Uh-Oh! My Shocks Are Out? MadMartian and SpousalGoddess Wait On a Bridge in Azeroth, September, 2007.
When I first tried it out, I didn't like World of Warcraft.
There, I've said it.
Even though the debt-grind of City of Heroes was getting me down, and even though I wanted a change in my game worlds, the pre-release beta of Blizzard's first foray into the MMO world left me flat.
I didn't connect with the game for a lot of reasons. First off, the art design bugged the hell out of me. After the stylized-but-still-realistic comic book world of City of Heroes, Blizzard's Azeroth felt just too cartoony. It didn't feel new and exciting. It felt old-school and boring.
Secondly, the character customization just plain stunk. "Oh, look," I grumbled, "I can have one of ten faces, with no change to body shape or size." After being able to create everything from Superman to Cassie Banning in City of Heroes, the choices available to shape the look-and-feel of your avatar felt pathetic.
You Can Have Any Avatar, As Long As Its Ours. Character Customization (Cassie Banning, Here) that WoW Sadly Lacks.
Thirdly, the archetypes felt, well, dull. Oh, look, I could be a warrior, or a paladin, or a hunter, or a...
Disappointed by the lack of variety I figured I'd play it safe. I created a human warrior and logged in to face the world.
That's where I saw the first glimmer of clever design. Quests -- somewhat hidden in City of Heroes -- were incredibly easy to find. A massive golden exclamation mark hanging in the air above an NPCs head meant they had a task to do. Right-clicking on them -- which was instinctive -- allowed me to get the quest.
Okay, that was neat.
Then I saw my first quest: Kill ten wolves.
Wow. How innovative.
Thing is, the wolves were kind of cool looking in their own way. And the animation was really fluid.
Huh. Maybe this wouldn't suck.
I lept into battle...and lo, did it suck.
After months on City of Heroes, nothing made sense. I had different combat skills, but my interface whined that I needed "more rage" to use them.
Yeah, like I need more rage.
I struggled with the character for about an hour, then gave up. He was no fun to play, and I wasn't impressed by the world. I logged off and walked out of the office.
"How was it?" SpousalGoddess asked.
"Crap," I replied.
"Oh," she said. She sounded disappointed.
Oh, well. That meant I had one less MMORPG to play.
MAKE YOUR SAVING THROW
I never would have went back to World of Warcraft's beta had it not been for Fluffy and Klem.
During one of their once-frequent weekend home invasions, I mentioned to them that I was in the beta. "But it's crap," I warned them. "Don't get your hopes up."
"Really?" Klem asked, surprised. "I've heard that it's fantastic."
I shrugged. "I thought it was boring."
"I'd love to try it out," Fluffy said.
I shrugged. "Knock yourself out," I said.
Fluffy literally ran into my office and sat at my system. I logged her in, and within a minute she'd created a female Gnome magic user with pink hair in pony tails.
"Oh, she's so cute!" she squealed.
"I think I'm gonna puke," I grumbled. The whole damned world was cutesy. This just made it unbearable!
She ignored me and started playing. That's when I noticed that her interface was just the slightest bit different for her character type. It modified itself based on her character archetype.
That was nifty.
Even odder, the game looked a lot more fun when she played it. Fluffy obviously thought so, because she turned to me, looked at me like I was mad, and asked "Why don't you like this?"
I shrugged. "My warrior was boring," I said.
"Here," Fluffy said, standing up. "Try out a mage."
I felt pretty silly, but I sat down, found the attacks, and started playing.
And I was hooked.
The game played differently with the mage. Not completely -- it was still the same title -- but it felt a lot more fluid and, well, fun.
I logged her gnome out and created a human magic user for my next test character. After Fluffy and Klem left I sat down and played, SpousalGoddess behind me.
After about an hour of play we turned to each other, mouths hanging open.
"It's fantastic!" we said.
That was that. We'd be buying the title.
ANATOMY OF A SUCCESS
On the face of it, Blizzard didn't do anything new. They just made another Fantasy MMO. I used to say that all they'd done was recreate 1999's "Everquest", put it in their so-stolen-from-Games-Workshop-universe-that-I'm-still-amazed-they-haven't-been-sued-out-of-existence world, added a dollop of Blizzard polish (Blizzard has always been polished titles) and called it their own.
