World of Warcraft’s newest expansion, Dragonflight, has a few plotlines and political struggles running through the story of patch 10.1, which debuted Thursday. The Embers of Neltharion patch takes players to the Zaralek Cavern and the Shadowed Crucible, an ancient laboratory where the one-time Neltharion — later corrupted to become the mad Dragon Aspect Deathwing — tinkered with experimental lifeforms and powerful artifacts.
The patch is also full of intrigue. There’s a Succession-style storyline where Deathwing’s heirs compete to be the new Aspect of the Black Dragonflight. They’re under pressure from a sinister trio of elemental villains — who are the most fun Warcraft has had with villains in years — and tons of in-game cinematics to help tell these tall tales. The designers have had to put a lot of thought into how to frame these cinematics, include the player character, and capture the spirit of each hero and villain. Here’s how they handle that delicate balance.
Setting the scene
Dragonflight has been a well-received expansion so far by fans, and it uses cinematic styles and storytelling techniques set up in the previous Battle for Azeroth and Shadowlands expansions. Cinematics have been a part of the game since they were introduced in 2008’s Wrath of the Lich King; they are one of the most iterated upon features in the game, evolving from a rare treat to a narrative staple. They also play a significant storytelling role in Dragonflight, and Zaralek Cavern is no exception.
“With the emergence of the incarnates, there’s definitely some baggage [in the dragons’] history that needs to be addressed,” says Terran Gregory, lead cinematic narrative director at Blizzard, in an interview with Polygon. “By going into the underground, we’re coming full circle to the Black Dragonflight, which had a fraught history and very challenging paths, with all of the things that Nefarian and Deathwing have done and the legacy of the Dragonflight that his descendants have to inherit.”
The events of Dragonflight’s raid sets up our main plot (for now): We’re facing the Primalist dragons, a dirty little secret from the Dragonflights past. These villains are much smaller in scope than past bosses, but they’re far more fun, and they’re packed full of personality every time they show up in a cinematic. It’s a relief to be spared the mysteries, cliffhangers, and multi-dimensional plans that have become staples of previous Warcraft expansions. Dragonflight’s straightforward set of antagonists also gives Blizzard more time to tinker with the heroes and their new allies in the Cavern.
“When we figure out what we’re going to do in an expansion, we talk a lot about who the main characters are going to be and how they’re going to span the expansion — and beyond, sometimes — and we talk about new villains and new allies we’re going to bring in,” says Maria Hamilton, lead game designer. The team starts with broad strokes, and then hones in on the specifics of each story.
“As we get down to the details, we start looking into what really resonated with players, what players seemed interested in pursuing, what questions they’re asking,” says Hamilton.
Dragons and daddy issues
World of Warcraft has a long history across the MMO and the preceding real-time strategy Warcraft games, and some of that old history is pulled back to the forefront in Dragonflight. The Black Dragonflight take center stage, and their split leadership takes the foreground. After expansions in which characters like Anduin, Sylvanas, and Jaina take center stage, we’re now diving into a less explored dynamic between Ebyssian, Wrathion, and Sabellian, the leadership of the Black Dragonflight. These seeds were sown back in the Burning Crusade and Mists of Pandaria expansions.
“We had the opportunity to dive into the story of what happened with Ebyssian, for example, or some fans may not realize where Wrathion came from and why he wasn’t touched by the corruption or how young he is, relatively speaking,” says Hamilton. Things are further complicated by the addition of the Dracthyr, the new player race who harkens back to Neltharion’s experiments.
“We wanted to pace out this story across the span of Dragonflight’s content patches,” Hamilton adds. “We’re seeing this disagreement between Scalecommander Sarkareth and the Sundered Flame and Emberthal, who’s trying to desperately bring people together and not fight amongst themselves. They’re part of this family of Black dragons.”
These characters have to come across as human — or relatable to humans at least, which is no mean feat, because most of them are dragons. “The expression of characterization within World of Warcraft is a big team effort,” says Gregory, who describes the MMO as a “handcrafted experience.” He adds, “That’s a confluence of many, many teams from the concept art, the character art team, the prop team, the animation team, the cinematic team. Then the cinematic designers can leverage the art designed by all the different collaborators, cludge it together, and create these performances using what’s in the game.”
Another challenge World of Warcraft’s narrative team faces is the fact that the game is often datamined, with twists and turns being revealed early and out of context. Sometimes, these are kept under wraps, encrypted until players can experience them all at once. Other times, the player feedback is well worth the spoilers, as developers are able to use it to tweak issues, solve errors, and shore up the weak points of stories.
“All of this [test realm content] has been vital to making sure we’re having a constant dialogue and creating the best content we can, and the players feel heard and are happy with the game they invest so much of their time into,” says Gregory.
Players are now digging into the new patch, which went live on Wednesday, to see the complete content. Dragonflight continues to soar above the standard set by the past two expansions. The refined cinematics certainly help, and as the patch continues, we’ll see how Blizzard sets up the next chapter.