World of Warcraft’s Cataclysm: lessons for virtual worlds

A Cataclysmic Westfall

I’ve covered my experiences with World of Warcraft a couple of times here, and I’ve now been playing for more than three years. Even if you don’t play, you may have heard that Blizzard Entertainment are about to release the third expansion / fourth instalment for World of Warcraft, called Cataclysm. It’s a fairly standard formula now for MMOs – release an expansion every couple of years to keep current players interested, draw back some of the player base that may have already left, and ideally drag in a bunch of new players. Cataclysm is likely to do all of those things, but on top of that I’d argue it’s caused an interesting phenomenon: a fairly widespread sense of loss. It’s also I believe set a new standard in transitioning to a new expansion. Let’s look at both issues in a little more detail.

The loss

This expansion involves a continuation of the WoW storyline whereby Deathwing causes an enormous amount of geographic upheaval on Azeroth. Think tsunamis, earthquakes and the like. There’s now water in a lot of places where there were villages / encampments / quest zones. There are now gaping chasms in areas, including key cities like Stormwind. It’s very exciting to explore all the changes, but that’s also where the sense of loss kicks in. Over the past three years, I’ve become attached to a lot of areas in the game, and I’m actually not happy that some have changed. Take Gadgetzan for example – one of its key striking features was the fact it was in the middle of a desert. Now it has water right at its eastern wall. Although I never would have thought so, I miss how Gadgetzan used to be. Like any loss, over time I’ll incorporate it into my experience but I’ll still remember what it used to be like.

Is it a life-changing loss? No – not even in the context of my character’s life. It’s more the jarring sensation of a new visual in place of three years’ experience. Expecting permanence in a virtual world isn’t reasonable, but it does happen to be a very human trait, as is a reaction of anxiety to change. It’s not a new issue by any means for virtual worlds, but this is one of the bigger examples. Once the full expansion hits the servers on December 7th, the scale of the changes will be fully apparent. I’m sure no-one will need counselling on their loss, but there’s certainly some interesting further research potential.

The transition

It’s a common story-telling technique: build tension over a period of time prior to a major event. Blizzard have done this with each of their expansions (although I felt the pre-Lich King one was a little half-baked), and the Cataclysm lead up has been no exception. I’ve really enjoyed the storyline over recent weeks and loved the feeling of crisis in Stormwind as the changes started occurring. Aside from the rightfully expected story transition, I’m equally impressed at how they’ve managed the technical transition to the new content. From what I can gather, essentially all of the content for the expansion is likely sitting on your hard drive now, with your license key purely unlocking it on the 7th. Additionally, a lot of the smaller new content can already be explored, helping to build excitement when it’s all revealed. Finally, the staged download of the new content works well, with background downloading as you play. Again, none of it is specifically surprising but the implementation has been relatively smooth and Blizzard deserve kudos for it.

The sum-up

On the gaming side of the virtual world equation, the means by which end users are hooked into the product are extremely well established. When an MMO is around long enough that people are emotionally affected by changes to it, you know they’re probably getting a few things right. Less rigid environments like Second Life, Blue Mars, OpenSim grids and the like, can only translate such lessons to a certain extent. What they can mimic 100% is integrating the technical side of things with the user’s experience. That hasn’t changed in decades but it seems there’s still a lot of catch-up being done in that regard.

DUST514: bridging the platform divide

We’re pleased to introduce Phillip Street (SL: Jageral Kuhn) as gaming writer for The Metaverse Journal. He’ll be writing pieces intermittently about upcoming gaming worlds that may have impacts wider than their brief.

dust514 A game currently under development has caught my interest lately. It’s CCP’s DUST514 – a console based MMOFPS that is aiming to tie in with CCP’s EVE Online, which is well known to many in the MMO community as a premier SciFi MMORPG. It’s not so much the gaming aspects of DUST514 I’m interested in, but the fact it plans to bridge the divide and merge gaming platforms.

DUST514 was announced a while ago on August 18th, 2009 at the Game Developers Conference in Germany, so it’s not breaking news and I’m not all that interested in the games announcement itself. What is interesting is that CCP is planning to allow players from DUST514 to affect players on EVE Online and vice-versa, but the games themselves differ greatly in game-play and targeted platform.

