WoW! Thoughts! — On Apologizing for Cataclysm

Thoughts on Blizzard's remorse over the mistakes of Cataclysm


With the latest round of developer interviews we’ve hit the point in the expansion where the developers apologize for the terrible experience we were subjected to called the prior expansion.  I enjoyed Cataclysm, and while I admit it wasn’t perfect, Blizzard seems a little quick to fall on their sword when discussing that expansion.  Based on comments from Greg Street, Blizzard “lost their way a little” with some of the content in Cataclysm; particularly the overly-tuned trash in Heroic 5-mans at launch.  I see where he’s coming from, as the difficulty of pugging those dungeons was a major topic at the time, but I don’t think it’s something that requires a public confession.

It’s easy after two years and the release of a well-received expansion to look back at all the mistakes that were made during the prior development cycle.  Hindsight is 20-20, and that plays into the constant exercise in refinement known as managing an MMO.  Look how long it took Blizzard to finally get the talent tree issue sorted out (Read: Abandon them).  Each expansion, if not each patch, is always a reflection of the state of the game, and how Blizzard feels it can be improved.  While betas and the PTR exist to give Blizzard the ability to sample the reception of their decisions, oftentimes it’s not enough, and the full effect of their designs are not felt until after release.

Most of Cataclysm was great.  People loved the re-designed questing in the old world.  If anything, Cataclysm was an apology for the way that vanilla WoW was laid out; with its questing “that took you all over the world.” Now, Blizzard was able to implement a stream-lined experience, both based on technology that had evolved since 2004, but also their processes for developing quests and content that had developed since 2004.  Ideas that were deemed acceptable before launch had now proven to be burdensome, and there was no point to giving players a burdensome experience just for the sake of giving them a burdensome experience.  Cataclysm allowed Blizzard to make up for their prior short-comings in one fell swoop and iterate the old world back into relevance.

But the problem with learning is that you’re never done.  While Blizzard had a better feeling for how to implement questing, they were still learning how to handle dungeons.  Although they had been around since 2004 as well, a major change had only happened a patch before, as patch 3.3 brought the Dungeon Finder to WoW.  While it brought three dungeons as part of the Icecrown Citadel content, those dungeons were developed while Dungeon Finder was still under development.  The dungeons released with Cataclysm were the first dungeons to be developed with the Dungeon Finder already around.  And Blizzard failed to understand how they had destroyed the quality of the average PUG.

As early as January of 2011, Ghostcrawler was on the defensive regarding player attitudes towards the Cataclysm Heroic dungeons.  They felt that throughout Wrath players were steamrolling their way through the Lich King and Naxxramas dungeons.  To increase the challenge, they intended for players to have to crowd control the trash mobs and pay attention to the boss mechanics.  The problem with this, as Ghostcrawler even points out in his defense, is that the Dungeon Finder meant that players who had no familiarity with each other, and no guarantee that anyone was familiar with the content, could be grouped together.  As dungeons get more difficult effective communication is important amongst party members, and that communication does not exist within a PUG.  The easier option for anyone looking to quickly clear content was to quit, as opposed to sticking it out through a few wipes and learning to succeed as a group.  This defies the social nature that has defined MMO’s and particularly WoW, but it’s a clear example of how the introduction of the Dungeon Finder changed the nature of the game in a way Blizzard was not fully prepared to handle.

Blizzard’s first mistake came in criticizing the Wrath dungeons.  Prior to Mists, players often regarded Wrath of the Lich King as one of the best expansions.  The easy reward of loot and expectation of best-in-slot items from the Lich King dungeons contributed to that.  Players like being rewarded and getting loot (Blizzard knows this too — look at Diablo!).  Any system that increased the difficulty of obtaining loot was not going to be well received.  Blizzard’s intentions already put them at odds with the player base.

Blizzard is right that the 5-mans were not an ideal PUG experience.  The development of Raid Finder and the Challenge Modes indicate this.  The Raid Finder places a large group of people in content where, if one or two or five people don’t pull their weight, a handful of skilled players can force everyone through.  The Cataclysm 5-mans had no such margin of error.  Their reliance on players communicating and using crowd control meant there was no margin of error whatsoever.  That level of difficulty (requiring a skilled group that could communicate effectively and not get frustrated in the face of difficulty) is who the Challenge Mode Dungeons are designed for.  Guilds are able to test their mettle and see how quickly they can complete certain dungeons.  The difficulty that Blizzard looked to introduce as a response to the easily completed Lich King dungeons has been achieved.

Blizzard doesn’t need to come out and denigrate the Cataclysm content to praise Mists of Pandaria.  Mists has been an amazing expansion, and it’s entirely because it stands on the shoulders of Cataclysm and Blizzard’s prior experiences.  Quests continue to improve as Blizzard refines their use of instances and cinematics from Cataclysm; which were refined from their usage in Wrath.  The mistakes made in Cataclysm contribute to the engrossing nature of Mists.  That’s not something to apologize for; it’s something to celebrate.  If the dial in Wrath was too low, Blizzard overturned it in Cataclysm to too high, which leaves Mists to feel just right.

WoW! Blurbs!

Blizzard is changing PvP gear for Patch 5.3!  But I only run LFR so I can look cool in Battlegrounds!!!

A look at how sounds are made for Blizzard.  And here I thought they just recorded actual dinosaurs…

Noblegarden is here!  If females need to be level 18 in order to receive bunny ears, shouldn’t they start getting a menopause debuff around level 50?

Nick Zielenkievicz
Nick Zielenkievicz
Nick Zielenkievicz

Senior Producer

Host of WoW! Talk! and The Tauren & The Goblin. Sometimes known as the Video Games Public Defender. Wants to play more Destiny and Marvel Heroes but WoW is all-consuming. Decent F2P Hearthstone player. Sad that he lost the Wii that had Wrecking Crew on it. Would be happy if the only game ever made was M.U.L.E. Gragtharr on Skywall-US. Garresque on Ravencrest-US.

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