Four Point TWO SOON, EXECUTUS

There’s been a lot of recent talk about Firelands, otherwise known now as “4.2″. Not too long ago, it had a different number appended- “4.1″. Who knew one decimal could elicit such rage?

Those lamenting about raid burnout, face-to-desk-bashingly-difficult raid content, and other woes were looking forward to Firelands with sparkles in their eyes. Yes, the end boss now looked like a disproportionate midget, and sure, you could just call it “Molten Core 1.5: Now With 100% More Malfurion”, but it was a new tier of gear and a fresh injection of content.

It had new gear and encounters for raiders, new dailies to wipe our memories of Therazane and Tol Barad, and pushed the expansion’s storyline forward so we could see Deathwing by 3.3. It also touted a host of other features like a Looking for Guild interface, Guild Challenges, and other quality-of-life features. Plus, there were TWO MORE (recycled, but whatever) HEROIC DUNGEONS WITH IMPROVED LOOT?! Salvation from all angles!

And then Eurogamer released this GDC interview:

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.

Wait what?

Probably some junior developer still drunk from partying the previous night.

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.

Oh, it’s lead producer J. Allen Brack. You know, the guy at the top? The one funneling all project decisions through the ranks. *clenches fists in preparation for what’s next*

“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.

We’re… not ready for Firelands after 5 months worth of the same 3 raids? Maybe Eurogamer is just trollin’. It’s a bit early for April Fools, but whatever.

Then came the one-two punch. We got blue poster confirmation. Firelands was delayed and the current raid tier would persist. If 4.2 was the exit ramp to the next stage of our journey, we might as well still be packing our car with snacks in our garage. It felt like we were driving the final miles of 4.0, but in fact we hadn’t even started the car.

We did get our quality-of-life improvements (like the previously mentioned Guild Challenges, LFGuild interface, and countless class & gameplay tweaks) and 2 rehashed troll instances. But for many (Vanilla players especially), that’s small consolation for keeping most of the player base in raids they’ve been bashing their heads against for months. If Cataclysm didn’t seem like the expansion of recycled content before, it sure did now.

The problem here is that Firelands was pushed back (while re-tuned content is being thrust forward as pittance) at a time when the general consensus about Cataclysm is “too grindy, too much of the same, too stressful“. Instead of providing more content to take our minds off the been-at-it-for-months grind, we’re being told to keep going at it for even longer.

In an MMO not far away, RIFT is heralding accolades for being “WoW 1.5″. It’s fresher, packed with epic PUG-friendly game mechanics, full of convenient gameplay features, and packs a flexible talent system. If you believe the hype, Trion re-skinned WoW and deleted the parts that sucked. I can’t begin to tell you how pleasant an effect this has on Cataclysm subscription renewals (see figure below).

Cataclysm Projected Subscriptions

The state of the expansion and the arrival of competitors is taking a massive toll on the community’s’ perceptions of Cataclysm. Here’s just a few current issues:

  • Heroic difficulty is as difficult as it is unforgiving. For once, bringing slackers to any Heroic raid will spell near-certain failure for your progression night. Cataclysm Heroic raids separate the wheat from the chaff more vigorously than any previous expansion, and many “hardcore” guilds are having hard times adjusting to this new expectation of skill.
  • Players are still adapting to the seismic difficulty shift. Heroic dungeons are soul-crushingly difficult until you’re outfitted in 359′s. The first tier of raiding is as difficult (or more difficult) as some of WotLK’s hardest fights. In short, you truly must work to earn your drops.
  • Cataclysm is not casual-friendly, period. Everything has been tweaked and tooled to punish those “doing it wrong”. Suddenly, what used to be recreational play smashes your face in unless you step up your game or someone carries you.
  • Old-school farming is back in style. Thanks to raid lockouts keeping epic drops extremely limited and Heroic dungeons only providing gradual progress towards epics (through Valor Points), if you want that best-in-slot, you better be prepared to knock out weeks’ worth of daily quests and dungeon runs.
  • Guilds are being faced with burnout and frustration reminiscent of the lowest points of WotLK. Many were expecting Cataclysm to be a breath of fresh air from the cold Northrend winds, but with everything being ramped up a notch people are finding the game more frustrating than fun. Instead of resetting the difficulty curve for the new expansion and ramping it back up, we’re picking up where Heroic Lich King 25 left off. This is leading to burnout and frustration, thus shrinking the player pool, thus causing gquits and recruitment issues, and finally forcing guilds (25-man raiding guilds especially) to deteriorate in the face of insurmountable logistical demands.
  • There is no “higher tier” gear to trivialize present content. Just like ICC/Halion, players must cope with the fact there’s no impending ilvl increase to make fights easier. This means progress walls will continue to block progress, and raids will either improve or implode. Guilds must now combat bosses, burnout, and morale.

These are just a few of the factors impacting this expansion. Firelands was primed to breathe new life into a game many are walking away from. Now 4.2′s barely visible on the horizon. Players are noticing this, and many aren’t opting to stick around during the buffer patch that will be 4.1.

There’s hope in Brack’s words. He mentions smaller and more frequent content updates. We might be stuck thinking in the old mindset- the one where Blizzard releases infrequent content patches 3 times per expansion. If that philosophy’s going out the window, we might be seeing 4.2 soon enough to stave off the burnout atrophy.

Is it really TOO SOON (EXECUTUS)? Probably. With only 34 25-man guilds and 2 10-man guilds in the world done with this tier (as of this writing), Firelands is probably better off being released later. But unless the majority of WoW players can embrace the current raiding-is-finally-serious philosophy ushered in this expansion, it might not matter if Firelands ever gets released since raiders will have long since quit and casual players will still be wiping to Zul’Aman 2.0.

There is a light at the end of this, but right now it’s a dim speck.

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