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The Smart Kids -- or, why Cataclysm failed to impress

Anne Stickney

I was a smart kid. You remember those kids from school who were always the first to turn a test in and the ones to get the best grades? The ones who never seemed to put any effort into studying but always managed to get an A? That was me. You'd think that being a smart kid would make life incredibly easy, but it did exactly the opposite. Of course you had the endless students who hated you or made fun of you because you were smart, but there was something much harder to deal with than that.

See, in public schools (in America, at least), teachers generally teach at the speed of the slowest kid in class. This is absolutely appropriate, because you don't want anyone to fall behind. For the slowest kid, this meant that subjects were presented in a way that they could understand, and they'd learn the lessons even if it took a little extra time. But for the smartest kid in the class, it meant that classrooms were places of exquisite torture where information flowed at a snail's pace, and most of the information presented were things the smart kid already knew.

It made school an excruciatingly boring place to be.

Immersion, difficulty and the MMO experience

There have been a series of really good posts over the last several weeks that have delved into the concept of immersion and difficulty in MMOs. Keen and Grave's Gaming Blog made the first leap into the fray and talked about how ignorance lends itself to immersion and a sense of community, which is a really good point to make. To apply that to WoW, one needs only to look back to the days of vanilla, when general channels were crawling with people trying to figure out how to go get that one thing that night elf asked them to fetch a few quests ago.

In vanilla, everyone was ignorant. Nobody knew everything there was to know. Sites like Thottbot were invaluable resources because even if they didn't provide a direct answer, they provided a general idea of the answer needed. Everyone was on the same quest, the same journey, with the wide-eyed cluelessness of a kid at their first day of school. And in order to combat that feeling of being lost, everyone banded together and found their way through to level 60, eventually.

One-day mastery and commonality

And then we've got a post from Syncaine over at Hardcore Casual that takes what Keen said and adds to it, talking about the concept of day-one mastery and commonality in MMO games. Syncaine points out that one of the major issues with MMOs today is that they're taking their cues from WoW -- which is pretty par for the course, you have to admit. The problem then lies in the fact that a WoW player will come in, see the game, see the familiar layout and choices, and immediately know how to do everything; the challenge of that particular aspect of content is gone.

Lastly, there's a very astute post from The Grumpy Elf that asks the question of whether the game has decreased in difficulty, or whether players are simply getting really good at the game. And that is a really good question. These days, the WoW forums are riddled with players complaining about the game, complaining about how it's too easy, complaining about how it's being made into a Carebear wonderland full of rainbows and puppies because Blizzard is catering to casuals and casuals are ruining the game. The forum community (or at least a very vocal chunk of it) is fed up and would like Blizzard to know about it, repeatedly.

Basically, they are excruciatingly bored.

Welcome to the world of smart kids

That giant, bored, disinterested and complaining vocal portion of the WoW playerbase? They are the smart kids. The people who have been playing since vanilla -- they are the smart kids. Most of the 10 million people playing this game -- we are the smart kids. And we're bored. We're jaded. We've seen everything that's been done. We've seen it a million times, and we don't have enough new stuff to keep our interest in the game suitably alive. We complain and we gripe and we moan about every new raid encounter, comparing it to encounters past.

And that's why Cataclysm didn't impress most people at all. Sure, there was a lot of new story -- but for players not interested in story, all the work that was poured into that fell on deaf ears. There were a few new zones worth of scenery that we'd never seen, but the spectacular vistas could only hold our interest for so far. The quests, while entertaining enough, were retreads of things we'd already done a million times before.

Something completely new

You'll notice that when people list their favorite quests from Cataclysm, when they talk about their favorite raid encounters, the ones that almost always make the list are the ones that are entirely different and new. Quests like Welcome to the Machine and The Day Deathwing Came were instantly loved because they presented something so completely different than anything we'd seen before that they were immediately far more interesting than any other quest presented in the expansion.

Fights like Atramedes are listed as top-notch not because they're in fantastic zones with fantastic scenery -- it's because they presented a unique and different feel to an encounter that we'd never dealt with before. A blind dragon that can't hurt you unless he can hear you? We've never seen that before. Fights like Valithria Dreamwalker in Wrath were really well received because they introduced new and unique spins on what was required in a raid encounter. It was something completely different, something other than Don't stand in this and Every 30 seconds move here. They were unpredictable, foreign. They put us in that space of wide-eyed ignorance that had us struggling to complete the encounter but loving it nonetheless.

