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

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Longasc August 26, 2009 at 1:01 am

You are right, but it seems you have taken your time to think about it again. Some players were even excited enough to resubscribe (Tobold for example) and play an alt through the old content before it gets changed/destroyed.

I felt tempted, too… but I know what made me quit. Nothing to do but dailies and piss easy instances, they almost feel like grind. Weekly Raids do not keep me entertained, and I never was much of a raider, actually.
My friend Steve mentioned something else. He is bored to death my the Argent Coliseum. Even if our guild is not even half as good, numerous, dedicated and strong as it was in the days of the old Naxx and C’thun raids, even our dear friend and MMO slacker Andre has 4/5 of the max tier set for his Paladin. People can hate the gated SSC/TK/Hyjal/BT/Sunwell stuff as much as they want, but it was more exciting than this.

And IMO it also shows that there is need for something else/more than RAIDS as endgame content. Some people will never like raids, no matter how easy or difficult they are!
ArenaNet called it “buddy gaming”, groups of 2-5 people who like playing together – raiding is nothing for them. Guess how much I talked to my 3 best buddies during a raid. As we were obliged to stay in the raid voice channel, we had to start our own private type chat channel and also did not have much time to chitchat and talk.

The guild achievement system is rumored to be limited to the top 20 contributers of said guild per day. Daily achievements? The next step of groundhog daily quests? ;)
ArenaNet made some title/achievement tracks account wide, as many people felt that they would be “punished” for creating and playing alt chars. Now treasure chests and rare items you find with your chars count accountwide to the treasure hunter/wisdom achievements.

I personally hope that Blizzard has better ideas for a guild advancement system than counting bosses downed in raids, achievements by singular players and all that. It sounds like another evolution of the “achievements for everything you do” system that I really hate in contemporary MMOs.

Maybe you can spoil some infos on plans for Warlocks and Hunters? I am not sure if you bothered or had time to take a look, but maybe you can give me some first hand impressions. :)
I heard Hunters get LOTRO style “focus” instead of mana, and Warlocks get a total soul shard revamp, i.e. no more shards.

Blizzard are wizards. I am already more excited about a game expansion of 2010 than I am about the brand new Aion. I really managed to burn out myself in Aion during three closed beta events, which made me a bit sad. I expected it to become my MMO fix for the next years. But surprisingly I am still playing LOTRO which I never really intended to play, just wanted to take a look… funny.

Reply

Longasc August 26, 2009 at 1:02 am

P.S.: ArenaNet ~/= Guild Wars.
I so hope for Guild Wars 2 and its events to be the next big thing in MMO gaming.

Reply

Wolfshead August 26, 2009 at 1:33 am

I’m definitely willing to give GW2 a chance but how can they monetize it without a monthly subscription fee?

Also, without any fees will there be any GMs to enforce the rules?

I visited the GW2 website today — arrghh what horrible artwork. I guess I’ve just never been into the NCSoft art style. I really wish they’d scale back the Asian look and feel of everything.

Reply

Longasc August 26, 2009 at 1:19 am

http://www.pinkpigtailinn.com/2009/08/cataclysm-triumph-of-social.html

Read the list of 5 announced guild bonuses… I already commented there, it sounds to me like some strange kind of forced socialization. As if there would not be already enough inactive members in guilds that just fill the roster???

I am quite pissed that they “eliminate the need for gathering professions”. My main char is a miner/skinner.

Reply

Wolfshead August 26, 2009 at 1:35 am

That’s a very good read. I’m going to need some time to digest her article.

Has anyone noticed that if you are guildless in WoW you get this message when you log on:

“You are not in a guild.”

Is Blizzard trying to make people who aren’t in guilds feel guilty or somehow inadequate?

Reply

Spinks August 26, 2009 at 1:59 am

I suspect it’s a placeholder for the message of the day that you’d get if you were in a guild.

Reply

SsandmanN August 26, 2009 at 2:24 am

Seems to me people are reading between the lines a little too much here.
Nobody said anything about eliminating the need of gathering professions.
Most of her comments are a little bit “out there”.

- (1) – For raid bosses only!

- (2) – I seem to have missed the announcement that guild XP will be convertible to gold… Are you sure it is not just a token system to purchase guild items and heirlooms?

- (3) – How significant remains to be seen. Granted if you don’t raid you don’t whipe, so your soloing costs are already reduced. Goblins will repair at lowest prices just by racial.

- (4) – Noone said these “heirlooms” will replace actual set items. For all it’s worth they could be just cosmetic, like guild tabards. Also noone said you could fill your entire inventory with just heirloom items – it could be just a shoulder piece. We already know the concept of “guild recipes”, so heirlooms might not even be items at all. Even then, the matter of their cost remains, as well as whether they will be better than high end PvE/PvP rewards. I suspect they will be something like badge vendor loot.

