Game Pile: Remembering Cataclysm

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World of Warcraft Classic has happened. A product I never imagined would be worth doing has been released and is successful, and has maintained its user base enough to warrant being continued. And so, Burning Crusade classic servers were started up, picking up from the Classic servers and carrying them over, while leaving Classic intact, and Wrath of the Lich King servers, picking up, and carrying them over and leaving Burning Crusade intact.

It’s a really interesting model of how to present a game that is seen typically as being presented in eras; you get to play through the history of World of Warcraft, and actually experience it from moment to moment in its lifetime.

A question hovers, though, about whether or not there will be… more Classic.

Will there be a server advancing onwards from Wrath of the Lich King Classic? The developers have stated that they’re aware that there’s a sharp break between it of ‘old’ WoW and ‘new’ WoW, in the next expansion, Cataclysm… and with that, I saw voices in the community talking about how it would be fine to continue on and do Pandaria Classic, and Legion Classic and that they were even looking forward to that…

but

They’d like it if the developers just skipped Cataclysm entirely.

From there then flows a conversation into a vocal, audible community sentiment that Cataclysm was a terrible expansion and it wasn’t well liked. Even some people I’ve seen talking about Cataclysm do so with a conciliatory ‘well, it wasn’t so bad because-‘ It is, in the community space of World of Warcraft fandom, ‘the first bad one,’ or ‘the worst expansion.’

I can’t really address the meme. I can’t talk to the community at large; I can’t tell you why everyone else thinks what they think, and it’d be foolish to try to in this context. I can just tell you about me, about myself…

… and how much I loved Cataclysm.

The Story

Also, this was all twelve years ago. I don’t have footage of me playing the game, so this is going to be a bit more ‘podcast and slide show’ style.

Cataclysm wasn’t my first experience of World of Warcraft. I was a seasoned MMO player of much time from City of Heroes, which I liked a lot, and I wasn’t very interested in World of Warcraft. A beloved friend nonetheless stood on the other side of the conversation – he was an avid fan of World of Warcraft and wanted to share the experience with me. During Burning Crusade, we played a fixed group of characters through the game, and did levelling quests to get from dungeon to dungeon between the sessions. I liked the dungeons, but didn’t really enjoy the levelling content; I found the lack of control I had over the kind of character I was playing and the combat system of the time really awful.

I did play a Shaman, a Paladin, and a Druid to some modest level range in this period. I remembered liking the way that druids could shapeshift, I liked being able to do big pulls in dungeons like the Scarlet Monastery, I liked the way that my Paladin worked on a sort of break point; if enough things were attacking me, and I healed on attacks, and I had a big enough cloud of things, then I would gain life, which created this wonderful kind of tension, building up a cloud of enemies, then burning through them but trying to spread the damage around. I liked that game experience!

And then we finished the Scarlet Monastery quests and it was time to go do quests until I unlocked another fun experience. That wasn’t ideal, and the grinding and a lot of inconvenient things I disliked in the game kind of piled up on one another, so I wound up falling out of the game at one point.

When Cataclysm came around, the friend invited me to play again; we got copies of Cataclysm, and I… played it every single day for about a full year.

The Timeline

Any history is going to leave stuff out. I’m just going to explain to you the arc of Cataclysm as I experienced it.

First, boom, a dragon bursts out of the ground and messes things up. I’m told he’s important but at the time I figured you didn’t need to do a lot to explain this giant shovel-faced dragon that could rip apart the world with the name Deathwing. I assumed the lore was spray-painted on a van somewhere.

In the first content patch of Cataclysm, the whole world got changed and the levelling experience was smoothed out. Back when these zones’ quests were first designed, the tools available for making quests were simpler and the flavour text was meant to mix it up; so you’d be told to go to this location and investigate disappearing barley (by killing a bunch of quillboar) and defend the farmer’s boundaries (by killing a bunch of quillboar) and find a missing locket (by killing a bunch of quillboar). By the time Cataclysm launched, the quests were being designed by people who’d made all sorts of site-specific quests in Wrath of the Lich King and suddenly you’re doing things like quests to take a motorbike and do sick jumps with it, or to kidnap a bandit so you could interrogate him later, or uh, kill a bunch of quillboar.

But the point is there was a lot of gameplay variety, which also meant you had to pay a bit more attention to the flavour text because quests sometimes had an extra step in their progress. A lot of dungeons were updated and simplified, and you got to look at maps while you were inside them! Dungeon quests weren’t these secret things you had to squirrel around in cities or distant locations to find (or, more realistically, look up on a wiki), they were typically around the dungeon itself.

