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Prayer Of Mending Is A Pain In The Neck – Chatting About Cataclysm Classic With The WoW Devs

There is a lot more to WoW: Cataclysm than you might remember

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm Classic is a step into a murky part of World of Warcraft’s past. Time has not been kind to the perception of this expansion – with many seeing it as the true end of what defines “Classic” WoW. But as we approach it’s imminent release, many have started to peer into their murky memory and find themselves remembering that the only goofy thing about it might have been Ragnaros’ tiny little legs.

Thankfully, I got to spend some time with some talented people that know their Cataclysmic stuff – the incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic Kris Zierhut, Principal Game Designer, and Nora Valletta, Lead Software Engineer, who both remember Cataclysm for different (but equally great) reasons.

Most exciting is that they were happy to pare back the curtain to reveal what catalyst may push the team to change things from what they were – and sometimes it is simply taking the chance to avoid making a classic (heh) mistake all over again.

WellPlayed: Is it exciting to see Deathwing again? He really is up there as one of the best “BIG BADS” that WoW has ever done. Do you think players are ready to die in his fire all over again while out questing?

Nora Valletta: Absolutely, yeah! Deathwing is terrorising the skies above Azeroth, Classic zones have been altered significantly as a result of his destruction – players are in for a fiery surprise if they’re out questing. So they should probably keep their eyes to the skies.

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Kris Zierhut: It was one of the more cool creative things we did when we first shipped this – Deathwing randomly comes and just bombs everybody with fire. He’s always there, he’s always in the background. Like, what will I do if Deathwing shows up? Where will I go hide? How will I stay alive? It’s a cool kind of tension added to the questing experience.

WP: Over the years, Cataclysm has received a bit of a bad wrap as “The expansion that forever changed WoW” – do you think the enthusiastic Classic audience is ready to rediscover that it was always pretty good?

KZ: I think every expansion changed WoW, you can’t just single out Cataclysm – they are all a little bit different – that’s part of why the Classic team is supporting them. What we found over the last four or almost five years is that people want to play World of Warcraft in a lot of different ways.

Some people, Classic is the “Classic Era” and nothing else. That’s the only thing that counts. Other people, The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King count. Some people, even on our team, were in elementary school when Cataclysm first came out. And for them, Cataclysm is what is Classic and they want to re-experience that. So I think it all depends on what the player is looking for and what is their personal version of “Classic”. Our goal is to supply that amazing play experience to everyone regardless of what they want. So whatever flavour of World of Warcraft you want to play, you can find that flavour to play.

NV: I think it’s important to note too, this will be the first time in over a decade that players get to experience the Cataclysm expansion as if it’s the latest content here. Which is definitely a special feel.

KZ: Yeah, it’s very different than coming back and revisiting a raid with your much higher level character and just crushing the content. Experiencing it when it was “the most advanced content” is very different. Also a lot of game systems are in a spot where they are very different from what existed in the original Classic 2004 game – But they’re also very different from the modern game. It’s sort of this “in between” era of World of Warcraft that players haven’t seen for a long time and can re-experience it. And for some of them, that was the best time.

WP: I remember hearing that the revamp of the world was a tough thing to implement back in the original Cataclysm release – was it relatively simple when it came to revisit it for Classic? Did you encounter any interesting things in pre-testing the older Cataclysm content that required amending or fixing prior to release? For example, a developer mentioned some curious lighting issues in The Burning Crusade Classic testing.

KZ: Yes, I would say that because of the redo of Kalimdor and Eastern Kingdoms, and then on top of that adding five levels of max-level content and max-level raids and max-level dungeons, Cataclysm I think is still probably the biggest expansion the World of Warcraft team has ever done. There’s a much larger team making expansions today, but they’re still not covering as much sheer amount of land and redo of quest lines as Cataclysm did. 

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Because everything in Kalimdor and Eastern Kingdoms was re-quested. And that was a major lift for us back in 2009 when we were trying to get that done. This time around, not as much of a major lift because we didn’t have to actually write …all that quest text. We didn’t actually have to go and dream up all those new quests where you punch Deathwing in the face on the day Deathwing came, which is an extremely memorable moment for a lot of people. Or sail around in a little boat in Thousand Needles when it’s flooded by the breakthrough from the sea. We didn’t have to reinvent those things – they already existed. We just had to go through and make sure they actually still worked. So it wasn’t as big a lift this time around, but it’s still a significant lift. Especially for our quality assurance department shed, they had a lot to do and did a fantastic job of finding bugs and problems and helping us fix them.

