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Plugged In

Get your Warcraft on – the ‘Cataclysm’ is coming

Plugged In

Narnia Island

With the third expansion to blockbuster online game World of
Warcraft
just weeks from release, the folks at Blizzard Entertainment are in
the final stages of polishing and tweaking.
It's a tall order: Cataclysm not only adds new zones for high-level
characters, but radically revises the old level 1-60 areas.

We caught up with Blizzard's J. Allen Brack and Shon Damron
to find out what motivated the design choices behind the expansion, and what
Blizzard is doing to grab those folks (yes, there are still some) who have
never tried Warcraft.

Yahoo! Games: What was the philosophy behind revamping the
old world? Was it about attracting new
players, or just trying to keep the content from becoming stale?

J. Allen Brack: When we first started talking about doing
the next expansion, it wasn't called 'Cataclysm,' it was just, "What are we
going to do?" [laughs] And we started
talking about a lot of different ideas.
At that time, [second expansion] Wrath of the Lich King was coming along
but it wasn't done. We felt good about
it, we felt good about the new class [Death Knight], but we didn't know. And so
we decided pretty quickly that we wanted to focus on two new races, and not do
a class for Cataclysm.

View gallery

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Deathwing

So, thinking about a player walking through, and doing their
new level 1-20 experience, and then getting dumped out into the old world, and
then leveling up their 20-60 experience in content that people have done many
times, and at this point is — we've done significantly better stuff at this
point. We learned a lot of lessons about
quests, we learned a lot of things in [first expansion] Burning Crusade, and in
the original game, and in Wrath of the Lich King … we knew we could do a better
job.

Then we started thinking about the lore, and the history,
and how we could actually start talking about bringing those things
together. And that's what eventually
became the Cataclysm, which is this idea that Deathwing [a gigantic dragon] is
going to come, he's going to change the world, and that's the literary
mechanism by which we actually did the world change.

YG: So you feel that, when Burning Crusade was new, players
were still willing to go through the old zones, but this many years on it's time
to give the old stuff a shot in the arm?

JAB: It is, and I think it's not the content, per se, as
much as it is how much better the Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King
content was. People are just so sick of
doing [low-level zone] the Barrens.
They've done it five or six times.
The fifties are a really hard time in a WoW character's life — between
50 and 60. Those zones are really tough
to do; they're just not as good as the Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich
King stuff.

YG: Prior to the release of Cataclysm, you issued a huge
game update and redesigned the character talent system. Can you give us some background on that?

JAB: We had some data that showed us that some people didn't
see that there were actually three talent trees. And then, adding additional
talent points, and additional abilities, and all the things we had talked about
wanting to do for this next patch — it's just a mess. Your screen is full, there are all these
icons, you have no idea what they do, particularly if you're a newer player —
it's just mass confusion. And so that's where we come through, and we really
want to get rid of a lot of the talents that exist. We were holding on a long time to this
[concept of] "you get a talent point every level." So as we got later in the year, we decided we
really needed to do something pretty drastic, and this is what we came up
with.

Are there less choices than before? I think there are, but you can't gimp your
character quite as much as you used to be able to — there used to be a lot of
ways that you could get yourself into this aberrant spec that was really not
great. That's going to be a lot harder
for players to do now, so we're really kind of excited about that.

YG: How has the player response to the patch been so far?

JAB: Overall it has been pretty positive. I was on a particular server when the changes
went live, and it was really interesting to see the player reaction. All the
way from "I don't know where my mounts are!" and "the game is totally broken"
and "Blizz, why did you ruin World of Warcraft?" -- that whole spectrum -- to,
obviously, we've heard the opposite as well.
And that's pretty typical for changes of this magnitude. For a lot of
people the talent tree has been the same or very similar for many, many years,
and this is obviously by far the biggest revamp we've ever done since the game
launched. So it's going to take some
adjustment time.

YG: WoW now has 12 million subscribers — it's the biggest
online game out there. But I assume you want even more. Is there anything
particular in the marketing, the messaging, the design, that's trying to reach
those people who have never played an MMO, or who are only playing
browser-based games like Club Penguin?

