I’ve been fascinated with Cataclysm, the latest World of Warcraft expansion, since I first heard about it. In many ways this expansion is a live team’s dream: an opportunity to fix the whole goddamned mess that the previous teams have left for you. Watching what the WoW team decided to fix – and watching what players think about those fixes – has served as a main source of entertainment for me this year.
Since Cataclysm launch, I have played through three of the new 80+ zones in their entirety on my newly undead hunter. (I also played through a lot of quests in beta, but this post comes from my post-launch experiences since content may have changed since then.) Overall I’d say that the Blizzard Cataclysm team did a good job working out a lot of the kinks in content design, especially quests and zone flow.
But in the process, the designers subverted two long-running WoW conventions and the results have left me puzzled and sometimes downright angry.
Elite? No More!
Elite enemies in WoW are more difficult to kill than regular enemies. They are usually found in dungeons and sometimes at the end of long quest chains. Elite enemies are indicated two ways: with a golden dragon around their portrait and with the word Elite in their tooltip.
In original Classic WoW and in the Burning Crusade expansion, a quest that involved an elite enemy was usually intended as a group quest (even if a knowledgeable player could solo it without any trouble).
Starting with the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, two things happened. First, the quest text for a group quest changed to indicated how many players Blizzard thought you might need. (Unfortunately they missed some quests so this was a little inconsistent.)
Secondly, the designers added a number of fake-out elites to the end of quest chains. The fake-out elite enemies looked elite and had elite stats – until you used the special magic powder that the quest-giver provided to shrink them down to non-elite size so you could kill them solo.
So the convention evolved from ‘Elites need a group’ to ‘Elites probably need a group unless the quest doesn’t mention it and the quest-giver gives you some magical doodad to de-elite the enemy’. A little more complicated, but still understandable.
In the Cataclysm expansion, however, the designers threw this convention out the window. Solo quests constantly pit players against elite enemies that are elite in name (and dragon portrait) only. “Go kill this amazingly powerful boss that you might think takes a bunch of people but whom you can defeat all by your lonesome!”
Why? I assume because it feels more epic. (*shudder* I’m having flashbacks to AC2 development as I type this.)
But epic or not, it means that I as a player have no idea which quests require a group and which don’t. Presumably the quest text should still tell me … except that the couple of group quests I’ve encountered so far in Cataclysm haven’t.
Color me confused. Epic, but confused.
Tag – You’re It!
The other broken convention in Cataclysm involves tagging, also known as tapping. This is a familiar convention used in a lot of multi-player games. In WoW, the health bar of an enemy turns grey (instead of red) when another player or another group attacks the enemy before you do. Once that happens, you won’t get any experience, loot, or quest credit by killing that enemy.
There are some minor exceptions to this convention, mostly enemies who spawn quest objects when they die. In that case, the enemy tags as normal but everyone in the area can usually use the quest object.
Tagging has two very useful effects. First, it lets you know when you aren’t going to get anything from a kill. But more than that, it lets you know when you can safely step in and help without stealing a kill from someone else. Despite common belief, most players don’t actually want to be asses and steal quest credit. Most of them just want to hurry up your kill so the enemy respawns faster and they can get to their own kill.
Anyway. Tagging, well known convention, subverted in Cataclysm. Yes, there are several different fights I can name off the top of my head, including at least two daily quests, where the health bar of the enemy doesn’t turn grey when someone else attacks the enemy first – even though only one person or group can get quest credit.
Why? This one is harder for me to figure out. I suspect it has something to do with the mechanics behind these fights, since at least some of them seem to hinge on triggering little mini-events. But these quests are causing so much confusion among the players that I can’t imagine why Blizzard left them this way.
I’ve outlined a couple of long-standing conventions that Blizzard subverted in the Cataclysm expansion not just because I wanted to rant about them, but to start a discussion on when breaking your conventions is appropriate.
To compare, other content traditions that Cataclysm broke include: quests to collect items with a 10% drop rate, sending players across three continents to finish one FedEx quest, and NPCs who start quests in one dungeon scattered across six cities.
So how do you tell the good conventions from the bad traditions? It’s not that hard. Just ask: Is this something that will make life easier for the players? Or is this something that the content designers are really excited about because it let’s them do something more exciting for them, regardless of how it affects the players?
Contest designers are fine people. But the stuff they get excited about? Often not the best thing for your players.