World of Warcraft: Cataclysm is a uniquely ambitious expansion to an MMO, or to any kind of game, for that matter. Alongside the usual hefty suite of new content and features - a raised level cap, new endgame, two new races, new profession, guild levelling, new Battlegrounds - is a complete overhaul of the questing and levelling experience of the original game.
The architects of this revolution, then, are facing some unique challenges. Alex Afrasiabi, the lead world designer, isn't just crafting a new story; his team is remodelling Azeroth's geography, architecture and politics, planning new routes through the game, deciding where vintage quests need to be chucked out and replaced with new ones. He's messing with our memories.
Lead systems designer Greg Street - known to WOW acolytes as Ghostcrawler, the feared and revered "blue" who holds the power of nerf or buff over their class - is spending even more time swinging the axe. He's orchestrating a ruthless simplification of WOW's RPG system and restructuring the advancement path of every single class; he's even cutting features that weren't in the game yet, namely the Path of the Titans, a high-level customisation trail intended to be one of Cataclysm's headline draws.
You can read about the changes in detail in our hands-on impressions of Cataclysm, garnered from a day in Blizzard's Orange County offices earlier this week. Below, we ask Afrasiabi and Street what it's like to remake a world.
Eurogamer: One of the first things you showed us today was the new version of the Horde capital Orgrimmar. It was weird visiting a changed Orgrimmar - somewhere that's become almost like a home town for me over the last five years. Has it been painful to make some of the changes you've made to the world?
Alex Afrasiabi: It hasn't been painful. I think our intent has always been to make things better, more awesome, more fun, cooler.
You bring up Orgrimmar, it's an interesting example. Orgrimmar, for us, we were never fully happy with it. We went through several iterations of the old Orgrimmar, and at the end we really just ran out of time to make it cool. We thought it was OK, it was functional and it represented Orcs in a pretty good way, but it never let us fully stretch out and really make the kick-ass zone that we wanted to make.
That's what Cataclysm has really allowed us to do - it's to go back, no pain involved really, and take these places that we really wanted to give more time or attention to and just make them as awesome as they could be.
Greg Street: We do occasionally run into, "Oh, you can't remove that quest, that's my favourite quest, how can you get rid of that!" For a while, Hogger, the Gnoll in Elwynn Forest was gone, and people were like, "You can't remove Hogger!" So they stuck him back in. Linken's Boomerang in Un'Goro is gone, and players say, "That's an iconic quest, I love that quest, that was the only ranged weapon I can get for my Paladin."
Yeah, there's a lot of that. But we're trying to tap into that to some extent. The Cataclysm is supposed to be a little bit scary. You know, it's a big time of change, and so we want to make players curious, maybe even shock their system a little bit that in some cases things are so dramatic.
Eurogamer: Is there an equivalent to those kind of changes on the systems side?
Greg Street: Changing the talent trees has been pretty big, changing the way the stats work, we only have one rank of spells now. They feel minor to players that may not raid or high-level PVP a lot, but some of the buff and debuff systems, the dispel mechanics... There have definitely been some sacred cows that we've gone after that make some players upset and confused. But hopefully they'll understand we think it's for the best for the game and not just arbitrary change.
Eurogamer: Do you enjoy doing that a bit? Getting stuck into a system that everyone takes for granted and getting rid of it?
Greg Street: Yeah, it's kind of the bold move, it's one of the things I think that designers who are down in the trenches might not consider that that's even on the table, and so one of the joys as a lead designer is saying, "Let's get rid of this. Let's just cut it. Let's cut weapon skill." "What? You can't cut weapon skill, it works, and the combat mechanic depends on it!"
So it is fun that way. It shakes up the team a little bit too I guess, not in a malicious sense but it gets them kind of excited and thinking about different ways to handle things.