The challenge of remaking Azeroth

GDC 2011: Blizzard game director Tom Chilton on the tough choices that had to be made when rupturing World of Warcraft with Cataclysm, and what they got right (and what they didn't).


Who was there: Blizzard game director Tom Chilton, who was speaking to a packed house at this GDC 2011 session on the challenges the team faced when remaking Azeroth in World of Warcraft for last year's expansion, Cataclysm.

Chilton wasn't happy about some of the changes in Cataclysm.
Chilton wasn't happy about some of the changes in Cataclysm.

What they talked about: Azeroth went through quite the makeover for last year's World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, with many familiar locales and even familiar gameplay elements changing with the new expansion. Chilton began his session by stating that planning for Cataclysm actually started during the end of development for Wrath of the Lich King, with the team at Blizzard acknowledging that some of the massively multiplayer online game's content was beginning to show its age. Chilton said that while leveling content was still meaningful for all types of players, regardless of their own personal play patterns, the game's core systems were becoming increasingly complex over time.

This increasing complexity isn't solely for MMO games, though, with Chilton saying this was even true for "separated" games that act as stand-alone sequels. After some time, these complex systems needed some pruning. In approaching what changes they would make with Cataclysm, Chilton said the team took the one-third approach; that is, leave one-third unchanged, add in one-third new, and improve on one-third of the current game. This, Chilton said, was a good way to keep the interest of core players without losing those elements that made them fall in love with the game.

Making changes--big or small--to Azeroth's various zones was, according to Chilton, one of the scariest parts of the process, because the "world" part of WOW was arguably its strongest asset. He said that Azeroth was a charming place to be in, drawing people in even from the first few zones players experienced. The richness of the world, he said, made people want to explore, and since it was so integral to the game, it became one of the most dangerous things to tinker with when it came to Cataclysm. But making changes to zones wasn't the only thing Blizzard wanted to do with the latest expansion. Just as some zones were showing their age, WOW's content and mechanics were also showing signs. WOW's content had become increasingly easy to categorize into three types of quests: kill mobs, collect items, or "FedEx quests." Cataclysm, Chilton said, was their way of introducing more variety.

But Chilton's critique of his own game didn't stop there. The designer said the first, "vanilla" WOW did not have great flow, with individual members of the design team just throwing in cool ideas for quests without any thought to flow. As a result, players were sent back and forth through the world, or even running out of quests in one zone and having to search for others. Chilton continued by saying that storytelling was also not outstanding, with the team often telling the story in found texts instead of showing people.

The revamp philosophy for Cataclysm, then, was to first prioritize which zones they would tinker with. Chilton said that Blizzard was all too aware that changing too much would delay the release of Cataclysm. At the same time, the team wanted to retain the soul of the original zones, while improving the mechanics and flow of the game and advancing the overall story.

Chilton then focused on the zone of Desolace as a specific example. The original Desolace was, as its name suggested, a desolate landscape, but it had problems because it was too monotonous and oppressive, and the quests to be found within it were not that well designed (the centaur war that players could get involved in was too narrow, Chilton said, while the legion presence in the area was actually more annoying than threatening). There was also poor hubbing, flow, and travel, forcing players to run across the entire zone to do any quests thanks to the locations of the hubs.

With Cataclysm, the team decided to do a visual upgrade as well as a story progression with the Cenarion regrowth. When it came to updating mechanics, flow, and travel within the zone, Chilton said their designers did an excellent job. But when it came to the lusher look of the new Desolace, Chilton wasn't quite as happy, saying that the changes actually lost a little bit of the soul of Desolace. "We didn't have to go against its original vibe to make the place less monotonous or oppressive."

The next zone Chilton focused on was Westfall, and Chilton said the team did a much better job with changing this area. Westfall, he said, had a really strong feel and vibe right from the beginning, in part thanks to the zone being the area for the culmination of the Defias storyline. But the zone did have the oldest mechanics and flow of the original game and, as a result, wasn't hubbed very well (with Sentinel Hill being "inadequate," according to Chilton). In Cataclysm, Westfall retained its overall look, with only minor Cataclysmic effect changes. The biggest change, however, was in improving quest mechanics, particularly with players having to uncover the story behind the disappearance of the Defias Brotherhood from the zone. Chilton was much more upbeat about the changes made to this zone.

Chilton then moved on to WOW's talent system as an example of a game system becoming too complex over time. Chilton said the game's talent system had become bloated over time thanks to numerous additions made with the previous expansions. Chilton said the original approach with Cataclysm was to add even more talents, just as they did with Lich King and Crusade, but the team soon realized that this had to stop. Chilton said a large number of talents would be overwhelming for new and returning players, and more talents wouldn't actually be beneficial, because there would only ever be a finite number of effective talent mixes available despite the number of individual powers on offer.

