For many of us, the best part of SimCity is filling every inch of the map with a finely balanced, aesthetically pleasing metropolis and then launching an endless series of disasters at it until the whole thing is a pile of rubble. It’s an irresistible temptation that’s easily indulged, thanks to the presence of saved games. There’s no such safety net for Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street and the rest of the Blizzard design team when they unleash a world-shattering catastrophe in the upcoming World of Warcraft expansion, Cataclysm.
“We start off an expansion with a series of brainstorm meetings – ‘What’s cool? What can we do next?'” Street explained in an interview with The Escapist. “We kind of identified Deathwing early on and we knew we wanted some kind of explosive thing coming out of the ground. Originally it was a whole new continent we were going to do and we had a couple of ideas for zones.” Street and the rest of the designers at Blizzard also thought Cataclysm would provide an opportunity to fix up some of the older zones that had dated art assets or quest design. “We started making the list of zones we wanted to touch up but it was like, ‘Wow, that list is getting really long.’ The more we looked at it the more we realized the story we really wanted to tell took place in the old continents and we could take out ideas for the new zones and work them in there and have the whole thing take place in the old world instead of making a new one.”
Street is the Lead Systems Designer for World of Warcraft, meaning that he is in charge of how everything works in the game. In his own words, system design “specifically is everything that is not level, story, quest or encounter design. My team handles everything from classes to mechanics to items to trade skills to achievements to UI design, and that includes the game balance.” He’s one of the most public figures on the WoW development team, thanks to his willingness to engage players in direct and open conversation about the game on the official WoW forums.
Street identifies three main reasons for bringing the apocalypse to Azeroth. First, shock value was a crucial component. Deathwing’s awakening is an explosive event for Azeroth. “We were trying to stage an apocalypse here,” he says, “and we wanted some crazy things to happen and we knew there were sacred cows that might shock or upset players a bit.” Many players will certainly be upset to see Stormwind ruined and Thousand Needles flooded, not because they were poorly designed but because Blizzard simply wanted to show the extent of the cataclysm’s impact. As Street says, “Life will never be the same there.”
Deathwing, the Unmaker, raises the stakes considerably. “We had so much luck with the Lich King being the main bad guy,” in Wrath of the Lich King, says Street, “that we knew we needed a very charismatic villain to introduce early.” (Contrast that with Illidan Stormrage in The Burning Crusade, who, in Street’s opinion, wasn’t introduced strongly enough for players to associate him with the larger arc of the story.) The addition of Deathwing doesn’t mean that Blizzard is running short of villains for future expansions and content updates; the company has had great success in taking minor characters like Garrosh Hellscream and the returning King of Stormwind and making them an integral part of the world and a big part of Cataclysm.
The changes in the world aren’t universally negative. Previously-obscure NPCs will have risen to prominence in Cataclysm, so a soldier who used to hand out menial quests in a small tavern may now be captain of the guard in the court of a king. There are even improvements in the geography. The bridge in Redridge, for instance, will be complete in Cataclysm and players will finally have a chance to look behind that big wall in Silverpine Forest. Blizzard, says Street, is relying on “the nostalgia factor for our long-term players or players who put the game down and are curious to come back and see it.”
The second big benefit to such a drastic change of the existing content is bringing more refined and modern ideas about quest design to the world. The current version of zones like Darkshore and Felwood require the player to travel very long distances between quest givers and objectives, and between the various quest hubs. Cataclysm gives the designers license to break up those long sequences and add new flight paths so players can get to and from content more quickly.
Some players complain that the game is already too easy and fear that this streamlining makes the game even easier. Street says that’s always a concern for the designers. “We’re trying to appeal to a really enormous breadth of players,” he explains. “We have very casual players who may not have played a lot of videogames before and then we’ve got these super hardcore guys who have been with us forever.” Appealing to both groups requires a design that’s simple on the surface but still has lots of depth, which Blizzard cites as the motivation to restructure the game’s stats.
Ultimately, Street and his fellow designers want to give more casual players a chance to see more of the endgame content. Given the number of attempts required for those early guilds that first killed the Lich King, making the path to the end game more direct may not necessarily mean the final confrontations are easier. Street explains, “We have one boss in particular that we are designing to be soul crushing. There will be a sign outside the door saying ‘You must be this high to fight this fight.’ It’s not for everyone; it’s for the people who say the game is too easy.” Players should be grateful that the difficulty isn’t even more extreme. At one point during development, one of the producers joked that Deathwing was so deadly that when players log in to the game, their characters will already be dead.
