter holder could hit the gong and open the gates. At this time in the game, your character was truly a cog in a grand machine—nobody could enter those raids until all those goals had been achieved. The server depended on whichever guild could complete the Scepter quest, but that guild depended on the server to gather all the necessary supplies.

An echo of this kind of collective effort also existed in The Burning Crusade expansion on the Isle of Quel’Danas. The Isle had been seized by a corrupted Kael’thas Sunstrider and the players were tasked with helping the Shattered Sun Offensive to reclaim it. The reclamation proceeded in stages and required certain quests to be completed a number of times before the next stage would unlock. Again, the effort of the community was necessary to advance the story.

Nothing like either of those events appeared in the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, though several zones—particularly Icecrown—heavily featured group quests. In Cataclysm, even those are mostly gone. The only real Cataclysm group quests are the dungeon quests, and the “Crucible of Carnage” set.

Myself and my hard-won PuG completing the quest "Turning Point" from The Burning Crusade expansion. If you haven't done it, I highly recommend it, and the Aldor version is even better.

Another common feature of the original WoW release and its first expansion were the “attunement” quests necessary for entering many raids. Entry into Upper Blackrock Spire, Blackwing Lair, Molten Core, Onyxia’s Lair, Karazan, Serpentshrine Cavern, Tempest Keep, Mount Hyjal, and the Black Temple all at one time required the player to complete a series of quests, most of which were not solo-able at their intended levels. However, in patch 2.4 Blizzard removed all necessary attunements for the existing raids of TBC, and at the end of The Burning Crusade expansion, they announced that there would be no more attunement quests for raids in the future.* I believe the original post about this decision has been lost since the new WoW forums were implemented, but if my memory serves, the changes were made at least partially because the developers were disappointed at how few players were actually able to see end-game content. Black Temple is a stunning raid, with beautiful design and haunting music, yet the attunement requirements to be able to enter it were prohibitively difficult for all but dedicated raiding guilds. With the release of Wrath of the Lich King Blizzard also permanently reduced the minimum number of players needed for most raids from 25 to 10. Both of these choices dramatically increased the accessibility of raids for players with limited playtime—after all, it’s easier to organize a group of 10 than one of 25, and both are simpler than the original 40. The addition of the random dungeon finder eased up on the required effort necessary to complete five-mans as well, making the entire battlegroup available for potential dungeon runs and giving players the ability to queue from anywhere in the world, rather than waiting at a meeting stone.

These choices all de-emphasize the collective in game mechanics and as a result also lead to a de-emphasis of the collective in the game’s story. The key here is the fact that in World of Warcraft the PvE content and the story line are synonymous. WoW’s story is primarily driven through quests and major arcs are concluded through dungeons and raids. The fewer people it takes to complete those objectives, the more important any one individual becomes to the advancement of the story.

What consequences does this have for the way players interact with the narrative? Well, it’s hard to put my finger on, but the game simply feels different, especially in the lack of group quests. It really does give the impression that my character is a unique hero, standing alone alongside NPCs. In earlier expansions I felt more like I was one of many–somewhat special, perhaps, but still not alone. I know this has affected the way I perceive my own character, especially with regard to the server community, and that in turn effects how I perceive the story. As fellow players become less necessary to complete lore-based quests and raids, and dungeons can be chain-run from anywhere with people from other servers, the game starts to feel more individual, and more like a single-player endeavor. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with this. I personally have no gripe about making the game easier to play for people with limited playtime, and I certainly understand how developers want as many people as possible to be able to experience the content they work so hard to create. But I do find myself shying away somewhat from the implication of my character as an extremely notable heroine. She, like me, is far more comfortable as one of the crowd!

What about all of you? For those of you who roleplay, how has this shift affected the way you perceive your character in the World of Warcraft, or has it affected you at all?

Speaking of RPers, the next, and final, post in this series is specifically focused on roleplay, and its own stories within stories. Woo hoo!

*Malygos is somewhat of an exception, as a Sapphiron kill is required to begin his raid.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 28, 2011 1:17 pm

    As I’m the resident Flavor Texter who’s done Not One, but Two Loremasters, I have to agree — the new questing system definitely gives the game a much different feel than it had even when I started playing, which was during TBC.

    One of my favorite achievements in WoW was completing the Scepter questline on my European incarnation of Catulla (I miss my Scepter SO BAD now that I’m on the US realms again). I knew that questline was nothing more than a pale shadow of what it must have felt like during vanilla (and even at the very end, it was STILL impossible to complete entirely solo).

