Blizzard Entertainment has taken a page out of Dr. Gregory House’s book with Cataclysm, their latest addition to the golden-goose that is World of Warcraft. They had to cause one disaster in order to solve another: half-a-decade-old designs were frozen in place, but still making up a majority of the persistent game-world. They found an icebreaker no greater than the return of Deathwing, a key antagonist from Warcraft-past who happens to be an ancient dragon consisting of shattered rock, molten lava, and rage.
In an age of gaming that’s made a powerful ally out of the internet and fiber optics, you’d think that broken design could be avoided altogether, in theory. When endless tweaks and revisions are part of the business model (free, expanded, and improved content), game developers don’t necessarily have to rely on a sequel to deem any change worthy. Apparently, this one did.
It wasn’t enough for Blizzard to just patch in artificial elegance, nudge some dials up/down, and appease a speedier bar of entry to what has been an increasingly endless experience. New adventures, treasures, and faces would need a reason crazy enough to contextually justify an overhauled user-experience, especially for those working through the original content WoW launched with back in 2004.
Blizzard chose this one: literally destroy the entire world’s virtual geography and, by association, its time-worn features. It’s as if Azeroth literally opened up and swallowed its own flaws lying just beneath the surface, down into the hungry maw of Cataclysm. While twelve million players were all willing to drudge through rapidly aging game-design patterns, for sixty of the now eighty-five levels available, old familiarities grew increasingly awkward next to their progressive successors.
On the arrival of this third expansion and Azeroth’s gaping wounds, the developers positioned themselves to finally do surgery on the most benign tumors plaguing any growth WoW’s population has left in it: a monotonous series of crossroads to the good stuff. As any designer will tell you, first impressions are nearly everything when trying to hook any user to any interface. What was gripping about WoW then and now hasn’t changed when you boil it down, but the means of presentation has significantly.
Presentation is at its best when it uses aesthetics to filter a flood of information. With each spell, story, and continent added to the game, presentation becomes increasingly relevant to nearly every clickable square-inch of what WoW pumps into your computer monitor: non-playable characters, maps, quest-directions, action-bars, etc. If you like the game enough, you’ll eventually “earn the privilege” of keeping your eyes on seven different places at any given moment. Until then, there’s no reason to bombard newcomers with all of it, and less reason to keep them waiting too long for all that good stuff.
It sounds like a backwards advertising trick: tell them what they need to hear, give them what they want to have. In that sense, WoW is like a candy bar that remembered why “Bite-Sized” matters just as much as “Jumbo” or “King”. Maybe it’s a stretch to equate any part of a game of WoW’s scale to the word “small”. That is, until you roll with the Horde’s newest, greediest, and most vertically challenged race: Goblins.
Blizzard knows how to do business, and it’s not much of a surprise that they’d know how to have some fun with it through their little green friends. Goblins are no strangers to the cast of characters that give Azeroth some color, though ironically being the most neutral of them where loyalties lie. There’s no money to be made in discrimination. Want to barter? Repair your armor, or get supplies in a pinch? Have to trade across factions? It seemed like there was always a Goblin for that, right there when you needed them.
Though, that was something ingrained in their character and left to simmer in the background of their culture. They knew the economic hot-spots, the trade routes, the shipping depots, and they even maintained the blimp service for the Horde before being a part of it, bussing players between continents. But they didn’t do all this by telling you–they just did it. That, in and of itself, is what makes a Goblin.
It’s worth pointing this out because, surprise-surprise, the Goblin starting zone certainly does not. Blizzard continues the trend of emergent story-telling, of assuming you “get” what it is about Goblins that makes them relevant in their world by just being among them. Their aesthetic serves what’s left as a platform for some of the most creative (and funniest) story-telling, plot devices, and gameplay yet to arise in WoW.
However, this comes at a potentially lofty price by breaking the “laws” of what WoW can and cannot be. For starters, there’s a severe lack of attention to any sort of cultural norms or rites of passage in the quest lines of Kezan and The Lost Isles. This is a staple common-denominator for every other race’s introduction to the game. They usually have a great deal of interest in how self-aware their people are of their collective values, that you as a player participate in their rituals, if only to send you off into the world never to forget what home is.