NV: We’ve got world-class QA on the team. And yeah, like Kris said, it’s basically a different kind of challenge, right? Re-delivering a Classic expansion today forces us to make smart decisions about how we resolve conflicts in data and try to deliver an optimal experience to players in 2024. Our player landscape kind of changes with time as well.

I’d say in terms of encountering things in that older content that needed amending and attention – one of the signatures of Cataclysm was having these really long, zone-specific quest chains. So if somebody experienced an issue about 80% of the way through a lengthy zone quest chain, trying to flag all the correct quests so that you could reproduce the exact conditions under which the bug occurred became pretty complex and challenging there.

KZ: Another part that’s new, and this is a challenging thing that is Classic specific – we made changes in The Burning Crusade Classic and Wrath of the Lich King Classic. And now we are trying to carry those changes forward. So those changes are now colliding with the Cataclysm data and often create data conflicts where things don’t quite line up, right? And we have to go through and resolve those conflicts.

And that ball is rolling downhill and just keeps getting bigger and bigger with each expansion in terms of the things we have to resolve. So, some examples of that:

  • Prayer of Mending, as a spell, had to be rebuilt during The Burning Crusade Classic because the way it worked wasn’t supported by the modern code. And so we had to rebuild it completely again in Wrath of the Lich King Classic. And then I had to rebuild it again in Cataclysm Classic. And of course the talents and the effects associated with it are also getting more complicated as things go on, so it’s getting harder to do.
  • We made a big change in Wrath of the Lich King Classic to the Ignite DoT talent for mages – to make it not lose damage when two critical hits landed very close together. Previously in 2004, through to (I think) about Warlords of Draenor, it would lose a little bit of damage. And I knew that we had fixed it in later expansions. So I said, Hey, let’s bring that into Wrath of the Lich King Classic. And then getting that to now work correctly with the much more complex Ignite mechanics that mages have in Cataclysm with the Combustion talent to combine DoTs and spread DoTs and all the craziness they’re doing with Ignite – that was challenging and I probably had more bugs on Ignite than anything else I worked on for Cataclysm because of that.

WP: Anything unique and interesting pop up during the Cataclysm Beta period that needed a look into?

KZ: There were a lot of little details that had to get lined up. Most DoTs in Cataclysm can critically hit – and we had to have the correct code support for that and we didn’t have it when we first launched the beta. Originally in Cataclysm we put in a new effect where when you recast a DoT it would extend the duration of the existing one, instead of just overwriting it and getting that working exactly the same as in Cataclysm was a little bit tricky again because we’re in this middle point.

A little bit about what we do about bugs and how they affect class balance – what are our decisions, and what’s our policy going forward on that. So there’s a few different kinds of bugs we run into. Sometimes we run into a bug with something not working correctly and if we fix it it’s going to result in a class becoming weaker; doing less damage or becoming easier to kill.

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So the question is what do you do about it. We could run a Cataclysm server exactly as Cataclysm was – not fit for public consumption because it doesn’t connect properly to Battle.Net – but a local copy of Cataclysm, and test it and see if that bug existed for real in Cataclysm back then. Then, do we fix it? If it’s going to nerf people? So what we came to is our policy on this is – we fix the bugs so it makes it easy for players to understand how the game works. It’s really important for the game to be approachable and understandable. But if it results in the class being nerfed, we buff them in some other way to compensate.

And we had a couple cases like that. Like I talked about Ignite, where we fixed the bug and now the class is stronger. For now, we’re just letting them be stronger. So mages are probably stronger with Ignite and Combustion than they were back in December 2009. And we’ll be watching – if mages are too strong, we might have to make a future adjustment for that but for now we’re going to let it go. But that’s kind of how we’re handling bugs for now.

But one of the things we did during Wrath of the Lich King Classic was we made a lot of small tuning changes. If a class was so strong we felt like you should stack your raid with that class, we took action to fix it. Class was so weak we felt like you should never bring them? We took action to fix it. But we’re going to be very conservative about those kinds of class changes but there will be class balance changes. Partly, because players have 14 years more experience with data and analysis and how to min-max their parses and their characters, they’re going to find things that they didn’t find back in 2009-2010, and we’re going to have to adjust for it.