Turns out, that was enough.
If the Devil is the details, then Blizzard must be Old Scratch himself. They didn't let a thing slip by. Each point of the MMO experience was addressed so thoroughly that the whole became far, far better than the sum of its parts.
Quests? Easy to find, easy to start, easy to finish, and fun to play.
Leveling? Far quicker than any MMO on the market.
Funny thing was, you generally didn't notice. The quests were so entertaining during the first twenty levels (that's how far I got during the beta) that you generally didn't care when you "dinged".
World design? Perfectly balanced, so much so that it's a little scary.
I swear, Blizzard's level designers must have watched alpha tester's faces with a stopwatch while they played just so they could nail down the precise instant when the players got bored. They'd mark that point, say "We need something new there," turn it over to their designers, and press on.
I'm not kidding. That's my only logical explanation for their level and map design. The game's world unfolds such a perfect series of "Ooh!"-inducing visual moments that it can't be an accident. Whether it's a waterfall here or a scenic village there, you find yourself excited to see what's just around the next bend.
Even more surprising, this design ethic even extends to the player's experience across the entire world. Just when you start to feel bored with an area of the world, your character's natural progression brings you to somewhere new. It's astonishing.
Client? Sure, the graphics weren't groundbreaking, but they were attractive, and played well on anything from a lowly eMachine to a high-end gaming rig. Oh, yeah, and it ran on the Mac, too. For that one move alone, Blizzard should be commended.
Ironically, the "cartoony" graphics hid an underlying major advance in the MMO world. Up until that point, all MMOs broke their world apart into "zones". Some of them were large -- each part of Paragon City in City of Heroes was broken up into multi-block-areas accessible via tunnel or train -- while others were quite small, as in Everquest2. Nobody complained about this (well, much) because that's just the way the technology worked.
Until Blizzard got a hold of it.
Taking a cue from Chris Taylor's 2002 title Dungeon Siege, Blizzard made the zones in World of Warcraft invisible by streaming them in real-time off of the hard drive. This made many unrealistic barriers just, well, vanish. That meant if you could see something in-game, nine times out of ten you could get to it. No loading screens, no waiting time. Just go that way and take a look.
That one change made the world just that much more immersive.
Oh, and the client loaded fast. Whereas Star Wars Galaxies and Everquest2 could take upwards of three minutes to initialize on the hardware of the time, World of Warcraft was up in under a minute. Heck, you could even play it in a window on your desktop.
Solo-friendly? It wasn't merely solo-friendly, it was practically a solo RPG that just happened to be online.
Add in the animation, the character design of the beasts, the travel system, the lore and history of the world they created, and Blizzard had created a genuine masterpiece.
Responsible? For the first time a developer acknowledged that the gameplay of their product could be addictive, and so it put in controls to help curb obsessive behavior.
Back in the bad old days of Everquest, the only way to really get ahead was to play for hours and hours and hours on end to get what you wanted. This turned the game into an endurance test. Okay, so it was an endurance test of how long you could sit on your ass, but it was an endurance test nonetheless.
World of Warcraft addressed this by adding the concept of "rest" to the game.
Let's say, when you first enter the game, your character earned 100 experience points (XP) for killing a single Wombat of Nacho Breath. This would be their normal experience rate.
This is the state that most players see in the game. It's reflected by their experience bar being purple in color.
Let's say you log off, and don't play for a couple of days. When you log back in, you notice a couple of things:
- Your experience bar is now blue.
- You're gaining experience at double the rate.
Eventually, your character will no longer be rested, and you'll be back to earning normal XP, but by that point you'll have tasted a faster way to level. And that way involves not being on as long as you normally would be.
Oh, and getting 'rested' is easier if your character stops and logs off at an Inn or in a city.
Frankly, not only is this a pretty neat idea, but it's a nice way to curb players staying on too long.
(Of course, what I'd really like to see is for them to add a "fatigued" state, where characters earn 1/2 XP after being on for too many hours at a stretch, but that's just me.)
