Cataclysm Post Mortem - The World Remodeled

The Cataclysm was a massive undertaking from the point of view of game design. Nothing like it has been attempted before, and nothing like it will happen all too soon again. I think we should try to learn as many lessons from it as we possibly can. I am the armchair game designer, describing what I can see from the top of my 10000ft high ivory tower. (Time and good ideas permitting, I'll write a few more texts like this in the coming weeks on other aspects of the Cataclysm.)

Individual zones and places are no longer as unique as they used to be. Sure, the Classic world did have repetitiveness, and some areas that seemed bland and unfinished even. But since the Cataclysm, models, creatures, and techniques are being pulled from the whole gamut of seven years work, and are used more or less everywhere somewhat indiscriminately.

Exotic plants and creatures that used to be confined to specific parts of Outland or Northrend can now be found all over Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms, too. Landscapes which were a distinct visual feature of Northrend or Outland are now everywhere. Kalimdor no longer has a distinct feel from the Eastern Kingdoms. In fact, even Outland and Northrend no longer seem so exotic compared to the two starting continents, because many of their specifics can already be encountered by the characters in low level zones.

I found the "overload of content" especially striking with the music. In some places, small adjacent patches of land each have their own music. Often there is a jarring contrast, such as a rather tranquil atmosphere around Loch Modan (a soundtrack from Classic), then a literally titanic blast of brass in Ironband's Excavation (which was originally used for Halls of Stone/Lightning). In general I like the idea of having distinct musical themes for distinct factions or topics of WoW. But making this work IMHO requires each theme to be adapted to the situation and to the surroundings. More isn't always better.

On a related note, the quests typically no longer span an arc that is larger than a single zone. This, too, works to make leveling up a series of disconnected episodes, rather than a coherent story. One unintended consequence is that the world environment no longer grows richer, more varied, more complex as you level up. The world's monomyth is gone. There is no build-up. It is no longer a path towards a destination, but a random walk. The vistas, the spectacles, the sights, the developments, the complexities, are thrown at the player as a cacophony, not as a well orchestrated crescendo.

Nevertheless, the remodeling of the world was a necessary step. The overall effect is positive, because most zones now have more story than they did before. Some of the episodes are up there with the best storytelling I have ever seen in any computer RPG. My favourites are the road movie in Eastern Plaguelands, and the theme of sacrifice in Badlands (which does, in fact, tie into a larger story arc, but is not itself a coherent story, only a theme).

If you ever remodel the world again, I hope you find the time to make it an arc, a progression, a coherent experience, a journey towards some goal. You have the money to do it right. Do you want to take the time to do it right? Do we players want you to take the time? I know I would.


To end this on a more constructive note, I want to point out examples in WoW where I think the amount of content was "just right".

In terms of music and landscape, Northrend impressed me the most. It has vistas like Wyrmrest Temple, or the Titan's Path across the whole continent, or the majestic skyline of Storm Peaks, or the lush basin of Sholazar, or even New Hearthglen, and oh so many more! I remember riding across the wild and untamed land, winter my constant companion, and suddenly I would turn around a corner, or pass the top of a hill, and suddenly there was a spectacular vista, framed like a classical painting, while the music had switched to a new theme, but I would only notice it now as it was introducing the new melody in force.

In terms of quest density, and storytelling across zones, I think Outland was in a well balanced spot. Northrend had even more, even more detailed, stories to tell, but I was quite overwhelmed by the sheer amount. In terms of quest quality, I think no ultimate peak has been reached yet. This kind of game content has progressed steadily from Classic to Cataclysm, and I can only wonder how you will possibly top that for Mists of Pandaria.

In terms of the subtle progression of the world, the implied Monomyth, Classic was most striking. It was unintentional back then, because it was a side effect of the tools improving with time, and the designers getting better and better at their art and craft. So, if you compare Dun Morogh to Winterspring, or Elwynn Forest to Ashenvale, you can see a notable refinement of the same basic concept (either "wintery mountainside" or "lush forest").

Northrend managed to do something very similar, by design. When you first land in the Borean Tundra or the Howling Fjord, winter is approaching, but has not yet managed to squelch life. In Dragonblight, snow covers almost everything, but it's the kind of snow that will melt again come spring. Later, in Storm Peaks and Ice Crown, the ice is eternal, and the only life that exists is that which can withstand an eternal polar night.

The Cataclysm wasn't bad, and certainly not the five new zones for levels 80 to 85. But it was not as breathtakingly awesome as some of the other work that has been done in WoW before. I know you can do better. I hope very much that you get an opportunity to shine again!
Well written and I largely agree.

Cataclysm remodelling has been a bit of a let down and yes, the music is annoying. Music is important for immersion and these sudden changes in tone and level and ambience break the mood a zone creates.

Northrend is beautifully designed, wonderful music and zones and immersion. I don't think we will see this standard of content again.
I also agree on many ideas with the OP. I've had one of the coolest quest lines available in game since Cataclysm -- > the Westfall one, and it proved extremely joyful.

But then it stopped at some point. And if I was a noob I'd be like... is this the end of the game ?

Note: This is not my main.
I haven't played for a while, but I try to wrap my head around which creatures in Azeroth are familiar in appearance to those in Outland and Northrend, or of which I'd say I haven't seen them in, or near, a particular zone or variaties on them.

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