In the six years I have played World of Warcraft, Blizzard has made special efforts to ensure that each time it released major new content it also offered special events to intrigue and entice players to anticipate what was coming. They have done a fine job with building anticipation to a fever pitch, most notably about four years ago, with the opening of the Dark Portal to the Outlands, and more recently with the release of the Lich King expansion and the opening of Northrend. The Lich King was less of an “event”, because it was really only for high level players, to provide more high end content to keep them engaged with the game, so the impact was not as great.
On December 7, Blizzard will launch its newest expansion Cataclysm. What is fascinating for long time and regular players about this release is how they have approached the buildup to it. With each expansion, Blizzard has approached it creatively and differently. I have hopes that there will be the same sort of impact as the opening of the Dark Portal had, even as I experience a sense of loss and uncertainty with the changes, but we will have to wait and see.
What they have done to build interest and tension for Cataclysm, they have done very well. This is a world-wide event, affecting all players, that is going to take a step in a new direction for multiplayer games — Blizzard is going to radically change the actual geography in many of the zones, and even in the major cities! Some formerly desert-like zones will be flooded or under water. Many flight paths have disappeared and new ones will have to be discovered. A giant chasm has opened in one zone, dividing it down the middle. The main Alliance city Stormwind has lost one of its entire sections, the Park. Nothing remains there but devastation and smoking ruins. The main horde city Orgrimmar has flames burning in many places, and some relocation of buildings. In many places it is obvious that the graphics are greatly improved, which is especially noticeable in the original lands designed more than seven years ago.
For a prior expansion Blizzard had players scrambling to gather and turn in materials and items to aid in the “war effort”, and provided running tallies for each type of item. This time they have approached the building of interest in a different way. Each week for the past month, Blizzard has introduced new quests related to the Cataclysm. Strange quest givers have appeared, seeking help. The kings/leaders of the major cities have disappeared, only to be discovered in out of the way places, huddling with advisers to try and figure out what can be done to fight the evil elemental forces that are threatening destruction. Periodically, powerful elemental spirits have appeared all over the world, attacking cities and citizens randomly. There is a sense that “our world” is under attack, and we don’t know what to do about it. Game designers have done a fantastic job of building suspense and awareness that big, global changes are happening.
What has surprised me for the past month is how sad it is making me to see the old world go. I think the loss is affecting all the players this way, to a certain extent. When one plays months or years in the same game, with the same people, it becomes comfortable. One logs in, chooses which character they feel like playing that day, and enters the game, knowing where to go, where they left off the last time, and what they want to accomplish that day. Suddenly, not only are quests we never completed being deleted, but even the landscape is not the same and everywhere there are new quests! The bank where we hung out and did our mail is there, but the auction house has moved across town! The portals that we used to move easily between zones quickly have all vanished, requiring us to ride or fly long distances that used to be one teleport away. Flight paths that we used to know have vanished, and we have to ride on the ground long distances and hunt for new ones. Whole zones are under water that used to be above ground. A new underwater city is about to open. New races are appearing. Major cities have been bombed or restructured so that they look different, and require new exploration. In short, it is almost like starting a whole new game…and it’s a bit of a shock!
The sense of bereavement players already feel is no doubt going to increase dramatically in the next few weeks as the rest of the changes are revealed and players have a chance to experience the true extent of them. Trade chat will, of course, be full of complaints, and the sense of loss will increase before acceptance settles in. This is a new sensation in a multiplayer game. Blizzard is taking a radical step to permanently and forever change what is and has been the most popular MMOG of all times. It’s risky! Players are creatures of habit. We like the known, and feel uncertain confronted with the unknown. Not to mention that for many of us, we have fond memories of people or shared experiences in locations that will no longer exist. This is change on a major psychological level as well as on a game play experience level.
I know I’m feeling the loss very much myself. I have been unable to do much in recent weeks beyond attempt to complete the new quests and fly around and look for one last time at things before they change. I have always taken a lot of screen shots, because WoW is such an amazing and beautiful place. For the last month, I have made it a personal crusade to visit the lands that I knew would be changing forever and take snapshots that I can browse through later to remind me of prior good times and hard won accomplishments. Already we can see some of the changes: the chasm down the Barrens, the flooded 10000 Needles and Salt Flats, the new village floating in the Salt Flats, the destruction of Dire Maul and the relocation of Feathermoon Village, Tarran Mill is no longer just huts, the scars of Eastern Plaguelands are now full of water, Southshore is now in ruins, there is a new huge ruin at Gilneas City. And there are many, many more. We seem constantly under attack by armies of elemental spirits, to the point where it disrupts whatever other activity we are trying to do. It’s just not normal! :)
I find myself sighing deeply at times, and regretting that I now have to pay attention again, I now have to earn experience points again, I now have to level up again, I now have to struggle to gain new armor and weapons again, I now have to remember to log out in Inns. I was comfortable and enjoyed how I was playing. Now Blizzard is throwing down the gauntlet, demanding that players re-engage with the game and use their best skills to do it. Yes, that will be invigorating and stimulating and exciting and all that, but it still makes me sad to lose something that I loved and relied upon. It’s a little like a death of a loved one, or the loss of a relationship. I’m grieving for what is being lost, and I am not the only one. This grief is a new experience in a game environment, and I give kudos to Blizzard for being willing to take risks with a successful franchise. They do not sit on their laurels, and they constantly rise up to exceed our expectations, even if we have to go through a period of grief first. Grieving means that we love something, and even though it may be a love/hate relationship at times, long time players do love WoW because Blizzard continues to challenge us in so many ways. May this period of loss have a happy outcome for all of us!