With something like Cataclysm, the temptation for players and journalists alike is to look to the past - to the memories we've forged and to the places that we won't be able to return to. For Blizzard, however, Cataclysm is about looking forward. Both Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King were largely about finishing plot threads started in Warcraft III, and while Deathwing is certainly a character from pre-existing Warcraft lore, Blizzard has the opportunity to build him up in a way to make players understand who he is. "The big thing for us is building characters like that up with the players, so that when these characters become big, the players understand who they are," said Stockton. "You're going to see that with Deathwing over the course of this expansion, you're going to see Deathwing play out in a similar way we saw Arthas play out in the quest lines in Northrend. Deathwing has a human form that he can appear in just like any dragon, and also Deathwing is pretty crazy epic on his own."
With that in mind, said Stockton, Blizzard's raid designers had already been trying to figure out how to give the world-breaking dragon the sendoff battle he deserves. "We've been talking about the Deathwing fight for at least a couple months now ... [if] you look at Deathwing, he's gigantic. The actual scale of how big he is represented in the game ... he's huge! He's literally the size of, like, Wintergrasp. He's gigantic, he's zone-sized. So you think about how you're going to do a fight with something like that, and there are a lot of ideas and a lot of new ways that we want to interact with him, ways to make that fight be really, really incredibly epic."
At BlizzCon 2010 Systems Designer Greg Street said that he occasionally felt like the developers had painted themselves into a corner. How do you give a class a new ability when you've given them X, Y, Z, and A, B and C already? For that matter, with Cataclysm the WoW team is destroying the world - what can they possibly do to top that?
"I think that we have a lot of ideas," Stockton laughed. "For us, the universe is pretty wide-open. Right? When you look at the universe we're working in, the actual universe of Warcraft? We're still just on Azeroth. We're on this one planet in the whole place. For Burning Crusade, obviously we went to Outland and saw this whole different place, then we came back to Azeroth for Northrend and we're still here for Cataclysm," he said. Not only were there places on Azeroth yet to be discovered, but the "portal worlds" that had originally been planned for Outland - but never materialized - were still in the cards should the team want to take Warcraft into unexplored frontiers.
It wasn't that the developers never felt backed into a corner, though. "The question you're asking is what we asked ourselves after Northrend: We said, 'What can we POSSIBLY do to top Icecrown and Arthas and Dragonblight and the whole crazy story that's happening here with the Scourge?'" Trying to top themselves was a matter of trial and error, and more than a little hard work that would never see the light of day. "Cataclysm was not the first idea - we had many ideas that actually went through a couple months of development time, of trying to figure out if this was the right way to go before we got to Cataclysm."
When the team settled on the story of the gigantic earth-breaking dragon whose domain over the earth gave him the power to destroy the world, though, it seemed like a perfect fit. "[It] gave us the perfect reason to go back and redo everything" that the team had been unhappy with. "I think we have a bunch of ideas, of things that we can do to keep pushing the gameplay and story for the players."
For now, though, those players are stuck in Azeroth, watching as the world burns and shakes around them - and knowing that these changes won't be reversed. Even after the dragon has been slain and the players face the next threat to life in the world of Warcraft, the events of Cataclysm aren't going away.
Cory Stockton and the rest of the WoW team are hoping that destruction will bring rebirth - that with the end of the old world, Azeroth will be remade better than it had ever been before. It won't be long now before players get to see if they're right.