WP: What kind of thought process led to the major rework of the Guild Perks system? Was it as simple as how later expansions iterated on it, and you may as well bring some of those changes forward? (I personally love the ‘#somechanges’ mentality). What incentivizes these changes?

NV: Original Cataclysm introduced a guild progression system, which we think may have incentivized leaving your smaller more close-knit guilds in order to join much larger, more detached guilds missing that sense of community. And we think this may have unravelled some of the social fabric of the game at the time. We did away with that system, as it was known back then, and we moved many of those earnable guild perks to just be baseline for being part of your guild. We think those changes will be better to support the social fabric of the game, at least in Cataclysm Classic, and we would consider also carrying those forward. We also removed perks like Cash Flow and Have Group, Will Travel – Cash Flow was a big one. That’s the one where every time you loot money from an enemy, you basically get an extra 10% on top of that generated and deposited directly into your guild bank. So you end up in this situation where you join this mega guild, get some perks and then the guild’s purpose would be to just funnel gold to the Guild Master. I think those adjustments we made to the guild advancement in Cataclysm Classic is actually one of the things I’m most excited about. I feel strongly that it will improve the social fabric of the game – I just want to see folks get in there, build a wonderful community or carry over their current wonderful community from Wrath Classic into Cataclysm Classic and just have a blast together as friends.

KZ: Like Nora said, when we looked at that guild system, we knew it was something we needed to fix. And I was there on the team when we first did it. We were really excited about the guild system. We put it in. 

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We thought, it’s going to be so cool. You’re going to have a guild, you’re going to level up the guild together. It’s been a big group effort. But we didn’t expect the problem that people are going to be pushed into joining larger guilds so that they can level up faster. And so we, as a design team back in 2010, with the expansion only having been out for a month or two, already really regretted that system. And we made substantial changes in Mists of Pandaria to help guilds level up really fast to try to fix the problem after the fact. But we had done some real damage to small guilds. And so when you know you’ve made a mistake that hurt the game, why repeat the mistake? 

So the simple change was, no more guild levelling. It’s all about your reputation with the guild. And the more you play with your guild, the higher reputation gets, the more perks you unlock, which is a much healthier system. We know being in a guild makes people enjoy the game more and stay with the game. So we really wanted to maintain that guild system and make it a stronger system.

NV: I was one of those players back then in the original Cataclysm who was part of a really, really wonderful group of people in a guild together. It was a smaller guild. And I really wanted the opportunity to obtain the really cool Dark Phoenix hatchling pet. And the Dark Phoenix mount. So I was like, oh, I have to join these bigger guilds to get some of these cool perks. 

And it was so tempting. I actually did end up leaving my smaller little community guild. And it was so sad when they eventually unravelled because enough people did that to try and get those rewards. And I realised what I had done and I was part of the problem because obviously I left to join a mega guild. But looking back on that, yeah, those conversations the team was having about what changes we’d make to guild advancement – I was thinking of myself back then. I was like, yeah, let’s try and avoid incentivizing that.

KZ: So that’s a great example of a change that we knew for sure we wanted to make. When it comes to other changes, really we looked at other things we could do and sometimes you’re tempted to dig into systems like digging into talents or digging into the crafting system or raid lockouts – any of those things. And we came to the conclusion that making those kinds of big changes, even though they were attractive and exciting to us, wasn’t appropriate. What we’re trying to deliver is the experience as it was. We’re trying to deliver Cataclysm. Only fix the things we know were truly broken. So things like the talent system, it’s not the right calls, not the right decision. Had we changed the talent system, we would have had to create new talents, make class adjustments, redo class balance. It would not have been the same game. And so it wasn’t a good choice to do that, even though it did cross our minds.

WP: What about in the future? Is it becoming easier to consider amazing changes that came beyond an expansion’s lifespan and perhaps consider how they’d be appreciated just as much in the present?

