Cataclysm in Review: Changes to the Old World and Lowbie Leveling

If there’s one area that desperately needed help, it was the lowbie experience in WoW. I said as much back 2008, and predicted Blizzard would go this route several months before the announcement of Cataclysm. I was glad Blizzard chose to do this sooner than later. The experience was becoming so outdated, I scarcely believed WoW would attract any new players in the future if it left the old content the way it was.

Of course, some people already invested in the game couldn’t have cared less how well or poorly designed the early level content was. They were beyond it, so why should Blizzard “waste their time” on it? It’s rather simple; Blizzard had to revamp the old world because old players are not inclined to play the game forever. This is embodied by the loss of 600,000 subscribers shortly after the release of Cataclysm. And while veterans are definitely an important demographic, they are not the sole basis of operating the MMO element of your business. So something had to be done.

Besides, you’d think Azeroth would have undergone some changes in six years of story progression, right? I’d like to think so.

Story and Quest Flow Changes

In the Context of Each Zone

Some of the zones underwent changes and closed plot holes here and there. For example, all those Lost Ones out in the Swamp of Sorrows needed some kind of forward plot development. You’d have thought this would have been done at the release of The Burning Crusade, when the draenei were making their big arrival on the scene. But nope, not really. They were barely addressed, and moreso referenced than anything else. Their story “progressed” (if you can call it that) in Outland, and those in the Swamp of Sorrows were mostly treated as an afterthought.┬áSo their story was done a little more justice in the Cataclym update. It’s not great, by any means, but at least it was something.

Some zones underwent great changes to advance the story. For example, Ashenvale showed off the progression of the war for resources between the orcs and the night elves. Of course, with the Horde’s base of operations being virtually right next door, one can imagine how that went. Going back to the Swamp of Sorrows again, I always wondered how the Alliance got its resources through to Nethergarde Keep with the Horde controlling and patrolling most of the swamp. That, too, progressed to resolve that issue.

Boars? More like bores!
Some zones didn’t change much. Maybe the quest flow was slightly different, or perhaps plot points were changed (or were retconned) slightly, but that’s it. In most of these cases, I don’t think the changes were enough. The first five levels for orcs are still excruciatingly boring, both in terms of play and story. And the subsequent quests in Durotar major are also dull. In some zones, the quest flow wasn’t changed enough. For example, there’s still too much travel required in Stranglethorn, even if it’s better than it was before.

I also think Blizzard could have done more to make the stories more insular and interesting for each zone. Some are much better than they were, but the style and quality of storytelling in WoW in general still needs a lot of work. But that’s probably more indicative of flaws in the “grand scheme” than in the approach to redesigning the old world specifically. And I will get to that in a future section specifically addressing the lore and story.

In the Context of Zone Flow

The flow from zone to zone was improved incredibly. There’s nary a problem here, save for the few times you’re required to fly all the way across a continent when you reach a dead end. This was, perhaps, unavoidable given what Blizzard had to work with. You can’t exactly say “Well, okay, we need to move this capital city, because its location throws a wrench in this branch of zone flow.” That’d be a bit too much of a retcon for anyone’s liking.

But the flow is definitely better. Before, you’d often have to fly back to somewhere like Stormwind in the middle of a zone, then go back to that zone to finish it up, then fly off to somewhere thousands of miles away, before flying back to a zone right next to the zone you left two zones previously. Even writing a sentence explaining the old zone fragmentation makes me frustrated. It’s clear the developers didn’t have a solid plan for it in vanilla. I can only imagine what they were thinking. “We want the world to feel vast and expansive for the player. So let’s have them travel great distances, that way they get a feel for just how big the world of Azeroth really is!” That’s not a direct quote, but given a lot of the developer commentary that came out during vanilla, I suspect it was one of their lines of thinking.

So I give an A- to the new zone flow in the old world. Well done, Blizzard. It’s one of the brighter spots in this expansion.

Changes Good Conceptually, but Could Have Been Better Executed

All-in-all, I stand by my long-held opinion that changes to the old world were needed. The changes that were made have definitely improved the lowbie experience, but it is still boring at its worst, and only mildly entertaining at its best. Blizzard could have paid more attention to removing pointless quests, and changing or removing those with incredible flaws in design. Even if it meant a more rapid progression from level one to level 58, this should have been done. There’s only so many quests a person can do that require them to kill ten boars (or basilisks, or wolves, or bears) or wait for a drop that doesn’t come easily, before it becomes a mind-numbing experience.

I understand this could have muddled the basic design philosophy of level pacing. But it wouldn’t have mattered in the grand scheme of things. I don’t think it’s a good design theory to come out and say “This zone needs X amount of quests, and needs to take Y amount of time before a player can move on.” Instead, Blizzard should simply ask “Is it fun? Is it compelling?” I’d rather there be discrepancies in level pacing than to play through a boring or mediocre experience.

Artistic Changes

Artistically, each zone underwent a varying degree of change. That degree of change ranged from very little (Feralas), to substantial (Thousand Needles). Of course, in most zones, the basic geography remained the same, but with shores washed out by tidal waves caused by the Cataclysm, to other changes not caused by the Cataclysm itself.

Most of these were well done, though some are rather inexplicable. I’m still not entirely sure where the water source for the waterfalls behind Booty Bay is. You’d think the water falling off the hills after the tidal wave would have subsided shortly after the wave receded. But I guess not!

Haven't I Seen Those Hills Before?

If there’s one nitpick I have in terms of artistry, it’s that the mountainous regions of Azeroth weren’t changed much at all. They are still their oddly rounded selves. Which is disappointing, considering Northrend offered us some incredible vistas in the previous expansion. I wish the zone artists would have gone through and changed them to make the “mountains” look more like mountains. And why they didn’t probably won’t be explained. Were they not given enough time? Did Blizzard not want to waste the resources on it? Did they think the change would have been unnecessary? Whatever the case, I wish it had been done.

Otherwise, the artistic changes are generally good. And that includes the flair added by re-recorded and newly-written music for the old zones.