For about four years, Cataclysm handily defended its title of Worst World of Warcraft Expansion, coming in behind all of the actual expansions as well as Star Wars: The Old Republic, Warhammer Online, and Superman 64. It was bad, that’s my point here. And the stuff that we have to go through along the leveling path for it is still bad, which unfortunately means levels 1-60 followed by 80-85 (with the granted exception of the Worgen starting area).
So it’s understandable to look at one of its major features with a certain amount of terror. “What, you want to revise the world? We already had an expansion do that, and it was awful!” And you would be right in saying that, yes, but there are lots of reasons the game needs some revisions to existing content… and more importantly, why the noxious crap of Cataclysm need not afflict any future updates to older content.
The weight of the touch
Let’s start by stating what may be controversial for some but I think is fairly ironclad: Cataclysm‘s big issue with renovating the old world was that it tried to do too much.
I don’t exactly blame the designers for it; I think it’s even natural when you have the power to go in and change anything to change, well, everything. But not everything in the game needed to be changed. Big chunks of the game worked fine. Azeroth had problems after two expansions of general neglect, but they were problems that did not require a complete rewriting of the game from 1-60 so much as fleshing out certain areas, changing quest flow, providing slightly better distribution, and so forth.
Everything pre-The Burning Crusade got rewritten with Cataclysm, and while that meant addressing a lot of really bad design decisions from early in the game’s life cycle, it also meant throwing out a lot of stuff that players genuinely loved. It meant removing odd quests in weird areas that were not necessarily super relevant in the leveling path but still meant a lot to people just for their oddity value. It meant fleshing out everything while also slicing out lots of content that people already enjoyed.
It wound up not being just a matter of cleaning up issues but of making the entire game different. And that ties into another important issue, the fact that Cataclysm‘s revamp wasn’t just trying to make the questing better — it was making it entirely different.
Flow and pattern
In the earliest days of World of Warcraft, quests were just sort of there, scattered hither and yon. The Burning Crusade started playing with the idea of hubs, while Wrath of the Lich King really improved and invested in the mechanics of proper quest hubs. Cataclysm, however, went one step further, and its ultimate expression is in Mount Hyjal, which is literally a corridor of quest hubs. Do quests here, move to next hub, repeat.
Mists of Pandaria and Warlords of Draenor have both done much better by allowing small hubs to spiderweb off of one another without distinct patterns. But Cataclysm‘s philosophy is still the one that dominates Azeroth at this point, and it’s a quest philosophy of treating regions on the map as if they cease to exist as soon as you no longer need them.
I think the heavy-handed approach was also somewhat inspired by this goal, since it takes a lot of wrangling to make old maps actual work with this very hub-by-hub approach, at which point it’s tempting to remove even more of the parts that made a zone distinctive before, which means more map-wrangling and quest changes, and so forth.
The net result is that Cataclysm tried to wipe away nearly everything and make an entirely new game out of the existing game rather than trying to edit and nudge. And I can completely agree that this did not work out terribly well; while the new zones are perfectly functional, they’re not memorable, and they’re not exactly what I would call fun to play through. But the bright side is that as a result, we have a pretty clear picture of why that revamp went so badly, and most of these elements are not things that need to be repeated with another revamp of older content.
Heck, not repeating those revamps actually makes for less work.
The pass of polish
What Cataclysm did was provide a full-on reworking of the entirety of Azeroth, and make no mistake — it needed some serious work. But there’s a midpoint between “utterly reconstruct everything in this leveling band from scratch” and “polish up the existing content that might not be up to snuff.” The former isn’t usually worth it; the latter can be.
Older portions of the game still largely work, but they’ve accumulated a number of bugs, and there are a lot of quest rewards that could stand to have some updating. Some bits of design and some flow could be improved along the way with one or two quests moved or clarified. Endgame elements from a few expansions back could be diminished and made accessible during the leveling process. That’s all beneficial.
Blizzard treats expansions as part of an entirely different game. The Burning Crusade elements do not interact with Cataclysm in any meaningful way whatsoever. That’s one of the ways that the game feels so segmented; you wind up going into a closed system that doesn’t extend in either direction. No quests for later expansions send you out into the old world or into lower regions, just forward into an endgame set of dungeons and drops that hasn’t ever been examined, an island of quests that exists apart from all else.
There’s a definite fear that by addressing the older content of The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King, the designers would be taking on the same sort of workload as was taken on with the Cataclysm revamp, and with similarly disastrous results. But it doesn’t have to be like that. There are alternatives, and I would argue that most of those alternatives are at once more likely, and in fact, better ones. We can have more connection back through the world, back through the history of the game, making use of these environments and landscapes that players have been exploring for some time.
Add to that the many mistakes Cataclysm made that have nothing to do with the old-world revamp, and it’s pretty obvious that claiming it’s all or nothing is kind of ridiculous. There are middle roads to be taken, and they’re ultimately better routes.
Feedback, like every week, can be left in the comments below or mailed along to firstname.lastname@example.org. In our next installment, I’d like to talk about things that World of Warcraft has been hanging on to for too darn long to no real avail and what can be done in Legion to correct them.