Blizzard Reboots WoW with the Cataclysm Expansion

by Wolfshead on August 25, 2009

Nothing puts a damper on the player’s suspension of disbelief faster than when they finally realize there are no more horizons left to explore and conquer. That said, nothing excites MMO gamers then the word “new expansion”. Given the finite nature of virtual worlds, the sweet promise of more opiate in the form of new content keeps that tenuous virtual world experience alive — at least for now.

In the aftermath of this past weekend’s Blizzcon, there’s a collective sense of elation and giddiness in the WoW community as the news of another future shipment of Azerothian spice starts to sink in.

But expansions have always been a double-edged sword. Despite their obvious benefits, there are a host of unintended consequences: the same amount of players are spread out over more geography, older towns and cities become ghost towns, old dungeons and gear become obsolete with emphasis on endgame content du jour — just to name a few. With the release of Cataclysm sometime in 2010 Blizzard has finally done something to reign in the bloated Warcraft universe and challenge what we as MMO enthusiasts have come to expect from an expansion.

WoW’s Makeover

After five years Blizzard has finally decided to completely redo all of original level 1-60 content. Everything from cities, towns and quests will be redesigned. This is an inspired and bold move. By breaking the mold of their previous expansion paradigm they have essentially reinvented and freshened up their MMO. The history of this young genre has shown us that once a MMO reaches the four or five year mark it starts to decline and is ripe for mutiny by its players. Almost five years ago SOE’s EverQuest experienced this kind of mutiny when the young and fresh upstart WoW conscripted it’s player base.

By focusing back in the original world, Blizzard has cleverly deployed a preemptive strategy to keep WoW viable in the face of almost certain challenges to its dominance in the MMO field. To continue with their old formula of adding 10 more levels and a new continent would have been a disaster of predictability.

As MMOs age they also become more focused on their core subscribers which tend to be most loyal, hardcore and vocal players. Content tends to be created for these experienced high level players and this creates barriers for new players. MMO communities tend to coalesce around these high level players as my travels and experiences in the world of EverQuest 2’s Norrath have recently demonstrated. This has the side effect of creating a MMO along with a culture and community that is not very welcoming to new players.

Buying Time for Blizzard’s Next Generation MMO

Blizzard is currently working on a secret unannounced MMO headed by Lead Game Designer Jeff Kaplan. Given Blizzard’s long development times it is very unlikely that this MMO will be released before 2013. Blizzard’s history shows us that Starcraft2 was announced at Blizzcon in 2007 and it’s scheduled to be released sometime in 2010 — that’s a 3 year window from the time of its initial announcement. Given the fact that Blizzard’s new MMO was not announced (probably explains why Jeff Kaplan did not make a public appearance) at this year’s Blizzcon surely can only mean that the earliest it will be made public would be at the Blizzcon in 2010.

Continuing to make WoW commercially viable and appealing to new players while Kaplan and cohorts continue to work on the new and hopefully more advanced MMO is a very smart strategy on the part of Blizzard. It would be suicidal for them to repeat the same pattern of adding new continents and 10 more levels which would have the effect of solidifying the WoW community into more of lopsided high level/endgame player base than it already is.

WoW is already starting to become very complex and convoluted much like EQ2 is currently. Thankfully, the newbie experience in WoW is still fun and accessible. Now with the upcoming expansion and the addition of two new playable races, they can market a whole “new” world and continue to play to the strengths of WoW which was always about being able to attract new players and allow them to play casually.

My WoW Expansion Predictions in 2008

Today, I took a look at an article I penned last year making predictions about the new expansion. Some of them have come true and some of them have not. What I’m most happy about is how my prediction of the nature of Cataclysm expansion content has shown itself to be true:

4 ) Azeroth Reborn Expansion Theme – Forget adding new areas to WoW. The boring, repetitive and unchanging content of old Azeroth has become a major liability. New quests, NPCs, stories and dungeons (instances) need to be developed in order to revitalize all of the old areas. Give players a reason to roll new characters. Also new players (who are the lifeblood of any MMO) would be able to experience more advanced quest technology that is currently being used in Wrath of the Lich King.

Five New Levels is the Right Decision

I’m very pleased that they have decided have 5 new levels instead of 10. This was another prediction that I nailed in my article last year:

2 ) Five New Levels Instead of Ten – Blizzard doesn’t need to release 10 new levels each expansion. Instead they should double the amount of experience needed to reach each level and only have 5 new levels. Fewer levels puts less pressure and demands on developers who have to create half the content and half the time testing new class abilities. Slower leveling means that players will be forced to enjoy the content at their level instead of bypassing it by madly racing to the level cap.

The problem with having 10 new levels is that most players become obsessed with grinding out those levels in order to reach the “endgame”. This has the effect of rendering the dungeons created for anything below the level cap as practically useless. Nobody wants to bother adventuring in dungeons where the gear will be obsolete in a few levels by gear found in the auction house and in endgame dungeons.

