Sunday, September 25, 2011

Emerald Dream and The Life Aquatic

It's been staring us in the face and we simply hadn't recognized it.  There may be a major aquatic component coming in the next expansion.

[Update 9/28/11:  Since the release of this article, we've learned from our readers that the Emerald Dream and an aquatic theme could potentially coexist in a single expansion with the introduction of N'Zoth, an Old God responsible for the "spark" that created the Emerald Nightmare.  He is also the being that is largely responsible for Deathwing's corruption and current state.  The speculation is that he is somewhere beneath Azeroth's oceans, perhaps in a sunken city.]

On the 24th we released a 90 second video to You Tube offering a brief view into the rationale behind our hypothesis that the next expansion in the World of Warcraft would be the Emerald Dream.  The minute we released it, though, something didn't feel quite right about it.  Within 30 minutes of posting it to You Tube, we were already second-guessing ourselves and posting more rationale in the comments.  I personally felt it was rushed, and it's been nagging at me since we posted it and I hadn't been able to figure out why.

We're not lore experts.  We're research, design and strategy.  It's silly of us to leap too far from the turf we actually stand firmly on.  What we were shrugging off as a bit of fun in hypothesizing Emerald Dream was actually shooting our own credibility in the foot.  So I personally started to retreat in my mind back to the measures of what we actually found and what we could potentially speak to  - and then this evening it hit me.  It's been staring us in the face and we simply hadn't recognized it.

When we typically review a Visual Positioning landscape of the sort we've been posting in our weapon/shields articles here, we always do it with a purpose.  You do it to measure where you stand, where the competition stands, etc.  And there's always a conversation about how do you shift your visual aesthetic from one area of the matrix to another?  If things are too populated in one area, you can move elsewhere.  If you want to reside in a particular area of the matrix, you can pull visual elements from what currently exists there and modify your content accordingly as a means to move across the landscape over time.  It's always about progression.

Anyway, if you consider the video we released yesterday, and STOP it before we jump to the Emerald Dream hypothesis, there's two qualifications to be made:

1) We're assuming Blizzard's aesthetic is going to shift in 5.0 because so far it has with every expansion.  It's only natural that it shift again.

2) We're also taking into account that the central region of the matrix in each of our evaluations here is overpopulated.  If Blizzard were to pour out another expansion and maintain the same visual aesthetic currently in this central region, the content would feel too similar to Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm.  On this point we're also recognizing the influence of the player base that has apparently raised concern that things are looking too similar.  Because of this, we feel it is a second reason for Blizzard to shift its aesthetic.

These are not reaches for us, these are conclusions we would draw even with our own clients based on facts and what we see in the landscape.

So if we know Blizzard is going to shift, the first question is WHERE are they going to shift?  Technically they can shift to the area we've identified in the video, which is to the East, but they can also shift to the Northwest.

The other thing to consider is we're doing these evaluations in a vacuum, based only on what exists today.  Typically when you do this sort of Visual Positioning, you've got more players involved and you can really broaden the landscape.  Since we're evaluating the World of Warcraft aesthetic for weapons and shields against itself, we're really limiting ourselves in terms of how broad we "think" Blizzard can go in the future.  To illustrate this point, we've expanded the matrix landscape below to give you an idea of what just a small expansion of the landscape can do in terms of shifting your perspective.  See how much room they really have to go Organic/Fluid?

You could also pull weapons in from Rift, Aion, and other popular titles and populate the chart further and watch as the landscape grows in a generative fashion.  It would also show just how clustered the Blizzard aesthetic really is, with regard to weaponry.

At any rate, in considering this, we again returned to the same conclusion that a shift into the organic/fluid section of the chart would seem to be a natural progression.  They've already covered the pointy, spikey, angular aesthetic through two straight expansions with Wrath and Cata, so why would they go even further angular and head Northwest?  

So this is our first hypothesis we're definitely comfortable with:  That Blizzard's aesthetic for weapons and shields will be more Organic and Fluid in design in 5.0.

This is where we may have been too hasty in claiming Emerald Dream.  We simply asked ourselves, well "lore experts", what story line would befit an organic/fluid style of aesthetic?  We knew Emerald Dream had been hypothesized by others, and when we considered the look and feel of the Druid aesthetic, it seemed a good match.  But that's not the way a Visual Positioning matrix works.  If you want to move to a particular area of the landscape, you have to first identify what currently resides there as a means to establish design language and signature elements that will act as "rules" to help guide your aesthetic shift. 

