Game design, Opinion, WoW

A stranger in my own land – Part 1

Look, Griet. Look at the clouds. What colour are they?

This post is by Razzmatazz.One day, when I am 130 years old thanks to amazing revolutions in medicine, I will tell my imaginary great grandson the story of Loch Modan. I will tell him how the brave night elf hunter Razzmatazz once saved the lake from attacks of the dark iron dwarves along with the foul-mouthed dwarven paladin sir Efesiocratus. And how years later, Razzmatazz returned to Loch Modan on one of his many journeys through the lands of Khaz Modan, and found the lake drained. The nearby dam broken, the waters of the Loch flooding part of the Wetlands in the north. That one’s a grand tale.

Patch 4.0.3a was a big one. Do you remember? It’s easy to forget amidst the Cataclysm rush that’s going on at the moment. The hundreds of quests being completed in brand new zones, the dozens of unexpected wipes in heroics causing storms of predictable QQ, and because some things never change, the holy paladin nerfs. I didn’t really plan to do that much WoWing post-Shattering and pre-Cataclysm. Too much other stuff to get around to, work to do, games to play, “things” to read, music to listen to, movies to watch.

I’ve noticed that my WoW playing tends to happen in enormous bursts, though. I can go months at a time only logging in for raids and the occasional heroic or random achievement, lazily going along with things. Then there are other times where I play several hours every day for weeks on end. It doesn’t even have to be accompanied by new content, sometimes I just get me some cravin’ for some WoWin’.

This time there WAS new content though. And lots of it. So I quested a bit, starting in Dun Morogh to see if I could spot the changes. The more I quested the more I remembered how much I’d been looking forward to this EVENT, this enormous change to the world of Azeroth. I still think WoW’s questing is very enjoyable on its own merits, especially when it gets the right flow going, despite my earlier criticisms of the lack of narrative choice and the wasted potential. So I kept questing. And questing some more. And before I knew it I had half of the Eastern Kingdoms quests wrapped up.

Water effects + increased draw distance = win

There are a couple reasons for this, but there’s one in particular I’d like to go into here. Naturally we all know WoW’s questing is pretty excellently designed, and the expansions have only improved on an already successful and addictive model. I’m also a fan of the nature of questing in general, being a pretty big geek for singleplayer RPGs as well. Give me some basic storylines and a good reward structure and you’ll have me going for hours, even if I sometimes cynically look down on the current state of the game industry (or singleplayer RPGs more specifically). And yes, ICC and about a year without any decent new content (sorry Ruby Sanctum) left me with an urge for WoW.

But those weren’t the main reasons I was finding questing so enjoyable. The main reason was one I sort of anticipated, or rather, HOPED. When I first heard about the whole idea behind Cataclysm I was pretty psyched, my only reservations (I am a pessimist) were to do with my lack of faith in Blizzard’s ability to actually pull this off. And by ‘this’ I mean changing the world we’re so familiar with drastically, rearrange and add a truckload of quests, streamline the entire levelling structure pre-60, make the old world “fly-able” (yes), develop 5 new levels and an endgame worth of content and at the same time (and this is the crucial thing) account for all the environmental changes the Cataclysm would have brought, by actually visibly showing the impact of this event on the world. I feared their plate was just slightly too full this time.

But they pulled it off. They actually pulled it off.

The reason why I stressed the environmental changes so much is that I am at heart an explorer. I’m an explorer because I think exploring taps into one of gaming’s main strengths, which is creating a sense of place. I won’t be going into that in detail now, I’ll save that for Part 2 of this post which will be posted at a later date, as I want to limit myself to WoW here. For me WoW has always been very good at establishing a sense of place, at creating a world. It’s one of the main reasons I play the game, in fact. It has to do with a lot of things. The size and scope of the world, the streaming nature of it, the freedom of movement which is pretty rare in games (usually there are invisible or visible walls all around), the art direction which separates different zones from each other with distinct looks but merges them together with one cohesive style. The lore and background story delivered through the quests and other means actually helps as well, as it gives the various landmarks a specific meaning and history.

I dream of walls and hearth of wood, a home of peace both fair and good.

So that world is extremely important to me. I’ve always loved exploring it. And like a lot of players, I’ve quested through a lot of the zones more than once with various alts. This, along with the fact that we’ve been running around in it for several years now, creates an incredibly strong connection with the world, even though it’s an entirely virtual thing. I’d argue it’s a bit like our characters in that sense: it becomes a part of ourselves, as it’s been a source of some very fond memories. This is why it’s quite a risky thing for Blizzard to decide to radically change it at this point in WoW’s existence.

They could’ve easily messed this up. They could’ve changed the zones to such a degree that they’d have been unrecognisable (disregarding development restrictions here for a moment). Sure, everything would have felt entirely new, but players would have lost that carefully constructed (and long term) connection with the world, which would’ve been devastating. On the other hand they could’ve just made some rather minor changes, leaving everything intact and just changing the flow of the world. Not terribly exciting, that.

