Systems Versus Lore – The Core Conflict of Expansion Design

When reflecting on the announcement of World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, something jumped out at me.

Broadly speaking, I think you can bucket modern WoW expansions into two categories – lore-focused and system-focused. How did I arrive at these categories?

Well, when I look back over the past few years, Warlords of Draenor immediately springs to mind. The expansion announcement was heavily focused on the lore of the Warlords, and the new gameplay features were Garrisons, ability pruning, Mythic raiding and the flex for Normal and Heroic, and item squish v1.0. Not a heavy set of features or systems, and the ones that are there seem to spawn from the lore. Garrisons, for example, logically make sense as a thing we would need on a new and unfamiliar world, and the process of gaining resources and trust with the locals to expand the Garriosn drives the lore home.

Then, Legion. The lore is a fanfic wishlist – Illidan is back, we’re hanging out in Dalaran, the zones are brightly colored mashes fused into a single island, but then come the systems. We have class halls, Artifacts and all the related subsystems, Mage Tower, World Quests, campaigns, all the stuff added with Broken Shore, Mythic Plus, zone scaling, and a new class. Many of these systems could exist without the Legion plot, and it is clear from the way the team discussed planning this expansion that the plot thread they started with was literally the words, “the Legion expansion.”

We move on to BfA and we get Allied Races, Azerite, item squish v2.0, seasonal M+ affixes, warfronts, and islands. We can add the Nazjatar/Mechagon stuff and soon the N’Zoth Assaults and Horrific Visions. These are good features, but they are building on what came before. Meanwhile, the lore is clearly packed in dense, with faction conflicts, all the varying stories of the Allied Races, the naga and Azshara, Mechagon, N’Zoth, and the ascent of Sylvanas.

Then, we come to Shadowlands. We’ve got a boatload of systems on deck, with Covenants, Sanctums, Soulbinds, Conduits, Torghast, level squish, new leveling design with expansion story scaling, alt leveling systems tweaks, unpruning, deterministic rewards and gameplay, and World Quests 2.0 (was briefly introduced in an interview with no real details as of yet). The lore, on the other hand? It’s all rule of cool stuff – Sylvanas subverts the Lich Queen predictions and has been working with the Jailer since the end of Wrath of the Lich King. We get the Warcraft All-Stars squad of dead lore characters, and otherwise everything seems kind of like a fun story with unclear future implications.

In this, something really clicked for me – I’m big on systems expansions and tend to tune out of lore expansions. Why? Well, the funny thing is that for as much as I tend to speculate on lore, lore isn’t really why I play WoW. At its best, the lore of the game is a jumbled mess of cool ideas and semi-coherent worldbuilding that in modern times suffers from being designed by committee. At its worst, Warcraft lore is a dizzying roller coaster ride of hanging plot threads, confusing misdirects and redirects, and characters hovering in and out of the lore like teenagers in their first high school theatre production missing all their cues.

More than that, though, is a simple truth – I still view WoW as a game, and part of what I like about the modern era is that there are more moments where the game has lots of systems offering different content to play. Legion may have been a little off-kilter in its storytelling, but World Quests were fun, Mythic Plus is one of the most substantial pieces of renewable content the game has ever added, the Mage Tower alone took hours from me willfully, and completing the class hall campaigns set me out on a path to level and maintain alts faster than I normally have. BfA, on the other hand, has left me feeling a little bit wanting – the core systems from Legion are there, but the Heart of Azeroth doesn’t offer enough power compared to the artifact to be worth grinding out, and the nature of the current AP curve means there is a benefit to waiting to farm until much higher Artifact Knowledge kicks in. Are these things bad? I don’t think so, no – they’re just not as engaging as Legion was, because the systems were designed to take a step back from Legion and also seem to have been implemented based on lore rather than the strength of the gameplay.

Shadowlands seems to go the same road as Legion in this regard – there are a ton of systems, with a lot of branching gameplay paths and durable systems. Like Legion, I can imagine a state where the systems integrate tightly and encourage more gameplay – Torghast benefits other content via legendary acquisition, gameplay in The Maw is vital to get to Torghast, Covenants have endgame story campaigns but also powers that develop and have use in places like The Maw and Torghast, Soulbinds offer pauper talent trees via Conduits, which empowers all of your gameplay, but also offers additional story content as you gain trust with your Soulbinds. All of these systems feed into at least one other piece of gameplay, and they all have some sort of power reward to bring into your main gameplay loop inside of raids, dungeons, and PvP combat.

For me, these are the kinds of systems interactions that really draw me in to want to play. As much as I can enjoy the lore, the lore-bound expansions just haven’t offered me that core gameplay that I can really get into. Shadowlands looks to have a lot of core gameplay loops with positive feedback into each other, and if that ends up manifesting well in beta, I will be very excited indeed.

5 thoughts on “Systems Versus Lore – The Core Conflict of Expansion Design

  1. I agree with the message, except that I’m playing on the other side of the board 🙂 “Lore expansions” are probably my most favorite ones.

    One more thought to drop in: the narrative is great if it has great characters. If it does, they could just sit around the table and drink tea for a dozen of episodes, and you’ll still be happy.

    I love Draenor, I was so emotionally invested in all the personal stories, orcs and draenei alike, good and bad.

    Legion, on the other hand, had boring elves all over, and even more boring vrykul, with most plain Satans to deal with on the way and Khadgar, then Illidan endlessly droning about “The Liiigin” (one more time you say “Liigin”, and I’ll punch you in the face xD).

    BfA has great characters on both sides, major and minor ones (Flynn! Taelia! Ashvane! Talanji! Meerah! etc) and most engaging maritime kingdoms gracefully unveiled before our eyes. A grain of salt is the overall graveness of the story, which will leave a bitter aftertaste.

    For Shadowlands I’m afraid it will be plain in lore as well. I’ve no doubt we’ll be charmed by owl people from Bastion and faeries in Ardenweald, invested in stylish vampires and what not. Yet we already have our final destination and final villains, so there’s little sidetracks to follow and it’s basically come and kill story.

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    1. I anticipated your comment on this one specifically because I know that we are opposites on this issue, and I definitely appreciate the viewpoint! Agree on the lore points mentioned from prior expansions – to be fair, I really did like Draenor conceptually, I think they just lost too much leaving the expansion early and it made the Mag’har quest in BfA feel really jarring. BfA likewise has some good lore via its characters – I just wish they used the ensemble a bit more!

      I also agree on Shadowlands – they have a couple of interesting teases, but I think they are setting up to pull back in a bunch of characters, some of which in ways that might makes sense and others just to do it. For that reason, I think the lore is going to be scattershot at best, although I hope moving to a linear narrative through the 4 leveling zones helps that improve a bit. Not holding out for great lore in 9.0, though – just holding my breath for beta to see how the gameplay systems work out!

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      1. It’s fanservice again: we’ll see the announced Kael’thas, Uther, Wild Gods, Draka and whoever not scattered in Covenants. A perfect time – and place! – to do that. Not necessarily bad, but I’d prefer we focus on unique and new characters and stories. I’d hate the deceased characters to be our guides.

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  2. I tend to think of myself as being more of a lore person — but even though I tend to not pay attention to many endgame systems, I do appreciate when there is a good system to serve up the lore. Because I chose not to raid even at the LFR level during Warlords, the Garrison Campaign *was* my endgame for that expansion, and I thought it was perfect for my playstyle. I like how it was iterated with the Order Hall Campaigns in Legion and the War Campaigns in BfA, and I’m looking forward to the next iteration in the Covenant Campaigns of Shadowlands. I also very much appreciate systems attention being paid to alt leveling.

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