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General Articles: GDC 2011 - Cataclysm Post Mortem

By Garrett Fuller on March 08, 2011

GDC 2011 - Cataclysm Post Mortem

It is a rare treat when Blizzard presents a panel at GDC. This year they had several, one of which was a look back at Cataclysm and what the team had learned in the process of making the expansion. Tom Chilton, Lead Producer on the game gave the talk which focused on three main areas that the team felt ran the scope of the changes. Desolace, WestFall and the Talent Tree changes were the highlight of the session, showing what the team got wrong, right, and how they felt the new changes really brought the game to a great place for players.


When building out Cataclysm there was a philosophy to improving WoW in several areas. The content from levels 1-60 was aging. The theory of appealing to hardcore players and then ranging out to casual players was also important. Tom called it the Donut theory. Also there needed to be a purging of the core game systems which were becoming too complex. Tom focused on the idea that they wanted to work with one part old, keeping the core values of the game, one part improved, building on everything they had learned with Lich King, and one part new, creating a great new experience for veteran players. These three pieces became the heart of Cataclysm and were at the center of all the changes that were made.

The actual world of Azeroth remains one of WoW’s strongest assets and they wanted the changes they were going to make to  really improve on the zones. The original world content had gotten old with simple quest designs and bad flow. Tom sited the Barrens as an example and the crowd murmured in agreement of times spent in that early zone. With Lich King they had tried out some new quest ideas which worked very well. Implementing mini-games and cut scenes. They wanted to add more of this to the original world and re-build the experience for new and old players alike. Most importantly they wanted to keep the soul of each zone they redesigned. When they looked at the map there were a lot of zones to improve so they took a top down approach. Instead of building out ten new levels, they built five and put the extra energy into really improving older zones in the game.

A zone that Tom focused on was Desolace as an area that really needed a revamp. When Cataclysm was being built, the idea of Druids coming in and regrowing the landscape seemed appealing. The zone went from grey to green and when the expansion launched it was changed. It was only after Cataclysm had launched that they realized that the soul of the zone had been taken away. Desolace was no longer desolate. Tom explained that while this decision wasn’t necessarily wrong, it made them look back and ask the question that perhaps the zone should have been made more extreme, instead of regrowing it, make it much more harsh. In the end the vote is still out on Desolace and the choices made, however, as in any post mortem, hindsight is always clear.

Westfall was a zone that Tom said he felt the team had done very well with. The zone was improved and had a much better flow of story to it. The story behind the Defias Brotherhood was updated and flushed out culminating with the Dead Mines as the climax of the quest chains. The zone kept its look and feel with some Cataclysm changes added in and the quests were revamped to progress the story line. Also a much better flow into Elwynn Forest was added and players had a better transition. This zone was an example of where the team really made some great changes.

Lastly in the presentation Tom talked about the much needed revamp of the talent tree system. While both players and developers alike had many different opinions after showing the screen shot of the massive Lich King talent tree followed by the much simpler new tree it became clear as to why the changes were need. Talents had become too complex and players were speccing very specific builds anyway, therefore a lot of talents were being lost. Even with pulling in the talent system they wanted to retain a very strong system of choice for players. These choices really are how classes differentiate themselves in the game. At the end of Lich King, talents had just become too much and this was the best time to bring them, back to the original ideas for the tree.

At the end of the panel Tom stressed that a deep seeded understanding of the original game was essential for the team in building Cataclysm. Also WoW was so big and had so much content they really had to pick their battles on what changes they could make. They also really wanted to keep to their three part system of design and stay true to each aspect of the plan. The panel was great for developers looking to do expansions and also for players to get a deeper understanding of just how the Warcraft team works. As patches begin to come in for Cataclysm it will be interesting to see what design changes come about.