For these reasons and others, World of Warcraft, simply put, was -- and is -- a fantastic game.
Blizzard's work impressed me on so many levels -- artistic, game play, technical -- that I was just astounded.
I had to hand it to them; Blizzard had made themselves a freaking fantastic game. It was -- and remains -- a masterpiece.
So that's why, in January of 2005, I quit the game.
Sure, I told myself that I was bored with the title, and that I needed to make another movie, but those were excuses. The honest truth was that World of Warcraft was so crack-like an experience that, at a fundamental level, it frightened me.
I ran away and never intended to look back.
BOOM, BABY, BOOM!
Blizzard didn't miss me. World of Warcraft didn't merely succeed, it exploded in popularity. Within a handful of weeks it had supplanted Everquest's once-might 400,000 subscribers to become the most successful North American MMORPG. Within months it past North Korea's Lineage MMO and it's 2 Million subscribers to be the world's largest title. Industry analysts were amazed, but expected that that it would soon peak.
They were wrong. As of July, 2007, there are nine million subscribers worldwide.
Think about that for a second: Each of these subscribers pays between $13 - $15.00 / month, depending on their payment plan. That means Blizzard earns roughly $117,000,000 per month from subscription fees. That's over $1 Billion annually just to allow people to sit in front of their PCs pretending that they're elves.
How much do you want to bet that the "wizards" behind the disastrous launch of Star Wars Galaxies drink themselves to sleep every so often when they think of the gravy train that they missed?
CHOOSE, BUT CHOOSE WISELY...
November 2006 -- March 2007
We came back to World of Warcraft back in November of 2006. After becoming bored with the most recent iteration of Everquest2, and still having no desire to play City of Heroes again, we decided that, for the money, Blizzard's title would be the best "bang-for-the-buck".
One problem, though: We couldn't find the characters that we'd played nearly two years before.
Well, that sucked. We'd have to restart.
Later on, we'd learn that our characters weren't lost. The server that they had been stored on (Lightbringer, if you're curious) was down for maintenance. Neither of us noticed. So we sat back to choose a server on which to play.
(For those who aren't MMO-savvy, allow me to explain why this is important: Even though these games allow thousands of players to enjoy the game world at once, they are not designed -- for both technical and aesthetic reasons -- for millions of players to be trouncing around all of the time. To address this issue, MMO managers run multiple copies of the world on different servers. Players select their servers at the start, create their characters, and then go off and play with not millions but thousands of other players.
If this feels artificial and silly, it's because it is. But, in a hobby where addressing the call of nature is referred to as a "Bio Break", it's no more silly than the entire exercise.)
"There are a bunch of new servers that have just opened," SpousalGoddess said.
I looked at the list. Though there were a couple that were dedicated to Player-vs.-Environment, or PVE, play (where players did quests and generally helped each other throughout the world), most were dedicated to Player-vs.-Player game play.
I had never really been interested in PvP gameplay. Stories of technosociopaths ruining Ultima Online had left me convinced that, given the opportunity, a lot of gamers would be complete assholes to each other. Why would I want to play that?
But...but this was Blizzard. They'd done so much right, how could they screw this up? Besides, with two different factions designed into the game (the "good" Alliance and the "evil" Horde), how could we not embrace that kind of gameplay?
"Let's try PvP!" I blurted.
"Are you serious?" SpousalGoddess asked.
"Sure!" I said. "I'll make the game more exciting!"
"Okay," she said. She didn't sound convinced, but she agreed.
That's how we ended up entering into a PvP world.
GRAND THEFT WARCRAFT
The first twenty or so levels of the game play on the PvP server was nearly identical to its PvE counterpart. Only a brief incursion of a level 25 undead rogue into our level 1-12 training island gave us a taste of what was to come. The guy showed up and started slaughtering "younger" characters for kicks, until finally a player called an in-game Game Master (GM) and the player left.
Believe it or not, I thought this incident was exciting. Talk about spicing up game play! Only SpousalGoddess saw it for what it meant. "That guy gets nothing from killing low level characters but a cheap thrill," she said. "Should we stop and restart on a PvE server?"
