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The Cataclysm: A critical examination

My personal opinion on the Cataclysm expansion varied greatly as the expansion unfolded. At different points in the expansion, I was very negative, slightly negative, then outright positive about it as an experience. A recent thread on the forums discussing the overall view of Cataclysm as a failed expansion drew Nethaera's commentary, and frankly I think what she has to say is worth discussing. I agree with a lot of it, disagree with some, but think it's valuable to look at where the design intent in the examination of the expansion is going.


Nethaera
You are mistaking the developers looking at the game with a critical eye with the claim that it was a "failure". We've seen a wide spectrum of opinions over Cataclysm and we're not afraid to look at what worked and didn't work (as we do with each expansion and game as a whole) and try to find better ways of doing things. I heard differing opinions overall during BlizzCon, but not once did I get the impression that any of those opinions boiled down to "Cataclysm sucks" as a whole. They had key elements that they disliked or thought could be improved on, but throwing the whole thing out the window as a "failure" is and should be considered a bit extreme don't you think?

As always, we want to keep learning and growing from each iteration of the game and that means that we're going to do that by continuing to look for your constructive feedback as well.



Eternally failing upwards

Let me be frank: If your standard for discussion of WoW as a whole or any of its expansions considers the game a failure because there are aspects that some players don't like or the designers decide can be improved upon, then you are arguing that a game that has lasted since 2004 with millions of subscribers worldwide was a failure. If that is your argument, I have to say, I only wish I could fail that thoroughly. I would be failing my way into a mansion and a yacht.

Did Cataclysm do everything right? No more so than Wrath of the Lich King or The Burning Crusade. I would argue that Cataclysm's revamp of the leveling game was the most significant and best change any expansion has ever made, that the introduction of reforging was absolutely a quantum leap forward in allowing players to adjust their gear's itemization to suit them better, and that the talent surgery of this expansion was absolutely necessary to stem the bleeding that the BC and Wrath inflation in talent points had caused.

My own private Cataclysm

I have my own biases about Cataclysm as an expansion, and those biases are (but are not limited to) the following:
  • The revamp of the old world zones was extremely well done. Levels 1 to 60 are an astonishing experience. I even leveled a character to level 70 four days before Cata launched, and the decision to simply give everyone the revamped old world without having to buy Cata was brilliant and highlighted those zones.
  • The word Cataclysm is hard for me to spell. Seriously, I type catacylsm or cataclsym quite often. I have no idea why.
  • Quest design in Cataclysm's zones is, for the most part, better than it has ever been. My one caveat is that, for myself personally, I am not a fan of the extent to which pop culture references sometimes take over. Uldum in particular loses me with the Harrison Jones quests, although once Brann Bronzebeard takes over, I'm back.
  • As a raider, I felt adrift in the start, and the time between the launch raids and Firelands felt too long. The three launch raids also didn't feel at all like a starting raid experience, as Naxx/Sarth/Maly did. I think Firelands is an excellent, extremely fun, extremely well-designed raid, but it's also the only game in town for this tier and I'm starting to get tired of it. In general, if you're a raider or if you're not, endgame content felt thin on the ground compared to The Burning Crusade or Wrath, which had more dungeons and heroics and comparable raid content, as well as a lot more zones to level through.
This leads to my biggest criticism of Cataclysm: its 80 to 85 zones. There were not enough of them. In Wrath of the Lich King when I hit level 80, there were three zones I had not yet really explored (and this was before heirlooms -- I'm talking on my main) that were ripe for me to come in, quest, grind up some solid quest items before starting dungeons seriously. They were value-added, effectively. I got gold, items and rep for running these zones. In Cataclysm, the five 80-to-85 zones don't provide that level of value, leading to a feeling of there being less to do. The addition of Tol Barad and the Molten Front (in patch 4.2) managed to extend your experience, but these run into the daily quest limit. Running the Storm Peaks, Icecrown Glacier and Sholozar on my warrior after he dinged 80 meant there were dozens of quests that did not run into the daily quest limit.

I feel it must be said that I am not arguing that the Cataclysm zones were bad content. I'm arguing that I wanted more of them. Taking that statement to mean that they were bad would be like saying "Man, this food sucks," while demanding another plate. When I leveled through Cataclysm, I basically hit Hyjal or Vashj'ir (or both, as I did on my main) and was between 82 to high 83 in Deepholm, which carried me through Uldum and TH. I usually hit 85 with these two zones about half done. Compare that with Wrath or BC, where I'd have between two to three zones completely unexplored by this point, and I basically run into the same problem. Cataclysm has the Dungeon Finder in a far more complete and integrated manner than Wrath did. It had Tol Barad at launch (comparable to the Sons of Hodir and Sholozar Oracles vs. Frenzyheart dailies), but it still felt like if I wanted to do something, I was more constrained.

A tale of babies and bathwater

However, just because I can find flaws in something, it doesn't follow that thing has failed. It's not even the case that the developers haven't already found flaws in it.

Nethaera
Oh, we heard people who disagreed with things pretty vehemently too, but the very cool part about getting to talk face to face, is you remove the distance between your words and emotions, thus letting each other truly understand a bit better what the other is saying.

