Rewriting the Rules

Blizzard's Cataclysm isn't just an expansion pack - it's a fundamental change to how MMOs are operated

If many of your friends are gamers - and if you're reading this, I'd rather hope that least some of them fit that profile - then you may well have noticed something of an exodus from the real world occurring this week. Ever since Tuesday, my various social networking accounts, my phone's email inbox and even some real-life conversations have followed a familiar pattern. "Cataclysm's here," they say, "I'll see you on the other side."

What's extraordinary about this flurry of defections from Earth in favour of the homely charms of Azeroth is the sheer range of people involved. Age, gender and occupation are no barrier, and the launch of the new expansion provides the stimulus (or perhaps excuse) required for WoW's most casual players to return to the game for a few months and explore.

Yet Cataclysm represents something more than just another chance to marvel at World of Warcraft's success, to regurgitate the enormous numbers - players, revenue, and so on - which have defined the game in the media in recent years. Nobody in the games business needs reminding of just how successful Blizzard's monstrous MMO really is, of how dominant it remains within its sector, or of the inevitability of a truly enormous launch for any new expansion.

What makes Cataclysm more interesting than any of this is that it's not, at heart, really an expansion. Rather, it's a ground-up revamp of the original game - a reworking of the six year old content which defined the experience at the outset, along with a fundamental re-imagining of the stats and mathematics which are the beating heart of WoW's gameplay. Compared with these changes, the new races and zones, while exciting for many players, are a side dish.

In changing the fundamentals of World of Warcraft, Blizzard is taking an almost unimaginable risk. This is not comparable with releasing an update to a much-loved franchise which alters the basic structure of the game. A franchise can have the occasional dud game, or simply turn out the odd annual update that doesn't resonate with the audience. It might make it a little tougher to sell the following year's game, sure, but it's not like a weak game in, say, the Call of Duty franchise would change the fact that earlier games in the series were much loved.

World of Warcraft, however, is not a franchise. It is an active product, a living, breathing, revenue-generating part of Blizzard's business. Its creators don't want to convince people to buy another game in 12 or 18 months time - they want to convince them to keep parting with a subscription fee on a monthly basis. In that this involves sustaining devotion among an existing fanbase while growing the appeal into new audiences, that's a goal that's somewhat similar to that of standalone game developers. In that it demands the operation of a service which keeps players coming back month after month, it's utterly alien to them.

Faced with that task, Cataclysm is as bold a move as can be imagined. It risks, of course, breaking the fundamentals of a game which is arguably the most successful in the history of the medium. It represents something that no other media company, let alone game company, has ever attempted to do - the radical reworking of a live franchise which generates over a billion dollars a year. It's the entertainment equivalent of open heart surgery.

Of course, the reason that nobody has ever attempted this before is because nobody has ever needed to. Blizzard doesn't have any choice but to invent a brand new playbook for World of Warcraft, because no other company has ever been in this situation. WoW is unprecedented not merely in its scale, but also in the fact that it continues to grow even after six years on the market. By this point in the lifecycle of other MMOs, even the most successful of them are winding down, to some extent - content expansions are designed to keep dedicated players going for as long as possible, but there's a broad acceptance that the years of growth are over.

WoW's situation is unique, in both a business and a cultural sense, because it hasn't followed that curve. Its growth slowed a little in the past year or so, certainly, but there's no sign of an actual decline - no reason to believe that having hit 12 million subscribers, the game won't eventually pass the next milestone at 13 million. Cataclysm, in this regard, is a fascinating experiment not just for WoW but for the games business as a whole. It's an experiment which seeks to answer the question of whether there can be such a thing as an evergreen game, one which is refreshed in perpetuity and keeps its consumer base fascinated in an entirely open-ended way.

If so - if Cataclysm truly works, a question which won't really be answered for at least a few years when we can gauge its long-term impact on WoW's growth curve - then it creates tantalising possibilities for gaming. Blizzard's success will, of course, be extremely difficult for even the most talented teams to replicate, and anyone who actually sets out to "replicate" WoW is doomed to failure from the outset. However, if evergreen games are a possibility, then it's inevitable the WoW will ultimately be joined by more of them - perhaps, in fact, it already has been, although it'll be tough to recognise that without the benefit of hindsight.