"Are you kidding?" I responded. "We're already level 11! I don't want to have to do all of that again!"
So we pressed on.
We eventually reached our early twenties, and soon after MadMartian joined our crew as a Mage. I was excited. This was going to be great! A Hunter for ranged and pet attack, a Druid for healing and close-combat attacks, and finally a mage for cooking the baddies with fireballs. Talk about bad-ass!
And that's when the assholes turned up.
The first time I was killed by a Horde player came as a surprise. We were running down a path in Darkshire, off to do a quest, when suddenly my health bar dropped to half. Before I could do anything else, another blow hit me and I was dead. Within seconds, the same had happened to SpousalGoddess.
What the hell?
I panned the camera around my dead body to discover a level sixty Undead Horde player standing near by. He walked over to my corpse, spit on both it and Spousal's body, and then started playing air guitar.
What an asshole.
Well, no point bitching. I turned into a spirit, flew to my body, and resurrected. No sooner had I shown up with half-health than the schmuck jumped out of the woods and killed me again.
Well that sucked.
I flew back to my body, but this time scouted around. Sure enough, the guy was hiding in the trees. Even worse, some more of his bodies -- all very high level -- had joined him. They sat there waiting for us to resurrect, just so they could kill us again.
How, exactly, was this fun?
As luck would have it, another group of low-level characters traipsed by and they pounced on them. We took the distraction, resurrected, and ran like hell.
"That was aggravating!" SpousalGoddess said.
"Yeah," I replied. "But we'll get ours."
It only got worse. We lost track of the number of times we were attacked over the next few weeks. It got to the point that, in any given ninety minute session of play, we would find ourselves either recovering from being "ganked" or hiding from a high-level group for nearly half the time online. Worse, when we called out to our local channel for help -- because, hey, we were under attack from the other faction, shouldn't someone care? -- we were summarily told to shut up, learn to live with it, or leave.
Yeah. This was fun.
Nevertheless, we pressed on and slowly -- really, really slowly -- gained levels.
Eventually, we encountered a lower-level Horde player in our area of the world. Rather than be an ass, I decided to show some honor. I walked up to him, saluted, and bowed. (We couldn't "talk" to them, as their chat appeared in a different "language".) Then I waited.
It took a second, but he saluted and bowed himself.
Excellent! He understood that I was doing my own thing, and he could do his. So I went off to work on my mission.
Three minutes later I was killed by a level sixty buddy of his whom he'd called as soon as I'd walked away. After I died the lower level guy walked over and spit on my corpse.
To hell with that.
After that, when I saw lower level Horde players, I tended to chase them down and kill them as quickly as I could. I spit on their bodies, danced on their corpses, and then ran away before their higher-level buddies (because they all had higher level buddies) showed up.
Occasionally, I'd soften up and salute, to give the guy wide berth. With one exception and one exception alone, this resulted in the lower level Horde player running away, and then returning with a gaggle of higher-level buddies to gank us.
If this doesn't sound like fun, well, it wasn't. Our entire progress in the game screeched to a virtual halt in the early thirties because the Horde players would sweep across the designated quest zones and wipe out Alliance players everywhere. Worse, the Alliance players didn't give a crap about their brothers-in-arms, and left us to our own devices.
Finally, in March of 2007, after five months of play, I hit level forty. Even if the seasons hadn't changed I would have quit for a while. The constant ganking had made the entire experience aggravating and dull.
SpousalGoddess agreed. "I can't stand those little bastards," she grumbled. "I just wish we could move our characters to another server..."
I nodded, but didn't really care. Spring -- and a new gig -- was here. Time to change focus.
SAVING THE WORLD. OF WARCRAFT
September 2007 - Present
"This doesn't add anything to the game," MadMartian said. "It's just aggravating!"
We huddled around the central fountain in Darkshire, scanning the darkness. A group of level seventy Horde players was attacking in waves, and we were trying to defend the town. Just when we'd think they'd got bored and logged off (or, more likely, that their parents had told them to take out the garbage) they'd show up again and wipe out half of our numbers.