While the decision was eventually made to slightly pare back talents in Cataclysm, there was still plenty of choice that could be intimidating for a new player. Chilton said that at one stage, the team was mulling a system where the game would auto-select talents for novices, but quickly decided that making those decisions was a key part of the gameplay experience. And while they didn't implement a totally new system, Chilton did call out one game as having done it the right way and having a good selection without the complexity--Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. "As a choice system, this panned out a lot better than our talent system panned out," he said.

Quote: "We could really f*** it up."--Chilton on the hesitation the Blizzard team had when deciding to remake Azeroth in Cataclysm.

Takeaway: Chilton's main piece of advice for other developers attempting to make changes to their game or create sequels was to know what made the original great in the first place. He also stressed the need to pick the right changes, saying that making the wrong ones could ruin the feel of the game.

Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email

Join the conversation
There are 83 comments about this story
83 Comments  RefreshSorted By 
  • 83 results
  • 1
  • 2
GameSpot has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to toxic conduct in comments. Any abusive, racist, sexist, threatening, bullying, vulgar, and otherwise objectionable behavior will result in moderation and/or account termination. Please keep your discussion civil.

Avatar image for Unholy123

-WoW use to have this crazy thing called classes now... all your are is a tank dps or healer doesnt matter WHAT of those your are its just your one of them and you dont even do the job different then most others of different classes and they even changed the buffing systems so now a warrior can give everyone fort if you dont have a priest ect ect more or less took it all out and made u cookie cutter to fit into the games group finding system. -To sum up how easy the game is it use to be oooh wow you have 1000g thats alot now its oh you have 10K meh and they think they can make their old content viable again? wtf is the point when theres literally 3 tiers of players ahead of it BC content which at lvl58 smokes everything from vanilla to LK content which likewise is light years ahead of BC gear to freaking Cata gear which is a whole nuther level a dude at 79 in cata greens could smoke an old lv80 in full LK raid gear. They shoot the old expansion everytime they release a new one. I mean theres a whole floating world called outlands that literally is barren other then the poor bastards trying to level OUT of it likewise with Northend they dont support old content in WoW they bury it and move on to the new area. -Damn wall of text I apparently cant use the enter bar and start a new paragraph cause everytime I sumbit it squishs it all.

Avatar image for Titusthetiger

A big part of vanilla WoW's charm was that you had to find things out on your own. It was 20 times as hard to level to 60 back then as it is now, but 100 times more satisfying. With WoW cataclysm I'm getting the idea that the game is being played FOR me. It's too easy, way too easy, and the game has lost a lot of it's charm and all of its mystery. In the new WoW you don't find the quests, the quests find you. In the new WoW everything is balanced. In the new WoW you get an achievement for everything. In the new WoW everything is perfect, but the game isn't nearly as fun as it once was. The last 3 years have been for WoW what episode 1, 2 and 3 have been for Star Wars.

Avatar image for protonian87

WoW was a great game until they made it completely look like another rpg with only three classes in it. I use to watch the first CG of WoW showing all the class. Homogenisation has already kill this game Just looking for another mmo from the previous dev team. This 'B" team has nothing on to look on board for except for their ignorant, condecending and bla bla bla.. So long.. B team :)

Avatar image for fustahman24

Looking at the current mmo market I would say: EVE - Best pure pvp mmo (play if your part masochistic/sadistic) LoTRO - Best pure pve mmo (play if you enjoy lore) WoW - Best timesink/grind mmo (play if you enjoy powergrinding) DCUO - Best console/action mmo (Cause its the only one...grats SOE!) Rift - Best new MMO (It's like WoW 2.0, 50 players on screen and no launch)

Avatar image for MacCracken

Why do people want WoW, but something new and differend?? then it's not WoW.. I do understand that a game gets boring after 6 years, but then go play something else.. bahwaah, Football Manager have had the same mechanics for over 15 years.. I want FM, but an FPS!!... And why do people care about "this or that mmo will top it" or "WoW has allready peaked"?? just play whatever you like and forget about the rest.. This is not Fanboyism.. I'm entertained in WoW a couple of months a year and then it gets boring, but its enough to check out all the new stuff :)

Avatar image for aphextwin777

I've quit WoW after 5 years of playing on and off, no doubt I've had many hours of fun playing it but unfortunately for me now the game mechanics have become tiresome and tedious, plus Blizzard have seemed to of focused on pointless superficial rewards like achievements, pets and mounts rather than introducing new game play styles and diversity. Reputation grinding, instance/raid grinding (with pugs) and doing daily quests day after day is not fun. So I conclude WoW has probably reached it's peak in terms of popularity and I'm sure future MMO games will supersede it sooner or later.

