Feature
How decades' worth of canon is both a blessing and a curse for Blizzard's iconic realm

A Look Inside How Blizzard Maintains World Of Warcraft's Lore

by David Milner on Aug 14, 2018 at 09:30 AM

BlizzCon 2010 lives in infamy inside the walls of Blizzard. It’s the moment Ian Bates – “Red Shirt Guy” in World of Warcraft circles – sent the development team back to school.

Taking the microphone in a packed hall, Bates asked a question so unexpected, so specific that it stumped the assembled experts on the convention’s lore panel. His stilted, monotone delivery (which he later attributed to both nerves and a mild case of Asperger’s) led to the video of his cross-examination going viral.

“Hello, I have I just finished reading The Shattering [a 2010 Warcraft novel] yesterday, and I noticed something,” he began. “It said that Falstad Wildhammer was going to be on the Council of Three Hammers. But in the beta it’s Kurdran Wildhammer, and Falstad is not in the game at all. What happened to him?”

Chris Metzen, Blizzard’s story director, a man who had been writing Warcraft lore for 16 years at that point, responded: “Isn’t Falstad dead? From, uh, Day of the Dragon,” referring to the 2001 novel. Without missing a beat, Bates corrected him. “No, he survived, and, in fact, he was the leader of Aerie Peak in vanilla WoW and through Wrath of the Lich King.”

The crowd cheered. Alex Afrasiabi, World of Warcraft’s creative director, thanked Bates for pointing out the discrepancy and, somewhat sheepishly, promised that the team would “get that fixed.” They did.

By the time the Cataclysm expansion launched, Falstad, not Kurdran, was a member of the Council of Three Hammers. What’s more, a new character, Wildhammer Fact Checker, wearing a red shirt like the one that became synonymous with Bates, was added into the game.

 

To a certain degree it was a comical moment – shades of Homer Simpson fielding questions about escaping the dungeon without the Wizard Key in the Itchy & Scratchy CD-ROM. But when treated with the gravity with which Blizzard ultimately did, it highlights a difficulty facing many creators in 2018: this is an age of connected cinematic universes and weaponised nostalgia, of decades-old franchises and endless debates about what is and isn’t considered canon. No developer faces this problem to the same degree as Blizzard.

Bound By The Past

Ion Hazzikostas is World of Warcraft’s game director. He’s in charge of a video game that is itself 14 years old, but contains lore that dates back even further. The Warcraft universe’s narrative seeds were planted in “the RTS games and literally the instruction manuals written by Chris Metzen in the mid-’90s,” he says.

That sprawling tale now stretches across 23 novels, 10 comic book series (the most successful running for 25 issues), three real-time strategy titles (and their two expansions), World of Warcraft and its expansions (of which Battle for Azeroth will be the seventh), a Hollywood movie (with two of its own spinoff novels), and oddities like Heroes of the Storm and Hearthstone (with its nine expansions and four adventures).

Given that Blizzard has, for the most part, refused to jettison canon and wipe the slate selectively clean (à la Disney when it purchased LucasFilm), Warcraft’s lore dwarfs that of even Star Wars. It’s a complicated web of orcs and humans, magic and madness, dragons and druids, spread over generations of conflict.

So how do you make sense of such a long, confusing past? Naturally, you hire historians...

Ion Hazzikostas, World of Warcraft’s game director

The Lorewalkers

Within Blizzard, a team of three lore scholars handle the all-important (but admittedly bizarre) task of knowing where the keys to the kingdom were left all those years ago.

Sean Copeland, the historian supervisor of the team, sits atop the backstory throne – a role he describes as a “dream gig.”

“On any given day, our group is likely fielding lore and research requests made by our internal [dev] teams, reviewing publications and lore content for our publishing teams, hosting lore seminars for on-boarding and educational needs, and participating in story rooms and creative sessions,” he explains.

When a developer working on World of Warcraft has a query related to an in-development storyline, they turn to Copeland and his team. These questions can range from the intricacies of familial relations and the timeline of key historical events, to lists of foods that are known to exist canonically within a universe. Occasionally, they’re even weirder.

“One moment I’ll never forget comes from our time supporting the development of Wrath of the Lich King,” Copeland says.

“One of the resources we historians maintain is a language and pronunciation database for specific phrases and terms. Our Warcraft section covers numerous languages such as Eredun, Taur-ahe, Zandali, and even the language of the Old Gods, Shath’yar. While some of those languages are easy to teach, Shath’yar is one of the most difficult to not only read, but to speak aloud.

“So, when one of our writers called me up requesting the pronunciation for the phrase, ‘Ak’agthshi ma uhnish, ak’uq shg’cul vwahuhn,’ providing the answer left an impact.”

