Cataclysm is not a perfect expansion, and no one is more willing to admit it than World of Warcraft's Game Director, Tom Chilton. During GDC 2011, Chilton spoke in a session titled "Remaking the WORLD OF WARCRAFT through CATACLYSM," in which he touched on three topics that he feels points out a failure, a success and a necessity with the expansion.
"At some point it's important to look back at the existing IP and what it is, and turn it into something new and refreshing," he said at the start of the presentation. Rejuvenating content and systems for either a sequel product or MMO update is important for the health of an aging game.
And the major reason that the focus of Cataclysm was on zone revamps -- which they began conceptualizing during the final stages of Lich King's development -- is that the game attracts a large number of players who play through the content more than once. "A significant portion of our population levels multiple characters," Chilton said.
"Even with Cataclysm, we couldn't just revamp the old world. We had to add new things for players. It's what we call 'feeding the beast," he said. It's something Blizzard has at the office called the 'one-third rule' in which when they design an expansion they make sure to implement one-third old, one-third improved and one-third new.
The "World" portion of the game's name is easily its strongest asset, Azeroth being a charming place that draws players in: "I think if you play through the first couple zones, and you like RPGs, it's very hard to not be drawn into the world."
But this expansion came with great risk, too. Revamping Azeroth was easily the greatest danger ever for Blizzard, because they knew that they had to retain the soul of the original or players would reject it. "This was really where we knew that we could f*ck it up," he said.
Keeping the soul of the original was a huge challenge, as looking back Blizzard realized just how little they knew about making MMOs compared to today. "We didn't have the philosophies of how to do quest hubs and all that stuff," Chilton said, "In some ways it was haphazard. We put together our ideas and generated content in ways that seemed cool and interesting to us."
Most zones, Chilton felt, did a really poor job of telling you the story. It was primarily text-driven, rather than gameplay-driven, meaning many players ignored it completely: "We want you to experience the story through gameplay, not reading a ton of quest text."
Even with that in mind, Blizzard knew they couldn't completely overhaul the entire classic world. "If we tried to tackle and redo the entire world, we would not only veer from the one third concept, but we might never even ship it," he said.
So they set out to map the zones out based on how badly they needed a revamp by using a color system. Green meant the zone was mostly okay and needed minor changes, yellow meant the zone would be modified in some way, and red meant that it needed a substantial overhaul.
Alex Afrasiabi presenting an early version of the zone revamp map.
"Some zones were a lot worse than others. As development went on with World of Warcraft, we started stamping out zones quickly thinking 'Oh my god we're running out of time.' Yes, even Blizzard runs out of time when making games.
"We would change one part of a zone with its physical geography, and that would set off a cascade of further changes," Chilton said, "We went back and realized, 'You know, these zones aren't as awesome as we remember them to be." So they went back to the drawing board and came out with a revized version of their revamp map. This one included a lot more red, and better indicated the work ahead for Blizzard.
After prioritizing the zones, they then set out to decide who would work on each. "If you didn't understand what made the original special -- if there was something special -- you were sure to lose it in the translation," he said. The teams who worked on the revamps of each zone had to have some sort of connection, some sort of understanding of the original and what players liked about it. Even what they didn't like about it.
Then came the steps that really showed Blizzard's new-found experience for creating zones: "With the original we had a very casual approach to making quests in some ways." But that was different with Cataclysm. "We put together a visual flow chart of the quests in a zone before we start. Where the kill quests happen, where the vehicle quests happen, the cut scenes."
The improvements in their processes for zone creation are obvious with Cataclysm, and we'll touch on that in our next GDC 2011 article when Tom Chilton talks about Desolace and Westfall.