Blizzard has told Eurogamer that the Firelands raid the next tier of endgame raiding progression for the MMO will not appear in the next patch, 4.1, as it had previously planned.
In an interview at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, lead producer J. Allen Brack said that players were not sufficiently advanced through the raid content that shipped with third expansion Cataclysm in December to handle the challenge of Firelands. He also suggested that Blizzard was thinking of creating "smaller" content patches for World of Warcraft.
"We feel like the player base isn't really ready for the next raid yet," he said. "And that led to some changes where Firelands is now actually going to be in 4.2."
"Our plan is to package... features into smaller content updates and to release them as soon as possible, rather than wait and release larger updates more infrequently," Blizzard added in a statement.
Firelands is a raid encounter on the Elemental Plane of Fire in which players will once again face Ragnaros, a boss made famous by the Molten Core raid in "classic" WOW. At its BlizzCon fan convention last year, Blizzard said that Firelands would appear in patch 4.1.
Patch 4.1 will now offer "a dungeon revamp, as opposed to an entirely new tier of content with an entirely new raid," Brack said. It will add two new Heroic dungeons for five level 85 players: new versions of the troll dungeons Zul'Aman and Zul'Gurub, previously small raid encounters for 10 players or more at lower levels.
The increased difficulty of raiding and Heroic dungeons in Cataclysm has come as a shock to the WOW community after the less challenging raid content in Lich King. Brack says it was a "conscious decision".
"One of our goals before Cataclysm was to make it a little bit harder than for Lich King," he said. "We feel like players were really able to be very successful very quickly and looking back, the way we handled the itemisation, we feel like we've learned some lessons from.
"In terms of whether it's the right difficulty, that's something that we evaluate on a pretty regular basis. Things have happened and we'll do tweaks and things to make things easier," he said. Asked if he was confident Blizzard had pitched raid difficulty right, Brack laughed, "Never. We're never confident... But so far we think we made the right decision."
The decision to move Firelands to 4.2 was also motivated by a desire to move away from the "monolithic" content patches World of Warcraft has received recently, towards smaller updates, Brack said.
"Tom [Chilton, lead designer] and I actually had a talk in January which was like, you know, our patches are getting so huge and so monolithic compared to the old days when you could just say, 'Hey, we're adding weather to these zones, go have fun.' And that was cool. Or, 'Hey, here's this one regular five-person dungeon. Great, go have fun.'"
"And now we're talking about always doing a raid, always doing a dungeon, always doing some single-player quest content, always doing some kind of daily quest hub with every single patch. And actually that in combination with the difficulty is sort of what led to doing 4.1 as just a dungeon revamp, as opposed to an entirely new tier of content with an entirely new raid.
"That's definitely something we're talking about hey, it doesn't always have to be this huge monolith. It can be something just smaller."
Brack said that Blizzard was ready to listen to feedback. "I'm sure there'll be some grousing about the 4.1 decision, and if it ends up being the wrong decision, then we won't do it again, right? That's one of the nice things. We'll learn from this and make the right decision in 4.2."
After the interview, Blizzard gave Eurogamer the following statement about the decision to remove Firelands from patch 4.1.
"Patch 4.1 provides our players with access to the completely redesigned Zul'Aman and Zul'Gurub five-player dungeons, where they'll be able to experience challenging encounters featuring all-new boss mechanics, obtain updated epic-level loot, and possibly acquire rare mounts.
"One of our long-standing development goals is to release regular content updates for the community to enjoy. These updates are generally focused on introducing specific content, like a new raid or new gameplay features.
"Our plan is to package these features into smaller content updates and to release them as soon as possible, rather than wait and release larger updates more infrequently.
"The previously announced Firelands raid will be part of content update 4.2 which should come soon after 4.1.
"Our flexible approach to content updates allows us to release content like Zul'Aman and Zul'Gurub so that players will have new challenges to overcome (and loot to collect) until we're ready to unleash the Firelands.
"Our previous experience with content updates informed this decision. We feel like Call of the Crusade was released while raiders were still busy with Ulduar, which stamped out Ulduar raiding. We don't feel that Cataclysm needs a new raid tier just yet.
"Releasing an epic raid dungeon before its time would, in the words of Ragnaros himself, be 'too soon!'"
Brack indicated that patch 4.1 is roughly two months away. "We've started to put a build up on the PTR [Public Test Realm] so that players can take a look at it. Usually we're on the PTR for six to eight-ish weeks, plus or minus four weeks I would say. So that's probably where we are in terms of the development of 4.1."