Time and time again, we’ve hammered in the idea that Cataclysm is a massive undertaking — quite possibly the most ambitious “expansion pack” to any game previously released, and nearly large enough in terms of content to count as an actual sequel. But given recent news, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Blizzard may have bitten off a little more than they can chew. Core systems such as Path of the Titans and Guild Talents have been totally scrapped, in favor of vastly simplified ones that both ease balance and assuage the development process.
Then, we learn that other bullet points so boldly splayed out on the big screen at BlizzCon 2009 like a deli cart full of choice meats, are being reconsidered or pushed back into content patches. Heroic versions of Deadmines and Shadowfang Keep may not fall to the same fate as the fabled “Dance Studio,” but on the surface they don’t seem like terribly hard things to implement, right?
Well, actually, that’s a perfect example of the problem. Blizzard isn’t simply dealing with a looming release and waning interest in the current content (which Ruby Sanctum will resurrect about as effectively as a paramedic using a potato battery for a defibrillator); they’re also compelled by their obsessive need to ship a quality product. That’s to say that a Heroic version of Deadmines isn’t that easy to implement. On one hand, an update of an old dungeon isn’t as pressing as polishing the brand news ones, meaning that it can safely be set on the back burner. On the other hand, Blizzard clearly wants to do more with it than plug in new stats for the mobs and rejigger the loot table (like they did with Naxxramas). If they’re going to push the Defias storyline forward, Deadmines has to reflect that, and that could mean brand new bosses and events or compelling versions of the old ones (personally, I’d like to see them fix all the mobs on the pirate ship that seem to have x-ray vision). Releasing with, say, 4.1 would allow them to do just that.
As we inch closer to the Fall, I’d expect to see more promised features fall by the wayside, become neutered, or otherwise look far different from their original incarnation. It’s a fact of life in the video game industry, and it’s hardly something new for a Blizzard game. But we shouldn’t fret quite yet…
I think a lot of our anxiety comes from the idea that because they’re focusing so intensely on the 1-60 game, that the 80-85 content is going to feel rough, at best. Let’s face it, most of us who follow the progress of the game like a cat does a laser pointer, have a couple of maxed-out characters. We’ve all set foot in Icecrown Citadel, and we’re up to our gigantic, Tier-10 pauldrons in Emblems of Frost with nothing left to spend them on.
The 1-60 game looks really promising, but the core of the game is still at its pinnacle, where all items gathered, all knowledge earned, and all friends made come together in near-perfect harmony. Everything up until that point is just preparing you for the end, a goal post which must constantly be pushed back so that players don’t get bored. As much as experiencing the new leveling process with a couple of fresh toons might be at first, it will eventually become just as stale as the current one does now.
I think Blizzard realizes that. No, I know they do, because they’re a smart company. To understand what I’m getting at, think of it this way: a feature suddenly ripped from the game doesn’t mean that development is necessarily being lost. It just means that it is being re-purposed, in other areas, to make that experience as interesting as it can be for as long as possible.
I’ve mentioned it before: there are ways out there — without being an alpha tester under NDA — to find out how much content Blizzard packing into Cataclysm. If you’re really interested, you can probably find out for yourself, but for obvious reasons, I’m not going to provide any direct links or specifics here (boy, Skywall looks gorgeous). However, I can tell you how bearing witness to it affects my opinion of the upcoming expansion. Each new alpha build, which can come as often as two or three times a week, brings with it a wealth of new finds for all the busy dataminers out there.
As players, we tend to think of content in terms of “big things.” What new zones are there? How many raids? What will the next Tier of equipment look like? But in doing so, we tend to forget about the little ones, all the accouterments that enhance our experience on a more iterative level. I’ve seen lots of new mobs, new mounts, and new pets. With each version of the game client, freshly-built outposts and continual changes to the terrain pop up, as well as unexpected elements that surprise even the dataminers. Let’s just say that players may get access to something they’ve been churning to see realized in-game for quite some time. About the only thing that isn’t immediately obvious is the experience itself, as what can be hacked out of the files amounts to mere disconnected bits of information.
For everything removed from the game, or put on hold, something else seems to be popping up in its place. Blizzard is working very hard on this expansion, and I think you’ll be surprised at the amount there is to discover. Don’t forget that they once turned “Warcraft in space” into the most successful real-time strategy game of all time, and it didn’t look anything at all like it did when it was first previewed.
I don’t know quite what the final product is going to look like when it hits retail shelves. Most of what’s in the test builds will probably remain right where it is, but it’s clear they aren’t done revising Azeroth just yet. Maybe we lose Path of the Titans, but maybe we’ll get actually get updated models for older races instead? Cataclysm, in many ways, must lose some of its content to make release this Fall. Player impatience will reach critical mass if it doesn’t hit sometime this year (the earlier, the better), and I think Blizzard is going to try anything in its power to keep the World of Warcraft bubble from bursting.
I’m as disappointed as anyone else to see features cut, but while my guild languishes and threatens to fall apart in the doldrums of six-month-old raid content, I’m trying my best to keep the hope alive.