The Alternate-Alternate Universe – the Warlords of Draenor That Almost Was

It has been discussed at length, what could have been with Warlords of Draenor.

We saw the expansion as it was, with two content patches, only two total raid tiers, small amounts of content with only one new zone added, and the much-noted segregation of players off into their Garrisons, creating the perception of an empty world devoid of players enjoying the game.

But we know from data shown at Blizzcon 2013, and from the content in-game, that there was other content planned at some point for Warlords. So what happened?

Bellular discusses this topic in a recent video, and I found it interesting. Specifically, we almost certainly lost a long-planned raid tier when moving from Blackrock Foundry to Hellfire Citadel. Initially, it seemed obvious that we would be spelunking through Shattrath City. It was a location of heavy interest – having served as our capital city for all of The Burning Crusade, in a ruined, shattered state. It was a place of significance to the Draenei, and was swarmed over by the Iron Horde in the AU Draenor we visited back in WoD. There was a reputation to grind in the area, and early into Warlords, it was one of the largest indicators of the future direction of the story, with a demonic presence quite obviously making its mark.

So what happened?

Well, the oft-repeated mantra is that the development shifted to Legion content around this time, and the work that could have been undertaken building a Shattrath raid was instead pushed towards what we got in 7.0. Tanaan and the AU Hellfire Citadel were seemingly always the plan, but we lost big chunks of content in the middle – content that could have helped the story along.

It’s unclear if the Shattrath concept was anywhere near complete – we had a detailed outside, a set piece that was used for the finale of the Talador zone. There was some terrain underneath it, nothing anywhere near workable, but even in the release data of the game, something had been started there, at least. Given that we got nothing out of that area whatsoever in the end, it is hard to conceive of it having been complete, or anywhere near it.

However, it is clear that the story content there would have served as a lynchpin for much of the Act III development of WoD, allowing us to resolve the stories with far more grace than we got. Let’s take a look back at the state of things in 6.0 and 6.1 to elaborate.

Plotholes of Draenor

The early leveling experience and story in Draenor were excellent – as I’ve contended before, probably better than Legion in that regard. The zones were somewhat varied, with excellent visual shifts and fun callbacks to Burning Crusade. The story beats followed 3 different plots – the encroachment and pushback of the Iron Horde, the development and maturation of the native Draenor resistance, told best through Yrel, and the overarching lore developments of watching weirdly parallel Warcraft history unfold, as Khadgar fought a new campaign on Draenor, Gul’dan was (somewhat) given a second (but really first because AU) opportunity to serve the Legion, and Grommash Hellscream was (sort of) redeemed by not drinking the fel blood.

Each of these was somewhat well-done during the leveling, although in different measures. The rapid advancement of the Iron Horde was shown well, even though they never felt like much of a threat at all – we beat them back out of every corner of Draenor until they went into hiding in Tanaan Jungle, where they became the similarly non-threatening Fel Horde. The native resistance was best characterized as clumsy and awful – Yrel is a slave when we arrive, various Orcs are totally cool with us but don’t have much in the way of story progression, and once we start engaging with the Iron Horde, it becomes very apparent that clearly these “heroes” have no fucking idea what they are doing because how did you lose to these clown orcs you dummies come on?

The alterna-history is cool but also totally not at all elaborated on in-game, which was a mistake. Relying on everyone to read up on their old RTS history from, at best, 11 years prior to WoD launch and then sharing none of that in-WoW sucked. It’s cool for Warcraft III players to remember Grom and his redemption arc in WCIII, to then contrast that to his asshole irredeemability in WoD. I am still so fucking annoyed that we let AU Grom off the hook for all that shit when AU Grom is, despite not drinking the fel blood, way more of an asshole than good ol’ green Grom! Oh, Ner’zhul dies in a dungeon, guess AU Draenor never gives us a Lich King – oh you didn’t know that? Well, I hope you read a fan site or follow a lore nerd on Twitter, because otherwise you’ll never appreciate that, which is probably better, because it makes him being a nobody dungeon boss go down a lot easier. We top all this off with some Ogre revisionism, “hey remember Nagrand?”, and Dadgar – who is pretty alright, gotta say.

All of this was rushed, sloppy, and ultimately falls apart. And to be fair, a lot of Blizzard lore is sloppy and fails to connect in meaningful and interesting ways, but at least normally there is a veneer of effort.

So we end 6.0 with an upgraded Garrison, pushing the Ogres supporting the Iron Horde out of their city, and with Blackrock Foundry on the horizon, aiming to end the production capability for the terrible war machines that are central to the Iron Horde. We have resolved the issue with the Iron Horde-sympathizing Burning Blade (a plot point so totally relevant to the overall gameplay of WoD I only remembered to put it here on an edit pass) and Yrel is suddenly Exarch.