Cataclysm may also eventually include a system that allows players to scale down their character’s level in order to help newer players. The heirloom items unveiled in Wrath of the Lich King already scale with a character’s level, so adjusting them to suit a downgraded character is already part of the design. Cataclysm will go one step further and replace individually purchased spell ranks with a scaleable system that allows a single ability to grow along with a character. Scaling down levels probably won’t be possible when Cataclysm is released, but it’s a feature that will be coming eventually and should help players of differing levels adventure together more easily.
The final benefit of the Cataclysm is the opportunity to make massive changes to existing zones that weren’t particularly well designed to begin with. “The Barrens was wide open,” says Street, “didn’t have a big story, and there was no real flow for Horde characters.” Redridge is another zone that doesn’t really have a clear story or direction from beginning to end. Cataclysm shakes those zones up a bit and brings them more in line with what players experience in a plot-driven zone like the Storm Peaks in Northrend. Street says that it’s all about “telling a story throughout the zone.”
And there are a lot of stories and themes in Cataclysm. Not only has Deathwing appeared, but he has allied himself with the Twilight Hammer, an old cult that is coming into prominence, because of the shared desire to destroy the world of Azeroth. On top of that, the recent destruction of the Lich King induces the Horde and Alliance to grow more hostile toward each other and fall under the influence of even more aggressive leaders. The conflict plays out across all of Azeroth, but particularly in Ashenvale and the Barrens. The Plaguelands are finally recovering as the Scourge pulls back, but Lady Sylvanas’s Forsaken are eyeing the Eastern Kingdoms and looking to expand their power.
In keeping with Blizzard’s even-handed approach, Cataclysm isn’t reducing the story down to a simple “good vs. evil” format. Street embraces the ambiguity, saying “Horde players, in particular, are going to start out thinking, ‘Garrosh Hellscream is such an asshole; we want Thrall back.'” But the quest designers tell the story in such a way that you really begin to feel some respect, if not sympathy, for Garrosh. “Orgrimmar has never looked better,” says Street, and after the lean years in the Barrens and Durotar, “the Orcs are riding a wave here and they’re pretty excited about it.”
The opportunity for splits within the Horde is even more intriguing. Sylvanas, the charismatic leader of the Forsaken, is experiencing tension from Garrosh’s Orcs. Though both groups are working towards larger common goals, it’s a sure bet that Sylvanas is working against Garrosh behind the scenes and is just waiting for the right moment to betray him. Beyond that, Garrosh himself has decided to redefine his own alliances. He thinks the Tauren are good for muscle, but has little use for the Trolls or the Goblins, who he has moved to a ghetto on the side of Orgrimmar. These faction splits, says Street, “may lead to something more exciting in the future.”
To calm fears that the game is trending away from Blizzard’s trademark humor, Street reassured us that the expansion does have its funny moments. “Being dark makes a great story,” he says, “but it can get really old, particularly in a videogame.” Blizzard is fond of injecting humor into its game just to break the tension. “The Goblins,” says Street, “are exceptional at doing that. There are dark elements to the story, but the Goblins themselves are hysterical.”
Blizzard is walking a fine line with Cataclysm. The decision to rework the entire world is ambitious, but the designer’s attempts to build a new world based on the lessons learned since the original game’s launch in November 2004 have to be measured against the danger that those changes will alienate current players. Street welcomes the challenge, saying, “Our strategy is going to be to constantly evolve the game. As long as we have 11 million people playing, there’s not a huge demand to blow everything up and start over – I mean, we are blowing some things up for the purposes of this expansion – but overall what we have is working.”
Greg Street gave us a comprehensive view of the changes Cataclysm will bring to World of Warcraft, but we’re still waiting to be surprised by the way it all goes down. A few weeks or months before the expansion is released, Blizzard will begin rolling out the pre-events of the Cataclysm. On one day, the entire world will change. Whether the team can advance the game in such a drastic way without compromising what players love about World of Warcraft is yet to be seen. One thing is sure: the devastation of an entire world has never looked quite so appealing.
Steve Butts is still not convinced that Mr. T and William Shatner play World of Warcraft.