And the guides are there, they're staring us in the face.  It's the aquatic designs that best represent the Organic/Fluid aesthetic.  Staves, One-Handed Maces and our upcoming article on Daggers all have examples that hedge towards this area of the landscape.  We even commented in our YouTube posting page that "technically" an aquatic theme could reside in this space we had identified in the video as well.  It's when I really let myself think on this point that the waterfall hit.

1) We've already identified a few of the aquatic designs as having a position in this area of the landscape, but why are there so few?  In fact, Staves only has three.  Three!  And two of them are from Burning Crusade content.  Only one staff was produced during an expansion with an entire zone dedicated to an aquatic theme???  You can extrapolate this same question across all of the other categories of weapons.  Where are the aquatic themed weapons and shields???  And why are so many of them that ARE in existence today sitting in Zangarmarsh and the Burning Crusade content?  Where are the dozens of aquatic designs that should have been inspired by Vashj'ir?

All of that beautiful zone design, and just a couple of weapons result from it?  Blizzard honestly did all of that work through Vashj'ir, the dungeon and even what they had planned for the Abyssal Maw, and only 1 Staff and a couple of items were the result???  And yet the rest of Cataclysm content, Firelands included, is loaded with a plethora of relevant weaponry and shields that match the content's aesthetic.  Something doesn't quite add up.  This is where we ask ourselves, then if we're NOT seeing it (factually correct), where is it?  Hypothesis?  Perhaps they're holding it back.  But why withhold it?  Well, if it's organic/fluid as part of the progression, and aquatic is technically a theme that would work for that shift... perhaps we haven't seen more of it because Blizzard simply hasn't RELEASED it yet.  So could an Aquatic theme become a major component in 5.0?  Follow us deeper down the rabbit hole..

2) If there is a major aquatic theme in the next expansion, it wouldn't be the first because of Vashj'ir.  So what did Vashj'ir give us?  A seahorse (fact).  But it's a seahorse we never use, at least not us here at DA.  Why?  Because we never go back to Vashj'ir anymore, it's just leveling content.  There's even Poseidus' Reins, but where's the excitement in that?  When you're never in Vashj'ir or water in old content, there's never a reason to use it.  But if the next expansion has a major aquatic element to it, wouldn't Blizzard giving us a seahorse and optional epic-ultra speed swimming mount now suddenly become incredibly relevant?  Once they introduced flying mounts in TBC, we were expected to use them again in the two expansions that followed.  Logically, then, there is a chance that Blizzard intends us to use our seahorses again at some point.

Well what else do we know about Vashj'ir?  We've actually talked here about the fact that we don't even level alts through there anymore, since it's more efficient to level in Hyjal so you clear the content to ready yourself for the Firelands progression and daily hubs.  So Vashj'ir for us has suddenly become forgotten.  So this is where we're starting to wonder:  one of the most beautiful zones (ever), with so much fresh content, artwork and design developed for it - even mechanics to the in-game engine to get water to look, feel and flow right, all of that development is suddenly an afterthought???  Hypothesis?  Well, what if it's not an afterthought?  What if it's just the beginning, and they don't want us looking over in Vashj'ir right now?

3) The Abyssal Maw.  It suddenly disappears off the plan for Cataclysm.  Vanished.  Gone.  But what really happened to the Abyssal Maw?  Hypothesis?  If there's an aquatic theme in 5.0, perhaps Abyssal Maw was so good or so relevant, it was hidden from view so it could be a part of the upcoming expansion's aquatic component.  Have we become too accustomed to taking Blizzard's word at face value when they decide to "scrap" something?  What if they just tabled it?  What if it wasn't actually scrapped?  What if it's actually a part of something much bigger?  As we mentioned earlier, the aesthetic of an aquatic theme could likely sustain an entire MMO universe, therefore it could certainly sustain a single expansion with enough content.  Perhaps that's where the Abyssal Maw and all of the weapons and shields Blizzard is holding back are waiting...

4) The rumors of Nagas as a playable race.  We haven't read much about this, but we know the rumor exists.  Technically, you get to play as a Naga while leveling through Vashj'ir.  The theory is that it was a first glimpse at being able to actually play as a Naga in a future expansion.  Hypothesis?  If 5.0 does indeed have a major aquatic component to it, and the rumors have any validity to them, Nagas as a playable race would certainly seem to be the right fit.  It's a weak point, but relevant nonetheless.