(In case you’re wondering that’s: “Our numbers are endless, our power beyond reckoning!”) 

“I’m pretty sure that my cubicle neighbours either thought I’d become possessed or had a minor stroke.”

Playing With Fire

With walking encyclopaedias like Ian Bates, fans who will notice even minor continuity errors, Copeland’s historians are a crucial part of the development team, especially when writing new quests.

“Alleria Windrunner made a return in patch 7.3,” Hazzikostas says. “The people who are the definitive authority track down every place we have mentioned her – references to her throughout older games, short stories, novels – to ensure that we don’t do anything inconsistent.”

Occasionally their research reveals an irreconcilable conflict between the past and the planned future, and the new storyline needs to be altered. “It’s most often small things – things where we realise we’d be setting ourselves up for that Red Shirt Guy moment,” Hazzikostas explains.

“Going back to the Cataclysm expansion, at the end of the first raid tier, the final boss was the black dragon Sinestra. We wanted a red dragon to come and join players in the fight and ultimately sacrifice himself in order to enable their victory.

“There was a well known red dragon named Krasus, who was the male companion of Alexstrasza, leader of the red dragons, and he would have had a real bone to pick with Sinestra. It would have made a lot of sense for him to be there. He was an important figure that people would definitely recognise, and his sacrifice would have been meaningful.

“We were going down that road but realised he actually died in a book! So we had to invent a new red dragon.”

Bound by the lore, the logical – possibly even the best – scenario had to be jettisoned to adhere to the story told thus far. Time, eventually, makes fools of us all.

Revisionist History

Blizzard, on rare occasions, does decide that an inconvenient fact is simply more trouble than it’s worth. In these instances, there’s no choice but to face the wrath of the forums and alter the past. 

“We’re trying to build epic worlds, epic experiences,” Hazzikostas explains. “And yes, we do find ourselves fettered by something that was a small piece of a campaign in an RTS game when no one ever imagined for a moment this was going to be taken and built into a world of this scale – and it gets in the way of telling the story we need to tell.” When that happens, things are “flexible.”

“It’s something that we do very sparingly and only as a last resort,” he adds. “It’s almost always possible to make the facts fit or write in between the lines. Like, ‘Well yes, this was said, but there’s this whole other piece of the story that’s never been covered. Let us tell it to you!’”

There’s also an established pecking order that limits the need for the dreaded retcon.

“Hearthstone definitely doesn’t count. Heroes of the Storm definitely doesn’t count. World of Warcraft is the anchor, and then it’s expanded upon by related books and other pieces,” Hazzikostas explains.

Every now and then, however, something from lower in the hierarchy necessitates changes up top. It’s easier to patch an online game than it is to reprint a novel, after all.

“Khadgar, who was prominent during the Hollywood movie, was much younger in the film than we had imagined him being at that point in time,” Hazzikostas says.

“When we depicted him in The Burning Crusade expansion he was actually much older and had a long grey beard. So we went back, and made a new [younger] Khadgar model in WoW, which initially perplexed people because they hadn’t seen the movie yet... [Now] the Khadgar that you see, you are to assume, feels like a continuation of the one from the movie.”

 

The Alliance

Just as historians celebrate humanity’s achievements and shine a light on our darkest moments, Blizzard’s historians make sense of a complicated world. Without an understanding of Azeroth’s past, finding meaning in the future is impossible amid the chaos.

“My team believes that continuity exists to enhance a story, not to tie the hands of creators,” says Copeland. “That really keeps me going, the simple fact that there might be someone each day that’s struggling with a piece of history that I can help with, and my support can help them overcome their challenge and inspire them to create something amazing.”

For Hazzikostas, the weight of history is both blessing and burden. He was in the hall the day Ian “Red Shirt Guy” Bates made Blizzard lore of his own, and he reflects on the moment fondly (perhaps, in part, because he wasn’t sitting on the panel).

That passion for the past, a history he helped create, makes shaping Warcraft’s future all the more worthwhile, he says.   

“It’s a game that has brought people together and touched lives in a way I don’t think any other game has. At BlizzCon every year, tens of thousands of Blizzard fans from all around the world converge. You see couples, you see families, children. Someone will come up and say, ‘This is my seven-year-old son. He just started looking over my shoulder and showing curiosity in the game, and my wife and I met in our guilds 10 years ago. Thank you so much for everything.’

“What can I even say to that? It’s humbling, and I think I see it as a challenge and a burden and a joy to continue that legacy going forward. I think we’re under a bit of pressure there, but it’s something that I relish. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”