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.


  1. Skylar Smythe says

    I think you are a bang on. I have played WoW for three years also but I am predominantly in Second Life now. However certain zones have a home like feel… Like Stormwind. Key communities where everyone fosters their characters through.

    Long term players view the virtual world as a home. As such, shaking up the infrastructure or removing old “zones” is like a bereavement of kinds… its like taking a forest and cutting down all the old trees, planting new ones and expecting everyone to enjoy the beauty of the forest… it doesn’t work that way.

    History online (or offline) is not disposable. New things are wonderful so create new add-on’s but maintaining the “heritage” of the game is critical. Particularly in a game that takes so long to level characters… and new characters are being levelled all the time by one account. For a player power levelling more than one toon at the same time… it would be like having the carpet pulled from under your feet.

    A mistake to shake it up like that.

    Skylar Smythe

  2. I like the carpet analogy Skylar – that sums it up really 😉

  3. I agree, too. I have played for six years now, and my sense of loss has been surprisingly strong! I have been to 10000 Needles and the Barrens, etc., but I only discovered that the Park in Stormwind was destroyed today, when I tried to train my druid there. That was when it really hit me that the world was changed for good. The floods and the chasms, etc. haven’t upset me nearly as much as the loss of the portals in Dalaran, though! That is very inconvenient, and requires a major change in play style! Perhaps it will be less painful when the Azeroth flying is implemented next week, but I kind of doubt it.

    For the past few weeks I have been flying around the areas I thought would be affected by the coming cataclysm, taking a lot of screen shots. I do like to go back years later and remember places and times that were special for me. Now with all the changes, I’m very glad I did.

    I agree that the leadups to Cataclysm have been extremely well done. All the little quest chains and strange events and objects appearing in different places have made it obvious that something is coming, and that changes are widespread (and scary!). And today they are all gone, leaving a kind of quiet expectation about “what’s next?” I just wish they could have a “grand event”, like they did when the Dark Portal was opened about four years ago. Everyone on the server was there, I think, massed at the opening point, together with hundreds of exotic and colorful computer generated warriors. At midnight the portal to the new world opened, and we all had to fight waves of evil forces pouring through, causing all kinds of disruption and mayhem as creatures appeared in the old lands. It was like the wild west, and people played through the night with energy, enthusiasm and amazement, trying to bring down the evil forces and go through the portal and explore the new lands. It was magical, and a gaming event that I will never forget! Blizzard did that extremely well, and I have hopes that the actual “moment” of the Cataclysm will also bring about that sense of shared excitement and focus for players. We’ll see…only six more days!


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