I get what you're saying and I also agree that most people who are walking through the doors at BlizzCon are usually those that are pretty darn happy with things, but that doesn't preclude those people from voicing their own viewpoints to us either. It's just done with a bit more humanity since there's no keyboard and screen between us. ;)

The problem with declaring something a failure in this context is that it ends the discussion, and I don't want the discussion ended. I'm still playing the game -- of course I want to keep talking about it and how it could be better, especially with the people who are in the best position to make it better.

If I could sit down tomorrow with the game's development team, the first thing I'd want them to know is how much I enjoyed Hyjal, Deepholm and both the Horde and Alliance versions of Twilight Highlands. I'd want to explain what I loved about Uldum and exactly why I didn't love all of it. I'd want to discuss Vashj'ir and why I get vertigo in that zone, and how it cost me some really awesome quest experiences on my first two play-throughs. I'd want to talk about how the Molten Front saved two of my alts and the specific fights I did and didn't like in the raids. In short, I'd want to talk to them -- not, you know, insult, belittle, or declare their work a failure. Because not only isn't it a failure, but that kind of blanket declaration ends the discussion. The designers aren't perfect. I'm not suggesting that they are.

But if you're going to approach every discussion of the game with the people who work on it as an adversarial process, you're going to miss out on hearing what they have to say. Frankly, getting to hear what they had to say at BlizzCon was one of the best parts of the entire experience for me. One of the meanings of perfect is final. A perfected thing is done; it's not going anywhere further, it has nowhere to go. It's clear from Neth's posts here and from the panels at BlizzCon that the development team does not see the game as done, and thus, declaring it a failure at any point is counterproductive.

Nethaera
We're not spinning anything. This is one accusation, that I'm sure were you in our shoes, you'd understand is quite overused. We have no need to spin anything. We do not rest on our laurels. At no point have we ever declared the game, "done" and gone off into the sunset to celebrate its perfection. We are always looking for ways to make it better. Always. The amount of meetings, discussions, emails, instant messages and more on our end absolutely indicate that fact. Were it perfect, we would all just spend our days playing the game versus working on it. Alas though, I haven't even gotten to see Hallow's End yet this season. :(

Let's come to an agreement together, Ok? We'll keep working to make things better, you keep providing constructive feedback on what we could do to make it better. We'll then try to figure out how we can meet in the middle on some of those things as often as possible. Deal?


This particular post is what got me interested to write about Cataclysm as an expansion at all, because I usually like to wait until the last content patch is out and we can reasonably be said to have experienced all of its content before I do so. I haven't gotten to kill Deathwing yet or even see much of the Dragon Soul raid. I have run the three new dungeons, fought one boss in DS raid testing, messed around with transmog on a variety of characters, and in general had a blast on the PTR. There's some awesome content coming in this last patch, and I don't think it fair to discuss Cataclysm's overall success or failure until that content is out. Quite frankly, the best really is yet to come.

My main criticisms of Cataclysm at this particular point in time is as follows: It didn't have enough endgame world questing content. I would have loved at least one more zone to run through once I hit 85. Relying on Tol Barad to make up for that required your faction to be successful to maximize the quests and still ran into the daily quest limit, especially once the Molten Front launched. The Molten Front itself was solid content, but it's very hard to run through it all again and grind up the marks to unlock content on your third or fourth alt. The starting raids didn't feel like they introduced you to raiding at all, and getting a raid of people who weren't used to raiding through them nearly killed me, necessitating that I switch guilds mid-expansion. ZG and ZA were solid content, but I really got tired of running the same two dungeons over and over and over again.

What is constructive criticism?

If you asked me about Wrath or BC, I could have come up with similar lists. I really hated Trial of the Champion/Crusader as a content patch. Hated it like fire. Does that make Wrath a failed expansion? Did the complete and utter lack of interest I felt in ever running Ogri'la on any of my alts or doing the Tempest Keep 5-mans after running them hundreds of times for a Sun-Eater just so I could tank Kara make BC a failure? No, of course not.

The game isn't perfect. It has never been perfect. It will never be perfect. Perfection is the end. Perfection means there's nowhere to go. Going places and doing things is the entire point. I want the game to never be perfect. That doesn't mean that Blizzard shouldn't strive for constant improvement, and I have to believe that's exactly what it does strive for, based on what I saw the past weekend. I already believe, based on the new talent preview, that the lessons of Cataclsym were always being learned.

In a sense, the entire fight against Deathwing is an objective correlative for this struggle to always improve the game. Deathwing's perfected Azeroth would be dead. I've argued before that change has been good for the game for the vast majority of its existence, and Cataclysm has been some of the biggest changes the game has ever experienced. Neth's point about the give and take between the designers and the players is apt and needs to be restated again and again. The game will forever be changing and being changed, and we'll forever see things we would have Blizzard change. Our task in every expansion is to tell Blizzard what we want in a way that allows it to make use of that information.

Constructive criticism is criticism that informs -- what didn't you like, why didn't you like it, what did you like and why did you like it, what Blizzard did right as well as what it did wrong, and why those things worked or didn't work for you. Blanket dismissal, personal attacks and cynical interpretations of every statement won't contribute to helping the game get better.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm has destroyed Azeroth as we know it; nothing is the same! In WoW Insider's Guide to Cataclysm, you can find out everything you need to know about WoW's third expansion, from leveling up a new goblin or worgen to breaking news and strategies on endgame play.

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, News items, The Burning Crusade, BlizzCon, Wrath of the Lich King, Cataclysm

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