JAB: We didn't do a whole lot of work on the [level] 1-20 experience since the game launched until within the last year or so. That was the first time we started to take a serious look at that. And a lot of that is because, as time goes on, we see a higher percentage of different types of players coming in, [including]
those 'Club Penguin' types.

The number of people who are playing WoW, for whom this is
the only hardcore PC game they've ever played, is significant. And if you think about that guy coming in, he doesn't know about WASD [a standard keyboard control scheme]. He doesn't know about a [virtual] camera. He doesn't know about
right-click. Any kind of gamer-type person just knows these instinctively and
doesn't even think about them. But if you've never done it before, you have no idea, and it's very confusing. So that's what we're thinking about in terms
of the people that come in now: how can we make that an easier experience for
them? Because it is a very complicated game, there's no question about that.

YG: Do you have plans to increase WoW's presence in the mobile space? You released an auction-house recently. Anything more in that direction?

JAB: Absolutely. The next thing on the list is guild chat, where you can actually use your mobile device to appear online in-game. You can actually see guild chat, you can respond to guild chat; we want to do that for the web and for the iPhones and the Androids, so that players can be connected with their community, be connected with their group of friends, even when they're not able to be there. That's something that we've wanted to do for a
really long time. I don't have a release date yet, but it is very far along, and looking really good.

YG: Online games have gotten increasingly user-friendly over the years, and WoW is also easier than it used to be. Do you have a perspective on where the genre is going in that respect?

JAB: We look at "player pain points." That's actually how we talk about them. What
is the player pain? Wherever there is player pain, we try to do some thought behind it, and ask: is this player pain something that is intentional? Is it part of the challenge of the game? Is this something that's annoying? What's the reward mechanic? All of these things factor into it.

[When World of Warcraft first launched], you got your mount
when you were level 40, and that just felt incredible. It was such an epic thing that you'd worked so hard to get to, and then you got your epic mount at level 60, and it was
just awesome. Having that mount at a little bit of a lower tier now makes the game feel better earlier, which is great. It introduces something that you
see immediately as a new player — you see people walking around on a mount, so
it feels more attainable. And that's the maturing of the game, the maturing of the player base, and also showing a different type of player that joins the idea that, in a hardcore game, you're going to have so many hours played before you get this epic reward. For a hardcore gamer that's going to be some number; for a 'Club Penguin' guy that's going to be a much, much smaller number. That's just their experience.

View gallery

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The Barrens, post-Cataclysm

YG: Is there anything in the revamped Azeroth landscape that you think is particularly cool, that you would recommend players check out?

JAB: I think everyone is going to have their pet thing. For a lot of us, we had talked about what the worst zone in the game was when we
first started Cataclysm. For all of us
inside, we felt like [Night Elf mid-starter zone] Darkshore was not great from
a questing perspective, and then from a level design perspective, we felt like
Azshara was just a terrible, terrible zone, for a lot of different reasons. For
me, actually having those two zones change from the worst zones in the game
into some of the best is really satisfying and really exciting, as a game
developer.

We've done a lot of changes to Silverpine. I really like the feel of the undead, and the undead starting experience. For people who are interested in story and
lore, there's this whole angle that we had to address: "How do the Forsaken
reproduce, now that there's no Lich King?"
So there's that art kit, there's that whole story hit, there's the whole
rise of the Forsaken. Their quest has been achieved, of being free of the Lich
King; well, now they're free, now what?
What's the next chapter for them?
Obviously the Worgen and them coming together is a huge focal point of
the expansion. Those are the things that I'm really excited about.

Shon Damron: There will be another patch before Cataclysm
ships were all World of Warcraft players will experience the visual and
graphical changes in the game, even if they don't purchase Cataclysm. A "cataclysm event" will occur that changes the landscape of Azeroth forever, and that will actually take place for all players before "Cataclysm" releases on the 7th.

YG: So everyone will experience the new landscape regardless
of whether they purchase the expansion?

SD: Yeah. That's one of the things we talked about early on.
Going through and revamping the old world for everyone, for us, was the
right decision. So if you're a "brown-box" player [i.e. playing the game without expansions], it's a huge upgrade that you get for free.

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