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How Sweden-based creative agency INGO and Blizzard teamed-up to lay out a welcome mat for new players, while raising a game-accurate mug to dedicated fans
For someone new to the game, World of Warcraft can seem a little daunting. Its lore is richly detailed, and its loyal players have been constructing vibrant second lives within its borders for 18-years now. How do you possibly distill the myths, legends, and geographies into something that welcomes those either taking their tentative first steps into Azeroth, or are curious to do so? Naturally, you think…small.
Granted, that may not be the most obvious strategy, but it is the one behind the surprising and delightful live action short, “The Tavern.” Originally made for the Swedish market, “The Tavern” takes a unique tack in its efforts to explain the world of World of Warcraft to the newcomer – It goes intimate, eschewing the vast plains of the Arathi Highlands for a dark, dimly lit pub. And instead of explaining who the people of Azeroth are to us, we are the topic of tavern gossip as they attempt to decipher our strangeness. It presents World of Warcraft as more than a game, but as a community and an experience unlike anything else. And it was made by fans, for fans, and with fans, every step of the way, to ensure absolute fidelity to the source material.
“This is a franchise that has such great awareness,” says Activision Blizzard EMEA Vice President of Marketing, Daniel Green. “But often there can seem to be these barriers to entry for people. They think, ‘It takes up too much time or I feel too left behind’. We wanted people to think about World of Warcraft in a different way, and make it a more welcoming experience for them.”
Blizzard turned to Stockholm-based creative agency INGO to help bring “The Tavern” to life, something their copywriter, Philip Frendberg, saw as a dream come true. “After I finished school in 2005, I pretty much took a six-month sabbatical in Azeroth,” he jokes. “And I still play today.” As a die-hard fan of the franchise, Frendberg was overjoyed when – returning from an eight-month paternity leave – he was greeted with the brief for the collaboration. “That was the best brief I’ve ever gotten in my life.” It also proved to be timely. The project was underway while Frendberg was on leave but seemed to be hitting a creative wall around the time he returned. His enthusiasm breathed new life into the process and set the project on the right path. “Not many people on the team had as much experience with the game as I did,” says Frendberg. "World of Warcraft really has an enormous variety in how one can experience the world and its adventures, and the question was 'how do you do it justice?’”
The writer, on the set in Budapest
Working closely with the Blizzard team, INGO parsed through several iterations of ideas, from billboards and outdoor activations to filmed testimonials, before deciding to go more cinematic. As Frendberg explains, “We had such great feedback sessions with Blizzard, and eventually we hit on the idea of, instead of comparing different things in real life to Azeroth, what would happen if characters from Azeroth were talking about real life?”
The Warcraft franchise hasn’t been afraid to use humor in the past, but what makes “The Tavern” unique (apart from its funhouse-mirror POV on the “real world”) was that it was going to tone down the spectacle in favor of witty dialogue. It fell to producer Markus Ahlm, to keep this vision on track. “We had so many ideas originally,” says Ahlm. “One was that there was going to be a big bar brawl going on the entire time, and things like that. Bigger, more epic landscapes. But I’m super happy we went more subtle, and we decided to trust the characters and trust that the comedy would come through. Blizzard completely bought into the idea.”
The little details
Knowing he had a lot of goals to accomplish – introduce people to World of Warcraft, delight fans, and be entertaining – in just a couple of minutes run time, Ahlm and his crew set about finding the right locations. “When you’re in the confines of a commercial, every second has to be put on a diamond scale because you have so few of them,” says Ahlm. They found a town square in Budapest that had the right feel, and production got underway for what was going to be a brisk two-day shoot. And, once again, World of Warcraft fandom seemed to always find the perfect time to swoop in and nudge the project further.
“While we were scouting locations, we actually stumbled on a gunsmith in Hungary who also happened to make World of Warcraft weapons for collectors,” says Ahlm, still amazed by the memory. “Working with people who really knew the lore, was so helpful”
Producer Markus Ahlm, strolling the square during filming
With a stated goal of making World of Warcraft more accessible and welcoming as possible, “The Tavern” created an opportunity for Blizzard to not just entertain the fan community, but to make them a part of the experience as well. To help fill in the bustling titular tavern, the team went to the true experts in making Azeroth come alive.
“The idea to use real cosplayers for the shoot came directly from Blizzard,” says Ahlm. “They thought it would be wonderful to involve the community, and everyone agreed it was an incredible idea.” The leader of the Defias Bandits who kick in the door at the end, for example, is French cosplayer Clementine Nurdin (@Osanguine_Cos), while Sabrina Fillip (@DancingFoxcosplay) and Sonia Grillet (@cinderys_art) appear as a Night Elf and a Death Knight respectively.
French cosplayer Clementine Nurdin, having some fun behind the scenes
Having these fans on set proved invaluable to the crew, as they worked tirelessly to get every detail correct, but it also lent the production a kind of special, intangible magic.
“When the cosplayers arrived on set, it was like they were stepping into Azeroth for the first time,” says Ahlm. “Just seeing their faces was so rewarding. We gave them a moment to just walk around and experience it. Some were in tears. It was very special.”
As with any commercial, film, or TV series, the true test of the work comes down to audience reception. While in Cannes Lions festival in June, Activision Blizzard’s Chief Creative Officer, Pelle Sjoenell and Chief Marketing Officer, Fernando Machado presented “The Tavern” in the event’s Grand Auditorium. It was “hold your breath” time for INGO – followed by a triumphant exhale.
“Whenever someone sees it for the first time, that ‘middle management’ line is genuinely one of those laugh-out-loud moments,” says Green. “And you just feel like, ‘We got it right!’”
For Ahlm, the positive reception immediately sent his mind spinning. “Once you have that proof that it works, you start to think, ‘When are we shooting the next one?’,” he says. “I’ve totally lost myself in the lore now.”
Green, for his part, is definitely open to the idea of a Part II and beyond. “Warcraft is such a phenomenal universe,” he says. “Bringing that world to life, the stories that you can tell and the fun that can be had, I would love the opportunity to continue the dialogue.”