Then I hit a high enough level to start on the ‘end game’ content, across my cloud of alts, and that meant it was time to check out the New Cataclysm Dungeons. In the new content, Cataclysm had

  • Blackrock Caverns, where you raid another part of blackrock mountain, free a giant monster and chase him around murdering cultists of the Twilight Hammer.
  • Stonecore, where you dive into the heart of an elemental plane of earth and fight cultists and a bunch of corrupted earth elementals, including famous party-breaker Ozruk.
  • Grim Batol, where you liberate dragons, and fly through doing bombing runs on all the mobs you have to fight through on the way to kill a bunch of cultists, culminating in a fight with a Cthulhu monster that’s trying to corrupt baby dragon eggs.
  • The Lost City of the Tol’Vir, where you find a citadel of Tol’vir (like, lion centaurs) who have been corrupted by a charismatic cult leader working for Deathwing.
  • the Throne of Tides, where you follow where a friend was captured, fight through an evil queen, her lovecraftian backup, then rescue your mind-controlled friend only in time to have a kaiju fight with a giant octopus, setting up a plot point that uh, ten years later, seems to have been dropped.
  • The Vortex Pinnacle where you fight magically corrupted kings of wind way up high in the air where you can get knocked off.
  • The Halls of Origination, where you chase a cult into a great big Blow Up The Planet Machine that’s been sitting idle, fighting your way through temple defenses and eventually saving the world. Kinda.

Then, at 85 when you got access to Heroic content, two other classic dungeons got overhauled and given Heroic modes:

  • Shadowfang Keep, where you now had to fight a bunch of creepy Forsaken that had overtaken the formerly werewolf-ridden fortress near Gilneas.
  • The Deadmines, where you fought the long-lost daughter of the boss from the first version of the Deadmines along with her new crew.

These dungeons were renowned for being hard. Oh, not on normal – but on Heroic they were famously difficult. So much so that this is when Blizzard instituted what for a time, we called Tank Baggies – things to encourage more tanks to queue up, even if they’d already done their one Valor Point heroic queue of the day.

I tanked a lot in this expansion. I almost exclusively tanked. And I got a lot of baggies.

When I look back on these dungeons, the thing that stands out in my memory is how many of them were questions of methods. Like, I didn’t need to know what your class was or how it worked to be able to explain to you the thing that ‘this boss did’ that made it hard to defeat. It was usually some combination of avoid standing in this thing, make sure these adds die near the boss, or make sure they die away from the boss. Very few of the problems of these bosses was a question of what was, at the time, considered ‘being good at the game’ per se – players weren’t being asked to make amazing DPS checks, and most of the bosses worked on a predictable, looping pattern. Doing well at a boss was usually a question of how many times you went through the pattern, with only a few having something you might consider an enrage or soft enrage.

Then we got, on my birthday, the next patch, The Rise of the Zandalari. Zandalari trolls had been an obscure neutral faction back in Classic but now they were here, bringing back old remnants of the troll empire, and they took two Burning Crusade raids, Zul’Aman and Zul’Gurub and made them into hard mode only, heroic dungeons and

They

were

GREAT.

These two dungeons were originally raids with timers on them, and the new forms tried to keep some of that raid feeling to them. They were both big, with open air zones, neutral enemies and even some oddball mini-bosses hanging around that could drop interesting optional loot. They were very much spaces. I have memories that you could mount up in them, but I can’t prove that now, so I may just have an oddball memory haunting me there.

Zul’Aman was about rescuring hostages before they were sacrificed; once you started the dungeon, the gates opened, and you had to fight your way through to the bosses, then take them down in sequence. If you did it really fast, there was a cool bear mount available. It was lore on the forums that this mount was only available to raiders, or other high level players forming fixed groups when heavily geared.

I got mine on a pick-up group in the dungeon finder.

It was the fifth time I’d seen it drop in a pick-up group in the dungeon finder.

Zul’Gurub had this looping path of a dungeon, a circle around a center; you defeated the bosses around it in one order or the other, and then you went into the center to defeat the final boss. The most obvious boss to do first was High Priest Venoxis, a real messy boss fight that included, amongst other things, an actual maze. Venoxis was sort of this iconic example to me of Cataclysm boss design: If you knew what he was going to do, and could keep it straight, he was very easy. If you didn’t, it was a terrifying experience of ‘oh god now what’. Venoxis was so much bound to his patterns and rules that when pick-up groups went down fighting him, I could solo the boss down from around half health on a Paladin or Death Knight, just because most of what he did followed rules and I knew what to do about them.

I still think of these dungeons fondly. I know they were hated, I know people have every reason to want them changed. But in my mind, I’ll always have these warm memories of stopping before a boss fight, asking people if they knew what to do, and if anyone didn’t say yes, just doing a quick run down, to make sure we were on top of it. I took players who were afraid of failing at all in these dungeons and showing them that they could do it, and that there was no shame in trying and failing, either. That when we knew how things were meant to go, we could compensate for mistakes, and that these unstoppable bosses were doable.