Avatar image for Brakua

Game looks like crap, runs like crap, and is the same thing over and over for 6 years. There comes a time when a person gets tired of seeing his/her character get different colour spandex to wear, it's ridiculous how horrible a multi-billion company can't make a good engine for a game. Here come the flames, I can taste them :D.

Avatar image for breezeatnight

I know something else what would help bring the old content back to life (not only a face lift) but... a AIO (all in one pack). I get the GF willing to check out WoW as a rainy weekend gig. Grab a couple of the latest releases and grab a couple time cards... come home and update... or wait... I have to buy the original and ALL the expansions (I know "expansions") then still pay the regular $15 fee per month. I get it... just seems buy now... there would be some break. Meh, looks like these time cards and these two expansions will be collecting dust - Rift looks cool anyways. Don't bother flaming the post either... I get the whole mechanics of it... just with such a HUGE domination of the MMO market for so long... you'd think they may have let up a little on their customers. Not to mention so many (not "great") but pretty decent ones you play for free some alternative to the regular buy, buy, buy, fee, fee, etc... Just a thought... not a rant, complaint or b1tch... Take care.

Avatar image for breezeatnight

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

Avatar image for cirugo

They've just gone completely overboard with the buffing/nerfing rollercoaster. I finally had to get off after being a generally satisfied player for 6 years.

Avatar image for kenmanius

So is 1000 agility and 600 resilience still good? I've been out of the loop.

Avatar image for ArticRecon

p.s. obviously consoles would be able to handle a much better engine obviously.. WoW graphics currently are early PS2

Avatar image for ArticRecon

Will WoW 2 ever be created? With a better game engine? or will we just have eternal expansions to modify the current game/engine. Time for a new game. The "die-hard" WoW ers should be able to transfer things to the new one just so all their hard work from the old one wouldn't be for not. Wonder if there will ever be a console bleed over as well? They already have a WoW special keyboard for PC. I bet that WoW ers would be willing to purchase one for a console if there was a version. Simultaneous worlds between the two, PC/Console. Just a few thoughts to throw out there.

Avatar image for -Unreal-

@UBERxL33T ok

Avatar image for UBERxL33T

@-Unreal- I hope you are aware that more than half of the thumbs down you get are because of your avatar...

Avatar image for fxxl

WoW was good until Cataclysm came out, then it became a big old joke.

Avatar image for DreamerX213

Wow was a good game .... and set the mold for the great games to come after it but no matter how many expansions they roll out this game has died IMO and the only ones still playing are the poor souls who have lost their souls to blizzard. It's not the game it started out to be anymore all the fun days are gone it now looks like N64 and you find your self doing the same lame quests over and over and over. Wow use to have the best PVP in and MMO but all thats really left to this game now is end game Raiding and even that seems like a waste of time when it changes up so quickly.... WOw will always hold a place in my heart the fun memories of 2H AV's and Burning Crusade was wow at it's best but now I look for more in a game so sorry blizz i'm not in azeroth anymore...........................

Avatar image for blackace

@-Unreal- said: @blackace Ok. There's a thing called blogging. You should try it. It suits your style of writing. ************************************************************************** Meh... I don't do much blogging. I would still be playing WoW if I had the time and money. I had like 5 characters when I quit and one was at L73. I hope Blizzard will make Warcraft IV some day.

Avatar image for Zophar87

@DamnMe1337 You didn't offend. I don't recall a guild on my server who DIDN'T complain about heroic Arcatraz.

Avatar image for DamnMe1337

@Zophar87 Not true, they were harder alright.. But not impossible.. I had a blast with my fellow guildmates in the heroics at the time of TBC's start.. Much more fun than the faceroll in wotlk.. Maybe you ain't much of a wow player, hard fact to admit to oneself but everyone can't be good at everything. Too bad blizzard didn't agree with that and made all heroics faceroll after tbc. (haven't played cata, so can't comment on that). And I did not mean to offend you btw, just stating the facts..

Avatar image for Anicsin

World of Warcraft without expansions was the best.

Avatar image for Zophar87

@Slammer612 Well, that's amusing. Nice try at trolling, but I believe that I mentioned very directly that I was around for TBC's launch and LONG before that. Heroics in TBC were not fun during TBC's infancy and some were downright impossible to complete with the gear at the time.