What happened to Cataclysm's luster?

When Cataclysm was announced, it was to a throng of people that screamed in joy when they heard they would finally be able to fly in Azeroth. It was to people that were incredibly excited by the idea that levels 1 to 60 would change into something utterly new. These were things that players had been begging for as the game went on and new and shiny developments were put in place, things like flight introduced in The Burning Crusade and quest innovations all throughout Wrath. Blizzard was finally going to give us what we wanted, and we loved it.

What we received was exactly what we had been promised. And when that expansion was released, players suddenly felt the tug of nostalgia, the tug of days past. The tug of those days long ago when everyone wondered where the heck Mankrik's wife was at and just how to complete Deep Ocean, Vast Sea. Suddenly, what we so eagerly wanted and craved all the years we were playing The Burning Crusade and Wrath wasn't what we wanted anymore. Blizzard gave us what we wanted, but once we got it, we were stricken with an incredible sense of buyer's remorse.

New yet already conquered

What we received was exactly what we had been promised -- but it was content we'd already conquered. The new 1-to-60 experience was fantastic for anyone who wanted to roll an alt or for new players just coming into the game. But for those of us tooling around at endgame, it wasn't enough. The new quests and zones were interesting, but the quests had been streamlined to a point where we were simply being ushered through zones, killing a few things here and there along the way. We barely needed Wowhead or other sites for guidance, because everything had been so perfectly put together for us.

All of the challenge, all of the sense of ignorance had been quietly taken away. And in its place, we have an expansion that is enjoyable for the most part but hasn't really brought back that sense of wide-eyed wonder, that sense of ignorance that drew us closer together as players.

In fact, Blizzard seemed to be doing its best to streamline and pare down on challenge so as not to lose any of the slower kids in the class. Blizzard decided to teach at the level of the slowest student, and they embraced it. But for those of us who have been playing for years upon years, we have lapsed into a sense of boredom. That's where those angry posts on the forums stem from -- it's people who are no longer being challenged.

Into the future with Mists of Pandaria

This isn't to say that running onto the forums and yelping incessantly about casuals is going to help matters -- it doesn't at all. Blizzard knows full well that people aren't exactly happy, and I'm relatively certain they have a very good idea why. Holding them to blame for Cataclysm's errors is misplaced because in the end, it wasn't their fault. They were giving us exactly what we wanted. We just didn't know what, ultimately, we were asking for.

Mists of Pandaria has, so far, exceeded everything that Cataclysm was. There are countless quests to do, countless new places to explore. Pet Battles and scenarios are fascinating to many people because they are what Cataclysm was missing -- entirely new and foreign ideas. We don't know what to expect with Pet Battles. We don't know what they're going to be like, exactly. We know about scenarios, but we don't know how many will be added, and we don't know if there will be more, and we don't know what all the stories will be.

What's the new endgame?

Endgame is shaping up to be something completely different than what we've seen before. Yes, there are dailies -- but they have a different flavor and flow to them, reminiscent of the Netherwing reputation grind in The Burning Crusade. The potential of building our own farms is something completely new. And the fact that right now it's looking like we'll have just as much stuff to do at level 90 as we did on the journey from 85 to 90, if not more, is a breath of fresh air. There is so much new packed into Mists that it is incredibly unlikely we'll be bored before the first content patch rolls out.

What Blizzard has to realize (and with Mists, it's looking like perhaps they have) is that they have a responsibility as the premier MMO company out there. Ten millions subscribers isn't enough to sit and rest on your laurels; you have to keep changing the game so those 10 million people don't lose that sense of wonder, that sense of ignorance. Mists seems to be bringing it all back again, and I'm pretty happy with what I've seen so far.

It's rare thing when a smart kid runs across something they don't already know. It's even rarer when they get a teacher that takes the time to keep giving them extra challenges so they don't lose interest. There's nothing worse than being a smart kid -- with the exception of being a really bored smart kid. Keep pushing the challenges, and you'll be one of those teachers who smart kid looks back on with incredibly fond memories, the kind they happily tell stories about in the years ahead.

It's open warfare between Alliance and Horde in Mists of Pandaria, World of Warcraft's next expansion. Jump into five new levels with new talents and class mechanics, try the new monk class, and create a pandaren character to ally with either Horde or Alliance. Look for expansion basics in our Mists FAQ, or dig into our spring press event coverage for more details!

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