KZ: No. And I think for that reason, we don’t want to change the experience. And I think there was some feeling also on the team, again, during post Cataclysm release back on the team in 2010, that we had made things a little bit too convenient with quality of life things. And so there’s definitely a feeling of let’s not add any more of the game. That’s part of why Have Group, Will Travel was removed. We did remove it in Mists of Pandaria, so it was kind of an easy decision to say we should remove it for Cataclysm – we felt like it shrank the world and made the world less meaningful. We had literally just rebuilt the world, redone all the continents, all this cool stuff to fly over and see the destruction that Deathwing has wrought across the land. And instead people were just teleporting to the instance and not seeing any of it. So we knew that Have Group, Will Travel was a mistake. And so again, why repeat that mistake?

NV: I will say one thing that did come to mind, we’ve been thinking about having a streamlined auction house experience in Cataclysm Classic. That’s something the team is still discussing, what that might look like. We don’t want to significantly alter the game, we don’t want to stray too far from the real original Cataclysm experience.

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KZ: The auction house experience is much more driven by, frankly, the mods players run. So very few people are running the original Cataclysm experience, it’s a safer place for us to make innovation. Because it’s not really going to change the experience of the players.

WP: Cataclysm is on record as one of the shorter WoW expansions of history (the second shortest duration expansion, after Warlords of Draenor) – Would that mean that players can expect this to be one of the shorter WoW Classic experiences? Or will patch cadence be amended to give it a similar lifespan? There was mention of an “accelerated” schedule – will this be even faster than the original Cataclysm lifespan?

KZ: So just for context, the original Cataclysm lifespan, the third season, went way too long. It went for three quarters of a year. I think anybody who played through Cataclysm back then was like, no, no, please do not make that season last that long. And I think the reason why Cataclysm ultimately will be shorter than Wrath of the Lich King Classic is because there’s just fewer raid tiers and arena seasons. There’s an appropriate length of time for a raid tier and arena season – we shouldn’t stretch them longer and longer. So it will be appropriate for it to be a little bit shorter. We are planning on things going a little bit faster than they went the first time around – but we have made adjustments so that Conquest and Valor points can be earned fast enough so you won’t miss out on being able to get all the items that you collected the first time around.

NV: We’re also going to be watching player feedback as well and there might be a little wiggle room if players are saying like, this content tier is going to be a little bit too short for us. We want to make sure that we’re kind of keeping an eye on what players are saying about it. We have published some information already about our intended timeline through official channels.

WP: With the changes to transmog, if a quest reward will offer two of the same armour type items, and you pick one, will both of them get unlocked in the collection?

NV: That’s something I actually have to follow up on! I’m not 100% on that one. I’ll have to follow up on that.

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WP: Sure! On that note, will the new collections feature closely resemble the live/retail WoW collections feature? Are we on the dawn of a proper fashionista takeover in WoW Classic?

NV: Yeah, so collections in Cataclysm Classic are going to be account wide. In addition, one of the changes that we’ve made as well is that you’ll be able to transmog legendary weapons in Cataclysm Classic.

KZ: Back when we first introduced the transmog feature in Cataclysm we were very cautious about what we’re going to let you transmog – and the rules gradually loosened over time once we realised what was safe. We know what’s safe now so we can have looser rules from the beginning. One example that might make some people excited is originally High Warlord and Grand Marshal gear from 2004 WoW PVP could not be transmogged – in fact very few people even had it, because they would have had to have saved it from when they were level 60, meaning in original Cataclysm we had to introduce a system to purchase replicas of those items. Well in Classic we’ve actually kept those items purchasable the entire time, and we are going to flag those so they can be transmogged from the very beginning if you want to look like that.

WP: Obviously it’s speaking to somewhere far down the line – but I remember the original release of the Dragon Soul raid instance as having some irksome bugs, such as the Spine of Deathwing encounter. In the interest of avoiding that, are the team working to deploy the ‘fixed’ version of encounters? Or do you let players experience the past – warts and all?

KZ: We’re working with the final data from Cataclysm so everything will have all the fixes that were made during the course of Cataclysm lifespan will have been incorporated. So players should expect to see the final versions, the final tuning. Along those same lines, the dungeons and first raid tier are going to be tuned to the way they were after patch 4.1, not as they were in patch 4.3. You get the final version as it was at the end of the expansion, bug fixes and all.

WP: Fantastic. With regards to raids and loot, an interesting change made during Wrath of the Lich King Classic was a small increment to Ulduar loot to keep it relevant – is there a thought to revisiting this with some of the raids within Cataclysm?

