I know a lot of people ended up panning Wrath of the Lich King, with old timers calling people starting in that era “Wrath Babies”. People criticized the instances as being too easy, ICC as allowing casuals to participate, allowing people to purchase gear using badges and even some of the dumbed down quest design. Yet universally when you listen to a lot of people directly, quite a few will admit that Wrath of the Lich King ended up being their favorite expansion. Why is this, why did it happen and what exactly made Wrath an overall better experience than Cataclysm and Mist of Pandaria?
Wowcrendor has a great video explaining why he does not play World of Warcraft as much:
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His summary talks about what ended up burning him out on Mist of Pandaria (the dailies) and the diminishing feeling of Cataclysm. The points he made are pretty valid and I think touch on some of most important aspects of why a lot of people dislike the current expansion. But as someone who started in Wrath of the Lich King, I would like to offer my interpretation to describe what made Wrath of the Lich King a great expansion for myself.
Many people point to the lore of Wrath of the Lich King having an incredibly epic feeling since those playing Warcraft 3 dealt with Arthas and saw his evolution into the Lich King. Now, we had the opportunity to take our toons and combat him. On top of that, the continent of Northrend added a huge amount of atmosphere, leading towards the encounter with the Lich King. The two elements really embodied the immersion aspect of MMORPG games.
However, the game was starting to mature overall with the game maker fine tuning ideas in the game like more fluid questing hubs, methods for making gold and allowing raids to become somewhat more accessible. Also, there was just a lot of fun things to do at max level (80) that could be done on a daily or weekly basis. For instance, you had your raid of the week, which attempted to motivate people to do older Lich King bosses. Much of the game allowed you to experience the content in different manners so that you weren’t funneled through a single path each time.
But one thing about the game being more accessible meant that you had more willing people who could come along to participate. That implied getting groups together on your server and create bonds because the content by this point wasn’t as frustrating. It still would require dedication but you had a better chance. And when people are given the illusion of moving forward (i.e. progression) then they will want to try new things out. Overall, I think it was this social experience where you had a lot of friends who felt invested in both the storyline and each other feeling like they can make progress which made Wrath of the Lich King a success.
I think everyone is in universal agreement that Cataclysm was a fucked up expansion. I think the makers looked towards high end loyalist raiders who probably felt that their space was invaded and decided to revamp the game to cater towards them. Of course, I have my little insider story where Cataclysm was going to be the last expansion (which didn’t happen apparently). Yet ignoring the politics inside of Activision/Blizzard for a second, it feels that Blizzard looked at the ICC instances as the new model for instances and adding more mechanics to challenge people.
That began a huge turn off since the casual atmosphere for LFG now was replaced by cynical people who resorted to name calling, thus discouraging a huge group of people. People who once saw the game as something that would be doable by taking an hour or two per night no longer would feel invested because the difficulty ramped up and the people who were running things frequently and thus knowing these encounters were chastising them. Having such a huge barrier to do anything else, there really wasn’t any motivation for the average player to continue.
The other thing about Cataclysm was the destruction of old zones. I think this was such a horrible idea because it prevented new people from experiencing older content. On top of that, I really believe that a lot of people simply were not interested in leveling new toons just to see older content. In fact, I think that by destroying older content zones it killed a lot of the nostalgic aspects that can never be recovered. It really was an act of futility overall.
Lastly, the lore of Catacylsm was pretty drab. You had a few new and old enemies but everything had such a mixed mood. Goblins were like bad comic relief and just an adversary to help annoy the alliance similar to gnomes. But there really wasn’t any emotional investment. Here, randomly Death Wing comes out of the water, nukes half the world, Thrall disappears, we get alpha male as the new undemocratically chosen one and things go to hell around the world (of Warcraft). There wasn’t any continuity nor theme that held that expansion together outside of Death Wing is gonna fry your ass. And it was more annoying than anything (except for those who desired the Darwin Award achievement).
