The End of the World (of Warcraft) is Nigh

The release of World of Warcraft: Cataclysm is two weeks away, but the world ends tomorrow.

PC giant Blizzard is ready to release the patch that shatters the world, WoW Lead Content Designer Cory Stockon told The Escapist – and with the game’s customary Tuesday patch date, the Cataclysm will arrive tomorrow, November 23rd. Afterwards, there’s no going back.

In patch 4.03a, said Stockton, players would log in to the game and be shown the Cataclysm introduction cinematic – with Deathwing wreaking havoc upon the world – and would then enter the changed Azeroth. All of the zones will have been irrevocably changed, flying mounts will no longer be grounded in the old world, and the new quest chains and mechanics will replace the old ones that have been with the game since it launched six years ago. The update will be applied to all players regardless of character level or how many expansion packs you have installed – if you play WoW, you’re getting the Shattering no matter what.

Between this coming content update to the world of Warcraft and the previous systems update that streamlined the old game mechanics, it seemed reasonable to ask Stockton: What do you get for actually putting your change down for the actual expansion? Buying Cataclysm on December 7th will allow a player to explore the new zones like Vashj’ir and Hyjal as they level to the new cap of 85 – and without the expansion, WoW players won’t be able to create characters of the new Worgen and Goblin races. As of this patch, however, they would be able to create characters of the new race/class mixes, like Tauren Paladins – Stockton joked that the name “Holycow” was taken on every single server Blizzard operated.

It might seem odd to roll out an event like Cataclysm in such a piecemeal fashion, but long-term WoW players who struggled to play Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King at launch will understand Blizzard’s reasons for doing so. The core reason was a technical one, said Stockton – the dev team wanted to be able to focus on the inevitable problems that crop up around an expansion launch without having to worry about rolling out an entirely new world for players at the same time.

During internal testing, he said, the developers quickly found the need to bring all characters to safe locations near wherever they logged out, lest an unlucky (and unsuspecting) player enter the post-Cataclysm world to find himself hovering fifty feet in the air over a lava-filled crevasse and plunge to their doom. “That might be fun for some people, but not for everyone,” he said – acknowledging that Blizzard had considered killing everyone in the world at the hands (or claws, rather) of Deathwing but had decided against it for that exact reason.

Developing a game like World of Warcraft means keeping the fun of the players first and foremost in your mind, but what about the fun for the developers? Stockton has been with the WoW team for five and a half years, first starting work fixing bugs in Blackwing Lair (the infamous gate after Vaelastrasz the Corrupt? You can probably blame that on him), and other members of the development team have been working on Warcraft for as long as ten years – is it hard to put a decade of your own work to the torch?

Not as much as you might think, answered Stockton, who said that there was a good sense of humor about the whole thing around the Blizzard offices. In many ways it wasn’t so much as destroying your old work as it was correcting things you worked on that you were never happy with in the first place. That’s not to say that there isn’t anything that he won’t miss at all. “I’ll really miss ganking people in Stranglethorn Vale,” he admitted with a sigh – the infamous zone’s new layout made it far less hazardous for low-level players on PvP servers.

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With something like Cataclysm, the temptation for players and journalists alike is to look to the past – to the memories we’ve forged and to the places that we won’t be able to return to. For Blizzard, however, Cataclysm is about looking forward. Both Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King were largely about finishing plot threads started in Warcraft III, and while Deathwing is certainly a character from pre-existing Warcraft lore, Blizzard has the opportunity to build him up in a way to make players understand who he is. “The big thing for us is building characters like that up with the players, so that when these characters become big, the players understand who they are,” said Stockton. “You’re going to see that with Deathwing over the course of this expansion, you’re going to see Deathwing play out in a similar way we saw Arthas play out in the quest lines in Northrend. Deathwing has a human form that he can appear in just like any dragon, and also Deathwing is pretty crazy epic on his own.”

With that in mind, said Stockton, Blizzard’s raid designers had already been trying to figure out how to give the world-breaking dragon the sendoff battle he deserves. “We’ve been talking about the Deathwing fight for at least a couple months now … [if] you look at Deathwing, he’s gigantic. The actual scale of how big he is represented in the game … he’s huge! He’s literally the size of, like, Wintergrasp. He’s gigantic, he’s zone-sized. So you think about how you’re going to do a fight with something like that, and there are a lot of ideas and a lot of new ways that we want to interact with him, ways to make that fight be really, really incredibly epic.”

At BlizzCon 2010 Systems Designer Greg Street said that he occasionally felt like the developers had painted themselves into a corner. How do you give a class a new ability when you’ve given them X, Y, Z, and A, B and C already? For that matter, with Cataclysm the WoW team is destroying the world – what can they possibly do to top that?

“I think that we have a lot of ideas,” Stockton laughed. “For us, the universe is pretty wide-open. Right? When you look at the universe we’re working in, the actual universe of Warcraft? We’re still just on Azeroth. We’re on this one planet in the whole place. For Burning Crusade, obviously we went to Outland and saw this whole different place, then we came back to Azeroth for Northrend and we’re still here for Cataclysm,” he said. Not only were there places on Azeroth yet to be discovered, but the “portal worlds” that had originally been planned for Outland – but never materialized – were still in the cards should the team want to take Warcraft into unexplored frontiers.

It wasn’t that the developers never felt backed into a corner, though. “The question you’re asking is what we asked ourselves after Northrend: We said, ‘What can we POSSIBLY do to top Icecrown and Arthas and Dragonblight and the whole crazy story that’s happening here with the Scourge?'” Trying to top themselves was a matter of trial and error, and more than a little hard work that would never see the light of day. “Cataclysm was not the first idea – we had many ideas that actually went through a couple months of development time, of trying to figure out if this was the right way to go before we got to Cataclysm.”

When the team settled on the story of the gigantic earth-breaking dragon whose domain over the earth gave him the power to destroy the world, though, it seemed like a perfect fit. “[It] gave us the perfect reason to go back and redo everything” that the team had been unhappy with. “I think we have a bunch of ideas, of things that we can do to keep pushing the gameplay and story for the players.”

For now, though, those players are stuck in Azeroth, watching as the world burns and shakes around them – and knowing that these changes won’t be reversed. Even after the dragon has been slain and the players face the next threat to life in the world of Warcraft, the events of Cataclysm aren’t going away.

Cory Stockton and the rest of the WoW team are hoping that destruction will bring rebirth – that with the end of the old world, Azeroth will be remade better than it had ever been before. It won’t be long now before players get to see if they’re right.

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