Rumors Leak On The Upcoming World of Warcraft: Cataclysm

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.