Instead they went for the wonderful middle ground, which is what I (and presumably many others with me) were hoping for. Which means that we can re-explore all of these zones and see some very visible changes the Cataclysm has caused. Some zones are largely unaffected (which is perfectly fine, in fact it probably strengthens the impact of the bigger changes in other zones), while others have gained or lost important landmarks or undergone major geographical restructurings.

I can’t speak for other people here but I’ve experienced this very intensely. I hadn’t looked at a lot of screenshots yet intentionally, so seeing some of the larger changes (like Loch Modan) has been nothing short of amazing. There’s something indescribably awesome about walking through a zone you’re incredibly familiar with and have been regularly visiting for YEARS, only to find it half in ruins now. It plays into that connection we’ve established with the world perfectly.

For some reason giant statues of the kings of old is one of those old fantasy tools that's never lost its effect.

The quests further build on this, and from what I’ve played they’re rather excellently done. Plenty of references to the events of the Cataclysm and how it’s affected the world, a lot of very necessary streamlining and breadcrumbing, some fantastic entirely new additions (play Redridge or Westfall for example). This is fanservice GALORE too. Players (like myself) who are intimately familiar with a lot of these quests are faced with regular treats. Sometimes they’re incredibly subtle, but their impact is just as big. Once again, there’s something that just works enormously well about doing a quest to kill some vultures in Loch Modan, who are picking the bodies of the creatures who once dwelled in the lake. Perhaps that’s just me, but I’m pretty sure it’s not. It’s such a simple thing too, and in essence this was just another boring kill quest. But I couldn’t help but have a huge grin on my face while doing it. I’m curious how you guys experienced it though. Disappointed that a lot of the quests are just camouflaged grinds again? Haven’t really played much of the revamped old world content because you don’t care/are busy with the new zones in Cataclysm? Maybe the “world” part of World of Warcraft isn’t really that important to you, and you generally play games for other reasons. Let me know!

As a final note, I’d just like to congratulate Blizzard on a job well done. This wasn’t the easy road to take, let’s be clear on that. And while it worked as an idea, it didn’t necessarily have to work in its execution. But it did, and for that I applaud them. Bravo Blizzard. You guys rock.



6 thoughts on “A stranger in my own land – Part 1

  1. Great post, I completely agree. I was wondering how they’d pull this off too, but to my surprise all the new zones feel familiar and alien at the same time.

    Questing through 4.0.3a and even now, I feel quite overwhelmed with all the places I want to go to and find out what’s going on. But the whole story’s not told just looking at it, and it will take a while before I can quest through all of them (presumably on alts). There are still things that remind me how this world was once so different when quest. I think an MMO’S greatest weakness in terms of creating a virtual world is emulating that sense of real change and cause and effect. Players usually just move to a different place rather than the environment changing around them. Cataclysm and Blizzard’s new phase technology makes WoW really come to life to me.

    Posted by Kazeko | December 18, 2010, 4:28 pm
  2. If I’ve got a criticism, it’s that for players starting at level 80, there doesn’t seem to be any big “HEY GUYS THE CATACLYSM HAPPENED” moment – though as we run around putting out fires we do eventually get the context of what’s happening. Plus there’s a lot of stuff going on in the game world which is a result of stuff that happened in novels or comics, which is also basically not explained in-game. Part of creating a world is filling it with unknowns and mysteries, but there’s a fine line between that and simply not communicating what you *do* want players to know. Tol Barad is an example: what’s going on there? why are we fighting over it? lots of hints in the quests and zone design but basically you’re left scratching your head while you farm for marks.

    I’ve not done any of the sub-80 zones yet, I’m leaving those until I want to create a new alt that I’m genuinely interested in. I was very pleased with the 80-85 experience and its interesting mix of nostalgia, humour, drama and the totally new. I appreciate how non-grindy it is to go from 80-85 (and, I believe, from 1-60) but the downside of that is that you have to choose which zones and which quests you’ll experience at the “right” level. I doubt I’ll ever do every quest in the “new world” even if I do roll a few alts in future.

    Posted by Charles | December 24, 2010, 6:12 pm
    • Yeah, those are two things that still annoy me: the levelling might actually be slightly too fast now which means you’d rush through zones and not even experience half or a third of it on an alt (which for me isn’t that much of a problem as I just do it on my high level character). That, and the narrative not being as much a part of the world as it could be. Blizzard has very much improved in that respect, but still have a ways to go before it feels right.

      Posted by Razz | December 24, 2010, 6:38 pm
  3. I’m not much into lore, but I have to agree about the “feel” of the WoW world. It’s important to me that it have integrity with the world as it was before; it’s a familiar place, my home away from home, and I honestly think I would have been very sad … homesick even … if it were changed beyond recognition.

    On the other hand, as I fly around the old haunts, I regularly find myself coming across some fascinating new change, saying, “Oh, wow … that’s COOL!”

    Couldn’t agree more … Blizz has scored big here. My helm is off to them!

    Posted by crystal3d | January 6, 2011, 11:27 pm


  1. Pingback: A stranger in my own land – Part 2 « Planet of the Hats - January 3, 2011

  2. Pingback: Worst. Dungeon. Ever. « Planet of the Hats - February 10, 2011

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