Either way, Cataclysm's bold, experimental nature makes it vastly more than just an expansion, just like World of Warcraft's extraordinary scale makes it more than just an MMO. Whatever your personal feelings on Blizzard's game may be, it's a cultural landmark, one which casts a long shadow over every other effort in the online gaming space - and Cataclysm is a turning point which will define the future of WoW, for better or for worse, and with it, the future of the entire subscription gaming market.

For the players, of course, this isn't important. They have new lands to explore, new races to play and a changed world to adventure through. For the next few weeks or months, their social lives (and those of their friends, I fear) may be somewhat diminished as a result. For the watching industry, however, it's what happens after those months that truly matters. For years, each new move on Blizzard's part has written a brand new chapter in the history of MMO gaming. Which way the story twists after this chapter will give us an important new perspective on the possibilities of gaming in a connected world.

Latest comments (13)

Josef Brett Animator 7 years ago
Another interesting article, thanks Rob. I suppose only time will tell if Blizzards risk pays off.

I personally have no interest in WoW. It's odd, because growing up I used to champion the Warcraft RTS' when my friends ridiculed me for not playing C&C. Now those same friends are all WoW 'addicts' (use that term carefully this week), where I find myself completely non plussed by the whole thing.

Forget WoW and Starcraft 2, when are we going to have Warcraft 4?!
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Jeff Lindsey Senior Producer, Arkadium7 years ago
I'm not sure I understand how Cataclysm is a bold step/risk, or fundamentally alters the game?

As far as I can see, it's replacing content rather than adding content, but considering everyone who still plays has *done* that content, it's effectively new. So far, the reworked content makes better use of the scripting/event tools, and is generally more fun. The classes, mechanics, and core systems are all the same. In fact, I would say SWG:NGE was a much bigger risk and total overhaul (and we saw just how risky it was).

Don't get me wrong, it's definitely a great move on Blizzard's part, I just don't see it as anything other than a smarter way to do an expansion, because it's specifically enticing back canceled subs and creating alts (which then reinvests that player in sticking around).
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Marque Pierre Sondergaard European Development Account Manager, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe7 years ago
@Josef: As far as I can count, Cataclysm is Warcraft 7.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Show all comments (13)
Josef Brett Animator 7 years ago
@Marque - ha ha.

It's not 'proper' Warcraft though is it?!
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Gary Lucero QA Analyst, Advanced 7 years ago
I don't think it's much of a risk at all. Does Apple take a risk releasing a new iPhone or the iPad? Regardless of how good or bad it is, they sell. Yes, if Blizzard or Apple really released a total lemon, that would be one thing, but they calculate their risks very intelligently so that they are very, very small risks.

Having said that, it would seem that there doesn't really need to be quantifiable quality involved in Cataclysm or in something like the iPad. As long as the stamp of the creator is strong on the game or the device, the fans will be happy.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
I think that Wrath got a lot of new people interested in the game because of the Lich King being so appealing to a broader audience, especially perhaps a younger one as well. Cataclysm perhaps should hike the numbers of WoW players up a few notches. And I say this because the game has become far more accessible at the early levels and you get powerful abilities now at level 10.

No matter what Blizzard does however, it cannot change the minds of those who simply think of RPG's in whatever form as a sissy or girly kind of gaming. I used to look at it that way myself. WoW would just look like a complete joke to me if I had not even bothered to play it. It just looks like something a kid would want to play rather then any self respecting adult. I mean the game is a fracking cartoon. You can say it was only done like that so more people could play the game, yet that choice comes with a consequence like all choices. I also think that there numbers only go up as they make the game more accessible, but at some point the line between accessiblity and absurd gets reached, and then it is there I think that their numbers will hault.