And also the occasional times when we got a really good, very confident non-asshole player, we sometimes got rocket fuelled. The first time I saw a Zul’Aman bear mount, it was because we had a Moonkin and a Healer from a raiding guild; I made a point to check the other two players’ confidence, and we still stopped at points to explain things to those two players…

… and then when we started moving again, that moonkin and healer were doing everything to make a fast run faster. Interrupts and pre-emptive control and spreading dots. It was honestly humbling; they were perfectly nice, but it showed me how very good raider players were than the typical pick up group on the raid finder… and also how many different ways there were to make the game easier and better. I could throw myself into truly absurd pulls because I knew they had me.

Man.

That was such a fun expansion.

First time I finished Zul’Aman, by the way? I got dumpstered by the boss. Repeatedly. One of the group even called in a friend to try and take the role off me – and I politely refused, because I absolutely wanted to make sure I got it right. And they had the patience to bear with me, and we did it, and after that, that boss mechanic didn’t stop me again. It all got easier, once I understood it.

Following the rise of the Zandalri, we got the Firelands, which rather than bringing new sick Cataclysm dungeons (boo), we got to see the Firelands raid, which I never did when it was current, and a whole questing zone which gave cool trainable pets and daily quests, and some factions to learn about. The quests were fun and often involved some funny mechanic, like chucking bears onto trampolines. They also made good gold, and I liked that.

The final expansion of Cataclysm was the Dragon Soul raid, which… I dunno. There were three more dungeons;

  • Well Of Eternity, where you go back in time and fight in the battle with the Burning Legion
  • Hour of Twilight, where you travel with Thrall through an excepted area of the Dragonblight and fight some guys
  • End Time, where you fought alternate dark future versions of various leaders, then got a big goofy boss battle with the corrupted time dragon where you could use your best cooldowns over and over

If the enthusiasm dropoff is obvious, yeah, it is. Where the Zandalari dungeons had all these tight mechanical experiences and boss encounters where knowing things made the fight easier, these time-based dungeons were kind of… just… easier? They were less difficult, and also they had a lot of waiting in them; letting Thrall wander along, letting cutscenes play out, that kind of thing that pulled all the action to a dead halt.

In that same patch, we got transmogrification, void storage, and the Raid Finder. And that’s… as best I can remember it, and verify those memories through Wowpedia and Wowhead.

What About The Good Bits?

If I had to point to the ‘good bits’ of Cataclysm, there’s a lot of things. I liked pretty much every bit of the PVE experience for three patches running; I liked the daily quest hub of the Firelands and the tabard system for grinding reputations. I liked feeling like it was always worth tanking dungeons for my friends, because they were often after experience or reputations or quests or something in dungeons, and I kept on going back.

To this day there are fights where I intuitively feel like I remember the timing and sequencing of them; how to get past Ozruk, how to survive the Festering Prince, or the strat for the praying cultists. You know, all those things that made the dungeons dangerous and the cheeky ways to make them easier. Cataclysm Dungeons were regarded as fantastically difficult, but they just felt so good to me, both in their aesthetics and in their challenge. For the most part, these were dungeons you solved; the biggest challenge was silence. If you could just ask people ‘hey, do you know what to do here’ they would almost always be able to work it out, and the only questions of Sick Parses or Great Skeelz were about how fast things got done, not on whether or not they got done at all.

Now, let’s just say as a detail here is this is a point at which I was unemployed and probably, not in the best mental health in general. The fact I could log in to something that people around me were complaining about being too hard and demonstrate my mastery over it gave me a perverse sort of excitement, especially since the main skill it was asking me to express was something that I found initially very hard. If you knew me before Cataclysm odds are good you probably knew me as just more of an asshole than I was through it.

This was also during a period where people were getting hit by moderators for abusive behaviour and I knew that even if I was angry, I’d get in trouble if I swore at the wrong person and got reported. Which meant that my brilliant strategy was, rather than yell at people or tell them to improve, was to – ironically – check and see if they were okay, and inform them. I thought it was funny! I thought it was funny, because get a load of this, I’m being polite, and I’m being kind and I’m explaining things patiently and I’m protecting the members of the team who aren’t being buttholes, and they don’t realise I’m doing this because I’m a better smug asshole than they are.

It was weird, because I was, I know, basically gamifying social intelligence. If I could communicate respectfully, within the rules with people, I could prove that I was better than people – I could win social engagements, and there was something like a score at the end of it. And so… I made a point of being polite, of being patient, of trying to focus on being good at the dungeons in a way that everyone could get along.