- (5) The guilds will be able to buy, but it will still cost them, so the gold sellers are still in business. Also noone said they will be able to buy all their reagents, nor did they say the amounts of reagents you could buy will be unlimited. This is just wishful thinking here, as Blizzard will be fools to completely void half of their professions.

Reply

Stabs August 26, 2009 at 2:16 am

Good article and particularly well done on the predictions.

I think to understand the direction of Blizzard’s expansions you have to consider what their rivals are doing.

When TBC launched the rival was Vanguard. (VG was a horrible failure as it turned out but no one knew this in advance). To spoil Vanguard, a game aiming to get raiding back to its roots, they implemented a very raid-focussed expansion with substantial challenge.

When WotlK launched the rivals were AoC and War. To spoil them WotLK had more accessible raiding, a dark gothic look, a dark gothic new character class and some very well designed new pvp content.

When Cat launches (when the Cat is out of the bag?) the main rival will be SWTOR. SWTOR will emphasise story and alting so expect Cat to be very strong in these areas.

A few bloggers are claiming Cat will kill soloing :
http://playervsdeveloper.blogspot.com/2009/08/on-supposed-death-of-solo-pve-in.html

This won’t happen because if they killed soloing soloers would play SWTOR.

Reply

Tesh August 26, 2009 at 12:31 pm

I have a mild love-hate relationship with WoW.

I will not pay a subscription to play *any* game, but the times I’ve played WoW (either as trials or at a friend’s place), I’ve enjoyed puttering around in the world, and would willingly buy a single player offline version of the game.

I really don’t like grindy, shallow DIKU game mechanics, but the art direction in WoW really is excellent.

They have made some design decisions that I think are idiotic (Achievements, rep grinds, back and forth quests, etc.), but I think that Cataclysm’s Old Azeroth revamp is a great idea. (OK, maybe it’s just because I advocated such a year ago.)

So, yes, I think that they are on the right track with Cataclysm, inasmuch as they seem to be addressing some fundamental problems with a game that stays “online” for more than a few years. They aren’t going far enough in my direction to make me buy in, but I do concede that they seem to be doing some things right. (A concession I make fairly regularly; they wouldn’t be as successful as they are without doing at least *something* right, but neither am I willing to put them on a pedestal.)

Reply

jim September 11, 2009 at 1:52 pm

Having some hit and miss experiences w/ setting up private servers, I think this is what single-player or “few-player” WoW will need to succeed:

1. Kill the grind. The “grind” is relevant only in a massively multiplayer environment which needs to reward time commitment. This is not to say everyone should instantly be level 80; rather, change the mechanics in such a way to diminish “leveling for leveling’s sake”.

2. Player actions matter. Completed quests should result in permanent changes to the game world. Forged alliances make new enemies, and vice versa. Who you work should actually matter (and this is not just loot). Monster distributions, quests, loot tables change with time, within areas, within regions.

3. A world exists outside the player. Alliance forces forge a temporary alliance and push into horde territory only to be broken by an emergency truce with the undead. Liches rise to power but are ultimately pushed back by a pack of brave adventurers which may or may not include you. No one, including the player, “wins” the game (in general, “victory” in most modern games is far too oversimplified).

4. Achievements outside the achievement system. This was talked about a long time ago, but completely scrap the achievement system and replace with a reputation-based system on multiple axes. Wealth/poverty, saint/evil dictator, trustworthy/conman, brave/cowardly, etc. This should affect all of the above, including who wants to speak with you, quests obtained, dialog choices, etc.

Reply

Tesh September 11, 2009 at 3:37 pm

Agreed, those are great directions to push the game if it’s to be a more interesting experience. Single player design can use those a lot more easily than MMO design.

Reply

Gareth September 15, 2009 at 2:50 am

For me I’d like to see a game kill the grind completely, because for me the grind is the unthinking part of the game.

I had a friend showing me some “cool stuff” in AoC, he got a load of mobs and then AoE’d them down, meh. Yet most MMO games have sunken down to this level of design where mobs are so brain dead you wonder how they managed to dress themselves in the morning.

How about mobs that react with intelligent Ai, camps that scream out alerts, that run, work as a team etc, that would make killing a mob a real achievement instead of having to kill 10 of the brain dead things to make it feel like you’ve done something.
Everquest 2 does have that a little, I’ve attack a group of 5 to have the tank taunt me off onto him while the healer of that group healed him up, it felt like I was at least in a battle.

And then do the same for the quests, they’re just as much a grind too, how about quests with multiple answers? They make you actually read the text (saving the player from themselves as a lot of quests we ignore have a good story) and then think.

Even better if you make one quest then effect another (maybe effected how you start by your alignment and previous events) then you could no longer just look everything up on the internet something else I think that detracts from the immersion of a game.

