The Cataclysm Classic Question

I am still exploring this issue in my head, but that never stopped me from writing something down.   And, frankly, sometimes writing it down helps solidify my thoughts.  We’ll see.

I mentioned the idea of Cataclysm Classic in my questions for 2023 post, and was prompted to think about it again by the Activision Blizzard Q4 2022 financials.

A day that will live in infamy…

Things were going swimmingly for the Blizzard side of the house coming out of Q4.  And well it might be, Blizz having launched the Dragonflight expansion for retail WoW.  Quarters with WoW expansions tend to be earnings peaks for the company.

Eventually though the board… or maybe at some point Microsoft… will want to know what Blizz has done for them lately.  WoW expansions don’t hold onto subscribers for a full two years.

okay, explain this then…

Well, RECENT expansions… like every expansion after Wrath of the Lich King… has seen subscribers drop off, some more than others.

Of course, we don’t actually know what the subscriber base is for WoW because after Warlords of Draenor crashed after its first year Blizzard declined to mention subscriptions ever again, opting for Monthly Active Users, or MAUs… which then also began a downward spiral quarter after quarter.

JFC, if you’re going to cherry pick a metric, go with one that makes you look good, right?

Anyway, my point is that no matter how spectacular the current retail player base thinks Dragonflight is, it still fell short of sales expectations (again, from the Q4 2022 financials) to the point that Blizz was offering promotions to come play before it was a month out of the box, so it seems like a safe bet that Blizz cannot depend on it holding its own for two years no matter how many pretty road map graphics they put out.

So they need something else and they’ve got… WoW Classic, which pulled their chestnuts out of the fire previously.

Only they have arguably shot their metaphorical bolt on the WoW Classic front since the most reasonable definition in my book for the Classic era of WoW is “before Cataclysm,” or, maybe looking at that chart above “expansions that grew the user base during their two year reign.”

Which might lead one to conclude that the WoW Classic revenue stream is not… if not dead, at least not going to be able to bring enough weight to the table to offset a second summer collapse of another retail WoW expansion.

Sure, Blizzard can continue to fiddle around with some more fresh start options for vanilla and such, and that will probably pay for itself and make some profit, but nothing is going to match the epic return to the game that came with the initial launch of WoW Classic.  The pent up demand has been sated and unless Blizzard takes it away again for another decade, there will be no huge tidal wave of players keen to relive their glory days.

And yet, there are still expansions, good expansions, in the mix that would arguably be fun to go back and relive the way they were before Blizz took away the borrowed power of the month to promote the next big idea.  Legion with legendary weapons for example.  I would be up for that.

I would go so far as to say that Cataclysm is a pretty good expansion.

In hindsight I think the thing that I and many others were pissed about was the destruction of the old world, replacing it with a completely different experience.  It isn’t that one version of the world was necessarily better than the other, it is that the one we knew and loved and were invested in was taken away such that we could never return… unless we went and played on one of the many WoW pirate servers that sprung up to keep that old world alive for people.

It was also the first expansion where Blizz decided to fight the expanding level cap by limiting it to just five additional levels with Cata, which felt odd.

But I have played through all of the Kalimdor and Eastern Kingdoms zones post-Cataclysm… there is a series of posts about that from ages ago… and the zones are pretty fun.  Some were changed dramatically, some were given a lighter touch, but the overall effect was to give them each a story to play through that lacked many of the gaps or sudden stair steps of quest levels that was part of the Vanilla experience.

I think the main problem with them was that the level curve by that point for 1-60 had been compressed so much that it was difficult to play through a whole zone before you out-leveled the quests.

And, of course, Cata added five new zones, including one of the prettiest zones they’ve ever done in the game.  Vashj’ir, the under water zone was just spectacular… though like all such zones, prone to producing motion sickness in some if you were not careful.

So it feels like there ought to be a path forward with Cataclysm in the vein of the WoW Classic theme.  The complexity of possible outcomes does vex me however.

You don’t want to force happy Wrath Classic people into Cata… that was how we got in this mess.  But would it popular enough to warrant its own stand-alone, fresh start server?  One can certainly argue that you can go play those zones RIGHT NOW in retail.  The problem, as pointed out previously, is that you cannot play anything but the current expansion with the classes and talents and borrowed power that existed in any of the old expansions.

In order to unlock “classic” versions of all those previous expansions I feel like Blizzard has to start with Cataclysm.

But I am not sure that it would be worth the effort, or that Blizzard would want to have yet another branch of their code to support yet another launcher tab for yet another version of World of Warcraft.  Certainly the internal argument against any such move is going to be the level squish and how you can play all that old content from level 10 to 50 now obviates any need to have any further deviation retail WoW… so long as you want to play the old content with the Dragonflight classes, specs, power, and whatever…  even the UI fights against the feel of the old content.

So I am undecided still on this as an idea.


