14 Sep 2010

The Impending Release

There’s currently a lot of theorycrafting about the upcoming release of Cataclysm. Almost all commentators are agreed that it’s going to be out soon, but none of us quite agree on when exactly it’ll happen. Add to it the amount of work that still needs to be finished in the current beta, and you begin to wonder if it’ll be released this year at all.

The gauntlet has been thrown down by MMO-Champion, who are now predicting a November 2 release date. It’s a fair prediction as well: patch 4.0 has just hit the PTR servers, bringing with it the new spells and talent trees that are a core part of the Cataclysm changes. Never mind the new levelling content and dungeons – the PTR should give players an immediate feel for the mechanics of their class.

One of the pre-expansion events has also made it onto the live servers. Operation Gnomeregan and the Echo Isles quests are now active, being a clear mark that the expansion is approaching. It’s new content, but only of a sort – the events take only half an hour to complete, making them more of a light snack rather than a feast of new stuff for players.

Living On Crunch Time

When any software project moves closer to it’s targeted release date, developers move into something known as ‘the crunch’. This is the season of long work hours, weekend working and even sleeping at the office just to ensure that a game is released on time. For Blizzard, that window is likely to be between Blizzcon (October 22nd-23rd) and Thanksgiving (November 25th).

That gives them about a month of flexibility in order to accommodate any last minute slippage. Even so, the project planners and forecasters aren’t going to be able to put an accurate date on it until roughly a month before it’s due to hit the shelves. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t have a date until Blizzcon.

Progress Bar

Looking at the current beta build, there’s clearly a ton of stuff to be done. When you look at the sheer scale of stuff that needs to be finished, it makes you wonder how it can all be completed inside of two months.

  • Archaeology isn’t finished, although it’s had a good first pass
  • Many other professions are still to be implemented beyond 450 skill.
  • Glyphs have had a first pass, but still need tuning.
  • Overall player and creature damage/healing output still needs a pass through. Some classes are still severely underperforming to the point where it becomes hard to quest.
  • Zones like Uldum and Tol Barad don’t have quest rewards and require itemisation.
  • There’s no raid content yet

This is on top of fixing bugs, finishing the old-world quest re-purposing (zones like Silithus and Winterspring still need a sweepthrough) and listening and responding to feedback from beta testers. Oh, and the feedback from the 4.0 PTR, any remaining pre-Cataclysm events and so on. This is a lot of work for two months.

Forward Planning

I understand where Larisa from the Pink Pigtail Inn is coming from. She’s asking for a date in order to wake people up from the limbo they’ve been sitting in. Her observations about guilds on raiding breaks and players facing indecision are all spot on. She’s also right when it comes to motivating players to finishing that ‘to do’ list. Want to get Loremaster, Kingslayer, Death’s Demise? Better get to it then, because time’s ticking!

More than this, a lot of players try to organise their time around expansions. I’ve planned holiday around both previous expansions, just to make sure I had time to enjoy them completely before heading back to work. For many of us, booking time off requires notice. Without a date from Blizzard, we’re playing guesswork with our holiday time, with planning family stuff, the whole caboodle.

Tracking Timelines

The biggest question I’m guessing that most people have is when things will start landing on live servers. From there, it’s just a case of mapping things out. Based on the way things are shaping up at the moment, here’s my current guess of when things will land.

  • Echo Isles/Operation: Gnomeregan is now live
  • Patch 4.0/Prelude Event – Oct 26th. Announced at Blizzcon
  • Cataclysm release November 12th – 17th. Announced at Blizzcon
  • Rebalancing Patch (4.1) – December 14th or Jan 11th

Why a rebalancing patch? Simple really – there have been an awful lot of changes, both as a result of removing spell ranks and redoing the talent trees, and by changing mob damage and hitpoints. I’m not expecting these figures to be balanced by the time Cataclysm is released, despite the feedback they’re getting from the players. There’s simply too much for the core development team to focus on right now, meaning that a lot of tuning and testing will need to happen post-launch.

Where this places some classes is fairly difficult. In terms of post-80, cloth casters in general and fire/arcane mages in particular are struggling to even be able to quest. Simply put, the damage they output isn’t enough to take down an equivalent level mob before it kills them. Holy paladins can no longer keep up with healing groups where AoE damage is occurring. These are the kind of things that need to be fixed this side of launch, before chunks of the playerbase become disaffected.

Mitigation Strategies

Right now, I’m planning to take some holiday in November and have some dates ‘pencilled in’. This’ll at least give me some flexibility to be online when the game finally hits the shelves sometime in November.

As for my fire mage? Well, I have a dualspec, so I might push him into Frost for levelling and keep him as Fire for instancing, although that’s also up for debate. I’m also quietly levelling an Elemental shaman on the side – the skills are very similar to a mage, plus you have self-rez and healing thrown in. Add the mail armour and you have a class that should be able to level successfully in Cataclysm. If cloth classes are a write-off despite the feedback that’s already been given, I’ll at least have some options before the inevitable patch comes out.

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