    I actually even incorporated that into Cat’s RP story a little — I felt like the Scepter questline was something that high-ranking druids would be drawn to doing, almost as a memorial honoring the fallen during the War of the Shifting Sands, or even as a meditation of sorts. I mean, the War obviously had signfiicant implications for the Circle, and you’re well on your way to Guardian of Cenarius if you complete it.

    As someone whose play time is pretty limited these days (even with all the changes, I still am not able to commit to raiding), I do understand the practical reasoning behind creating more solo content, like what you’re describing. But I also share your opinion that I prefer to be one of many working towards (cheesy as it is) a better Azeroth. In terms of lore, it was GREAT to see all the Ancients when I completed Hyjal, but part of me was like “I’m raising Cenarius MYSELF? REALLY? Huh?” It felt like it should have been a cutscene from a raid, or something like that. Cenarius (and the rest of the Ancients) are incredibly powerful beings, and given the precedent for “group effort” in previous content, it was a little bit of a shock to be doing things on my own. It’s a difficult balance to try and strike, and I don’t envy Blizzard that task.

    It might sound silly, but I have a soft spot for the “mundane” quests — the ones where you need to pick up stores of food, or cull wildlife (like some of the early Teldrassil quests). They’re not big, they’re not epic, but even small things make a difference. War isn’t all heroics and glory, and so for me quests like that add to how well-rounded the game feels. Just because we’re going to beat up giant scaly internet dragons doesn’t mean we can forget the average NPC in Azeroth who is just trying to survive, if that makes sense.

  2. June 28, 2011 7:47 pm

    I think one of the big challenges from moving PCs away from a member of a supporting group to the entirety of the supporting group is that their personal stories begin to matter more, not less, and that creates incongruity in a MMO. When you’re part of a group, you don’t really need to explain why you specifically are doing the group quest or raid – it’s ultimately enough to say that you joined the group at the inn. You can go into that detail, but there’s an entire set of PCs that let you shape the story to explain how you, personally, got into this situation where you’re killing Arthas for Fordring.

    Stripping away the group strips away this anonymity. Instead of being part of a rag-tag group of heroes (or a highly disciplined military unit, take your pick), it is now just you. Why am I, as this character, specifically helping these people out? Why am I saving Hyjal? Why am I in Vashj’ir?

    As my character put it, “why am I, a mercenary soldier formerly in the employ of the Alliance, helping to save the Horde’s ex-Warchief, whom I hold ultimately responsible for the death of my sister? To save the world? Screw that, we can find another shaman to do his job.”

    When the stories were more anonymous, less personal, you could go through them with different characters and experience them in different ways. MMOs require constant suspension of disbelief as the world constantly resets itself around you as you play, so if a quest is somewhat impersonal, it fits in with the rest of the environment.

    When they get personal, though, then you start noticing that the MMO convention breaks down. If I’m the big damn hero of Hyjal, what are all those mobs still doing out there? If Sentinel Hill has been taken by the Defias, why can I still fly to it? These things wouldn’t fly in a traditional RPG/LARP – if I influence a city-wide event happening in Vampire, that event happens. What I did mattered. It caused the world to change, and it can’t go back.

    If you allow your actions to have meaning – which individual play reinforces – then you have to start really wrestling with the implications of that. And if the scope increases so that you’re now a Big Damn Hero, you can’t pass it off as “I was part of a good team.” No. You’re a badass at level 85. The events of the story show that you ARE a badass.

    But, as an MMO, the game can never really truly treat you like one.

  3. June 29, 2011 11:09 am

    Personally, I enjoy the changes to focus more on the individual. A lot of this for is for the sake of convenience. I hated having to spend an hour putting together a group to do a quest that takes fifteen minutes to complete. Don’t even think about trying to do a group quest in a zone that is no longer well-populated.

    But I do prefer the greater emphasis on my own prowess as a hero, as well. This game is supposed to be about fanboy wish-fulfillment, about being a big and mighty dragonslayer. So, dang it, I might as well be the biggest, baddest, most amazing dragonslayer out there. It makes me feel relevant to the world, instead of just some random scruffy mercenary. In reality, I am an ordinary person in an ordinary world. I play WoW so that I can be an extraordinary person in an extraordinary world.

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