Avatar image for -Unreal-

@blackace Ok. There's a thing called blogging. You should try it. It suits your style of writing.

Avatar image for Fossil-

Glad to know it was such a challenge for Blizzard to recycle their old content. God forbid they ever release another expansion that has new ideas instead of remaking Naxx, Azeroth, MC/Rag, and every other piece of lore ad nauseum. A shame too since there's so much lore that HASN'T been done yet. To be fair, leveling in Azeroth was a chore and it's nice that they revamped it. It was just a horrible basis for an expansion. The entire game is just being recycled.

Avatar image for Zork_Wesker

That's kind of an asinine statement, comparing what Cataclysm did to the old world starting areas to breast implants on old women. The new quests in these older areas are great and it's something WoW has needed for a long time. After Burning Crusade leveling a new alt that wasn't a Draenei or Blood Elf was a chore for a long time...and don't even bring up the purgatory that was levling 40 to 60. Now leveling a character can be done fairly quickly and can be enjoyed in many different ways because of the redone quest hubs, dungeon system and PvP system.

Avatar image for RossRichard

They did a good job, shame that 90% of the people that play are complete Dbags. Redoing the starter areas for the people that play is like putting breast implants on a 70-year old woman, or putting an expensive chandelier in a haunted house.

Avatar image for Decon96

They did a good job with this expansion I must say, even though i refuse to buy it. I put my old account onto a 10 day free cataclysm trial to try it out, got a worgen warrior from 0-73 in about 7 days, the new Azeroth zones were actually extremely fun, which was a pleasant surprise. I just don't have the time or money to play it anymore.

Avatar image for Ronnie_Rim

I don't understand why people are hating on Blizzard and on how they play it for like 15 hours a day. It's not Blizzard's fault that you play it like an addict. It YOUR fault that you don't know how to control yourself.

Avatar image for smiseck

i totally agree with what dRuGGeRnaUt said with the gear. the gear looks like poo. i mean older stuff looks way cooler than this crap. the only gear ive some what liked is the PvE gear the mages get, which i think would look cooler on a lock than a mage. you took the time to re-amp the world but in turn the gear took a few steps back. and yes i have to say i took a year and a half off from the game. cata comes out i restarted was real fun at first, then after i got my toons geared its like what do i do now, im kinda gettin bored with it. and god the queue times for BG's are horrid right now, i was in queue for 45 min the other day. you changed TB and now it sucks, wanted to make it more even and seems like its horribly uneven! but ill still shell out my 15.00 a month. curse you blizzard for making the best MMO in my opinion. come on SWTOR!

Avatar image for Egotte

I still think Chilton and friends made crummy excuses as to why we can't fly in Silvermoon/Azuremyst. Regardless of the reason you've probably heard, ask some of the Cata Beta players. From what I understand, they simply ran out of time to do it!

Avatar image for deactivated-59d151f079814

Blizzard did a GREAT job in remaking the 1 to 58 content... It is no longer a chore like it once was, and for once the more enjoyable BC and Wrath parts are seen as the outdated stuff for once.. One of my major gripes about it is the fact they didn't bother revamping professions.. They still suck 99% of the time.. They need notes from the way Everquest 2 does it.. In which it is extremely every level and able to make extremely gear if your willing to farm the mats.. Archaeology is another profession that is extremely boring and has little to no rewards what so ever.. My DK has it at 450, and the only things he has found in all that time leveling it.. IS junk rewards that are not even fun to use because theya re either so short, on such a huge cd, or do absolutely nothing..

Avatar image for CLOCKWORKIAN

Very nice and detailed article. I enjoyed the changes they made in Azeroth. I remember when I saw Orgimmar for the first time after the change. (whistle) One thing I enjoyed was the change of the dungeons. I've heard that they are a return to form of sorts. As a hunter, I've never had to do crowd control before, so it was a refreshing change for me to actually HAVE to do it to survive a fight. The expansion did a great job with what it set out to do. I'd like to hear what the team's thoughts where for making the new areas, as they are all quite impressive. Can't wait to see what's in store for the next expansion.

Avatar image for Egotte

@SauhlGood I went crazy over the new race/class combinations two weeks prior to the expansion! I started an Undead Hunter (always wanted a hunter that was either human or Undead), got him to the 40s in no time, but I started getting disenchanted with the new questing style. I actually MISSED the old style of questing, as interesting as the story lines were. It was almost impossible to die in the first 50 levels, and I have a problem with the lack of challenge. I do realize that the players who fire back at me for my lack of interest in WoW are the ones who still are only a year or two into it. I would have back then as well, yet we all were still new to it at that point! I think it might be fun to get back into it when the population has died down to many a few million, just to see who has stuck around to that point. I can't believe I'm saying this, but after having played Guild Wars, Warhammer Online, and now Rift, after playing Rift for a day or two, I pop WoW back on and it FINALLY looks outdated. I felt like I was playing a game with a 10 year-old engine! And I was! Ha! I'm really diggin' Rift so far... don't know why. @blackace You just had to use the best damned non-nude picture of Scarlet on the Internet for your avatar, didn't you!? Ha!