KZ: I think it made a lot of sense to make that change in Wrath of the Lich King Classic. Our philosophy about how raids should be structured changed multiple times during Wrath of the Lich King, during its initial production. If you think about when Wrath of the Lich King first launched, we had the 10 player and 25 player versions of Naxxramas. But by the time we ended, when we had Icecrown Citadel, and you got a 10 player and 25 player version – both of which had an alternate Heroic version you switched to on a boss by boss basis. The system was utterly, completely different than what it had started as. And so it made sense to make adjustments to how Classic raids work, and how loot worked in that context. Cataclysm is much more consistent about how raids work, so it’s less likely that we feel like there’s a need to make that kind of change. What you might see however, is that we really did like the impact of the updated dungeon system for keeping dungeons relevant as content throughout all of Wrath of the Lich King Classic. So yeah, we may explore systems like that in Cataclysm. No details to be determined yet, we are still thinking about what we may want to do – but something we are thinking about.

NV: I think in Cataclysm there’s still some pretty good gear progression throughout the entire expansion. Especially there’s the Rise of the Zandalari and rewards from its two heroic tier dungeons as well. We don’t want to commit too early to Titan Rune dungeons because we don’t want to try and solve a problem that maybe doesn’t exist. So we’ll keep talking about it as a team.

WP: Finally, what aspect of Cataclysm Classic are you most excited for players to rediscover?

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NV: There’s a lot of little things – at some point we’re having our bug triage meetings, and there was a bug and this bear cub is missing a texture. And I was like, Oh, okay, let me look at the attached video of this bug and I watched it and was just flooded with these memories of doing this quest where there’s a forest fire, there are these bear cubs who tried to escape the fires by climbing up these trees, and you were to save them by climbing up the tree after them and tossing them from the tree hopefully onto the trampoline to save these little bear cubs.

…Hopefully you don’t miss the trampoline.

KZ: I think the exciting thing that players have forgotten about is going and doing all those low level quests. Nora is talking about a quest that is a level 81 quest in Mt. Hyjal, but if you decide to make a new character and quest through Cataclysm on that character it is a very different experience than what you have seen since the 2019 relaunch of World of Warcraft Classic.

So there’s a whole lot of new quests to see, a whole lot of really, really memorable experiences. ‘The Day that Deathwing Came’, you get to punch Deathwing in the face, or going to Thousand Needles and riding around in your little boat, or going to to Redridge and helping Corporal Keeshan get his revenge on those orcs – and his revenge is a bit over the top. I think a lot of people have forgotten about it and it would be pretty novel to do all that now.

NV: One more thing to like, I think one thing I haven’t heard anybody really talking enough about is the music. You’re on a boat heading into Vashj’ir for the first time, and you’re just hit with this deeply emotive atmospheric music. It really gives you that sense that you’re about to get sent to the bottom of the ocean.

KZ: Vashj’ir is probably the one of the most unique zones that was ever built in the game and it is really, gorgeously, beautiful. One of the people, the lead who worked on it at the time, had actually been a former marine biologist, and he would go to meetings and correct them when they placed the wrong things. So it was a very authentic underwater marine experience. Really cool.

WP: Thank you immensely for your time and for answering my questions today!

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KZ: Thank you.

NV: Thanks! We hope you have fun playing Cataclysm Classic.

A heartfelt thank you to both Nora and Kris for being so open with their answers – as a long time WoW fan, I am eager to learn everything I can about the unique experience that comes with re-deploying something that happened all those years ago. Cataclysm sure did shatter the World of Warcraft as we knew it, but it’s amazing to hear about how even small changes to the classic formula will cause a snowball effect with each new iteration; even if it means rebuilding Prayer of Mending for the umpteenth time.

With May 20 right around the corner, I look forward to us all perishing under the abhorrent heat of Deathwing’s terrible fire. For the achievement, of course.

Written By Ash Wayling

Known throughout the interwebs simply as M0D3Rn, Ash is bad at video games. An old guard gamer who suffers from being generally opinionated, it comes as no surprise that he is both brutally loyal and yet, fiercely whimsical about all things electronic. On occasion will make a youtube video that actually gets views. Follow him on YouTube @Bad at Video Games

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