5) Queen Azshara.  Now I realize at this point we're way down our own rabbit hole here, so we're not going to jump back into claiming we're lore experts and assume she's the main focal point.  But if 5.0 does indeed have a major aquatic element to it, logically Azshara could potentially play a role.  That's about the most we'll stretch on that point.  Although she is suddenly becoming part of the Cataclysm story line in 4.3, isn't she?  If I had a beard, I would scratch it and say "hmm...".

6) Deathwing is already here?  Really?  4.3 is it?  The expansion is done?  Does this seem fast to anyone else?  Hypothesis?  Well why does anything happen quickly?  It's usually a result of some sort of influence.  So what sort of influences have we seen recently that we could deem significant?  Well one is the news of subscriber numbers declining.  We've also heard the outcry of everything looking similar.  We've certainly seen that to a degree in our evaluations here on weapons and shields.  And largely what we've seen from Cataclysm does look and feel a lot like what came out of Wrath of the Lich King, at least in terms of weapons and shields, with a number of exceptions, of course.  Firelands has certainly brought a different look and feel.  So hypothesis?  Well, what if the rush to get Deathwing out is actually to close out Cataclysm as fast as possible because it's too similar to what everyone has already seen?  What if the goal of closing out 4.3 is to get to content that really does feel fresh?  I mean would anybody deny Vashj'ir wasn't fresh, at least in terms of look and feel?

Hypothesis?  Deathwing will be epic, but he's coming fast and furious so Blizzard can get to the next expansion as a means to change the look and feel of the game so it feels fresh.  To change it, aesthetically with weapons, gear and zones that are unlike what the majority of Azeroth currently is.  So what isn't the majority of Azeroth?  Well, one good place to start is Vashj'ir.  There's nothing else like it. If we were going to build an entire MMO out of a single zone, we would start there.  So logically an aquatic theme would suffice for at least a portion of the upcoming expansion.

So in conclusion, are we retracting our 90 second video and stepping off our soapbox of supporting Emerald Dream as the next expansion?  No, because getting back to the origin of our discovery, technically the potential aesthetic of Emerald Dream could still be a relevant fit.  What we're doing here is allowing for what was staring us in the face in our landscapes to have its rightful place as well.  It could be Aquatic, it could be Emerald Dream, and it could even be both (below).  And technically it could be neither, and maybe we've missed the mark completely.  But if there's one thing we're sure of, we haven't seen the last or the best of the Aquatic theme.



  1. I think it is very difficult to say what the next expansion is going to be. I would not be surprised over Mists of Pandaria (some high-up people I know still support this theory).

    As for ending the expansion quickly, Blizzard hinted at this a few months after Cataclysm. Initially when they launched TBC they said they wanted expansions every 1.5 years but somehow that has turned into 2 years (almost on the dot). This 'shorter expansion' style seems like a return to that earlier idea of expansions every 1.5 years.

    As for the seashore and Vashj'ir - bringing zones like that back again would be tricky. Vashj'ir was the least liked zone in Cataclysm by a huge majority, so creating an expansion around that dynamic could be extremely tricky. I agree that if they wanted to incorporate Queen Azshara or more underwater zones into the game that it would have to be an expansion with a split focus.

    However, expansions with a split focus are hard to market. Illidan. Arthas. Deathwing. The 'Ultimate Baddie' marketing dynamic kind of falls apart. There are already complaints that Cataclysm had too much of a split focus.

    I wonder wager on something with a clear focus (not Queen Azshara or underwater focus). I think Emerald Dream is possible, but they would have to do it in a new and interesting way. The Emerald Dream as it is known in lore would make for an EXTREMELY boring expansion set. Green, fight some corrupted dragons, more green, no wildlife, more green, fight some old gods and their minions, more green, fight some corrupted druids, more green, now what?

  2. Heya Simca! All great, and very valid challenges. I think in the end, we are left with a lot of speculation over what could simply amount to being me personally staring too long at the charts being generated over here.

    It's interesting. Traditionally we use Visual Positioning in a generative fashion, where we look to identify where content COULD go, so as to identify areas of opportunity. Up until now, we'd never leveraged it in a predictive fashion, where we use it to draw conclusions on where content WILL go. Ha, staking claims may not be the best use of our expertise, and if so I put the blame on myself, perhaps being too personally invested in the subject matter.

