As the Warlords of Draenor beta rolls onward, Blizzard keeps managing to surprise us. Recently we've learned about a huge overhaul to guild systems, random upgrades for quest rewards, and an extra-awesome core hound mount.
In the last WoW Archivist column, we looked at the surprises from the original beta and the betas of The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King expansions. This time, we continue with Wrath and also look at the surprises during the Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria betas. As before, I won't go into storyline surprises here. And I won't cover surprises announced at BlizzCon outside of a beta. BlizzCon already has its own feature for controversial surprises.
Beta of the Lich King (continued)
Goodbye, Night Elf Sylvanas. Through vanilla and TBC, the Sylvanas model looked like a Night Elf rather than an undead High Elf. With Sylvanas poised to play a big role in Northrend, Blizzard clearly needed to revamp her model. Players worried that they would have to look at the old Night Elf model through all her lore moments in Wrath. A build in August 2008 gave her an initial makeover (middle image above), and lore-focused players breathed a sigh of relief. Clearly she still needed some work, but at least she wasn't a Night Elf anymore. A later build in September gave her the fantastic model we see today. The same build also updated the models for Varian Wrynn and Alexstraza.
Dispelling poisons. The Wrath beta was well underway when obscure CM Gamnin posted about a comprehensive overhaul for Rogues, and it is still perhaps the biggest for the class in WoW's history. The most shocking revelation in this announcement was that the poisons skill would vanish. In vanilla and TBC, rogue poisons worked like a secondary profession. You had to level your skill using reagents you obtained while pickpocketing, bought from vendors, or gathered from herb nodes. Leveling your poisons "profession" unlocked new ranks of poison abilities. Maxing out this profession was a necessary grind for any endgame Rogue. The removal of poisons was a cause to celebrate. The reagents for poisons became vendor-bought items, and eventually Blizzard removed these reagents as well.
Priests now 100% less racial. Well into the Wrath beta, CM Koraa notified players that Priests would no longer have race-specific Priest spells in an upcoming build. The Dwarves' Fear Ward spell was so powerful against vanilla's bosses that many Priests rerolled their characters just to have access to it. Fear Ward became baseline for all Priests in patch 2.3, but the other racials remained exclusive. Now, Blizzard also made Holy Nova, Devouring Plague, and Symbol of Hope (renamed Hymn of Hope) into baseline spells as well. Desperate Prayer became a talent, while Starshards and Shadowguard went away entirely. Priests were the only class to have this racial system. While it was an interesting experiment, Blizzard eventually decided that players should be able to play the race they prefer without penalty.
Deeper breath. In early August, beta testers discovered that their characters suddenly had much greater lung capacity while swimming. No one quite understood at first whether it was a bug or not. Icy Northrend didn't seem like a place where we'd spend much time questing under the waves. Did the game somehow think everyone was a Forsaken with the Underwater Breathing racial? As it turned out, Blizzard did lengthen the duration of character's breath bars to make aquatic adventuring easier. The redundant Underwater Breathing racial bonus took its last gasp at the start of Mists of Pandaria.
The great raid nerf of 2008. In October, players on the beta realms discovered that mobs in Burning Crusade raids had a 30% reduction in health. Melee damage was also reduced. With no announcement, players didn't know the true implication of these changes. CM Bornakk later posted to explain it. He said that, given all the changes to classes in patch 3.0.2, the nerfs were necessary. Some players thought Blizzard had gone overboard. They were angry that their progression would suddenly be so easy. Boss kills would feel "unearned." Others were happy about the nerfs and used the end of TBC as an opportunity to see content that had previously been inaccessible. Many argued that this was the sort of thing that should have been announced ahead of time instead of showing up on the beta realms without so much as a whisper.
Wild speculation. In September 2010, datamining the Cataclysm beta revealed an ability called Running Wild. It had the same cast time as a mount and definitely represented a speed increase. But Worgen already had a racial sprint called Darkflight. Players speculated that Worgen might end up with a "no-mount mount" like the Taurens' Plainsrunning from the first beta. But how could that be? Goblins already had their trike mounts, so wouldn't that throw off the balance of available mounts per faction? Also, concept art from BlizzCon showed a boar-like mount, so many players assumed something similar would become the Worgen racial mount. But Running Wild was real, as Zarhym later confirmed.
Pagan hipsters. A month later, datamining also revealed a new Tree of Life model. Bear and cat models had already been revised during Wrath, so more Druid model updates were expected. But in typical Blizzard fashion, players didn't know when or whether we would see them. The model update came in the same expansion that turned Tree of Life from a permanent form into a cooldown to make it look splashier. Players, as usual, were quick to criticize. One player commented, "Looks like a pagan hipster to me. It should have a Macbook under one arm and a soy latte in the other." WoW Insider, of course, was happy to oblige:
(Personally, I thought the old model looked like the tree was dying -- not exactly a good representation of a "Tree of Life." The new ones are way better.)
That's so raven. Another model surprise was the Worgen flight form, datamined in November. Worgen and Troll Druids had been announced before, but until that point, players didn't know whether the Worgen and Druid forms would receive new models or Blizzard would just use the same models as the Tauren and Night Elves. The raven-esque Worgen flight form was the first indication that the new Druid races would indeed have at least some distinct forms.
