Is Blizzard’s Cataclysm the Worst Expansion in MMO History?

by Wolfshead on January 17, 2011

There’s an aging corpulent MMO dinosaur that is lumbering under the weight of its own arrogance and sloth. This MMO has grown too big for its environment and is due for imminent extinction. This is the golden MMO that can do no wrong and even claims it has 12 million subscribers. If you haven’t guessed by now this MMO is called World of Warcraft.

For years now I have been warning the MMO community about an impending cataclysm resulting from misguided game developers who have seen fit to substitute fundamental MMO design virtues with dumbed-down game play and assorted parlor tricks. So it’s something of a fitting coincidence that we have an expansion by that very name.

I recently sampled a month of gameplay in Blizzard’s new WoW expansion Cataclysm and the result left me with all the exhilaration of riding an escalator in a shopping mall.

If you are acquainted with my past articles about WoW, you know this article will not hold anything back. Luckily, I’m not on the payroll of gaming magazine nor am I desperate for a job in the video game industry, so I can afford to be brutally honest.

Cataclysm as a Concept

Everything looks great on paper. Way back when Cataclysm was first unveiled to the public back at BlizzCon 2009, I believed the idea was sound. But the way things play out often differs from the initial concept. Briefly let’s examine the basis for this WoW expansion.

One of the major selling points for Cataclysm was that the original areas of WoW needed to be updated to reflect current design tools and the high level of craftsmanship of the quest team. It was also thought that creating a new WoW would provide more accessibility for future new players and ensure profitability for many years to come. Both admirable ideas if they could pull it off.

The problem was in the execution.

Designed by The Children’s Television Workshop

It’s almost as if someone has kidnapped the game designers at Irvine and replaced them with childcare workers. Azeroth which used to be somewhat exciting and marginally dangerous has become so kid friendly and idiot proof that you’d think you are wandering around in Mr. Rogers Neighborhood looking for a lemonade stand.

First you have the Worgen, Blizzard’s ace in the hole “cool” marketing feature. This new Alliance race that looked great in concept art ends up looking absurd and comical in practice. Imagine your family pet standing on its hind legs running around with full plate armor, sword and shield. Oops! The cartoon dog Scooby Doo looks more threatening than the Worgen which is really a nod to the popularity of the Underworld and Twilight genres. The fake British accents don’t help much either.

Then you have their Horde counterparts, the Star Trek Ferengi inspired goblins with their ridiculously flamboyant starting zone that puts a stake through the heart of any semblance of high fantasy that WoW ever had. At least the goblins don’t look as preposterous as the Worgen.

Just when you think Blizzard has jumped the shark they keep finding bigger sharks to jump.

Random Cataclysm Observations

Blizzard the world leader in MMOs has produced quite possibly the worst expansion in MMO history with levels 1-85 being utterly devoid of any semblance of challenge or intensity. Mob density has been nerfed to almost nothing in outdoor zones and in those occasional outdoor mini-dungeons; killing these mobs takes zero skill as player power has reached all-time heights in WoW.

Leveling too has become utterly trivialized. One of my characters stopped killing mobs completely and “earned” levels by gathering herbs and mining ore. It’s a wonder they don’t just start all new characters off at level 80. I’m sure this will be in the works for the next expansion as they unveil their new hero class as a final act of desperation to bribe players.

The new profession Archeology is so tedious and silly that it makes watching paint dry seem exciting.

Familiar and sentimental zones like Loch Modan, have been destroyed and replaced with desolate ugliness. The Forsaken lands have undergone an architecture makeover that makes them look like more like Disney’s Haunted Mansion then a maligned and tragic race trying to find its place in the world.

The new Uldum zone is highly derivative and comes across like some kind of Egyptian/Biblical theme park complete with every desert cliché found in those old Hollywood movies. I constantly found myself looking over my shoulder to see if Ben Hur was behind me in a chariot or Lawrence of Arabia was riding into battle.

What Goes Around Has Finally Come Around

The problems we see in Cataclysm didn’t transpire overnight. Like some deranged madman bent on suicide, Blizzard has destroyed everything that was good and noble about MMOs and seemingly wants to take the entire genre with it into existential oblivion.

Cataclysm is the end result of a MMO design by numbers philosophy inspired by the wishes of accountants and avarice of shareholders. This is one picnic basket of childish quests and facile gameplay expressly designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator out there.

Maybe Blizzard thinks that new players are rather stupid and need to be held by the hand as they progress though WoW. This kind of underestimation of the abilities of new players is so pervasive that WoW has devolved into a perpetual tutorial that lasts 85 undeserved levels.

But suddenly it changes at the level cap. WoW puts on the brakes and comes to a screeching halt. It reaches puberty and starts to become a real MMO that requires grouping — so much for a seamless transition.

For the vast majority of what constitutes WoW, the following is true: the challenge is gone, the risk is gone, the suspense is gone. the wonder is gone, and the immersion — well it left town years ago. It’s one big Bacchanalian orgy of advancement and rewards. Eventually players become immune to this mindless routine and have realized that gear and levels mean nothing. So they leave. This is why Blizzard needs a steady influx of new players to replace them.

WoW and the clones that it has spawned have become like whited sepulchers — pretty graphics on the outside and with precious little of value in the inside.

A Lesson in Unintended Consequences Blizzard Style

Recently flawed design including the Trojan Horse of all MMO features — the Dungeon Finder — has resulted in the mechanization and trivialization of the beloved dungeon crawl. Dungeons have become nothing more than mob and loot conveyor belts designed to dole out instant gratification to mute loot addicted participants culled from various servers.