The last time we got new races was in the The Burning Crusade and, even then, the quests they delivered were arguably more present with this characteristic than with the original eight. Both the Blood Elves and Draenei actually spent time teaching you the importance of their active racial abilities. As diverse and refreshing as their environments, quests, and story-lines were for the time (and from one another) there was still a strong historical emphasis between the two. Their lore took front and center stage as much as their respective dilemmas.
The Goblins’ own self-interest is almost selfless in the way it benefits the overall player experience. There’s no teaching of their racial abilities, and there’s barely any recognition of the character-class you’ve chosen during your time on Kezan, your industrial homeland and the first half of a two-act introduction. Blizzard has grown increasingly liberal with putting you in over-the-top scenario’s amongst the more rudimentary tasks. Those moments have infested the new starting zones as well now.
To get away with this, they’ve employed swapping out your actions and abilities for an entirely new set that’s pre-determined, tightly constrained, but ridiculously more powerful. Whether you take control of a giant robot, ride on the back of a giant, or jump into an airborne vehicle to drop explosives all over an enemy fleet, these one-time events hurl a jolt of energy into the game’s pacing, but it seldom feels like WoW as you would know it.
Minutes after creating a Goblin, you’re already getting the usual chores. Collect this item, find this person, exterminate this nuisance. It’s an easy blemish to point the pimple-popping-wand at any MMO for, but recently it’s getting tougher as the genre matures. Need to go find something far off in the distance? Well, here’s a hotrod for that. Yes, you get the keys to your very own hotrod before you can barely level up for the first time. Without much warning or anticipation, the game hands over a test-drive to one of its most prized rewards: your very own mount. Your first task? Go find your friends and ride around town like you own the place. Suddenly this isn’t WoW anymore. It’s Grand Theft Auto.
It starts to make sense though: why you’re not being taught your class any more than you’re needed to–because frankly, you don’t need to. You’re a Goblin. You have sophisticated technology, money, and growing fame right at your doorstep. Why spend time casting spells when you can spend money living it up? “Time is money friend!” That they’ll certainly tell you all about, because you’re about to perform a coup on your “Trade Prince” Gallywix, the leader of the Goblins.
One of the first things you’ll learn before any permanent ability, or how to drive a car, is that the Trade Prince has made a lot of enemies. It just so happens that all of them are giving you the quests you need to progress through the Goblin campaign, and that they want you to take his place. Orchestrating a social, economic, and political uprising is about as complicated as any objective in WoW could get, but thankfully the gameplay doesn’t have to suffer the same congestion. If anything, it makes what you’d expect to be a convoluted storyline pretty streamlined.
There’s quite a few ways to experience the moments proceeding Deathwing’s re-emergence. For the Goblins of Kezan, it’s an erupting volcano racing down towards their entire civilization. Even evacuation manages to hold the player’s attention by having the final quest-chain act as a breadcrumb trail to safety and, shortly after, poverty. Long story short, the Trade Prince scams you into a one-way, life-savings only ticket to the slave-pens of his escape yacht. After getting caught in the cross-fire of an Alliance/Horde naval battle, safety turns to shipwreck. Suddenly this isn’t Grand Theft Auto anymore. It’s survival of the fittest.
Galliwyx conveniently behaves as a prime antagonist throughout, and is an almost entirely unsympathetic character. This runs into itself with the way his redemption is handled at the end of act two, which is clumsy and unconvincing. Within one chunk of dialogue, the player is expected to essentially forgive-and-forget ten levels of conflict, treason, and attempted homicide. It’s a damn crime is what it is. Getting to this point, however, is a lush, fun, and rather revelatory swashbuckling affair.
