Post #4: Letter to Mr. C. – What’s up with Cataclysm?

August 27, 2009 at 8:41 am | Posted in Letters to Mr. C., Predictions, Predictions Made, Preparing for Cataclysm | Leave a comment

Dear Mr. C.,

You wrote on your blog, “There’s a new World of Warcraft…expansion, is it? called Cataclysm coming out, and here’s a trailer for itRob Bricken is right about how cheesy it is–wayyyyyy too much po-faced narration for my, or surely anyone’s, taste. I remember when the trailer for Wrath of the Lich King came out–I’ve never played WoW for a second and yet I watched that thing over and over and over again, it was so perfect at expressing its ersatz Tolkienisms. This, on the other hand..” Let’s see what I can make of it.

The first thing to say is that you’re certainly right about the narration. This is not a piece of voice work to compare with “The drums of war sound again…” or Terenas’ memorial to his son Arthas or especially “You are not prepared.” It feels rushed to me, though I’m always leery of putting any weight on guesses about the circumstances of production. It seems like the sort of thing a recording engineer would want to use as the basis for markup notes like “Speed the pacing here” and “Let’s get a more sustained rise in intensity through this passage” and “Back off there, it undercuts the punch line in the next paragraph.”

But then this is very much a work prepared under a specific deadline, that of Blizzcon, Blizzard’s annual convention. They obviously want to have a hefty attention-getting announcement each year, and it’s a little tricky for them at the moment. Starcraft II has turned out to be a big enough project that they split it into three separate packages, each of which will apparently have enough material in it to warrant selling as a separate game with a straight face. Diablo III is work in progress, but apparently there’s not a whole lot of news ready to lay before the public. They have a new MMO in the works, but that’s also still work in progress, and there aren’t even any very interesting leaks about it yet.

So WoW is the project most likely to have news of the right sort, and expansion #3 has been underway for a while—since before expansion #2’s launch, they say, and it certainly makes sense that it’d be so. But there’s a difference between having something that is in a general way newsworthy and having a specific bundle of news ready to go right at a particular deadline.

They are, for instance, putting in new water effects. (They’re not to my taste, but I may be an outlier in that regard.) If anything at all were to go wrong somewhere along the way, it could delay rendering any scene with water in it, and when you’re talking about floods and maelstroms and such, that could be a real pain. Every element in every scene is a potential source of that kind of complication, too.

I’ll go out on a limb here with a prediction: We’ll have a better-developed trailer by the end of the year, one more worthy of comparison to its predecessors.

In the meantime, what we’ve got is very much an insider sort of thing, targeted at the audience primed for an announcement—the existing WoW base, that is. Nor is this really a foolish kind of thing to do. There are something like 10 million WoW accounts worldwide, and even when you sort out all the case of people with auxiliary accounts (do you want me to explain that sometime) and everything else, we’re looking at multiple millions of real, actually existing people. I’m sure Blizzard would like to add more. But one of the major themes in play this year has been strain on their resources, with shortages in the various computing factors required to handle logins on high-volume days and (most persistently and perniciously) to create all the instances of, er, instances.

“Instances” is the computer gaming jargon for any part of the game where characters exit the shared world for a while and go into their own little pocket reality so that it’s just them and the baddies there. It’s one thing to cross paths with characters whose players may be hostile when you’re out on the road; it’s another if you’re trying to foil the Twilight Hammer’s cult in Blackfathom Deeps with a group at suitable level (the early to mid 20s) and a jerk with a level 80 character could tromp through and destroy everyone and everything you need to complete any questions. Instances are a very handy conceit. But demand’s been exceeding supply all year, and “additional instances cannot be launched; please try again later” is an unwelcome presence in every WoW player’s life right now.

So, anyway, recruitment is likely not Blizzard’s highest priority right now.

Those of us already playing the game have pretty much all hoped that Blizzard would find some way to extend the benefits introduced in expansions back into material introduced earlier. But this is a pretty massive undertaking. Take the city of Stormwind, the capital of the largest surviving human kingdom, and its cathedral.

Stormwind Cathedral from just inside the city walls

Stormwind Cathedral from just inside the city walls

Passing through the gateway to the Trade District

Passing through the gateway to the Trade District

The Cathedral rising beyond the Trade District

The Cathedral rising beyond the Trade District

Leaving the Trade District for the canals

Leaving the Trade District for the canals

The Cathedral across the canal

The Cathedral across the canal

The Cathedral and Archbishop Faols memorial fountain

The Cathedral and Archbishop Faol's memorial fountain

Inside the Cathedral

Inside the Cathedral

Okay, that last shot is just there because I felt like it, but the others tell an important and unobvious story: that tour is a cheat. A good one. There are actually three distinct renderings of the Cathedral, one of the developers explained a while back. Each time a character passes through one of the gateway areas that guarantees their viewpoint is cut off for a moment, there’s shuffling of graphics behind the scene. The perspectives don’t work out right naturalistically—landmarks would tend to be too large or too small.

Compare that with this short sequence of Chiril flying toward Shattrah City, introduced in the first expansion and designed with flight in mind:

Entering Shattrah City

Entering Shattrah City

Approaching the Terrace of Light

Approaching the Terrace of Light

The naaru Adal, at the heart of the city

The naaru A'dal, at the heart of the city

No room for perspective tricks here—what one flaps through is what one gets.

The thing is that to allow free-roaming flight in the original lands of WoW would mean, literally, redoing the maps in their entirety. And if they’re doing that, Blizzard clearly decided, why not fix a bunch of other things, like quests not structured with the advantages of lessons learned since launch? And if they’re doing that, well, why not give players some more new stuff?

But this has gone on long enough for now. I’ll try to pick up where those questions left off later today, if I can make any progress on this cold.


Your friend, Ms. B.


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