The Cataclysm revamp of the original Azeroth was a huge undertaking, with most zones receiving some form of touchup, even if minor. Two zones that saw substantial changes in their own ways were Desolace and Westfall. During his GDC 2011 session, Tom Chilton touched on both of them, detailing the processes and philosophies behind each zones' changes.
The old Desolace, Blizzard felt, was both monotonous and oppresive due to it being... well, desolate. The zone had a lot of potentially interesting content, but none of it went anywhere, and the quest flow was some of the worst in the game. Then there was the not-so-Burning Legion. "If you have something called the Burning Legion, and it's in a zone, it should be kind of scary," he said. In the original, the Legion presence in the zone was more annoying than threatening.
With the new Desolace, they introduced the Cenarion regrowth and with it may have veered away from the 'soul' of the original: "I'll be one of the first to say I signed off on the regrowth idea. I feel like this was a case where it lost a bit of its soul." But that's not always the best thing to do. Mixing it up that dramatically has probably had more harm done than good. "I don't know if this was really the right way of doing it. We wanted to fix the way the zone was monotonous and oppressive," Chilton said.
In the end, Chilton feels that a better approach would have been a more extreme Desolace. Retain the soul, while making everything more scary. A bigger centaur war, a more threatening Burning Legion, and most importantly -- the desolate theme that gave the zone its unique flavor. "I don't think you have to go against its original vibe to make it not-monotonous," he said. "We could have gone a lot more epic with the Desolace theme and it would have turned out better."
Then there's Westfall. It couldn't have been more different than Desolace -- on another continent, very minor Cataclysmic effects, and a revamped storyline that allowed you to progress through a linear, epic tale. "I think we did a much better job with Westfall," he said. "It had a great visual transition from Elwynn Forest. We wanted to keep this, so the terrain changes would be limited."
The biggest change for Westfall was its quest layout. The zone really showed its age, as it was one of the first that the World of Warcraft team worked on early last decade. "It was probably the second zone we'd worked on. What we found is that we didn't hub it very well. Sentinel Hill was very inadequate," Chilton said, pointing to the fact that Sentinel Hill only had a smattering of vendors, and no real identity. The only saving grace for its existence as a quest hub, is that they managed to place it in the middle of the zone. That's good, too, because quests had you bouncing all over the place.
Westfall was one of Blizzard's greatest triumphs in classic from a story standpoint, and that translated over greatly into the latest revision. Alex Afrasiabi worked heavily on the new version and weaved in his creative expertise to make it a zone to be remembered. "We see feedback where people love the new Westfall, while Desolace doesn't feel quite right," Chilton said.
The results of Cataclysm's revamp speak for themselves. While some of the changes have not been welcomed, overall the new leveling experience rivals that of any other MMO -- in most cases trumping them. Azeroth's new face isn't the only thing Blizzard changed, though. In the final article, we'll take a look at Tom Chilton's thoughts on World of Warcraft's talent system and why it was necessary to overhaul it.