A path for pacifists. A September 2010 beta build added the ability to earn experience from gathering ore and herbs. This change was unanticipated and unannounced. For players who like to roleplay a pacifist character, the addition essentially made their playstyle viable for leveling. In 2012, one player leveled to 90 without completing a quest or a dungeon, using mostly experience from gathering.
Magic markers. Another late addition to Cataclysm's beta was the new raid markers. The original raid markers looked like engineering's smoke flares. They were hard to see in the chaos of combat. The new ones arrived as colorful glowing columns of light with bouncing "lucky charms" inside of them. The improvement can't really be understated.
Howl of the chihuahua. Female Worgen were revealed by datamining in the Cataclysm alpha, way back in May 2010. Reactions were mixed, but many had a positive view of the models (on the right in the image above). Other players reserved judgment, since the models were unfinished. It was, after all, only alpha. Blizzard officially unveiled the model about a week later. It was not universally praised, but there wasn't exactly a firestorm of criticism either. However, when the final female Worgen model showed up in beta just before Halloween (left), it did not much resemble the official reveal. The face had taken on a fiercer quality, with a snarling mouth and bugged-out eyes. Players were not kind in their comments about the new model. Some compared it to a rabid chihuahua! While the old models weren't a hit, the new ones were seen by many as a disaster by comparison. Blizzard stuck with the newer beta version, to the lament of many Alliance players.
Beta of Pandaria
Cloud prix. Early in the beta, WoW Insider's Olivia Grace discovered what appeared to be a mysterious racetrack in the skies over the Jade Forest. She investigated and found that not only would we ride cloud serpents in Pandaria, we would race them. A later iteration of Jade Forest revealed that we could also raise our serpents from adorable tiny lizards to fearsome adult mounts. The collective squee could be heard 'round the world. Now where's the plush version?
The new normal. Ghostcrawler was known to drop the occasional bomb on players. In June 2012, he told us that Mists of Pandaria would have no normal-difficulty dungeons at level 90. Instead, all of the dungeons would be heroic at that level. It was all part of Blizzard's plan to avoid the intimidating Cataclysm heroics and dial down the challenge in regular 5-player content. In retrospect, it seems as if the studio took dungeons too far in the other direction, but that's a topic for another day...
Jade Forest uprooted. About midway through the Mists beta, Kaivax announced that the Jade Forest zone would be "temporarily removed" from test realms. Blizzard added a quest that boosted your character to 86 so you could quest in Valley of the Four Winds or Krasarang Wilds instead. At first, players had trouble believing it. They'd been testing the zone for a while and it was in a good state in terms of bugs and quest flow. What was Blizzard up to?
In the original version of the zone, players didn't encounter Pandaren until well into the questing. Instead, the early focus remained entirely on the Horde vs. Alliance with their hozen and jinyu allies. Many quests appeared automatically, since you were "stranded" on Pandaria with no friendly NPCs to give you tasks. When you finally met Lorewalker Cho, he was mistrustful of you. You had to play a meditation minigame and complete quests to win him over. The sha made no appearance until the very end of the zone. Taran Zhu was nowhere to be found and never had a chance to warn us about them. The zone made its grand reappearance about two months later with the airship battle, sha uprising, and Taran Zhu all greeting us upon arrival. Most would agree that it's a big improvement.
48. dailies. per day. In July 2012, Vaneras posted about MoP quests. Among the information he shared was this tidbit: A player who had progressed with various factions could have up to 48 different daily quests available to him or her on any given day. We should have seen it coming then -- the avalanche of mandatory daily questing at the start of the expansion -- but at the time, players were mostly just excited about all the new content. We also learned that some dailies offered an ongoing story and would directly award valor points.
Seeing red. An unannounced experiment hit beta realms in August. Warriors encountered an odd visual effect when they entered an Enrage state. Colors washed out of the world and a red tinge appeared around the edges of the screen. Players thought it was a bug at first, but it turned out to be an attempt to add some flair to the class. Response was overwhelmingly negative, and Blizzard nixed the idea.
Raid warning. In Mists of Pandaria, more than just brewmasters would be staggering. That's what we learned in August, when Vaneras announced that raids would not open until one week after the launch of the expansion. (Raid finder would have to wait an additional week.) Not only that, but two of the raid zones would be held back ever longer. Some players were unhappy at the prospect of waiting for raid encounters. However, most appreciated the delay so they could enjoy the leveling process without so much pressure to hit 90 as fast as possible. For those compelled to raid in Week 1, world bosses were available from launch.
Why the surprise?
Why do surprises happen during beta tests? One reason is that Blizzard likes to surprise us sometimes. If the devs have something special in the works, it can be more fun to let players discover it on their own or through word of mouth than to shout it from the rooftops before we see it firsthand.
When builds are flying back and forth internally and then landing on beta realms, the developers don't always know exactly what is going into which build, so changes, features, UI elements, game events, and so on sometimes reach the players before we've been properly warned.
Another reason is that Blizzard doesn't always make up its mind about an aspect of the expansion until late in the beta process. An element that seems fine on paper may wind up looking very different in the greater context of the game or expansion. Blizzard isn't afraid to make drastic changes or hold off on key decisions if it deems it necessary. It can be frustrating for us, but we all care about the same thing: experiencing the best possible version of WoW.
WoW Archivist is a column by WoW Insider's Scott Andrews; it runs on Massively by permission. Every other weekend, Scott explores the secrets of World of Warcraft's past. What did the game look like years ago? Who is etched into WoW's history? What secrets does the game still hold?