I actually didn't mind the old 1 to 60 experience myself. I just wanted something that was touched up and polished a bit more with today's standards and what Blizzard has learned. In my opinion they made leveling 1 to 58 a tad too easy now. If the challenge is missing, and the game becomes a chore more then something that takes some skill to level, then where is the fun in that? I feel as if my character is nothing more then a pushover now, and that my reputation nothing more then a indication of how much of a abused toon I have.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Chris Elwyn Animator 7 years ago
I played a bit of WoW in the lead-up to Cata being released; basically right after the patch with all the radical changes to the talent trees and skills hit. I was impressed with what Blizzard managed to achieve and I'm glad they're taking the chance on going back into the older content and making it just as fresh and interesting as some of the material in WotLK was.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Edward Buffery Head of LQA (UK), Testronic7 years ago
@Jeff, the bold step/risk the article refers to is that Blizzard did not merely add to the existing game, but completely replaced and re-wrote so much of the existing content. I.e. If people didn't want to buy the Lich King expansion, they were still free to play from levels 1-70 in the same game they'd been playing before, and many players would have done exactly that if the Lich King's new content was broken or disappointing.

This time however, there is literally no way to play WoW the way it used to be before Cataclysm was released, whether you buy it or not. Not only is the original world environment for all new characters radically altered, but the core stats and game mechanics have had a significant re-design that affects even players who aren't interested in buying a new expansion.

Of course, Blizzard is in the fortunate position of having the talent, money and time to not take such a large move until they're sure that it's good enough for their market to lap it up greedily. How it will affect revenue/sales is of course uncertain, but one thing they would have been sure of is that it's not going to result in a net reduction in subscribers.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 7 years ago
Honestly, where is the risk? If I buy plain old WoW without any expansion, then I will still get to play it. All the new expansion does is to acknowledge that not everybody is capped out and wants new top level content. If WoW players are anything like the people listed in the global Steam achievements, then 70% do not need five new levels on top of a level cap they haven't reached.

Blizzard does not appear to take a risk, they merely take the content they created and see to it, that it is actually playable by the people in the game and not just by the 10-20% of powerplayers at the top. Blizzard does what all console games are doing for years now. They do not expand the game at the top only few players reach. They expand at the bottom and the middle of the game, which everybody reaches.

By doing that, people do not skip on the new content because they do not bring the level requirements. Blizzard does not have to take away value from the powerplayers by fast-tracking everybody past old grindy content for the sake of brining them into the expansion. Blizzard does the most conservative thing possible. They release an RPG starting at level 1, so everybody can pick it up. They redo WoW, without having to redo the core system and call it WoW2.

Smart? Yes. Risky revolution? No.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Osma Ahvenlampi CTO, Sulake7 years ago
While I have nothing but respect to the way Blizzard have created and sustained the WoW business, and certainly share the thought that a radical re-writing of the basics of the game brings with itself a significant risk of alienating users, Blizzard is nowhere near the first ones to do this. They're at a scale few can replicate, but we've seen similar work before, at varying levels of success and failure. How about Ultima Online's transition through 2D to 3D clients? Or our own work at updating and significantly altering Habbo Hotel over 10 years of existence?

Or, indeed, apart from the game rules and art, how does this really differ from Facebook's changes to its core user experience? WoW is, after all, a social platform to great many of its players.

The commonality here is that online games are services first and products second. Any product has an expiration date, and needs an update - but services can go on indefinitely, as long as they continue to provide value and/or entertainment to their customers. In order to do so, they need to evolve, and the product bits change as a result.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
I see it as a natural logical evolution. revamp, reengage or die
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany7 years ago
Dr. Chee:

Was going to say exactly the same, I see it that way too.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Neil Alphonso Lead Designer, Splash Damage Ltd7 years ago
Nice to see rationality amongst hyperbole.
Anybody who has watched the game will know that Blizzard has been trending in this direction for years in increments, and with diminishing returns. The re-engineer is unrelentingly logical and practical.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply

Sign in to contribute

Need an account? Register now.