I'm sat in the office this Friday morning (which is when I'm writing this draft), one of only two people in as everyone else has the day off, listening to a bit of Adele (not my usual bass pumping dance music) with very little to actually do today. On such days my thoughts naturally drift towards blogging which is why blogging is somewhat eratic; it largely all depends on my workload which is by no means consistent. Such is the life of a consultant. Lately, however, I've been finding it harder to blog about WoW and then I suddenly realised that's because lately I haven't been playing a whole lot of WoW. Sure I'm still running the RBG matches, I've been making my arena team commitments and I even ran with a guild 25 man Firelands Raid so we could finish the legendary (congratulations Anoris by the way, I'm insanely jealous of course but you completely deserve it) but I haven't really been 'playing' WoW. I've been going through the motions.
Don't worry this isn't some 'I'm quitting WoW' post, that time may come and it may be soon or it may be a long time from now but it isn't now I can assure you of that. But I can't help but be aware that my enthusiasm has waned somewhat. I still love PvP (I've always loved PvP really) and when the RBG team gathers with our war drums sounding I get goosebumps. I have euphoric moments in arena when we thrash a team that, by rights and looking at composition, should have easily defeated us. I'm still playing aspects of the game and I love those aspects, but I'm picking and choosing not playing the game as a whole. Now some people have been playing like this for a long time but it's not how I like to play. I was mostly levelling through TBC (in the days before speedy levelling) but once I hit max level with my little Magey wagey I started in Wrath, I played every aspect of the game. I raided, I never missed a daily heroic, I never missed out on dailies, I BG'd, I even did some arena (although then I was experimenting with it and did it to experience it and never consistently). The idea of missing out on some Emblems of Whatever was abhorrent, I would never even dream of it. A gentleman raider would do his duty, get his emblems and do his dailies to ensure he had the gold to make sure his gear was in tip top condition.
Now I still make sure my PvP gear is always ready to go, but my raid gear is a dusty hotchpotch of Tier 11 and 12 gear that lies mostly unused in the corner of my study (that's a euphemism for being sat in my bags by the way). So what's changed and why?
If I had to pick a word (in a very gross and over generalised way) to pinpoint the cause then that word would be Cataclysm.
Now I've defended Cataclysm more than once before and I still stand by the arguments I made at that time. A lot of people's hollering early in the expansion were unjustified, the expansion had only just come out and there were the usual naysayers so quick to jump on assumptions. Personally I like to reserve my judgement about an expansion until nearer the end of it's lifespan. With patch 4.3 being the last content patch of this expansion, I feel it's a time where we can honestly look at what the expansion did and did not achieve. We can't fool ourselves here, in purely subscription based views Cataclysm was not a success and over the past three quarters we've seen the biggest drop off of subscriptions I think I have ever seen. I don't think people can argue against this anymore; in the first quarter Cataclysm had a buffer from new and renewed subs, in the second quarter we heard that most of the lost subs were from China, granted we heard the same in the third quarter but I think we've all seen friends depart this expansion. Even in the blogging spheres Vidyala has ceased progression raiding and gone casual, Larisa has closed the doors to the Pigtail Inn, the venerable Gnomeaggedon has gone MIA on some lone wartorn stretch of Azeroth somewhere, I've not seen hide nor hair of Rhii and there are many others who have been quiet, silent or gone. There are others to fill the void I know but I think it has been somewhat telling that so many well known bloggers have chosen this expansion to go quiet, change game or reduce their wow commitment.
But what is it about Cataclysm that has turned so many people off of WoW?
I've been struggling with that question for ages and to be honest I've found it extremely difficult to put my finger on it. Whilst many seem to easily point to one thing or the other and say 'this broke WoW', I think it's much more complex than that. There's no one thing within the expansion that anyone can honestly say is the cause for Cataclysm's failure, there may be things that annoyed you personally more than other things but you can't then extrapolate that to mean that your reasoning is correct and everyone left because of that one thing you highlighted.
Well you could if you wanted to...
But then you'd be a moron.
So with that in mind I'm going to do my run down of reasons that Cataclysm hasn't really worked for me;
1. The Failure of Story Telling
The story of Cataclysm is absolutely epic, seriously I know we all look back on Wrath as the big fight against the Lich King and one of the defining moments of the entire Warcraft universe, but I urge you to read Christie Golden's books The Shattering: Prelude to Cataclysm and Thrall. They're absolutely amazing, they make the appearance of Deathwing truly epic and the Thrall book set the scene for the 4.3 heroics and the Dragon Soul raid perfectly. Christie Golden is an amazing author and if you've already read Arthas then you'll be well aware of that, if you haven't then I can highly recommend that book too.
