It’s on MMO Champion, on WoW.com, on Blizzard’s official Cataclysm site and all over the blogs and news sites. The Cataclysm is coming. What’s my take on it?
At the risk of sounding like a fanboy, this is simply a genius move. Why? Because it directly aims at core problems of the expansion mechanics and shoots them down with sniper precision.
We all know that one. As soon as a new expansion is announced, no matter how far in the future, everyone gradually begins to fall into that sense of “oh, why do anything, it will all be useless in just a little more than a year”. Never mind that a year is an age in gaming terms, or that nothing you can do has any actual “use” beyond entertaining you in the first place anyway.
Instead, by announcing the end of the Old World, Blizzard turns lethargy into urgency. Suddenly, all those things you wanted to do “some time”, but somehow always forfeited in favour of riding circles through Dalaran become things you need to do now, because in “only one year” you won’t have a chance to do them any more. People won’t tell their non-WoW friends they should “try the game, but better wait until the next xpac, it’ll be better then”, but instead to “come, come quick, you’ll barely be able to see all the stuff in the time that’s left!” whether this is actually true nor not.
Rather than suspending their subscriptions until the game version changes to 4.0, people will renew, just to run through all those places they will never be able to see again, ever. “Never again” are very strong words. They are better than anything when it comes to creating urgency and rattling the cage of a community, that, by and large, became stagnant in many of its ways.
Old content quality
To quote myself from yesterday: The moment you step through The Dark Portal, something happens to the quests. They suddenly become awesome.
See, the vast majority of the Old Azeroth quests is just plain boring. Yes, I know, that you might be nostalgic about this or that couple of gems, and that at least in the Plaguelands the storytelling reached a temporary high, and not having played in all the zones (yet), I leave room for the possibility that a nice chain or two might have escaped my attention. Also, the zones I have been in were nicely and diversely designed, the locations and positions made sense, unique atmospheres transpired. But when it comes to the very quests themselves, I spent the first 58 levels mostly with unimaginative tasks solved by unimaginative mechanics presented with unimaginative descriptions. Again, yes, there were exceptions and outstanding gems. But for the most part, everything these quests were concerned with was to make me cover as much ground and occupy as much of my bag space as possible.
The thing is, that in the Outlands, the proportions turn around. Instead of “10% awesome, 90% trash”, I get 90% awesome, and the little trash that’s left is easily and without much trouble handled on the way to the next original and in itself entertaining task. The difference in quality is immense, and could be already suspected when comparing the Draenei and Blood-elf starting zones with .. the rest of the low level game. It’s not surprising either, there’s two more years of experience and ideas working there. From what everyone is saying, there’s another quantum leap in the WotLK content.
Blizzard knows this. They know, that most of their old content, to put it blunt, sucks. But there’s nothing they can do about it, because if they spend an entire content update adding candy to some low level quests 90% of their player base already did a hundred times, everyone will laugh in their face, and most of it will be perceived as “dumbing down” anyway. Except, of course, if they redo the entire Old World and then add actually new and exciting quests.
Old content balance
I can’t see into the past, but I do believe, that at some point (a.k.a. Vanilla-WoW), all the content, quests, dungeons, rewards, money, XP and difficulty were balanced with each other and resulted in an intensive game experience. The XP-curve was more flat, crafting worked slightly different, dungeons were harder, the quests fewer. But as of now, all Old Azeroth content is balanced for is getting you through it as fast as possible while still entertaining a notion of “the journey being worth it for the sake of the journey itself”. You’re being showered with XP and rushed through the levels at a pace that makes you wonder, why they don’t just let you start at 55 and send you to the Outlands right as you leave your starter zone. Oh, wait, they do.
This is closely tied to the quality issue above. They know it’s not the best they have in offer, so they just let you whiz through it. Redoing it from the ground and filling it with high quality content will enable them to restore a balance between content and progression, to really make the first 58-60 levels a worthy experience in itself, rather than just “the road to The Dark Portal”, with shortcuts wherever possible.
The announcement of flying in the old zones was one of the points that created the most doubt about the validity of the leaked information. It was pointed out by many, that many of the buildings and structures in the Old World are not true 3D-objects, but just facades, consisting only of the parts that can be seen from the ground. It is the very reason, why flying mounts are only permitted in Outlands and Northrend – flying over Azeroth would let you see untextured and unmodelled back- and upsides, while turning the entire world into true 3D would just have been too huge an effort (more to that later). Of course, it kind of mashed well with the general notion of redoing Azeroth completely, but seemed to only underline how technologically non-feasible such an enterprise would be.
Here’s the perk: the WoW-engine was created with this sort of “facade”-landscapes in mind. It doesn’t work well when it has to render too many too large 3D-objects. This is why your frame-rate collapses upon entering the Outlands or Northrend. There, everything is in full 3D, which they just square-into-round style shoved into the old engine. They can’t really update the engine either, however, because something like 80% of the existing content interacts with it in a very specific way. You’d have to redo that entire content completely … see where we’re going here?
Expect a major, and I mean major engine update for Cataclysm. And, to dispel fears, this doesn’t mean the game will suddenly have much higher hardware requirements. The graphics style won’t change, it’s the staple of WoW and its eternal youth. But in the past 5-6 years, technological advances in rendering efficiency have been made (as always). Making use of those while still sticking to simplistic roots will result in a game that will look better and run faster. You can say you heard it here first (unless you heard it somewhere else before).
No one removes old content. No one removes old content. No one ever removes old content. It’s a principle so fundamental, that the leaked information seemed ridiculous for suggesting Blizzard would. Old content is something that a significant monetary investment was made into, and that is there now, paying for itself. You might want to streamline (i.e. accelerate) or polish (i.e. nerf) it, but you never remove it. It’s real value, you don’t just throw it away!
The complete Azeroth-revamp is a muscle-move by Blizzard that is simply unprecedented and carries so much weight, I am seriously lacking adjectives to describe it. We all know Blizzard is rich, and sitting on a near-guaranteed revenue. Which is why they are probably one of the very few companies who can afford it. Yesterday, Blizzard basically came out and said “we are taking this money we earned with WoW, and we are sticking it right back into WoW, to facilitate a never seen before quality leap within the life cycle of a single game”. With people all over the blogosphere already singing nostalgic, sometimes sympathetic, sometimes hostile swan songs to WoW (again), they basically flipped everyone the bird and said “forget it, WoW isn’t going anywhere, it’s here to stay”. You can bet that members of NCSoft (disclaimer: I am very excited about Aion and wish it luck and success!) and other companies with great aspirations cried themselves into sleep last night.
In an age when games take more than half a decade to develop only to ship in a buggy and unpolished state, Blizzard stood up and said they’ll make a game nearly with the content scale of original WoW within a year. And for all the joking about Soon ™, deep down, everyone knows they’ll pull it off. It is an incredibly bold move, which makes it clear, that WoW is not the ageing, helpless prey, out there for the challengers to hunt – it is the mighty giant, who smashes all opposition and feasts on their remains. Whether it will indeed play out this way, time will tell. But it is this incredibly strong message that transpired.