Rumors Leak On The Upcoming World of Warcraft: Cataclysm

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News Posted: Sun, Aug 16 2009 11:05 PM
When I wrote my review of Wrath of the Lich King last December, I praised the game for its innovations, new content, and the gorgeous environments of Northrend, but concluded with this:

"If Blizzard wants to keep WoW from becoming stale, it needs to push the envelope. The company's financial resources are absolutely enormous, and while throwing money at a game doesn't improve its quality, there's no doubt that Blizzard could afford the cost of refreshing the original game's visuals, designing an optional, higher-end graphics package, or exploring new and different ways to expand World of Warcraft. It would be nice, for example, to see a little bit of time actually pass in all the various questchains Blizzard once built. Four years into the game, the Dark Iron dwarfs still haven't blown up the Stonewrought Dam, the lazy peasants in Redridge haven't fixed their bridge, and Mankrik is still looking for his wife."

New information posted by the website MMO-Champion suggests Blizzard is planning to tackle exactly this sort of approach in Cataclysm. Rather than venturing into an altogether new content or world, Cataclysm will update the existing world of Azeroth, open new dungeons and areas—some of which have been closed since WoW launched nearly five years ago—and will reportedly allow travel to underwater zones. The Cataclysm itself is rumored to have been caused by the tag team-up of Azshara (former queen of the Elves back before she sunk 75 percent of the continent) and Deathwing, major dragon evil and father to both Onyxia and Nefarion. Unbeknownst to the world at large, Deathwing lurks beneath Grim Batol, an area that's been present (but inaccessible) to players since the launch of the game.

While the as-yet-unconfirmed rumors have some fans crying foul, anyone even slightly familiar with Warcraft's lore knows there are plenty of areas in Azeroth that have never been unlocked. The two maps below illustrate the point.




The top map is the game map of Azeroth as it currently exists as of Patch 3.2. The bottom map is from the Lands of Conflict sourcebook for the WoW tabletop RPG. While the scale of the two is slightly different, there's no mistaking the fact that what the in-game map shows as an empty bay is home to the islands of Zul'Dare, Crestfall, Kul Tiras, and Tol Barad. Lore-wise, these are not unimportant locations—Kul Tiras was a member-state of the seven-nation Alliance in the days of Warcraft 2, while Tol Barad and Crestfall were the locations of major battles in the same game. As for the nation-state of Gilneas; it's been walled away to-date, but may now become accessible.

Other features rumored to be included in Cataclysm are new starting races for the Horde and Alliance (Goblins and Worgen, respectively), new dungeons, the first-ever appearance of underwater zones and instances, and revamped dungeons built upon (or as extensions to) classic WoW instances that first launched almost five years ago. Blizzard has already confirmed that it will launch a revamped version of Onyxia, WoW's first 40-man raid boss, as part of the game's fifth anniversary celebration this coming November.
 

Odd groups go to left, even groups go to right...
 

Fans of the game (and some of its competition) will be watching that revamp very closely for what it says about the company's plans. If the Onyxia revamp is more-or-less a rescaled version of the encounter for lvl 80 characters along with item stat updates, it will send the message that Blizzard's instance revamp will translate into a cosmetic paint job and a database tweak with a few thin threads of plot woven around supposedly new content.

The good news is, it doesn't have to be that way.

 

For the Love of Phasing

Until Wrath of the Lich King, all MMOs (at least all the ones I'm aware of) suffered from the same problem. Even those which wanted to include detailed quests or storylines were hamstrung by the fact that it was extremely difficult for the actions of a player or group of players to have a lasting impact on the world. Questlines that had such impact were, by definition, one-time events that other groups of players couldn't participate in (or created only a temporary change to terrain or NPCs that reverted shortly thereafter).

One of the concepts Wrath introduced and made moderate use of was the idea of phased content. Unlike an instance, which launches a new and separate dungeon for each group that enters, phased content displays differently depending on how the player has progressed in a quest line or what game objectives have been fulfilled. The hidden content still exists, but various structures or NPCs are rendered invisible based on what the game determines the player should see. There are currently limits as to how much content can be phased out of existence. At present, the ground texture and geometry must remain constant across phases, but there's no guarantee that this limit can't be overcome with inventive uses of spell effects or more time to tackle the issue.

Phasing, if applied across Azeroth, would allow Blizzard to introduce a sense of chronology that could allow new players to experience Azeroth as it was, followed by Azeroth post-Cataclysm. That's only one way the system might be used; the important takeaway here is that Blizzard already has the means to both create genuinely new content and change the old in a way that advances the storyline.
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ClemSnide replied on Mon, Aug 17 2009 12:37 PM

One of the reasons that low-level quests are static is that MMO'ers fear change. (I'm not speaking of individuals, but in general. The whingeing you hear on the Forums almost always centers around a change which appears to be unfairly applied to an individual's small stable of characters.) With the return of King Wrynn, the Onyxia quest line got a major overhaul; but people who are pushing a new chara up to 80 want the security of knowing that they can do it mechanically and not have to worry about a changing world.

Now, RPGers are different, but unfortunately (even on RP servers) the minority. And Blizzard, I'm sure, feels that they can't change too much too fast, or else they'll lose the less-than-imaginative part of their user base. Alas, it is pursuit of the almighty dollar.