But here in lies the problem; whilst the books are amazing and set the scene so very well none of this is really reflected in game. In fact if you haven't read the books you would be forgiven for not having a fucking clue about what's going on. Who's Cho'gall? How does he relate to Nefarion and his experiments? How does that tie to Al'akir? Where did Cairne Bloodhoof go? Wait Nozdormu is back, when the fuck did that happen? THE EMERALD NIGHTMARE HAS BEEN DEFEATED... WHO, WHAT, WHERE... YSERA? MALFURION? THRALL HAS A WIFE??? IT'S NOT JAINA???
Although you're aware in game that Garrosh killed Cairne and that Thrall handed stewardship of the Horde over to Garrosh to devote himself to Shamanism and that tension increased between the Alliance and Horde, you're only really made aware of these goings on either by some easily missed quest text or from Blue Posts on the forums or information on the website. That isn't where we should be getting game developing storyline, we should be getting game developing storylines from... well the game really. Even the end of Dragon Soul cutscene makes more sense if you've read Thrall. Seriously, read the book then watch the cut scene again.
Even then not all the game elements match up with the books; the Twilight Father is never really explained, why was Ultraxion a boss in Dragon Soul rather than Chromatus which might have made a better choice and the events of Kalecgos' ascension don't really match up with the events in the legendary questline for Tarecgosa's Rest - although the legendary questline is probably the best example of Blizzard getting the storytelling right.
In TBC and Wrath I never felt disconnected from the storyline, whereas in Cataclysm I just felt like I was going through the motions to experience content but then I never really felt connected to the content. Slowly but surely I drifted away from the PvE aspects of the game and into PvP because I felt much more connected to it. I kill people for glory and for the Horde. It's pretty simple really. Cataclysm was just a series of things that happened, many of them for no real discernible reason unless you read all the books and lore pages on the website and the blue posts - to me that's the sign of a bad game design, and quite possibly a sign of Blizzard trying to be greedy with its intellectual property, basically they were saying "Wanna know what the hell is going on in game? Buy the book!". That's really not acceptable, people who are going to enjoy reading the books will buy them anyway, those that aren't are more likely to just feel disillusioned with the game rather than rush out and buy WoW merchandise just so they can understand the storyline in a game that they're already paying a subscription for.
2. The Failure of Endgame
Personally, I liked Cataclysm's endgame overall. I was always a big fan of 'increased difficulty' within raids and heroic dungeons when they were first introduced, it made it challenging and I enjoy challenging content. I think the problem here, however, was a mismatch in design philosophies that catered to two different sorts of subscriber and ultimately pleasing neither. There were also significant missteps in some aspects of the implementation of additional content.
Let's look at the heroic dungeons first. They were awesome when they were first introduced, they're still pretty awesome if I'm honest. In fact overall, personally, heroic dungeons have been a pretty big win but that didn't work out so well for everyone else, especially a lot of players who were either very casual or very new to the game. They were hard to begin with. But hard is good, hard gives you a challenge, pushes you learn in order to succeed and ultimately makes your triumph that much sweeter. Unfortunately, there were a lot of players who just weren't used to hard. The removal of Wrath type AoE grindfests was absolutely the right move in my opinion, but it was replaced by the requirement for CC, control and smart pulls. A very large percentage of the playerbase just was not prepared for this at all in any way. Although I like to shy away from anecdotal evidence to back up my arguments, I think in this case it is clear that everyone came across a large number of players that were unfamiliar with the concepts that were prevalent in TBC, there were far too many players that didn't know what their class CC was, how CC was used in conjunction with pulls and how the CC functioned. On more than one occasion I came across players that didn't know that damaging CC'd mobs would break the CC, they all thought CC functioned like Cyclone. They were also not aware of the effects of their AoE, why would they? They'd never had to worry about AoE range before, or pulling packs away from CC'd mobs - many of them stuck with rotations that they had carried across from Wrath which involved AoE strikes like Stomp or Swipe.