Avatar image for blackace

i gave up on WoW. I no longer have 8hrs a day to waste playing the game. When I was home alone and the wife was at work, I had time to do this. Now with a 15m old daughter, the time for playing WoW is long over. I'm lucky if I can get in 5hrs a week to play XBox 360 and PS3. The game was fun for 2 yrs though. Time to move on.

Avatar image for dRuGGeRnaUt

I don't know, Cata seems decent, but most of the "core" players i know got bored within month release. They got really lazy with this expansion.. There are only MAYBE two different armour looks per class, all of the gear is unimaginitive, and boring looking(at least the end game stuff for my 2 toons). They removed abunch of stuff with the pre-cata patch, and now more recently with another. Example: They removed the "Drain Mana" spell from warlocks, yet left all the talents in that boost this.. WTH blizzard?? The destruction tree is USELESS to spend points in until lev70+.. most of the talent points at level 60 and under are spent on talents that UNLOCK at 64+... i don't like being lev 15, and spending talent points on a spell that i dont get till lev 64. There are many, MANY glitches, like them leaving in all the weapon/armor specialization quest lines, after REMOVING specializations... Luckily i had just spent DAYS farming for my blacksmithing Weaponsmithing specialization to LITERALLY have them change and remove it just as i finished.

Avatar image for Spartan-1657

I love the ignorance in this thread. It blows me away, but its expected. Listen people, just cuz you lost interest in the game, or that you just don't like it, doesn't mean that the game is dead. WoW is running strong and still will be for awhile. It obviously is enoyed by a huge amount of people, so stop hating on it and just find another game to play. We don't care if you don't like it. We aren't playing the game to please you.

Avatar image for megakick

the challenge of selling millons and never progressing in the gaming industry. fanboys are the greatest. apple and blizzard thanks you.

Avatar image for Nacimento

Make Warcraft IV!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Avatar image for fillup0

"The challenge of making a bad game worse."

Avatar image for wis3boi

"We could really f*** it up." -- Chilton on the hesitation the Blizzard team had when deciding to remake Azeroth in Cataclysm. Oh wait...they did.

Avatar image for DamnMe1337

@TheRealLisaAnn 200 hours? haha.. more like 200+ days of playtime to evolve your char.. I probably put over a year in playtime into wow, yes.. 365+ days, I'm not good at math and to lazy to put up the calculator atm. but that's quite a few hours. And I don't consider myself crazy, I just had a lot of free time and love games, challenges and the social/teamwork part of the game. Don't be so judgmental of other peoples hobbies. I quit this game now though, as wrath of the lich king expanssion killed my whole experience by the time of Icecrown Citadel.. Ulduar hardmodes rocked though. Wow has run it's course for me, and unfortunately there is no other mmorpg at this moment that I'm willing to dedicate myself too.. and I can't play casual in these kind of things.

Avatar image for blackfray

I think it would've been better to say: "The challenge of Destroying Warcraft"

Avatar image for Dragorro

I quit when sunwell was released seems like I chose right.

Avatar image for leeveeu

Haha what challenge? DRAGONS FTW!!!

Avatar image for DarckArchon

Still i think the game should start from scrach again, even with some changes it indeed shown its age... a long time ago

Avatar image for ionusX

well at least im not the only one not happy with cataclysm.. i hope blizzard stops all this foolishness and heads back to rts and dungeon crawlers something their actually good at.

Avatar image for subyman

Cataclysm was a great expansion, they did a really good job. I played through to 85 and leveled a new character, but something about the game still feels old and dated. It is a great game, but to get me excited again they need to start from the ground up.

Avatar image for vega13mv

i like the changes they made, the new talent trees are better for the most part, excpet i find it dumb that they let you power up moves that my toon can't even use yet, cuz i end up spending the points in other catagories and when i finally do learn the move, i have to pay to reset, which is kinda dumb, granted i can avoid wasting the gold by powering up the move before i learn it but, that takes a bit of guessing as far as how useful the move will actually be when i use it, i think it wouldve been better if the talent trees were on par with spells

Avatar image for puffadell

man these quotes are crazy

  • 83 results
  • 1
  • 2