Wednesday, July 8, 2009

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, Maelstrom and Goblins

The Maelstrom in an early World of Warcraft world map
So the scuttlebutt is currently that the next expansion to World of Warcraft will:

* Be announced at BlizzCon in August
* Be titled "World of Warcraft: Cataclysm"
* Involve the Maelstrom (that big swirly thing and associated regions in the middle of the world map of Azeroth)
* Be released sometime in 2010

So, what do we know about the Maelstrom? Well, it's one feature left over from the so-called "Great Sundering" which occurred about 10,000 years prior to the current day in WoW, and currently houses the city of Nazjatar, home city of the Naga and Queen Azshara. They are, in turn, opposed by the Makrura in their capital city of Mak'aru.

Outside of the Maelstrom lie a few locations of interest which would likely be a part of any expansion involving this region. Collectively these are known as the South Seas and include a number of interesting locales, but none more important to the rest of Azeroth than Kezan, home of the Goblins of Azeroth's main city, Undermine.

So we have the greatest of the Night Elf antagonists (now that Illidan has been killed), Azshara. We have the Goblin capital, and we have the numerous islands of the South Seas. So what can we tell about an expansion involving all of these? Here's what I think is coming:

Goblin tinkerer reading a tomeGoblins will be a playable race. I'm not the first to think of this, but I'm pretty sure it's coming. I believe that this will be the case because they have very explicitly been a huge part of WoW since launch at every level. They have outposts in starter areas like the Barrens, mid-level areas like STV and Tanaris, Outland, Northrend... everywhere! They exist as level 1-80 NPCs. This makes them unique in WoW in terms of being a non-playable race that are heavily involved in every area of the game. Their homeland was also one of the earliest concepts for the game.

Now that Blizzard has added faction-switching to the game, it seems pretty clear that they're clearing the way for a future with more fluidity between the factions, and a neutral Goblin race would definitely be in line with that. Of course, players can't be neutral (PvP would be rather messy). Instead, some factions of Goblins will have to ally themselves with the Horde and others with the Alliance, while the bulk of them continue to maintain their neutrality. I suspect that Undermine will be a Dalaran/Shattrath-like hub city, supporting a thriving population of players and NPCs, and perhaps solidifying the neutral auction house as the primary venue for trade in the game?

But, I digress. Back to the Goblins. I suspect that there will be no new hero class in Cataclysm. Why? Because Blizzard is bending under the weight of balancing PvP as it is, and every class added represents 3 new talent trees full of possible over-powered or under-powered PvP and PvE interactions with the existing classes. A new hero class would also allow players to have high-level Goblins on day one, making all other Goblin classes far less likely to be played during the first few months of release. Instead, I expect they're going to skip an expansion or bring in a hero class in a later patch. The Goblins will certainly be Warriors and Rogues. Those just make obvious sense. Priests, Mages and Warlocks are also likely. Beyond that, we can clearly say that they won't be Druids or Paladins. Shaman isn't in keeping with the lore, I believe, but they could probably come up with a reason to do it. Death Knight is possible, but unlikely for the reasons stated above.

They will likely start in new areas, specific to their chosen faction, and will either end up going to Undermine or directly to the old world via airship around level 20 (similar to the way Blood Elves and Draenei worked in The Burning Crusade). This means that, outside of Undermine itself, Blizzard will only have to create four zones (or perhaps two large zones with Alliance and Horde sub-areas) to support the new Goblins as they level.

Now, the big question: when? My guess is aggressive to say the least: early 2010. Let me lay out a likely timeline:

August 2009: 3.2
October 2009: 3.3 / Icecrown raid on the Lich King
December-February 2010: 4.0 alpha/beta testing begins
February-March 2010: 4.0 lands
March-April 2010: Cataclysm lands about 1 month after 4.0

My guess would be that they will raise the level cap 5 or 10 levels (I don't think they want to keep cranking it up 10 levels every expansion, though... it could even be zero!) Then there will be a series of patched-in dungeons much like the previous expansions. At least one of these will be Uldum, wherein we will learn that Goblins were actually created by the Titans, much the same as Dwarves, and that they too suffer the "curse of flesh". Note that this was foreshadowed by Blizzard's Drysc who said, "I find the door still interesting as something has obviously broken out. Was there something meant to be contained within Uldum, to be forgotten, that's escaped?" Yes indeed, folks, something was contained therein, and it escaped.

The Eye of the Maelstrom itself will probably be an open zone, but Nazjatar will likely be the final raid dungeon of the expansion with the fight against Azshara culminating the content.

So I've stuck my neck out far enough... I'll sit back now and see what comes.

Note: images in this post are owned by Blizzard, with special thanks to WoWWiki, which is where I got them.