In all honesty, I cannot blame any of these players for not knowing. Most had joined during mid to late Wrath and the game had never taught them these skillsets before, other players had never taught them these skillsets before and they had never had to teach themselves these skillsets before. This, of course, was compounded by the Looking for Dungeon tool introduced in Wrath. The tool was not designed to pull together players of differing abilities to face challenging content, the tool was designed to pull together enough players of the required roles to storm through Wrath heroics late in the expansion to complete the daily dungeon. Unsurprisingly, this caused massive frustration for a lot of these players, they felt alienated by the game that they had spent the past expansion enjoying. The divide between the casuals and the hardcores (I hate using these terms but they are easy frames of reference for what is already a lengthy argument) was laid pretty bare by the cruel mathematics of LFD grouping, hardcores found the the content fantastic but were infuriated by the failure of casuals to master basic concepts, casuals were infuriated by being thrust into a very different game than they had previously been playing and tortured by 'hardcores' who berated their 'poor skill', 'hardcores' who did very little to help teach them what they should know but instead just expect them to instinctively know cos "c'mon dude we were doing this shit all the time in vanilla and TBC". The anonymous nature of the LFD only exacerbated this divide as it would be common to drop 'bad players' rather than teach them, there was no way to balance the skill levels between players being grouped and of course easy for someone to drop group with little repercussion.
On a more personal aside, I don't think there were enough heroics to begin with in Cataclysm which meant they started getting pretty repetitive pretty quickly. The introduction of the troll heroics only made this worse. Two new heroics which were large and challenging with better rewards; OK that sounds great but when you give those two new heroics more Valour Points well people grind them cos it's easier than taking the lesser number of points for the old heroics. Except, the troll heroics weren't designed to be grinded in that way, they were way too large and there were only two. People very quickly came to despise them over Patch 4.2 - in fact troll heroic grinding became the reason I stopped doing heroics for valour points, if I wanted stuff I'd get it from our guild's alt raid and as I was not progression raiding and PuG raiding was no longer an option in Cataclysm there was no point in grinding heroics. I get the feeling a lot of more casual players felt that way; the heroic dungeons lost their appeal through the lack of variety and the difficulty that many hadn't experienced before and there was no motivation to plough through them to get raid gear because there was no way they would be getting into raids any time soon.
The issues with raids appeared to be a largely amplified version of the issues with heroics; former 'casual' raiding guilds were no longer able to cope with the new requirements of raids and many fell by the wayside because of it. Blizzard's answer appeared to be to try and appease both both groups of people and ultimately not really pleasing either - they dramatically nerfed old content with each new patch. This led to lower end progression raiding guilds getting really annoyed that raids felt like they had been nerfed into oblivion before they'd got to really get through that tier's raiding content, whilst many 'casual' raiders, although grateful for being able to experience content, largely felt that they were constantly viewing second hand content, they were never experiencing new raids when they first came out. Of course this didn't affect the heroic raiders as much but they do represent a much smaller proportion of the raiding community; and good for them to be honest, heroic content is really pitched for them and I believe it's pitched perfectly. They get the challenge they want, the loot they deserve and none of the nerfs (that aren't necessary game balance nerfs).
You see, when you get a massive boost to your subscriber numbers during a certain expansion when content is set to a certain difficulty it is a very challenging task to ramp up that difficulty in a new expansion and expect all those subscribers to accept that change so readily. Once you let the cat out of the bag so to speak with reduced difficulty such as that seen with Wrath you can't stuff it back in and let's face it, Wrath was WoW's most successful expansion as it nearly doubled WoW's subscriber numbers over the course of its lifespan. Why was the expansion so successful? Well, in my own opinion, one of the reasons I believe it was successful was because the contnet was easier, it allowed for PuG raid runs, none progression raid runs and even 'fun' runs. People got to really experience the content, and because it was easier there were always opportunities to raid and PuG. Now it is frequent for people to sit around Org or Stormwind feeling like they have nothing to do (other than dailies) because those sorts of PuG options are no longer available for them, or at least not for the new content and going back over the old content doesn't have the same appeal. Why PuG for Blackwing Lair when you can get better gear by farming Valour Points? Because as much as people like to experience the content, they also want to get tangible rewards for doing that content, this is something that ridiculously nerfed old tier content doesn't give them. There is little challenge even for PuGGers in the nerfed content either because of both the ridiculous scale of the nerfs (some of them have been nerfed into oblivion) combined with the 'natural' nerf which occurs as people accrue new tier level gear from Valour Points.