But the greatest sin of all is that the Blizzard has single-handedly created the worst community in MMO history after all. Everyone’s a perpetual stranger in this strange land. Players no longer talk to each other and when they do it consists of trash talking because they can get away with it due to lax policy enforcement and “we want you back” Blizzard overtures to suspended players.

Players are wise to the reality that being outgoing, friendly and polite has no value in WoW all thanks to the geniuses on the Dungeon Finder development team.

You’d almost think that Blizzard feels that socialization and camaraderie are liabilities that should be removed from MMOs altogether.

Blizzard Has Created a Gamer Culture of Entitlement

It gets worse, it always does. The players through no fault of their own have become virtual slackers addicted to a steady drip feed of rewards. Shooting fish in a barrel would require too much skill for today’s average WoW player. People don’t want to work for anything anymore; they feel entitled. They want achievements for just showing up and Blizzard is only too happy to oblige.

To illustrate how bad things are, recently one of the lead designers Greg Street posted a blog article entitled Wow, Dungeons are Hard! where he responds to the thousands of WoW players that are finding heroic dungeons too difficult. While I have no personal opinion of Cataclysm’s heroic dungeons, Blizzard is finding itself suffering a major backlash from its subscribers. There have been over 12,000 replies to his blog article so far and for every one player supporting Street there are two opposing him.

While I agree philosophically with Greg Street that there should be challenge in a MMO it’s far too late to start implementing it now; that horse left the proverbial barn years ago.

Something tells me that the designers are Blizzard in their heart of hearts know that their MMO has become a joke, so in order to compensate for their guilt and shame they’ve create overly hard heroic dungeons to convince themselves that in some small little area of Toyland, there are still a few parts that are require skill.

I genuinely feel sorry for many of those casual gamers that are upset with Blizzard. It’s not their fault what has happened. They are hapless victims of the reeling excesses of Blizzard schizophrenic game design.

Blizzard you get the players you deserve. But they don’t deserve you.

Years of pandering to solo gamers at the expense of creating a cohesive community by discouraging grouping has created the least skilled players in MMO history. Shallow game design that sacrificed everything that made MMOs unique and special on the altar of profits and expediency has taken its toll.

If Blizzard applied the same principles that it used in the formation of WoW players and administered them to the military or any professional sports team, those organizations would have collapsed by now due to failure and incompetence. Every copy of WoW should come with this warning on the box:

Playing WoW will make you a worse gamer than you are now. After prolonged exposure players have been found to exhibit anti-social tendencies.

The Donut that Turned Into a Pancake

The real culprit here is a corporate philosophy that is based on growth. Subscriber growth. Blizzard’s policy has been to keep expanding the outer edges of its famous donut philosophy with marginal players of lesser skill and lesser time availability in order to get more profits. The result is a flattened pancake instead of a donut.

WoW is desperately trying to be too many things to too many people. There is no social or skill level cohesion in the current WoW player base and the middle can no longer hold as evidenced by the current player malaise and community disharmony. Communities cannot survive when their members have so little in common.

Figures Lie and Liars Figure

Sales figures do not accurately predict the quality of a product. In Blizzard’s case, the quality of this product was not readily apparent until the customer had purchased it, experienced it and couldn’t ask for a refund. This explains why so many WoW subscribers feel so betrayed right now. They realize they’ve been suckered and duped by empty promises and over-zealous marketing.

Some may legitimately say that I haven’t experienced enough of Cataclysm to prove my assertion that it’s the worst expansion in MMO history. I would reply that you don’t need to fall into a sewer to know that it stinks and is full of waste. While it may not be the absolute worst MMO expansion technically, there is no excuse for Blizzard as they should be held to a higher standard. They are the world leader in MMO production and have vast resources at their disposal to create the very best content possible and they have failed.

Conclusions Galore

Is Cataclysm the worst expansion in MMO history? To date, I believe it is. Only history can make that judgment. If anything, Cataclysm is the culmination and fruition of 6 years of Blizzard growing the MMO demographic by consistently dumbing-down gameplay and now the chickens have come home to roost with the current debacle that is WoW. Azeroth has become a consequence free wasteland of triviality where players have almost no way left to carve out identity and meaning for themselves.

Even if I concede that the original WoW was a MMO masterpiece in its own right albeit with flaws, the new version is akin to someone spraying graffiti on top of the canvas. Anything that was great about WoW has been erased and replaced with childish scribbling. The time has come to move on.

There’s a scene in the recent HBO series The Pacific where American soldiers who’ve been on a much deserved shore leave in Australia after some major bloody campaigns are one day summoned back from their leave and made to march 100 miles back to town. At the end of this forced march, the soldiers were exhausted, sore and blistered but were rightfully toughened up for the difficult challenges that their superiors knew lay ahead.

This is exactly what the MMO player base needs right now. We need a return to an mature adult MMO mindset that isn’t designed to appeal primarily to school children. We need to find and support a new MMO company that has the guts and leadership to do the right thing and puts the game/world first and profits last — don’t worry Mr. Corporate Suit Investor Guy — profits will naturally follow quality every time.

MMO companies need to stop insulting the intelligence and potential of their players. Stop creating single-player games and calling them MMOs so you can charge monthly subscription fees. Stop fabricating phony PVP contrivances like battlegrounds. Start trusting your players with more freedom instead of less. Start encouraging cooperation and socialization once again. Stop copying each other and come up with something original; game designers stop being so lazy.

It’s high time for the MMO industry to grow up.

While it’s far too late for Blizzard to change WoW, it’s not too late for new MMOs like RIFT, Guild Wars 2, Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic, EverQuest 3 and even 38 Studios upcoming title to offer up a serious MMO experience. It’s time for the industry to man up, show some courage and start innovating for a change. It’s not going to be easy and you may even have to think outside the box but goodness knows this genre desperately needs it.

-Wolfshead

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