WoW! Thoughts! — On the Conflicted Nature of Faction Leadership

Thoughts on how the faction leaders that we want are not the faction leaders that WoW needs.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Patch 5.1 “Landfall!” has been the opportunity to run around Pandaria with none other than Garrosh Hellscream himself.  While the ultimate conclusion of his yelling and stomping on the new continent is well known, it is exciting to see him out and about, away from Orgrimmar.  Still, knowing that as each day that passes puts him one day closer to losing his mantle makes one wonder what qualities are needed in a Warchief or Alliance High-Commander.

Faction leaders in Warcraft by their nature serve multiple functions.  While they need to be characters that can allow for a compelling story to be told, they also need to provide friction with the opposing faction, and also retain a certain level of acceptance (if not admiration) from the players who follow them.  Generally, compelling story and factional conflict go hand-in-hand, as Garrosh is proving during his tenure.  However, he has failed to win over the player-base. He is generally regarded as a violent hothead, and while most Horde players will defend him from Alliance attacks in Grommash Hold, they do so out of Horde loyalty more than any love for the character.  Many players, especially fans of the Tauren, are looking forward to the end of Mists when we get to take Garrosh down.

Thrall, however, was much respected during his stint as Warchief.  Warcraft III depicted Thrall as a rational and competent leader, and despite complaints about the character’s overuse in Cataclysm, there are still calls for him to return as Garrosh’s replacement.  As shown when forming the modern Horde, Thrall has long believed that peace can exist between all races.  After all, his associations with Jaina Proudmoore facilitated the placement of the Horde capital in Durotar.  Warcraft was always about a conflict between two groups, primarily orcs and humans, but Thrall existed in defiance of that.  Looking now at the reservations the other Horde leaders express towards Garrosh’s aggressive policies, it’s clear that Thrall’s desire for peace was not an uncommon dream.

Splitting the playerbase is great for creating PVP opportunities, but a result is two groups rooting for opposing heroes.  While it’s common for players to be fans of both Alliance and Horde champions, the story Warcraft is telling means that either both sides must come to peace and unite, or one side must win.  If the Alliance and Horde achieve peace, fans of the lore would be happy; as all the major characters would ostensibly get a happy resolution, but much of the game would be sacrificed.  A reduction in hostilities is great from a lore standpoint, but it is terrible when considering that Warcraft is a game, and the faction conflict drives gameplay.

Not only would PVP battlegrounds become nullified, but every zone that features the Alliance-Horde conflict would be affected.  It is for this reason that Thrall needed to be removed as Warchief, and a figure needed to be inserted who would further divide the planet.  With the Alliance led by King Varian Wrynn, a character with a tortured past that would cause him to despise the orcs enough to send players to combat them, Warcraft has provided two leaders who excel at driving conflict.  These two figures not only encourage much of the violence in post-Cataclysm Azeroth, but are driving the narrative in Mists of Pandaria.  Garrosh and Varian exist to put the War back in Warcraft.

There’s a dissonance unique to Warcraft caused by the factional conflict that is the foundation for World of Warcraft.  Just as the development team suffers the problems of having to balance classes and skills for PVE and PVP combat, the lore team has to construct a narrative that tells a satisfying story while allowing for tensions to simmer between the two factions.  This is why the last few expansions featured clear threats to the planet that required the Alliance and Horde to begrudgingly work together.  This is why the moment in the Mists of Pandaria cinematic when the human hands the spear to the orc is funny.  The factions hold serious grudges, but they both understand that there are greater threats that prevent them from completely focusing on their conflict.  This repeating cycle is what makes Mists such an interesting expansion.

And the cycle is set to repeat again. The Burning Legion – the greatest threat to Azeroth – is still out in the Nether, waiting to return.  Wrathion suggests that they might be coming sooner than anticipated during his monologue at the Tavern in the Mists.  But before the battle can be met, the Alliance-Horde conflict needs to be resolved, so Wrathion schemes with players of either faction to force an end to the conflict.  Additionally, Velen’s visions of a unified force of Light (containing orcs and horde races fighting alongside humans and alliance races) also imply that these ongoing hatreds must be overcome.

While the Alliance and Horde have worked together before (to varying degrees) to stop Illidan, Arthas, and Deathwing, they have always returned to fighting.  Even as Deathwing was leaving a wake of flame, Garrosh was using the chaos of the cataclysm to expand Horde boundaries.  From a gameplay perspective, Garrosh works great as a leader that is spurring combat.  Not only does he allow for Blizzard to re-allocate the levels 1-60 content to ensure a more even leveling experience for both factions, Garrosh also drives characters into PVP situations and urges them to become more powerful.  It’s disturbing then to note that we are going to remove this character from power at the end of the story of Mists.

From a lore perspective, when Garrosh is removed, the bulk of the Horde faction leaders will be allied against him.  Garrosh is revered by the Orcish race and has the favor of the Kok’ron, but there is little love for him amongst any significant Horde characters.  The Horde would not remove Garrosh simply to replace him with someone who will continue his hawkish policies.  The next Horde leader is going to be philosophically aligned with Thrall – someone who will value a peaceful Azeroth.

This is disconcerting.  Such a leader might be necessary to combat the Burning Legion, as that mindset will allow Alliance and Horde to co-exist.  Given that the levelling content from 1-90 won’t be replaced, will level 90+ content exist in a world where the Alliance and Horde are not enemies?  One of the successful goals of Mists of Pandaria has been to encourage World PVP.  Can that continue in a world where factional divisions are minimal, if they exist at all?  The story of World of Warcraft seems to be heading in a specific direction, and that direction is antithetical to the premise of a player-based rivalry.  The name World of Warcraft needs to be taken literally – WoW should be a game about a World at War with itself.  How Blizzard manages to walk the fine line of maintaining that status quo while advancing their narrative may be the most compelling story to be told yet.

WoW! Blurbs!

Blizzard had a Q&A with WoW Customer Support.  They were very diplomatic in their answers.  I was expecting every answer to be, “I hate all of you.”

The Feast of Winter Veil is here!  Where does Greatfather Winter (both of them) hang out the rest of the year?

Blizzard Devs have been busy giving interviews left and right!  WHEN IS IT MY TURN, BLIZZARD???

Nick Zielenkievicz
Nick Zielenkievicz
Nick Zielenkievicz

Senior Producer

Host of WoW! Talk! and The Tauren & The Goblin. Sometimes known as the Video Games Public Defender. Wants to play more Destiny and Marvel Heroes but WoW is all-consuming. Decent F2P Hearthstone player. Sad that he lost the Wii that had Wrecking Crew on it. Would be happy if the only game ever made was M.U.L.E. Gragtharr on Skywall-US. Garresque on Ravencrest-US.

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