I know a lot of people panned Cataclysm even more because of the introduction of LFR and the last two fights for Death Wing. But I think LFR wasn’t a bad thing, just an idea that needed (and still requires) a lot of fine tuning. The problems that resulted in the end of Cataclysm was probably just the direction of Blizzard. It felt that the company was going through a lot of turmoil both in struggling to keep up with their massive success of World of Warcraft over the years, the release of Diablo 3, the upcoming Starcraft 2 and handling the disastrous results of subscriber loss from Cataclysm. Blizzard’s PR likes pointing to Asia (most notably China) as the cause for subscriber loss, but let’s be honest. The game itself was really suffering in Cataclysm just because of poor decision making all the way through. And it didn’t start to recover until patch 4.3 where instances and LFR made the game feel accessible again.
But why did patch 4.3 get so heavily knocked? People describe the last two fights as being horribly disappointing where you fight Japanese hentai tentacles and Death Wing’s zits. However, I seriously doubt where the real frustration existed. The problem with Cataclysm at that point was that they planned on releasing nothing new because by that point they already were on Mist of Pandaria. To me that was plainly admitting that they fucked up and wanted to erase the memory of Cataclysm. In turn, people ended up farming Death Wing and those of us who relied on LFR, we were forced to deal with assholes who griefed us from time-to-time. Thus, when you’re forced to handle something for a long period, naturally you’d become sick of it. It really didn’t have much to do with the fights, but the memories of the negative aspects from LFR like loot ninjas, griefing, stupid easy mechanics that people screwed up on and doing these things over and over again until we were blue in the face.
When Mist of Pandaria came out, I think everyone really welcomed the change of pace. The new raids of Mogu’shan Vaults was something new and presented new scenery. Then we would receive Heart of Fear and Terrace of Endless Spring, all of which presented new mechanics, encounters and atmospheres. Yet to get to these points, we had a very long road to grind towards.
And while the first time through Mist of Pandaria was wonderful, the thing is that there is just too much of a funneling, linear experience that takes place. We started to see this aspect in Cataclysm and it looked as though they partially backed away from this. But leveling would become a horrible chore. While the lands of Pandaria were beautifully sculpted, the truth is that once you enter through the experience once, you really wanted to get passed everything so that you could focus on working on end game content.
Yet what Blizzard discovered in Cataclysm with the Molten Front daily system, they decided to go full force. However, if you look at everything Pandaria from the highest view point, people describe it as the numerous gates at almost every level. The dailies gate gear, which are further gated by valor points and the quest givers at times are gated behind other quests or reputation. Everything is just layers and layers of meaningless progression. And they are not exactly things you can do in 10 minutes. But to really maximize just one toon, you’d be forced to play for a few hours to really do everything.
The whole extremely slow progressive system while varied wasn’t something people wanted. They want options, the ability to move quickly and do things at their pace. You cannot argue that Mist of Pandaria lacked content to interact with because certainly there’s a lot. In fact, it’s quite the opposite where you are overwhelmed in trying to keep up. Ghostcrawler’s analogy of “enjoying things slowly like a fine wine” cannot apply because you really aren’t here to enjoy things on a molasses pace. You want to get things done and the way you want it.
I think right now, it’s gotten a lot better because there are more options but I would argue that the speed of progression still can be frustrating and the time investment is still far too high. Still, the damage has been done and when people finish this expansion, they’ll remember mostly the daily grind, long queues and stupid mechanics like Durumu or Garalon rather than a beautifully painted world.
You could argue that the game now favors the solo casual player. This is true but it still isn’t the experience that I feel a lot of people are looking for. I like having the option for both depending on my time allotment. The real aspect Blizzard needs to figure out is the time/work-to-reward ratio which is lacking in this game and balance that around how players can interact with each other. Somehow Wrath of the Lich King sounded like it was the closest in this regard. Of course, that all could be just nostalgia but just based on what I’ve read and heard, this case seems to hold true.