Blizzard Talks About The Lead-Up To The Biggest World Of Warcraft Expansion Yet

Posted on November 11, 2010

Even if you don’t play World of Warcraft, chances are you’ve heard something about the quickly approaching Cataclysm expansion, the third and largest paid update for the popular MMO. Whether it’s been Andy, Adam, and I gabbing about the beta on Respec Radio or a passing news story here or there, Cataclysm is huge news. Not only does it add two new races and content for the new level 85 cap, but a patch released Tuesday reshaped all of the zones from the original World of Warcraft release back in 2004, effectively taking the streamlined storytelling and quest techniques that Blizzard perfected in subsequent expansions and applying it to the original two continents and all of the level 1-60 content.

Just days before this major patch hit, I talked to World of Warcraft lead systems designer Greg Street about the massive changes in store for Cataclysm, what Blizzard has learned from Wrath of the Lich King, and where they’re looking to go in the future.

How long ago did you come up with the concept for Cataclysm? At what point did you realize that you wanted to remake the whole old world.

Before Wrath of the Lich King had even shipped, we started talking about what we want to do next. We had a lot of ideas around the Deathwing idea, which came up pretty quickly along with thinking we should change the world a little bit. We were initially going to focus a little bit more outside of Eastern Kingdom or Kalimdor, but the more we talked about it, we realized that the quest designers, the level designers, and the item designers were all really jazzed about was trying to fix some of this old stuff that wasn’t really competing anymore with the newer content we delivered in Wrath.

Were there ever any conversations that you had about how insane an idea that was? The undertaking of going back and changing all of that old content…

Oh, totally. The naïve thing we did is that we categorized every zone as green, yellow, or red. Red ones were total redo, yellow ones were some quest flow redesign, and green ones we basically wouldn’t touch. Everything ended up red by the end. [Laughs]

Looking at that huge amount of content that’s in vanilla World of Warcraft, how did you start sorting through that and deciding what to cut? I find it really interesting that you’re not just adding in new quests, but you’re cutting out lots of content that didn’t make sense or didn’t really work.

Yeah, for some of the zones, it’s like we just deleted everything and started all over.

So how did you figure out what to focus on with cuts?

It depended a lot. There were some zones we thought never worked very well in the first place. Hinterlands, for example, never had much of a story going on. Zones like Darkshore and Ashenvale had some interesting content, but the zones themselves were too big and didn’t flow well, so there was a lot of running back and forth. For some of the zones where the questing wasn’t bad, we just kind of reflowed and stuck a few new graveyards and a few new quest hubs in. So some areas, you’ll be doing the same quests, but you won’t be doing as much running back and forth as you did in the old days.

I know one example I’ve heard brought up of old world quests that don’t work very well – I think it was possibly even by you in a presentation – was the “Green Hills of Stranglethorn.” Is that quest still in the game?

It’s really funny, if you want me to spoil it.

Go ahead.

The quest is in the game, but now you only have to get a single page. [Laughs] It’s page 17.

I was curious to see what you did with that, because I remember it being brought up.

I think the questgiver even says something like, “Other adventurers have collected all of the pages for us but one.”

Clearly Cataclysm was a huge undertaking, but so much of the focus seems on remaking the old world, and the level cap is only going up by five levels. Are you worried about adding in less end-game content than in the previous expansions?

We would worry about that except that we’ve added a lot more end-game content than we’ve done in the past.

Really?

Yeah, particularly in the dungeon and raid end. I think there’s nine dungeons, but I’d have to count quick. We added in heroic versions of Deadmines and Shadowfang Keep late in the cycle, just squeezed those in. There’s also three raid zones. And rated battlegrounds as well. We’ve added a lot of stuff there.

We also spent a little more time on the very final zones, Uldum and Twilight Highlands, to make sure that the stories there drive to completion, and there are rewards there. We found that some people in Wrath of the Lich King would hit Storm Peaks and think, “I’m max level now, so I’m going to jump into dungeons.” They never really finished the stories in Storm Peaks or Icecrown. We made sure this time that the quest rewards you get are competitive with dungeons to make sure players finish the stories out.

One of the problems people had with finishing the quest content in Wrath of the Lich King is that Icecrown, while it was an incredibly epic, very awesome zone, had troubles with how phasing worked in it. When you got into some of those later quests, a lot of them were group quests, but you’d run into problems where if other people in your guild weren’t in the same leg of the quest as you, they couldn’t help out, because they’re in a different phase of the zone. It made finding a group to help out more difficult than normal. How are you approaching that with the endgame zones?

Phasing was a new feature for us in Wrath of the Lich King. When you have a new hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. We were putting it anywhere we possibly could and definitely overdid it in some areas. I feel like our use of it in Cataclysm is much more judicious. I don’t think there’s anything in Twilight Highlands, which is the final zone, where you have phasing that would prevent players from grouping together. The phasing in that zone is early on as you’re sent into the zone to establish a beachhead for the Alliance or the Horde. You get that home base established, and from then on you’re good to go. Once players players get into the zone, they should be able to group up and kill all the dragons they’re going to have to fight to complete that zone.

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