14 Jun 2010

Under the Hood

Spoiler alert: In-depth discussion of the planned changes to Cataclysm, primarily focusing on mechanics and core engine changes, leveling experience and endgame experience. All information here is public knowledge unless specified.

Over the weekend an avalanche of news came out about how development on Cataclysm is progressing. In an interesting change the majority of information was shared through a series of interviews rather than through blue posts on the official Blizzard forums (although there are some follow-ups). The removal of Path of the Titans and Guild talent trees are the two big items, along with the changes to Inscription and Archaeology.

What’s interesting is the overhaul the core game engine is receiving in order to make the overall experience better. One of the Ghostcrawler interviews mentions that the game was only expected to last for two or three years. Now they’re not just looking at the capability they need for Cataclysm but also for future expansions and development. In another interview he mentions that the revised game engine will have a number of hooks that can be adjusted, allowing for individual spells and abilities to be fine-tuned much more precisely.

What does this mean? Hopefully it’ll get classes to the stage where individual talent trees will be on an even level, so for example Fire, Frost and Arcane mages should be very close together. You’ll probably still get an “optimal” spec, but the differences between the three should be much smaller. It should also mean there’s less reliance on random-number-generation – something that the Fire tree suffers from immensely.

The problem with building a game engine is that it takes a lot of time and careful planning to pull it all together – especially something as complex as Warcraft. It’s also a problem that doesn’t scale well as you throw additional resources at it – as you scale up a programming team you can easily lose focus on the goal unless you have very tight project management. Having to put a large amount of your coding and design effort into bringing an old, creaking engine up to date is also going to pull them away from generating new content for the expansion.

The end result though is that most of the hard work won’t be visible to the player, at least not initially. It’s like changing stuff under the hood of a car, replacing the engine and upgrading the shock absorbers. It’s still the same car and works in the same way, it just remains unseen unless you flip the lid open and take a look inside.

It should however creep into the game through subtle ways, one of which being the revamped glyph system. In essence, being able to provide additional hooks into the spellcasting (or perform ability) process means that you have greater control over how they can be adjusted. Part of the change to glyphs includes providing a “middle tier” between powerful spell changes and basic cosmetic or remove reagent requirement ones. This middle tier is going to rely on the additional hooks to perform the subtle tweaks to abilities, so that the situational stuff can truly be situational and not incredibly overpowered or ridiculously weak.

There’s also scope for more interesting racial abilities, item bonuses and so on. You might find that items have properties that would work like a glyph, providing unique interactions with the spell casting pipeline in ways we haven’t seen before. It also means that we could get to the stage where an item does different things depending on the class or spec of the character using it.

Of course this additional complexity is going to be a nightmare for one team of people – the theorycrafters. As spells become tweakable in more ways, so the models used to predict their behaviour become more complex. if you think the guys with their spreadsheets and simulators have it bad now, imagine how bad things could get for them in the expansion?

In essence though it feels that in order to get at all the expansion’s content, you’re going to need to roll alts. Both Cory Stockton and Tom Chilton have commented on the amount of new quests that are being sunk into the game in order to sort out the level kinks. Improved crafting profession itemisation should also help, particularly around Inscription. If you’ve ever leveled a mage you’ll understand the frustrations around getting offhand items, rings and trinkets at the lower levels.

What does all this mean for me as a player? Larisa says that all she wants from Cataclysm is good raiding and a good guild, and I can appreciate that. But a hangover from my single-player days is that I want stuff to do in the game – zones to explore, quests to complete and characters to progress. I currently don’t feel that I’ll get that on my main character, and will have to roll an alt if I’m going to truly explore all the changes that have been brought in. Whether it’s a Worgen Mage or a Gnome Priest, I feel it’s going to be restarting that gets me the most out of this impending expansion.

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