And then 6.1 happens, in which we end the Blackrock Foundry’s war manufacturing, and oh also Kilrogg Deadeye drinks the demon blood as the shattered remnant of the utterly incompetent Iron Horde join up with Gul’dan to do bad things. Oh and Garona is on our side now, after we release Gul’dan’s grasp on her mind.

We then go into 6.2 and the story moves almost nothing forward. Grommash is a prisoner of the Fel Horde, whom we inexplicably release with no contextual lore or justification to be seen. Archimonde is brought to this Draenor, but he is somehow like main Archimonde, because reasons (still has not fully been explained or justified in game, btw) and we totally lore kill him (on Mythic, since that is the Mythic-only phase), and he weirdly goes back to Draenor to send Gul’dan to our Azeroth, leading to heaps of confusion about just what happened to him since he does in fact die in lore but this cinematic, played on all difficulties, suddenly gets confusing on Mythic because why does he go back, and if he goes back, how does he then actually die?

We close the expansion with everyone being happy – even though a Draenei murdering madman in Grommash is just chilling there alive, and we turn around, go home, and pretend none of that ever existed.

This tangent served a purpose though – everything that happens in the post-level cap Garrison campaign exists to tell us the stories of these characters, but after the thoughtful-if-inconsistently applied lore of leveling, Blizzard smashed their foot on the gas pedal to race ahead to the finish line. Why does Grommash argue with Gul’dan? Why does Kilrogg commit to the Fel? Why is Yrel so awesome and amazing that she goes from slave to Exarch in a tiny window of time?

It seems like the story needed room to breathe – room a Shattrath patch could have offered. Further, we could have had real character development and something to ease the pace of Warlords of Draenor. Who knows what the lore would have looked like if we had started a slow pivot to fel and Demons, instead of slam-crash racing right into it because c’mon guys we gotta get there now so Legion can happen!

In this alternate universe, I think Warlords of Draenor could have gone down as a much better expansion than it will be in history. Even with Ashran instead of Karabor and Bladespire, even with static Garrisons and poor dungeon support – Warlords had the makings of something pretty cool.

Trouble in Orctown

But it is clear that from the very beginning, Blizzard had no real idea what to do with the expansion. It was a love letter to Warcraft past – RTS references for the lore purists and a metric ton of Burning Crusade callbacks for the longtime WoW crowd. Over time, it is obvious that the team lost their way a lot, and in trying to separate out this concept from Legion, both ideas conceived around the same time, that they couldn’t neatly decouple enough content to flesh out their vision and the stress of doing so seems to have gotten to them. The Blizzcon 2013 announcement had great ideas – a completely different entry point to AU Draenor (the Chronal Spire), a clearly marked Shattrath raid on the map and planinly visible, along with some sort of architectural interconnect between Shattrath and Auchindoun, making them a clear Draenei city of some sort, a zone boundary for Farahlon, the Netherstorm of the past, and some other island on the map that seemed like it was going to be a zone. The demo at Blizzcon 2013 even had, for Alliance, quests in Karabor! Rather than just an ending scenario, we were fighting our way through Karabor to reclaim it, and it was cool.

We lost all of this on our way to release:
-Chronal Spire
-Bladespire Hold
-Shattrath Raid
-Gorgrond v1 (fairly infamously, it was reimplemented from scratch during beta and the original version was larger, with a railroad all over it)
-The Little Southwestern Island That Almost Was
-Moveable Garrisons
-Multiple Tilesets for Garrisons
-Whatever Story We Would Have Had With Shattrath Raid (And Maybe Also Farahlon, Who Knows?)

Basically, the process of the expansion coming out saw a big announcement with this broad scope of features and ideas, and we had to watch it systematically be destroyed to leave us a smoldering hunk of overcooked expansion.

Now, do I think that some of these changes were probably warranted? Sure. But I wonder quite often what would have been if we had been able to see the inside of that fancy Shattrath city, or land at Farahlon, or really see much of the game as originally planned out. The painful thing about being a WoW fan is knowing that these giant pieces of cut content are never coming back – just like the Abyssal Maw raid, the dance studio, the Path of the Titans, and Monks without auto-attack, we’ll never get to see these things. And so many of them had the potential to be awesome, so it is an extra shame.

In that alternate universe, Warlords of Draenor could have been one of the best expansions ever – packed with content, zone updates, and new ideas layered on top of these callbacks and retro-references.

But unless the bronze dragonflight has another rogue member willing to build a new-new Dark Portal that leads back that way, Warlords of Draenor will forever remain marked in history as a wet fart of an expansion.

One thought on “The Alternate-Alternate Universe – the Warlords of Draenor That Almost Was

  1. Dude, I’m still confused about what all happened to the point where I began making up ideas to fill it in. Like the idea that the garrisons were brilliant because visually in the world it felt like there were only a small group of heroes sent over to fight.
    My fear was that the WoW team was gutted to make games like Hearthstone or HotS, the all stars of WoW moved over to ensure that those games would be awesome.

    Liked by 1 person

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