The graphics package is already causing trouble; Dalaran, known popularly as "Dalagaran," has so many people and buildings packed in such a small space that it really stresses disk loading speed and graphics power. Blizzard recently announced that they'd be gathering non-personal system data from users of the game client, and I imagine that hardware statistics will be a large part of that, to see how many people will be left in the lurch by even larger and more involved environments. The company has set records for people buying their new expansions; I'm sure they don't want to backtrack with Cataclysm.

The thing that grinds my gears is that we're essentially doing things the same way as we did back in 1975 with the original Dungeons & Dragons' three-book set. We still have levels, which were there so that you could advance in power without having to calculate how far along you were every time you gained experience. We still have classes, a decision made essentially at birth that decides everything about the rest of your life. And in the age of computers with unprecedented graphical and calculation power, we're still using the old computer shortcut of "slots" in a container. (An old Everquest saying goes "The weakest among us can carry sixteen anvils. The strongest among us cannot carry seventeen pillows.")

That having been said, Blizzard has one of the most innovative design teams around, not only in the game system but also the game world, and that gives me hope for the future. I'll be one of those poor people camped out at my local GameStop on Cataclysm release day!


"I didn't cry when Bambi's mother was shot... but I cried when HAL was turned off."

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Joel H replied on Mon, Aug 17 2009 2:23 PM

Clem,

Funny that you mention Dalaran. I've talked to NVIDIA extensively, and the issues in Dalaran don't appear to be GPU-based. Patch 3.2 changed how the game was handling lighting and shadows to some extent, and performance in Dal has improved to a degree, at least on higher-end cards.

My own experiments seem to indicate that NV is telling the truth. I've run through Dalaran on a variety of cards, including a GTX 275,, a GTX 295 (SLI enabled and disabled), a Radeon 4870, 4890, and 4870X2. All of these tests were conducted using Patch 3.1 (that's what was live at the time), but my framerates in Dalaran cratered down into the teens or low 20s almost without fail--the spread between the various GPUs was much thinner than you'd expect.

The idea that the game stresses disk loading speed, however, is incorrect. While it's possible that the load time into Dalaran when porting is partially I/O bound, once in Dalaran, the GPU isn't pulling texture data off the hard drive. Any attempt to stream textures off the HDD would result in players running around a flat-textured world while landscape and ground detail loaded over a long period of time.

I hear what you're saying with regard to those with lower-end systems, but I think the bar can probably stand to move a little. Keep in mind, Blizz hasn't upgraded the graphics of classic Azeroth in an appreciable way since early in the game's history--they introduced Full Screen Glow before TBC was released, if memory serves, but that's more of a visual effect applied by the GPU rather than an engine change.

Dalaran is still laggy, even post-3.2, but it's not clear exactly *why* that's the case. The minimum graphics bar on Azeroth, meanwhile, should be adjustable. Even bottom-end video solutions have come a fair distance in five years, though they'd have come a lot farther if Intel could be bothered to ship a GPU solution that didn't suck for gaming.

The "Missing Diplomat" quest chain is one of the relative handful that Blizzard actually went back and changed for Wrath; I don't feel sorry for any whingers on that regard. It wouldn't surprise me if this new refreshed Ony either required a separate key quest or did away with the key requirement altogether. Regardless, it's possible to lvl to 80 without ever setting foot in an instance and doing so does not take an appreciably longer period of time, assuming one is efficient about doing quests.

As for your other criticisms, there are other games that innovated more in some of these areas. Blizzard has never been a company that pushed the limits of actual game design--Dune II is generally credited with inventing the RTS genre, for example, but WC2 and particularly Starcraft won huge followings by delivering a supremely polished experience. I would say the same is largely true for WoW and that's why people keep playing it.

It's fun.

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ClemSnide replied on Wed, Aug 19 2009 12:17 AM

Well, Joel, that's why I'm glad Blizzard is doing those hardware surveys. You and I have different experiences because we most likely have a very limited subest of game equipment-- I only have three computers that will run WoW, and one of them is so low-end as to be marginal (I only use it to check on auctions).

When I was running the game client from a 5400 RPM IDE drive that let you know just what it was doing (you can hear all the seeks), the Dalaran loading screen was persistent and noisy. Moving it to a faster (and quieter) SATA drive improved loading speed tremendously. While this is still only two samples from the population, it gave me the idea that HD transfer speed was important-- possibly one of the most important things-- in speeding up the game. (I'd also imagine that RAM would be too, but being stuck on a 2 GB motherboard, I can't test that.)

And I have the idea (unconfirmed, but supported by the same noisy drive) that it only loads the objects that are in your viewframe. Turning sharply can drop your framerate way down and cause disk access a-plenty. To me that says it's bottlenecking on disk/memory use.

My ATi Radeon 3850 (AGP) does a workmanlike job of drawing the world, though some of the sliders are set to "ugly." Of the lot, the shadow detail is probably the most GPU-intensive and is therefore your first stop when trying to improve frame rate. But graphics are only going to get more intricate and complex, so someone who wants to maintain graphics quality should spend some time looking at the current and upcoming crop of boards.

WoW does have to appeal to people with a fear of newness, but I give full kudos to Blizzard for innovation. I can't say anything about their RTS line (I actually stayed away from WoW because I thought it'd be like Warcraft!), but they're the only major player which (for instance) allows AddOns to their game client.

Getting to 80 is indeed easy, given all the quests that give good XP, but that shouldn't be the sole purpose of your character; there are a lot of fun things to do along the way!


"I didn't cry when Bambi's mother was shot... but I cried when HAL was turned off."

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