The Lost Isles maintain the Goblin palette, but turn up the color-saturation and swap out industry for a nearly untouched jungle. The soundtrack shifts too, evoking the same kind of scores you might recognize in Pirates of the Caribbean. As a suite, the isles are much larger than Kezan and seethe with a more traditional adventure. With some legitimate motivation to learn how to really shoot a gun, swing a sword, or hurl fireballs, The Lose Isles ease you back into a more familiar WoW without easing up on playful invention.
There’s a great balance of not having to suspend your disbelief and simply having fun. At first your friends need to eat, and nearby raptor eggs sound like the perfect meal. But, the eggs could be bigger, and the results could be tastier. One quest actually has you throwing an oversized egg, acquired by slaying a giant emergency cyborg-chicken gone AWOL, into a nugget generator. Another simply ends by sending you to a neighboring island, but instead of making you swim, one of the escape pods from your shipwreck is recycled into a one-time use goblin launcher. To make matters worse, lost survivors are being turned into zombies by a nearby primitive clan worshipping your favorite dragon. This is quickly fixed by cruising over their heads on fiery rocket-boots, sending them to a very fiery death. I can start to understand why Deathwing enjoys burninating the country-side so mercilessly: it’s really fun.
The Goblins never seem to stop designing and iterating with what they already have to work with. As a working designer who can appreciate complete insanity under these conditions, I’m laughing along with them the whole time. I get it: the Goblins are ridiculous, insatiable, and never know how to take themselves seriously. Then again, these are just fictional characters in a synthetic world; someone made them this way. Maybe this is Blizzard’s way of telling a comedy, and letting loose themselves.
Sarcasm and jokes make up probably fifty percent of the dialogue here. Drinking the Goblins’ inspiration-juice, Kaja’Cola, will make you spout out brilliant ideas such as, “What if we were to ORGANIZE crime? / Giant gnomes! No wait…tiny giants! / Recycling! But, for stuff that’s never been used before.” One “invention” in particular not only had me laughing out loud, but caught my attention as having a double-meaning: “Chocolate-flavored vanilla!”. Blizzard is well-aware that veterans of the original content know it better by the name Vanilla WoW, and this joke sums up exactly what Cataclysm is: chocolate-flavored vanilla WoW. I think they’re on to us.
Just before another volcano goes off and you find yourself being nudged along to the World of Warcraft where everyone else is, I took the time to read what else an NPC, Assistant Greely, had to say (Fig. 1, below). It pretty much explains everything.
“No one ever asks how stuff works. It’s just here, gimme that, I’m gonna blow stuff up. Or, don’t bore me with the details, just let me point and shoot. Or, worse yet, who cares how it works, is it a bigger explosion than last time?…”
This felt familiar, because it’s something I use to complain about regularly when receiving non-constructive criticism on my own designs, especially when it was a game. It’s a pleasant easter egg to stumble upon because it’s Blizzard venting, and besides waking up after the shipwreck, it was my favorite moment in the whole Goblin introduction. It gave the entire journey the perspective of a game designer: make it better, or someone else will. Sure, gamers aren’t expected to pay for games just to pat developers on the back, but that doesn’t change the fact that a human was behind virtually every decision to getting it there. It’s a breath of fresh air to see more and more human moments find their place in WoW, a cultural phenomenon that, without its players, has felt so rigid for so long.
The further I got into the Goblin introduction, the more I understood it at times as a thickly veiled metaphor for Blizzard’s obsessive process to creating and iterating gameplay, just as Inception disguises/expresses Christopher Nolan’s method to film-making. This isn’t just about Goblins losing their home, it’s about Blizzard reaffirming theirs.
Cataclysm is Blizzard’s success-story at getting away with the game-designer’s brand of organized crime. Each hotfix, patch, and expansion are by nature a response to the last, but also to the reactions players have made a hobby out of having. They’re learning to use their medium to say something back, and just not on troll-infested forum threads, nor by slinging the proverbial mud. Twelve-million and counting have had six years to learn how to pick a knife-fight with WoW’s maker. Like a true Goblin, Blizzard didn’t just bring a gun to it–they made a better one, and they’ll let you shoot it.