[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.