… and uh

Basically, I pretended to be thoughtful and patient for long enough that I actually noticed that’s what I was really doing.

I liked the questing experience; it was my first time I really got the idea of quest stacking, where I went to a location, scooped up a bunch of tasks, then charted my way around the map to look for dense spots of activity, swooping down, doing the things you need to do, then saddle up and fly on. The world was spreading vistas, with these periods of bright excitement interrupted by chill wind-down. Most of the time, this meant that when I landed in a group of enemies, I had cooldowns to fire off, blasting through mobs with my coolest toys, and that meant the combat encounters were often as much about making sure I had a clean escape as well.

And plus, some of the mechanics were so exciting to me. I understand at this point that Warriors were perhaps overpowered, but I didn’t really appreciate it until I tried playing one with some combination of a charge, a bleed, and an AOE attack that spread the bleed. I stayed up all night one night, and took a Worgen from level 1 to something like level 60. The records are fuzzy in my head, but it was mostly this non-stop rolling blur of heirloomed gear rocketing me between knots of enemies, then running away to leave the group behind me to bleed, while Victory Rush kept me alive. I don’t know if it was fair, but it was fun.

I understand Blizzard didn’t like this in future expansions – they wanted to curtail world flying because it made it too easy to avoid the spaces between ‘important’ content, and made it so world PVP was less common, but I really enjoyed the experience it gave me. Big, exciting fights in dense areas, then a quick getaway and a moment to breathe and sort out my bags while I went to the next thing.

The world revamp and dungeons revamp took a lot of things that were pointedly and deliberately annoying and made them interesting. I’d done Shadowfang Keep once before, and the new dungeon advancing that story was also really cool.

I liked the new races, er, which is to say, I liked the Worgen and I couldn’t remember the other one when I first wrote this paragraph. I liked Worgen and the way their narrative felt, where if you didn’t know the historical lore (which is not very good), you mostly got thrown head-first into a story about people who were traumatised being re-traumatised and having a material way to demonstrate their trauma. I thought it was cool to have stories about people trying to pick on little old ladies and getting their faces eaten. I liked Genn Greymane as this sad king who’d lost an heir and a kingdom all at once.

Then there’s Transmogrification, which was a Cataclysm feature. It was a big deal — we suddenly had a way to customise our appearances, and a whole lot of content got turned from ‘see it once, forget about it forever’ into potential avenues for character customisation. Your character wasn’t defined any more by the level of content you were doing and your class and spec, but suddenly you could mix and match pieces to express an identity, and it’s embarrassing that that was a thing the game introduced eight years after it started.

When I think about Cataclysm, I think about this sequence of patches, where the forums were full of people saying this is too hard, and people are too mean, and I remembered doing the content easily, and being nice at the same time. I don’t think I was doing something miraculous: I think I was just learning the power of communication in complex game states.

Is there stuff I didn’t like? Sure! I wasn’t very interested in the Raid Finder. I never used it in Cataclysm and it wasn’t until Mists of Pandaria I even tried it. The last three dungeons, End Time, Well Of Eternity and Hour of Twilight didn’t do anything for me, and since they were the main thing that showed up in dungeon finder rotation… that’s about when I slowly… stopped playing.

I’d log on, gather some herbs, do some archaeology… and then find something else to do, in another game, with other people. Slowly, but surely, I drifted away from the game.

Conclusion

World of Warcraft is a strange thing to talk about because we’ve very much become used to talking about videogames as discrete products, as things that you buy and which can be examined within a boundary of their experience. But World of Warcraft is a game that launched in 2004 and has been continuously played and updated since then, with each iteration taking on a new form, and making new demands. But there are people who played the game, and whose experience and memories are shaped by their life there.

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. The experience of World of Warcraft is not a timeline; it’s a map, with territory and regions spread out, in varying sizes and scales, caught in different times and memories. I’ve never played Legion onwards; never seen the borrowed power systems, never seen the World of Warcraft of the past six years.

World of Warcraft is a game, sure; but when we talk about it, it’s talking about a culture — a set of signifiers and meanings we relate to one another. For me, the signifiers of what mattered to me were dungeons where I learned how to be kind to strangers in a way I hadn’t really considered, and I developed as a person because of it. I made a bunch of characters in it that I love, even if they have no home any more.

I can’t tell you why other people hate Cataclysm. It would be foolish to try and convince you they’re wrong. They’re other people, they’re over there, and they’re entirely 100% legit in expressing their feelings about the expansion and how it affected them!

The only person I can speak for is myself.

I really liked it. And I want that memory, that little candle about something that means something to me, to be lit, even if it does not glow bright. The game I loved is gone and I miss it, but it’s okay.

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