We'd logged on to level SpousalGoddess and MadMartian to forty, so they could get their first mounts (a big leopard for Spousal and I, and a horse for MadMartian). Instead we were wasting our time hiding from Horde. Again.
In the intervening months, MadMartian had played a lot of WoW with his old High School friends. He'd leveled an Horde player so high that he'd needed the expansion pack to go beyond level sixty, and he'd seen more of the world than we had.
Big difference, though; his other server was PvE. He only played PvP with us.
Suddenly a knife jammed into my back. Then another blow, and I was dead.
"I'm done," I said. We quickly logged off and I walked away from my computer. This wasn't fun; this was infuriating.
I came back into the office to hear MadMartian speaking to SpousalGoddess over Skype. "Listen to these three words," he said. "Paid. Character. Transfer."
SpousalGoddess quickly called up the phrase on the World of Warcraft site. Sure enough, we could finally move our characters from a PvP server to a PvE server. There was a fee for the service, but it could be done.
We didn't have to be told twice. Within three hours our characters had moved back to the original PvE server on which we'd played back in 2004. Then we set out to the world to quest.
It was a completely different game. We could actually do the quests and raise levels. In two months I went up eleven levels, with SpousalGoddess not far behind.
Even better, we saw more of the world in the way in which it was designed to be seen. Quest chains told stories, the world revealed its secrets, and we were having a great time.
As if that wasn't good enough, not having to worry about Horde players meant our characters could take up a "trade skill" to produce commodities in-game for other players. I dug into my mining -- which turned out to be fun -- and Spousal got into Herbalism. MadMartian became a kick-butt tailor, and we all had a great time.
Then our friend Benstar invited into his casual guild, and we willingly joined. We had finally found a MMORPG where all of the pieces just "clicked". The game just could not get any better.
Which means, of course, that I've found stuff to bitch about.
TROUBLE IN PARADISE
World of Warcraft is not a perfect game. Even though the quests are fun, they rely far, far to heavily on the "Gather / kill X of Y and return for reward Z" model.
Blizzard? That may be fun for a while, but trust me, it becomes boring after a few weeks of play.
Worse, I'm actually worried about hitting the top level (referred to as "level cap" in MMO-speak) of the game . I've never had a character this high a level in an MMO before, and now, staring at the end-game, I've been wondering what's next.
CubeZoo -- who started after me on a PvE server and who has already achieved level cap -- once posted about all of the activities available to level 70 players. Heck, it sounded like a whole new game opened up for players there. But when I asked a co-worker who has been playing at level cap what there was to do in-game, his answer was rather depressing.
"Oh, you run raids to get better gear so you can run the better raids."
"How long does it take to run one of these raids?" I asked.
"Oh, a couple of hours at the very least, but it's usually a lot longer."
So, the entire point of the game was to hit level cap so you could get better in-game gear?
Um...that didn't sound...fun.
I've heard stories about those who raid in the higher-levels of MMOs. It's never presented as a positive thing. In fact, the obsessive-compulsive nature of getting just the right gear to run just the right dungeon to get just the right drop at just the right time rubs me less as an evening of entertainment, and more of somebody sitting in front of their PC, head cocked to one side, mindlessly repeating"Woppner is on in fifteen minutes."
Of course, that's just my take. Many others totally dig the raid experience. It's just not for me.
There are also the power-gamers to contend with. During our first run in the dungeon known as The Deadmines, the group that invited SpousalGoddess and I were absolute assholes. After they snapped at Spousal and said "Why won't you heal us, you stupid Druid bitch!?" -- when Spousal hadn't really learned any decent healing spells for group at that point -- we'd had enough. We told them to get bent and left them high-and-dry in the instance.
If this all sounds weird -- people yelling at each other because their cartoon avatar is dying on screen -- well, it is. But people take this stuff seriously. A little too seriously at times.
By way of demonstration, take a look at the infamous Leroy Jenkins video. Yes, I know, people have said "It's staged," but I have zero doubt that an actual event like this happened. And yes, having heard Klem wax on and on and on about DOT, DPS, rooting, and other minutia as interesting as a root canal, I know that some players out there sound exactly like this.
