In case you missed the news, the WoW: Cataclysm beta test is now under way, which means that I now begin the long and arduous task of waiting for the client to download, install, and patch itself up before I can actually get in and start playing the game. Naturally, that means that I get to spend a bit more time just thinking about how this expansion resonates with me. Hooray!
I've spoken with more than a few people who don't play WoW - or who don't play MMOGs in general - and can't understand why this expansion is such a big deal to us denizens of Azeroth. It's just another expansion, right? So what if Blizzard is going back and changing some things, doesn't that always happen? The designers make some changes, they add more levels and dungeons and new zones - to some of these people, Cataclysm just seems like the same old thing all over again.
To the people who play WoW, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Now, it's true that MMOG expansions have always changed things in their respective games, but I can't think of any game that did something quite like this - the utter destruction and rebirth of its world. Star Wars Galaxies changed its entire gameplay with the NGE (which was a cataclysm of sorts, yes), but the universe remained the same. EVE Online has made more than a few graphics-and-engine updates, but everything else is the same old EVE, where change is an expected element but the core principles of the universe remain the same.
Cataclysm is the opposite. The gameplay will be getting the same tweaks that always come with expansions, but will mostly remain the same - it's everything else that's changing. And that's the weird part.
Gamers are creatures of habit, because, let's face it, humans are creatures of habit. We get used to things no matter what game we're playing - it's why we'll hang out at the same inn in Bree to roleplay in LotRO, it's why we'll always go for the energy sword in Halo 3 even though we know how it'll be camped, and it's why we'll usually build our characters in Baldur's Gate 2 and Torchlight in similar ways every time we replay it.
But what if one day, all of that changed?
With LotRO, Turbine is following the Lord of the Rings story as closely as possible, but what if they decided to change that. One day, you log into the game to find out that Sauron has won. He's captured Frodo and taken the One Ring, and now the armies of Mordor are marching their way across Middle-earth. Players must now fight Sauron to desperately protect their homelands as his orcs torch everything in their path.
It'd be a cool twist and make for a very dynamic gaming experience, but the Tolkien fanatics wouldn't be the only ones up in arms. The people who play LotRO are every bit as attached to the world Turbine has built out of the beloved books as the people who play WoW are attached to Azeroth. They both have places where they like to just hang out or idle away the time - and now you're telling them it's changing? We've spent the last few years growing accustomed to a certain mindset that suddenly no longer applies. It's like if Star Trek Online players all logged in to find themselves in the Mirror Universe.