    At any rate, I agree with all of your points. I think in the end what we have is a landscape of speculation, and really all we've identified is the potential for smaller components to a much larger, future expansion. -Keel

  3. How is this fast at all? Wrath was released Q4 2008 and 3.3 came out Q4 2009... Cataclysm was released Q4 2010 and 4.3 is going to come out Q4 2011. We're just going to hear the name and some teaser about 5.0 at Blizzcon next month and we won't see the expansion for at least half a year after that. Deathwing's defeat is right on schedule.

  4. Food for thought, Oavocsev pointed out on Reddit that Emerald Dream was more likely to happen than something aquatic, but he also mentioned N'Zoth would likely be the main antagonist. Interestingly enough, when you look up N'Zoth on WoWpedia or WoWwiki, they point out that N'Zoth may actually have a connection with Azeroth's oceans:

    From WoWpedia:
    "When Malfurion Stormrage contained the Nightmare within the Rift of Aln, he sensed an "ancient evil" that was keeping its foothold in the Emerald Dream from somewhere beneath Azeroth's oceans.[6] This may be N'Zoth. It may be possible that the physical embodiment of N'Zoth is located below Vashj'ir"...

    Also from WoWpedia:
    "Cataclysm introduced a new item, the [Puzzle Box of Yogg-Saron], which whispers to the player on each attempt to open it. The whispers seem to describe an old god residing at the bottom of the ocean, like Malfurion's description, lending belief that the whispers are referring to N'Zoth:
    In the sunken city, he lays dreaming. The drowned god's heart is black ice. At the bottom of the ocean even light must die..."

    Also from WoWpedia:
    "N'Zoth may also have been one of the voices whispering to Queen Azshara during the Great Sundering.[5]..."

  5. A bold prediction, then, could be N'Zoth is the main antagonist of the next expansion, Emerald Dream is a key component but not the entire story line, Queen Azshara is a key raid boss, and their location is in the unchartered waters of the Southseas, which would also provide opportunity to reveal the island of Pandaria. Something along the lines of N'Zoth has awakened with the demise of Deathwing, and his emergence from the depths of the Southseas has caused Pandaren to flee to both Southern continent coasts, some heading up to Orgrimmar, others up to Stormwind, making them playable by both Horde/Alliance. Emerald Dream becomes key as part of the N'Zoth story line, but either N'Zoth's story line or Azshara's story line introduces a massive aquatic component to the expansion, taking players back underwater again. It's aquatic + emerald dream + N'Zoth + Azshara + Pandaria.

  6. I would definitely agree that the N'zoth storyline is/was the prime candidate for a new expansion.

    This music ( file called "The Rift of Aln" appeared during the Cataclysm Beta and as far as I know remains in the game files without being used for anything.

    It could be a remnant of a discarded raid idea, or it could be the next expansion.

    The panda trademark kind of throws the whole thing into chaos because such a split focus sounds hard to market. Personally though I'd love to see an aquatic/emerald dream expansion as long as it was done carefully (perhaps an underwater zone that doesn't require the seashore or swimming - like a huge cave).

  7. That music is used in quite a few places Darkshore, for example, uses it. It's used a LOT in Gilneas.

  8. Vash'jir was just a test of 3D combat. Whether they decide to do an Aquatic theme or an Emerald Dream storyline would result in us using 3D combat.

    I remember reading that they specially redesigned underwater movement to help with combat for Cataclysm. Vash'jir was pretty smooth combat compared to the rest of Azeroth (I'm thinking of the lake in Redridge killing Murlocs or the eels from the lake near Shattrath).

    In the novels, Malfurion flies through the Emerald Dream. I think 3D combat would certainly shake up the game.

  9. This is all great insight. For us to feel validated, even if we end up being right, we have to witness a shift in the weaponry to the organic/fluid aesthetic we've identified. Otherwise we're no different than any other website that's purely speculating. Our theories hinge on the aesthetic shift of the weapons, so time will tell if we projected it correctly or not. If they shift to what we've projected, then we've got some credibility. If they don't, then we're no different. -Keel

  10. After reading all that I have to agree 100%.

    If they want a "fresher" underwater theme, Then Deepsea would be the way to go, Since they are so obviously headed in that direction anyhow..