Although I certainly think Blizzard thought about this and as a result they introduced the Raid Finder tool, I'm not sure that this is really the right way to go. They introduced a lower level of difficulty designed to be 'PuGged' cross realm to allow more peopel to see the content. It's been universally hailed as great and it is great... for now. But it feels more like a band aid solution rather than really addressing the issues with raid content at the moment. Why not make raid difficulty roughly the same level as that in Wrath where people can experience decent content at normal level and progression guilds can push heroic level content? My problem with LFR is that it seems to be another tool that breaks down community, particularly guild community, by allowing you to anonymously join a cross realm raid group, it's all the problems of LFD on a larger scale. Whereas appropriately tuned raids more akin to the Wrath style of raiding would encourage more guild raiding with the heroic level raids still providing that challenging content. Stop with the ridiculous nerfs, stop with even lower difficulties for LFR, stop with trying to please two different ends of the spectrum because ultimately you are pleasing neither and driving both sets of player away. And I say that as someone who does actually love the increased difficulty of raids and dungeons in Cataclysm, but raiding on a now near empty server is no fun at all. Raiding on a well populated server during Wrath, although not as challenging and made me miss TBC, was actually more fun because the best thing about WoW is the people and having a lively, bubbling community trumps everything.
Oh and also, get rid of the shared lockouts for 10 and 25 man raiding. It sounded great but the reality is that it actually screwed a lot of guilds over. Certainly our guild used 10 man for progression and 25 man to let everyone in the guild join in and I'm aware of a lot of other guilds that did the same. I'm sure I wouldn't be too far wrong in saying that 25 man progression guilds (who virtually don't exist anymore) used to use 10 man raids in much the same way. I will admit now I was wrong about shared lockouts being a good thing when I first read about them nearly 18 months ago; we live and learn, so let's switch it back to separate lock outs because more people were generally happier with that.
3. The Failure of Phasing
I mentioned this before in my SWTOR First Impressions so i won't labour the point; the questing design in Cataclysm is better than ever and a lot of the ridiculous grinding for boar livers has been replaced with far more enjoyable content. But the phasing issues, they've caused a lot of problems. They force players down a very linear path in their questing objectives. You go to one quest hub and do the quests, the can't move on to the next quest hub in that zone until you've finished the first quest hub and the zone has phased appropriately. This takes away one of the most fundamentally great things about WoW, the exploration and the individual experience of the game. Everyone is pushing this same story arc in a zone, you can't deviate, you can't explore, you can't go off on a tangent (and you know I love me some tangents).
Don't get me wrong, I love phasing. It was a brilliant innovation in Wrath of the Lich King, and if you want to see it done well in Cataclysm then I would say the Firelands daily zone was probably the best example (although I'm sure many would disagree). Want to see a terrible example of phasing in Cataclysm? Look at the entire Hyjal zone. In Wrath, the phasing was poignant and non-restrictive but in Cataclysm it's the bouncer that tells you can't come in without having done that other quest bit first. It's prohibitive, restrictive and frankly it's dull; it's become the invisible wall to our exploration and adventure and it stifles our curiosity.
There are a whole load of other irksome things such as PvP balance, the failure of changing the talent trees, the guild reputation system (not the guild perks or guild levelling but the actual reputation requirement for things) and a whole host of other minor things. Some people may find these things more troublesome than I and wonder why I didn't expand on them; well this post is long enough and these are the reason I felt that Cataclysm hasn't resonated with me personally.
I'm not going to out and out say Cataclysm was a failure, it did some things extremely well and frankly it was needed. The world of Azeroth needed updating, but revamping the entire world and introducing an entirely new talent system and stat (mastery) as well as two starting races with very awesome starting zones takes A LOT of work and that takes away from dealing with a lot of issues that perhaps should have been looked at. In the end it made Cataclysm feel like a placeholder expansion; it promised so much and to be honest with the storyline it had it should have been suitably epic but it missed the mark. It did what was necessary and offered some experimentation; I certainly think that Blizzard will have learnt a lot from the Cataclysm experience and I think that translate well into Mists of Pandaria. the look of the new talent trees in MoP appears at this early stage to be exactly what Cataclysm intended to be but failed to achieved, the re-emphasis on faction tension and PvP is needed, a new continent to explore is definitely needed although I'm less inclined to believe that there is a need for a new race and class (nothing against Pandas, they certainly aren't the death of WoW and people citing Kung Fu Panda don't know what the fuck they're on about, learn your lore people - but I just don't feel ANOTHER class and ANOTHER race is necessary at this time).
I think more importantly Cataclysm made Blizzard realise that despite them 'revamping' the world and the talent trees they were basically still using the same old formula rather than genuinely innovating. With the release of games such as Rift and SWTOR, it made WoW look a bit tired despite the changes Cataclysm had made. I think Blizzard realises this, Patch 4.3 introduced a lot of features that should have been implemented a long time ago (and in my opinion have come too little too late) and MoP promises more. Cataclysm was the mediocre expansion Blizzard needed to make them re-evaluate things and hopefully that will translate into something awesome with Mists.
Phew, time for a cuppa and a nice sit down after that XD