DUST514 will be an infantry-based FPS style game running on console platforms (such as the PS3, Xbox360 and Wii), where the intent will be to assault and conquer planets as well as undertake contracted tasks. I believe there will also be gaming elements that do not require interaction with EVE Online. For those not familiar, EVE Online is a Sci-Fi based MMORPG that runs on the PC platform (Windows and MacOSX), and it is iconic in the MMO arena as being a game with quite a high level of difficulty but also being one of a few that boasts a rich, detailed economy and gaming environment.

I’m really excited by the prospect of MMO’s branching out onto other platforms and not only duplicating the gaming experience but extending and transforming it into something unique and different that caters for players on those machines. CCP are really breaking some ground, and yes I’m aware other companies have explored the idea of bringing their games to various platforms, but there are none that I’m aware of that have taken the same path and tried a hybrid approach with differing gameplay.

With the advent of smart-phones capable of connecting to the internet that also boast 3D graphics and powerful processing capabilities, it would be the next logical step to think that these devices could also play a part in the Hybrid MMO platform lineup. With a lot of the smart-phones allowing third-party software development, I’m sure it won’t be long before enterprising companies take the plunge and release official applications to support and even extend the online gaming experience.

This doesn’t only apply to gaming either, as I think that Second Life and non-gaming MMO platforms could make use of gaming consoles and portable smart-phones. It would be another great way to reach an audience that might otherwise not be able to connect to the online community.

Australian classification of MMOGs

Massively’s Tateru Nino has written a fascinating piece on the issue of games classification in Australia. Specifically, she’s confirmed with the Federal Attorney General’s Department that:

“Where a sale is within the jurisdiction of the relevant State or Territory legislation,” Heffernan informed us, “it is a criminal offence under those laws to sell unclassified computer games. Enforcement of those laws is a matter for the States and Territories.”

There may be no surprise in that to many people, but Tateru’s discovery is that most MMOs have no displayed evidence of having applied for Australian classification. After doing some digging for the story, she believes it’s a case of oversight combined with governmental miscommunication.

Personally, I find it hard to believe that the major MMO publishers wouldn’t understand that Australia had a classification regime. The claim is that such publishers were advised in the past that MMOs didn’t need to comply, which is plausible given their nature in comparison to a standard 1-person game at the beginning. Now, MMOs are so widely used it’s a problematic argument to uphold. Behemoths like Blizzard’s World of Warcraft and its expansion packs aren’t labeled with any Australian classification – an unusual thing unless historic advice has been provided to say local classification wasn’t required. WoW in particular has nothing to fear from classification given how innocuous its gameplay is and its well implemented moderation options.


It’s more an issue of principle: the government only assesses applications made to it, there’s no proactive work done on ensuring new releases are classified. There’s an obvious problem here – if a less responsible publisher arrives on the scene to release an MMO that would rate R18+ , it can still hit the shelves if that publisher doesn’t apply for classification rather than being refused classification if they did apply. As Tateru mentions in her piece, Australia has the farcical situation of having no R18+ or X18+ categories for games, so everything at that level is refused classification. Add to that the fact that State governments are responsible for enforcing the law and it’s not hard to see how this situation has arisen.

Essentially, the current voluntary application process combined with no ‘adult’ games ratings and the old Federal / State blameshifting actually fosters an environment where a non-ethical publisher would be mad not to release their MMO product unclassified. If they’re ever caught (which seems unlikely unless the MMO is beyond the pale), there’s a growing precedent of other MMOs selling tens or hundreds of thousands of locally unclassified copies. I’d have thought that would be one hell of a defense.

Hopefully the Australian Attorney General’s department has another look at the issue, particularly the lack of adult game classifications, because the status quo is becoming more untenable as MMOs continue their growth in popularity. The risk is that a crackdown will occur without an expansion of the classification options – that would be nearly as bad as the status quo.

Update: Tateru Nino has posted a follow-up story on the issue

The growth in Massive Multiplayer Online Games (MMOG)

If statistics and charts are your thing then you’ll love this site which provides a roundup of everything MMOG from a metrics viewpoint. Any business wondering whether there’s a market in virtual worlds need only spend a few minutes looking at the graphs to get a pretty clear answer…

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