Add in other things you’ve mentioned, like being able to change the world (I love pvp mixed in with pve), and something more advanced graphically then the current canned animation models and it’ll be truly next generation, finally we’d get a world we can believe in again, a real successor and next step to EQ1.

Instead with a few PVP only MMO exceptions we’ve been going in the opposite direction for me, more linear, more theme park style less believable.

Reply

We Fly Spitfires August 27, 2009 at 1:57 pm

I feel that the content revamp is the first major piece of innovation and risk taking that Blizzard have taken with WoW… and I like it. It’s great to see them break the mold a little and now just follow the pattern of shoving out another expansion with 10 more levels and a new continent.

MMOs should be a constantly evolving experience. Lands should change, NPCs should die, events should happen. Cataclysm is going to shake things up. Pardon the pun :)

Reply

Wiqd September 5, 2009 at 7:57 am

I don’t think Cataclysm is innovative at all. Maybe some of the technology (like phasing, since it’s still new), but the idea of revamping old stuff is nowhere near innovative. In fact, it’s closer to desperation, imo.

A long long time ago in an MMO far far away, EQ revamped the Befallen once to try to get people to back to the old world. It didn’t work so well as it wasn’t really done properly and it was only 1 zone.

Enter EQ2, which is basically Norrath after the Sundering (AKA a huge Cataclysm) with which they made a whole new game out of.

The thing I think Cataclysm has going for it is that it builds on where Blizz knows their success lies. I loved Vanilla WoW and many others did as well when it came out (obviously). It was followed up by what many claim to be the single trashiest expansion ever made, Burning Crusade, which introduced sci-fi, interdimensional fortresses and space goats. Very lame. Then Blizz went back to its roots and released WotLK, located in Northrend, BACK on Azeroth.

Now, Cataclysm not only remains on Azeroth, but also revamps the old world, making it new, but gives people the chance to go back and experience the old world how it is now, before they change it.

The other things the more successful expansions had that BC didn’t was a verifiable Dragon Aspect presence. Yes you got to see Sinestra out on the netherdrake island, but they never went anywhere with it and the aspects weren’t really all that important, save for the CoT instances (which dealt with the infintes).

Vanilla had Onyxia. BWL and the black dragonflight as their main focus points. WotLK has ALL the aspects present in glorious fights, makes Malygos a prime target as well as Sartharion and evolves the dragons into proto-drakes. Cataclysm will shift focus to Deathwing, yet another famous dragon, as the main bad person (that we know of right now). I guess people like dragons in their fantasy MMOs :P

Reply

Gareth September 15, 2009 at 2:37 am

I think there is a bit of desperation in the revamp of the original content, but its still a bold decision, the bold thing for me is that it seems to be aimed at getting new players in rather then give something for older players to do. Or at least its another slap in the face for the hardcore since it only supports people who play alts.

On the expansions though I preferred the Burning crusade to the original content, the difference here I think is the lore. I don’t have a clear idea what all these dragon aspects are still whereas the Burning Crusade just made sense from a story perspective feeling alien and epic, it didn’t feel high fantasy which initially disappointed me, but after I saw motorbikes and vehicles in the game I realised WoW’s not that sort of game any more anyway.

WotLK on the other hand felt a bit bland after that, and even worse all the content was so easy (and so linear) that I never felt like I had to think about a problem or up my play to do something until I was deep into raiding. In short the game became a chore, I have a feeling I’m not one of their target audience though here.

Because of that I’m guessing this new expansion will be pitched to a similar difficulty, that kills it for me content wise as its raid or quit then.

The other mechanic I’m suspicious of is this new advancement method where your progress is tied to this new archaeology profession, they’ve already admited the advancement is then gated. In other words they’ve taken levelling and combined it with the daily quest mechanic, now the daily quest mechanic was one thing I absolutely hated.

For example the crusader area with the jousting, the jousting itself was ok although not great, but what totally killed it for me was that I could only do it for 15 minutes every day, sure I could do other quests to advance all over the continent, but again they were so simple they were just another 15 minutes, mostly taken up travelling with very little action to engage my brain at the end.

Really bad decision in my opinion, but we’ll see how it turns out I guess.

The other clanger for this expansion I don’t like is the looking for group going multi-server, I’m fine with that in BG’s since pvp is a casual thing for me, but the downside is that I’ll not know anyone from that group before or after it.

Grouping is how I met friends in the game, how we recruited for the guild etc, this change is going to limit that. If its as bad as I feel it could be it could turn WoW even further in Guildwars, a game where you meet up in cities/towns that are big not too instanced areas and then enter into lots of small 5-8 player instances, its moving a long way from the massive formulae, (I’ve been playing Planetside recently and its amazing how far ahead that is when it comes to getting a lot of people together in one area in comparison).

A better solution I think would have been to merge servers, I find it odd personally that in 2004 we had a server that could support X number of people, yet in 2009 technology hasn’t moved on apparently enough to increase the number per a server.

Reply



Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }