How Blizzard came up with Mists of Pandaria

Before we learned about Mists of Pandaria and where we stalwart adventurers would be exploring in the coming months, I wrote a post discussing how an expansion about Pandaria, specifically its title, would change the tone of World of Warcraft. Mists of Pandaria would be the first expansion that does not directly reference or reveal the main villain of the expansion's storyline. Blizzard and the WoW development team has been incredible stewards of tone, from the early days of Warcraft to Cataclysm's world-breaking motif. Tone is one of the most important aspects of the MMO because your game world needs to be compelling enough to call back players at any point. Good MMOs set good tone.

Tone has evolved in WoW after each expansion pack, changing considerably each time we swap settings and install the latest content. Alex asked me to write an article that spanned the history of World of Warcraft, and I could think of nothing more dynamic than the tone of the story and how masterfully Blizzard has handled it.

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Warcraft before the World

Long ago, in a time long forgotten by memes and YouTube, there was a world of Warcraftbefore World of Warcraft. The Warcraft universe uniquely blended the RTS genre and its complexities and strategies with a brand of humor that compelled players to click, click, and click until every unit was milked of its hilarity. The look, feel, and especially the tone of theWarcraft games was one of the most talked-about features and aspects of the games. "Stop poking me" became a quick classic. Missions would send Orcs from another dimension after Human settlements to capture pop references and funny-named characters, all in the presence of a goofy voice from outer space. The Humans were so stark and proud, with the manner of the greatest medieval cosplayers the early '90s could offer. It was jokey with a hint of war.

Even in the transitional Warcraft III, where the series' story began to take on a more serious, cinematic vibe, the humor stayed. The tone shifted toward suspense and overwhelming danger while still retaining the old Warcraft humor and quips, even in the face of a darker world. Arthas stormed into his father's throne room, murdered his king, and ascended to his future as a death knight, all in a world where Goblins rode turtles, Humans joked about joining the army, and gyrocopter pilots could see their house from all the way up in the air. The key point is that both of these types of events existed in the same universe almost seamlessly.

World of Warcraft

The original World of Warcraft's tone was less about the world and more about the mechanics. The Azeroth that we first stepped into back in 2004 was an Azeroth built from the ground up with the previous generation of MMOs in mind. World of Warcraft was going to be the best of the old guard with new ideas and technology to create a mostly loadless world where the horrors of the MMO were a thing of the past.

Vanilla was, for all intents and purposes, a continuation of Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne in terms of tone and focus. We were the lab rats set free in this Azerothian maze, with a focus on questing, fighting, exploring, and finding our old favorite places from the previous games. We compared maps, marveled at our favorite heroes rendered in the new world, and gracefully said goodbye to a lot of the awful MMO tropes of the past generation.

Tone in the classic game was a carryover from Warcraft III. The serious moments mixed in with the pop culture and the humor equally in the quests players would complete and the storyline shifted from the dramatic retelling of Darrowshire to the jokey fun of Booty Bay. The one constant was that this was undeniably Warcraft, from the bad to the good. Vanilla was the origination of how we would approach the game from here on out and understand the direction that the developers would take.

While the title of the original game "World of Warcraft" never told us who the enemy was or who the big bad causing all of the problems was, we had enough information in that this wasWarcraft. The raid game began to take on a real set of ideals and its own tone as players embarked on the quest to end Onyxia and venture into the Molten Core. The stakes were high and felt real, culminating in Ragnaros' emergence out of the Firelands and into his little "too soon" pool. It was suspenseful.

Blackwing Lair was similar in scope and tone. Nefarian was teased during the game in humorous ways and, as a villain, he was Warcraft's first troll (except for the Trolls ... you know what I mean). While Nefarian's presence was daunting and suspenseful, his joking and mannerisms made the whole instance feel fun in the presence of a world-threatening evil.

Ahn'Qiraj and Naxxramas let the WoW development team put the tone of the next content updates in front of the players in a very real way. As Orgrimmar and Ironforge began to build up their resources for the 
coming war, physical manifestations of the fight would begin to appear in the cities. Resources piled up, hides stacked high next to a mint's worth of ingots. When the gong was rung and the gates swung open, a real war had begun. We felt it. We worked for it, and our payoff was war. The tone changed to immediacy and wonder as we passed through the Gates of Ahn'Qiraj and stormed the floating citadel of Naxxramas, all while C'thun whispered to us our deaths and Kel'thuzad screamed about his slain kitty cat.


Burning up in Outland

World of Warcraft's first expansion was actually a sequel to Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne,where players saw the culmination of the stories from another expansion and finally got to see the planet Draenor. The tone of The Burning Crusade was set the second you walked through the comparatively small portal in the Blasted Lands only to emerge a tiny speck in the shadow of the Outland's portal. On top of that, the armies of the Burning Legion ambushed your forces at the gate, prompting a hasty retreat behind the enemy lines as the action began immediately.

Outland's tone was all about the unknown. Wonderment was key. Blizzard had to convey a sense of wonderment and newness to a game that was very familiar to the Warcraft fanbase.The Burning Crusade's biggest hurdle was that it looked nothing like Warcraft but had to fit in a well-established universe. Many players feel that Blizzard succeeded, especially in molding in the new, alien races into the Warcraft canon. Draenei were just weird the first time we saw them, but their mannerisms and story eventually blended well. The expansion set a unique tone on a unique world -- what is this place, and how does it make you feel?

The Burning Crusade's tone worked for me and affected me. The way this expansion made me feel was, in a word, revitalized. The aim was to show something new and convey a sense of wonderment, and it worked. Warcraft had already been a colorful world, but Outland turned the colorful nature of the universe on its head. There is an entirely purple zone. Think about that.

The title of The Burning Crusade also started the trend of letting the player know and understand what was at stake straight from the title. When you bought the box, you knew what you were in for: The Burning Crusade. If you were a Warcraft fan, you knew who the Burning Legion was. You understood their crusade, and you knew the main players. Illidan, Kael'thas, and Vash'j were commonplace heroes in the Warcraft lexicon at this point. How didThe Burning Crusade make you feel? It made me feel excited to fight demons on another world as the character I had adventured with from the beginning of the world.

or a long time, we jokingly referred to Wrath of the Lich King as "The Frozen Crusade" because Blizzard took the best parts of The Burning Crusade and began to build the next expansion. It was hard to understand the tone of the newest expansion before you actually played it. In the beginning all we saw was two new ores, 75 more profession skill points, and greens that were going to replace our purples again. For me, the tone looked like it was going to be "here we go again" -- that is, until I first stepped into Northrend.

Wrath of the Lich King was, again, a sequel to Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne. With Arthas' rise to power as the Lich King, there was always the notion in the back of everyone's mind that one day we would have to march north and end the Lich King and his Scourge army. Where The Burning Crusade took advantage of all that was new to the World of Warcraft and brought players to locales that were utterly foreign, Wrath brought us back to Azeroth, which was a welcome change for many. Northrend was the last place we had been in Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne, making it one of the freshest destinations in terms of time since players were there.

The new task was to fashion a continent that fit with Azeroth's tone yet added in the notion of an ever-present evil lurking behind every corner of the continent. Northrend was full of traps, trials, and tribulations.

The visible villain

One of the important decisions with regard to tone that was made after The Burning Crusadewas the notion of the visible villain. Illidan made his spectacular re-emergence into Warcraftwith the now-infamous Burning Crusade "You are not prepared!" 
opening cinematic. We had not seen Illidan rendered that way since The Frozen Throne, and it gave players a sense of dread and comeuppance, knowing exactly who was beyond the Dark Portal and who we would be facing.

The reality of the situation was that Kael'thas and his blood elf followers were constantly harrowing players in Netherstorm, but Illidan was barely visible in Shadowmoon Valley. In fact, you don't even have a confrontation with Illidan until the Black Temple raid deep into the expansion. Players never connected with the villain of The Burning Crusade because most players never got to see him past the trailer.

Wrath's development took a decidedly different turn. Instead of keeping the main villain on the sidelines, the Lich King was anywhere and everywhere. Arthas popped up in every zone, finding ways to bring you to your knees when he could have ended you and set you free. It was only at the end of the expansion that we learned his plan: to cultivate the best heroes on Azeroth into his perfect undead champions.

The way the Lich King interacted with players and the world was a turning point for WoW's tone. He was always there, and when you saw him, you were excited. Sure, he was the bad guy and he did show up a good amount, but the feeling of forethought, the knowledge that one day he would be attackable and defeatable, was on your mind. Your investment in the main villain manifested itself through wanting to see where he would pop up next. His story was fast becoming your story because of the parallels present.

Many people rejected the Lich King's visibility as being too much like the villain in a Saturday morning cartoon, always cackling and running away when the heroes foiled their plans. Even Blizzard has stated that it might have overused Arthas during the leveling experience. To be honest, overuse is better than underuse, especially with a villain like Illidan who was gaining so much depth and character from the previous Warcraft games. Arthas is such a huge villain that if he wasn't everywhere, it would have been a letdown. Arthas is so big that he needs to be everywhere. He owns the frozen north. It's like the richest guy you know only hanging out in one room of his mansion.


Destruction and Cataclysm

After Wrath's somber, eerie tone based on the forgotten tundras and ancient lands, Cataclysmturned the world on its head. After the shattering left the game world in ruins and a new, revamped world appeared, players had to drop everything and relearn the world that they've been accustomed to for almost six years. Blizzard wanted to give Cataclysm the end-of-the-world vibe, tonally distinct from any expansion previous. Deathwing was ready to destroy the world, and there was nothing that could stop him. Arthas wanted to enslave Azeroth. Deathwing wanted to get rid of it. Rather than have the villain be omnipresent like Arthas, Blizzard chose instead to have him appear randomly and kill players, giving the end of the world tone more credence and ramification.

Cataclysm's tone goes hand-in-hand with its segmented story. Essentially, there are two stories being told in Cataclysm. The first story is that of the 1-to-60 levels that was recreated and revamped from the original world, pitting the Alliance and Horde against each other like never before. Players were meant to feel anger, confusion, hatred, more anger, and above all, part of a war machine fighting for the survival of their faction in a world gone to hell. For the most part, it worked. Fighting the undead with my paladin pals, riding on the back of Fiona's wagon, and confronting the remnants of the vile Scourge gave a sense of epic conclusion and drive that just worked. As you explore the 1-to-60 world, you feel as if you're living in a world changed by sad consequence.

The second story is the end of the world by Deathwing and his minions. The 80-to-85 game set the tone of imminent destruction. We are constantly on the brink in the level 80-to-85 content. We watch the World Pillar come back together, we marvel at the Maelstrom churning, and we stand our ground against the elemental armies of wind, fire, water, and earth. We watch the elemental planes themselves come crashing into Azeroth with devastating results. The tone set was terrific consequences in the face of a bleak and hopeless future, all at the hands of a dragon aspect gone insane.

And again, for the most part, it worked. The tone worked. I felt like Cataclysm was one of those expansions where I knew the stakes and reacted accordingly, unlike The Burning Crusade where I was playing the game for playing's sake. Cataclysm told the better story and set the better tone, drawing me in to the world, however short that content was. I feel that ifMists of Pandaria takes the storytelling quality of Cataclysm and mixes it with the unknown dangers of The Burning Crusade, with a dash of "ah-ha!" villainy from Wrath, the perfect tone could be set -- the perfect Warcraftian milieu.

The next frontier

Tone is important because it sets the standard for how you're supposed to feel. If you felt lost on Draenor, you might have been feeling it the right way. If you felt determined and courageous in Wrath, you were feeling the carefully constructed tone of the expansion. If you felt hopelessness during Cataclysm with the hint of revenge, you felt it right.

One day, we'll be exploring a new land with new people and new challenges, and hopefully we will be feeling the right way about those lands, as well. If Blizzard does its job, there's no way we won't.

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