6 thoughts on “The Cataclysm Classic Question

  1. Bhagpuss

    As I’ve said before, of all the eras of WoW after Vanilla, Cataclysm is the one I’d be most interested in playing. I’ve not seen most of the revamped zones and although I obviously could go do that in Retail, it would equally obviously be more fun to see them for the first time in an environment as close as possible to the one they were made for.

    Of course, it would be dependant on something changing at Blizzard to make me willing to give them money again, which I have nominally and almost arbitrarily pinned on the Microsoft deal going through. Current analyst expectation appears to be that it will and no later than mid-May, since apparently all the state action against it just proves there’s no legal case to stop it. Or something.

    Anyway, given that proviso, I’d sub for a month or two to give Cata a go. I suspect, however, that not nearly enough people would feel similarly to make it much of a deal compared to Vanilla or WotLK. Then again, as you suggest, what are they going to do instead? I’d bet on it happening rather than bet against it.


  2. PCRedbeard

    I guess I’m one of those who went through Cataclysm the first time, and I was excited for it right up until it dropped and… Then I wasn’t. The revised Old World was a better game but it wasn’t a world with a few broad brush strokes’ worth of quests to provide some basic flavor. There was a highly scripted zone quest environment that stripped away everything open-ish that I liked about the Old World, and half of those had quest stories that made me feel grimy and dirty for even bothering to play Horde in those zones.

    (The Alliance doesn’t get off scot free either, but they definitely got a nicer treatment than the Horde. Really, Blizz should take some notes about how to play an “evil empire” from the Sith Empire in SWTOR rather than making the Horde fairly unlikeable all the way around.)

    When the original pre-patch for Cataclysm dropped, my two toons I was leveling as alts –one each Horde and Alliance– were in the L50s or so, so I got a chance to see firsthand how you get all this new Cataclysm content and then…. You get sent back in time to Outland. Sure, there were more Kill Ten Rats quests in Outland, but at least you nominally had the Horde and Alliance working toward a common goal, and not the endless faction conflict that the Old World turned into. I discovered I liked the quest design in TBC Classic more than what Blizz had turned the post-Cataclysm Old World into.

    That quest design and emphasis on the conflict may appeal to the PvP crowd, and the raids may appeal to the raiding crowd, but even more than the ugly nature of the random dungeon runs I will always remember Cataclysm for the time when Blizz made sure you couldn’t go home again to the original Old World. For Blizz, faction conflict was the point of the game, and they made sure that you never forgot it.


  3. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Bhagpuss – I think Cataclysm is the WoW version of Gates of Discord; a divisive expansion. But if Blizz can’t roll it into classic, then they are going to have a tough time rolling classic flavors of any of the other later expansions.

    I have been trying to think about what would make Cata Classic an event that people would want to join in on. Still working on idea one on that front.

    @PCRedbeard – Because I played Wrath from start to finish I was REALLY invested in Cataclysm as well. And Blizz was hyping it up. I still have all five copies of the WoW Magazine on my shelf, all about the coming of Cataclysm.

    My expectations were extraordinarily high after Wrath, and so had all that much further to fall when Cata landed and it was just… well, pretty good, but not great. I left and didn’t come back until the back half of Pandaria.

    The only expansion that came close to that level of disappointment was Warlords of Draenor… though Shadowlands is, so far, my least played expansion, leaving aside Dragonflight for now. But I wasn’t all that invested in Shadowlands. We did at least do all the 5 person dungeons in Cata eventually, once we came back and needed to level up to get to Pandaria.


  4. Archey

    My issue with Cataclysm is a mix of Wilhelm and Redbeard’s: it both took familiar and much loved places away (RIP Auberdine where some of my deepest WoW memories were made*), and also reduced the worldiness and put the experience on rails. It honestly felt to me as of a piece with the “dev team knowing what is best for the player” mindset. The zones lead you too much by the nose.

    That said, I think later expansions like Pandaria were quite solid, and it doesn’t seem feasible to get to them without Cata, so I suppose it can’t be helped.

    * Never having played on a pirate server, I had an emotional reaction to my arrival in Auberdine the first time in Classic. It was a very formative area in my WoW experience and I still feel like the ambiance design just nails the mood perfectly.


  5. SynCaine

    I wonder what the population would look like if they did create a Cata server and kept ‘vanilla’ going. If the pop on Cata is low, they likely stop other expansions coming out after under the vanilla banner, and maybe refocus on the first 3 expansions and how they can keep interest in those going.

    They likely will just roll out Cata and keep rolling expansions after, as its the easiest thing to do.


  6. Shintar

    They forced TBC players into Wrath, so I don’t see why they wouldn’t force Wrath players into Cata. I think many players will also feel “ready” for Cata by the time Wrath approaches its end, since there seems to be a significant portion of the Classic player base that’s always chasing the thrill of reliving the next raid tier.

    I do think the controversy around the expansion is the one thing that might make Blizzard hesitate, but I still think it’s quite likely to happen. They’ll just have to make sure to distract the most vocal of the Cata haters with a new seasonal Vanilla server or something.


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