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Patch 4.2 for "World of Warcraft," titled "Rage of the Firelands," introduces new content for high level players. This content includes a new quest line featuring Thrall, a new legendary caster staff, plus Firelands, a new zone that will include a new reputation, new daily quest hub, and a new raid instance.
Like any other major patch, Patch 4.2 offers us an opportunity to reflect on the changes brought to the game - not only how they will affect the day to day life of the average "World of Warcraft" player, but how they speak of the game's philosophy and direction as a whole. Firelands marks a significant change in direction for "World of Warcraft" in several important areas for end-game players, a shift that cannot easily be reversed.
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Players who have gotten bored of running reputation dailies in Twilight Highlands or Deepholm for a little spare cash (and no reward past revered) will be greeted with a new set of dailies that take place in Hyjal and the Firelands directly. These dailies are somewhat simliar in structure to the Argent Tournament: dailies reward Marks of the World Tree, which can be then turned in to unlock further stages and more dailies. Players will, on an individual level, unlock a storyline that takes the course of a few weeks to complete, and be able to partake in over 60 different daily quests.
The return of a secondary reputatation - that is, a reputation that don't reward basic gear, arcanums, and inscriptions - is refreshing. High level players have been chomping at the bit, enduring dailies with alts or simply skipping them all together once they reached Exalted with each faction. Little daily interaction with "World of Warcraft" at a high level leads to burn-out and boredom; players also need a source of interesting and rewarding dailies as a gold source.
The catch with the Firelands dailies: all rewards are purchased with gold, not tokens. Once a player has earned their rewards, they may have little temptation to continue dailies, leading back to the doldrums pre-4.2.
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The Short Raid
For raiders, the major feature of patch 4.2 is the Firelands, a new outdoor raid instance featuring seven bosses and Tier 12 gear (378/391 iLevel). The final boss of the Firelands is Ragnaros, a boss that long-term "World of Warcraft" players are familiar with, and all players have been anticipating since the beginning of the Cataclysm expansion.
Compare those numbers with the beginning of Cataclysm, however: three raid zones, sporting a total of twelve bosses, greeted players upon reaching level 85. While seven bosses isn't too modest, it edges to the size of Trial of the Champions, a little loved instance in "Wrath of the Lich King" by players and Blizzard alike. Considering that Firelands was initially designed to be released with another raid - Abyssal Maw - but those plans were then cancelled to focus purely on Firelands, there's good reason to worry this raid tier is a little too small.
What's also concerning is the raid difficulty itself - in the short time that the patch has been on the PTR, groups have managed to clear all the bosses, including the mighty Ragnaros himself. Judging from the boss mechanics and the ease that players have pushed past them, it's a good guess that players will quickly clear Firelands and resume farming bosses for months while waiting for the next raid instance to be released.
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Lowering Raid Difficulty
Another major step happening for high level raiders is the reduction of difficulty in all Tier 11 raid content (that is, Bastion of Twilight, Blackwing Descent, and Throne of the Four Winds). Damage reduction and more is being applied to all normal modes, making these raids easier to complete.
The intent behind this change, as Community Manager Bashiok explains, is to allow players to begin experiencing the previous level of raiding when 4.2 comes out, if they haven't already - rather than holding them back through more heroic instance grinding. This "nerf" to content to allow players to step up through it gradually is something that is planned for future raids.
The problem? These raids weren't difficult to begin with. In less than a few months, even casual raiding guilds had most normal content on farm and were moving on to tackle heroic modes. Perhaps the idea is to make visiting T11 content more appealing for the casual player, but most raiding characters will want to move on to the Firelands raid - which will not require Tier 11 gear to be able to compete or complete the fights.
While many of us have held out against the idea that "World of Warcraft" was being toned down to become easier for all to play, these latest changes seem to all but confirm the direction the game is headed in.
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There are mixed feeling on the Dungeon Journal. On one hand, the Dungeon Journal offers an easy way to quickly prepare for fights, and reduces the need for explanations. There's no denying that the convenience of having even a limited boss explanation available in game is beneficial to all players.
However, the discovery of boss abilities, and the development of strategy, has traditionally been in the community's hands - not only for "World of Warcraft," but in the entire video game industry. Individuals and communities have banded together for years to discover all that a boss can do, and to work out the best ways to work around those abilities to defeat the encounter. Blizzard has stated that their goal is "to give a solid foundation for taking on the boss, a general sense of how the encounter will play out, and some context to the abilities, without taking the place of creating independent strategies." In short, Blizzard wants to offer players "tools to be successful."
While the Dungeon Journal doesn't make defeating bosses any easier, and doesn't spell out individual responsibilties for each player in a fight, it does take away from the sense of community and achievement traditionally earned. It's doubtful, however, that the "World of Warcraft" community will stop producing quality guides to these encounters; it simply saves dungeon and raid leaders a little extra time in not having to explain a fight.
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Haste & Desperation
There are, of course, many other changes - mostly good - coming to "World of Warcraft" with Patch 4.2, including a new interface for War Games, a new season of competitive PvP, and balance changes for PvE and PvP.
For all these changes, though, Patch 4.2 marks a significant shift in development plans - the plan to release both content and expansions at a faster rate for "World of Warcraft" players. This is no secret plan: it was discussed by Michael Morhaime, CEO of Blizzard Entertainment, at Activision's 2011 first quarter earnings call. The CEO admitted that players are more experienced, and therefore consume content faster. In order to retain players, Blizzard must avoid boredom - and that means more content, more often.
But does "haste make waste"? In speeding up development - a process we're seeing kick into effect with a smaller raid released six months after Cataclysm - Blizzard must ensure that they maintain the same quality standards that players have come to expect over the past six years. That's a grand challenge to make, especially when players are beginning to become bored of the game's content.
If Blizzard is to rise to this self-created challenge, they must not only provide frequent new content to players, but they must do it more frequently than ever before, without sacrificing quality - all while balancing it around several types of players. It's a challenge that, nearing the seven year mark of "World of Warcraft," may prove a little too large to meet.