With a 5 level gap between level 80 and level 85 almost every dungeon will be made accessible and meaningful for players as there will be more overlap of content then in the past. Blizzard has finally learned some hard lessons about proper pacing with regard to levels and dungeons.

Thankfully No New Hero Class

I’m pleased that Blizzard decided against including a new hero class in the new expansion. I think in hindsight they probably would agree that the Death Knight created a lot of problems for the notion of class balance due to its intrinsically overpowered nature.

While the Death Knight starting area was a masterpiece of presentation and design, I still maintain it was a mistake to have introduced the hero class in the fashion they did.

Some Interesting New Features

I think the new secondary gathering profession Archeology could be very good and be a boon to players who like to explore. I think the proposed Path of the Titans character advancement system which is linked to Archaeology may provide somewhat of an alternative to the current pathway of post level-cap advancement via itemization.

The LFG feature that enables players from all servers to join groups is very cool. As someone who plays late at night, it’s very rare that I get a chance to get in groups so this is a most welcome feature. Anything that encourages grouping and socialization is a winner.

I find it very smart of Blizzard to reward players that take the initiative for starting groups with the new LFG system. This just goes to show you that anytime you want encourage a particular behavior in a MMO you should always have some kind of tangible incentive.

Having a guild advancement system is something I have been wanting for many year now for WoW. Since the release of WoW many of Blizzard’s decisions have literally torn asunder many good guilds — especially smaller guilds that get pillaged and plundered by larger guilds. Hopefully they will have a fair and meaningful guild advancement system that rewards smaller guilds just as much as it does larger guilds.

Random Blizzcon Impressions

I’m disappointed that there were no questions from the crowd regarding role-playing or something other subject other then “dude, you nerfed my ret paladin” — not that those lucky few questioners among the lucky few ticket-holders are any scientific representation of the WoW community. I’m even more upset that it appears that non of the Blizzard employees on any of the various panels seemed to care about it. Nothing on world events which are immensely popular either.

What I’m most troubled about is how Blizzard has flagrantly ignored pleas to include player housing — something they talked about previous to the release of the original WoW back in 2004 — as there was no mention of it at Blizzcon. It’s hard to believe that all these years later and after billions of dollars of revenue, player housing is still not implemented. Apparently all you will ever own in Azeroth is the clothes on your back.

There were far too many panels on Diablo 3 and Starcraft 2 for my liking. With 11.5 million dedicated players the WoW community really deserves and merits its own event.

The design panels were terrific. I was in game design nirvana as I was glued to my computer monitor watching the entire event on Rayv. Special mention goes out to Corey Stockton and Greg Street for their informative presentations.

Chris Metzen did a great job of explaining the lore for WoW. I think of all of the people at Blizzard he’s the one that strikes me as the one who’s got a genuine sense of passion and fire in the belly for what Blizzard is all about as a studio.

Rob Pardo has seemingly morphed into a younger version of Steve Jobs with his all black outfit and his visionary strutting about the stage. He gave a fascinating talk about the future of Battle.net which is going to be a portal for all of Blizzard’s games and player communities. After watching his presentation it’s very clear that Blizzard is light years ahead of any gaming company with how they plan to coordinate their various communities.

For the record, Ozzy Osbourne was terrible. He looked like a doddering halfwit up there and sounded like he had Turret’s syndrome with his constant cursing.

Conclusion

While the news about the new expansion is very exciting and tantalizing for WoW subscribers such as myself, it still does not change the fundamental nature of WoW: it’s a MMO where players have precious little freedom to deviate from the golden patch as they strive to *reveal* the grand storyline crafted by writers. Perhaps I need to concede that state of popular MMOs in 2009 is that have been morphed into online storybooks where the player must perform certain actions to unveil and advance the plot.

The WoW quest system while a triumph of polish and simplicity is still very primitive and limiting with no real advancements promised for Cataclysm. Players will have no real choice in how NPCs react to them nor can they react in ways that are more complex then pressing “accept” or “decline”. The reason for this is that Blizzard wants to tell you *their* story. The quest system being the prime mechanism how their narrative is revealed to the player.

While the new expansion will take the much celebrated phasing technology to new heights by giving the player the power to activate change a zone transformation, it is still a scripted and rather predictable one-way pathway. There is no going back and there is only one direction. Despite the illusion of change, I’ve pretty much given up hope the WoW will ever evolve into something truly inspired and great. WoW is what it is and nothing more.

Even with the upcoming Cataclysm, five years from now Azeroth will be in exactly the position it is now: an online facsimile of the Groundhog Day movie where regrettably nothing truly changes or evolves. By that time their next generation MMO should be released which may very well have some of the advanced features that I and others have been clamoring for in the MMO community.

-Wolfshead

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