For my money, Leroy is the hero in that video.
Given this obsessiveness, we've avoided larger groups. Fortunately, the game is generally well-balanced enough to allow us to play with three players, so we're good-to-go. But some of the other content in our future seems to be right out.
Guess we won't be getting that Phat Loot any time soon. Well, short of asking our Guildies to help...but heck, they're genuinely nice people. We don't want to bother them too much.
I mentioned all of this to SpousalGoddess. She just shrugged. "I don't play to get stuff," she said. "I play to see the world."
Huh. That was me, too.
So I've stopped worrying. When I hit seventy I'll finally go and see the rest of the map, and explore the entire world. That alone will be worth the effort.
That's actually reassuring. It offers up an"end-game", a point at which I can say "I'm done."
That's a genuine commodity in an MMO, folks. Trust me on this.
Of course, I have other issues with the title.
- Azeroth doesn't feel like world. It feels like a theme park.
- The art design does get a little too, well, cloying after a while.
- "The grind" from level 30 onward gets really frigging boring.
No matter what, I'll hit level cap in World of Warcraft. Having come this close, I can't see myself not doing it. But I sincerely doubt that I'll create another character (or "re-roll") and do it all over again. Once is quite enough, thanks.
EASE OF ENTRY
Complaints aside, World of Warcraft is easily the most out-of-the-box polished MMO available on the market. It's easy to learn, but difficult to master. Better still, it's cheap to try.
Go to any Best Buy or Video Game store and pick up the free 14 Day Trial for $1.99. See the game for yourself, and find out why people are so freaking stuck on it.
Be warned, though; it's addictive. Really, really addictive.
A WORLD OF WOW
Perhaps the biggest impact that World of Warcraft has had on the MMO space has been less about its subscriber base, and more its effect on other MMO titles.
Star Wars Galaxies re-wrote itself to be a WoW clone. Badly.
City of Heroes added crafting and "loot" to give the game some much-needed depth.
Everquest2 re-vamped much of its mechanics, and made the game even more solo-friendly than its competition. (More about that in a later chapter.)
The upcoming Pirates of the Burning Sea reportedly designed its avatar play to match much of the easy-to-understand nature of Blizzard's MMO.
In fact, it's not a stretch to say that World of Warcraft spawned an actual World of Warcraft clones.
Sadly, that's not necessarily a good thing. Some of us like variety in our gameplay. After all, if you have to eat steak all of the time, eventually it tastes pretty raunchy. MMO developers shouldn't lose the spice of the experience in some weird attempt to create the next McMMORPG.
It goes without saying I recommend World of Warcraft to pretty much anyone. It's easy to play, difficult to master, has a light client that will run on practically any machine, and makes for a cheap date night for you and your video game-friendly significant other.
Blizzard did the smartest thing that they could have done in the MMO marketspace: They watched what the competition did -- right and wrong -- and cherry-picked what worked and lost what didn't. Then they polished to near perfection to create the world's most popular MMO. That may sound like common sense in retrospect, but at the time it was a revelation.
Congratulations, Blizzard. You deserve all of the success that you've enjoyed over the last three years.
That all being said, I do see a day in the not-so-distant-future when this iteration of Blizzard's title becomes a "remember when" experience. The repetitive middle-level gameplay, the raid-heavy end-game content, and the lack of character customization add up to create an experience that, despite some neat mechanics, ultimately feels a little shallow.
My recommendation: Make World of Warcraft your first MMO. Log on and have fun. But don't be surprised if, after a few months, you find yourself saying "Is this all that there is? Is there nothing more?" (Two points to the reader who gets the movie reference in that line.)
So, with a mere 19 levels before I hit cap, I can actually see a horizon for my World of Warcraft experience. That's comforting.
Does that means I'll be done with MMOs? Or do I have another star on my horizon?
Next Up:Yaar, me mateys! A look at some upcoming titles that have me wantin' to kick a bilge rat with glee! Yaaaaaaar!
How Is This Wrong? Let Me Count the Way...MadMartian, SpousalGoddess, and I On Broomstick, November, 2007.