Blizzard's Lead Level Designer on World of Warcraft, Cory Stockton, has stated that Cataclysm's development began before Wrath shipped (there's a surprise ...) but it's obviously futher along than many might have thought and then Mike Morhaime hesitantly confirmed the game was slated to be released in 2010 along with StarCraft II. So when exactly could we expect to see the third World of Warcraft expansion?
The fact that something, even if it's just the Goblin and Worgen starter areas, is available to play is a sign that the game is farther along in development than Wrath was when it was announced. However it is, Wrath which may well determine when we see Cataclysm. Less than a year after its release, we are nearly at the end of Arthas's story, with patch 3.2.2 due to hit in November to tie in with the game's fifth anniversary celebrations. I cannot believe patch 3.3 (which will include Icecrown Citadel) won't be be released before 2010. In fact I'm guessing it will hit in time for Christmas.
Last year, we had Wrath arrive just in time for the holidays and while I doubt Cataclysm will launch before 2010, it seems likely that another mini-expansion sized patch will be released before the holiday season, or in the early months of 2010 at the latest. Blizzard have confirmed, unlike The Burning Crusade, that Wrath will only have three large patches in the storyline, with Icecrown Citadel and the confrontation with Arthas ending the expansion storyline. So, this effectively leaves us waiting, lingering in anticipation until the new expansion hits. Even if Icecrown Citadel is epic, a massive raid which will tax even Ensidia and Vodka, it will not last forever. Indeed all of the Wrath endgame - with the exception of Algalon - was beaten in days, a drastic difference from raids like Black Temple, Gruul and Karazhan.
Even if patch 3.3 were to launch in the earliest months of 2010, there's no way Blizzard would wait too long before providing us with new content. Boredom means players will be more inclined to drift away from WoW into other MMOs like Aion or find their eyes turning to other upcoming titles like Star Wars: The Old Republic. Yes they might do a mini content patch post 3.3, something like patch 3.2.2 with its surprise boss Onyxia, or they might even do something like Echoes of Doom (patch 3.0), introducing some of Cataclysm's content a little early just to tide people over for another month or so.
The average amount of time between patches seems to be around 3-4 months, and that's actually quite a short time. I'm not denying that revamping Azeroth, that creating an entirely new geography for this much-loved world is a difficult and time consuming task. But it's probably a lot easier to just recreate Azeroth nearly from scratch than it would be to make the environment able to support flying mounts. This has been the most requested feature since The Burning Crusade, but was also one of the most graphically challenging and time-consuming things for Blizzard to look at. As the old world will cease to exist come Cataclysm, this is no longer a problem. Yeah, Blizzard are completely transforming the world we know and love. No phasing, no ability to go back to the Barrens or Auberdine of our youth's. It's sort of scary but it also frees them from the restrictions of the classic world.
The trailer, which was premiered on Friday, also offers a hint or two for us to unravel. Rather than being set after we kill Arthas, it acknowledges that the fight is still in progress and creates a parallel storyline which will go unnoticed until Deathwing's eruption back into the world. Yeah, we were so busy up in Northrend we totally forgot to keep one eye back home. That's kind of an epic fail on the parts of the people of Azeroth.
However it's a great idea that breaks away from the formula which was used in both the original game and The Burning Crusade as well as Wrath. It goes like this: we killed something really, really big and then had a period of calm before the next Big Bad threatens Azeroth. This is no longer going to be the case, the trailer suggests Deathwing might sneak back into Azeroth while we're still busy in the Frozen North. In game time, this could mean, there is no respite for us. We go from downing Arthas to dealing with yet another insane Dragon Aspect. In real world time, however, there's definitely going to be some gap between the end of Wrath and the beginning of Cataclysm.
On top of all that, Blizzard have told us how they plan to release expansions every 12-14 months and we're nearly due. The raising of the level cap to 85 over 90 also suggests this expansion is becoming the expansion version of the patches we've been treated to over the last year -- the boundaries are blurring more than ever before. I believe they will miss the holiday season, but my gut is telling me that we could see the expansion as early as Q2 2010. Disagree with me if you wish -- after all, it's my gut -- and yet there are several factors which hint to a shorter time between announcement and launch, which is why I believe 2010 will be the Year of the Cataclysm.