World of Warcraft: 11 years later

shammy

Has it really been eleven years since World of Warcraft came out? I mean, it is, but it’s still kind of amazing to me how much time has gone by and that WoW is firmly in the two-digit MMO club.

To indulge in a little nostalgia, on Saturday night I loaded up the game and spent a half-hour or so puttering around the Draenei newbie area. While much has certainly changed about the game as a whole, this little zone is more or less identical to how I first experienced it back in Burning Crusade. Same angry plants muttering and stomping around. Same shield that floats about four inches off of my forearm or back. The only thing different that I saw was the addition of a monk trainer and some better spellcasting effects for the Shaman’s lighting attack.

Enough time has passed now so that there have been more years that I haven’t been seriously playing WoW than when I was (the scale tipped over the past year). It’s a game and culture that I’ve been following as an outsider and former player, having mostly moved on and yet recognizing that WoW left a deep imprint on me at the same time. I was talking with my fellow Battle Bards the other day about how the art and music of this game have such appeal, a warm comfy blanket of feels that can almost cover the jarring changes and constant shifts of design.

Lately I’ve been pondering why Blizzard disturbs me with its design approach to WoW. I don’t have a direct dog in that fight, but I still do care on some level. I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t that the studio keeps changing its systems and design philosophy — after all, change is a core tenant of MMOs — but that it’s frequently so drastic that it gives me the impression that Blizzard has no confidence in its design or decisions. It keeps wildly course correcting from expansion to expansion, sometimes making things better and many times making them worse. For me, it created an atmosphere of uncertainty, knowing that the studio might well abandon a hot new feature the second a new expansion arose or that the class I enjoyed today might well be really different tomorrow with yet another one of the class revamps.

Change isn’t bad. But you’d think after 11 years World of Warcraft would be settled into a comfortable and profitable groove, knowing what works best for the game and its community. Instead, it still seems like the design team is trying to figure it out.

I do regret having jumped off the train back in 2008 or so. The more years that pass, the harder it is to ever get back into a game, especially one that’s been reinventing itself and adding more top-heavy content. I don’t quite blame either the studio or players for taking that fast-pass to level 100 to avoid having to deal with what’s come before.

For me, the best parts of WoW were always the small details. That familiar music, making a zone seem bigger or more personal than it actually was. The clever little animations on enemy NPCs (I liked the treants dying by being sliced in half and looking surprised at it). The gong/crash sound of accepting and turning in quests. The touches that made a zone’s ecosystem seem less generic and more fantastical.

I appreciate WoW having the option to explore 20 levels as a newbie or vet without needing to sub up. For those like me who need to satisfy a nostalgic craving now and then, it’s perfect and easier on the pocketbook (disclaimer: I cannot remember the last time I had a pocketbook or what a pocketbook actually is). I apologize to the mutated plants and angry owlkin that I slaughtered; I can only say that I was acting under orders.

Congrats to WoW for 11 years. Hope the decade ahead of it treats the game and its community well and that Blizzard does find a groove that works well for everyone.

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5 thoughts on “World of Warcraft: 11 years later

  1. Athie November 23, 2015 / 10:08 am

    It’s interesting—I have a theory that we’re misinterpreting Blizzard’s approach to WoW changes. My hunch is that the changes aren’t ultimately intended as corrections, but simply as changes to make the game work differently. The designs for the current and next expansion tip Blizz’s hand to some extent. The new passive powers from leveling through Draenor are explicitly temporary “Draenor perks,” and the connection of character progression to legendary weapons in Legion is another clear signal that character progression will once again be a one-expansion-only affair.

    So maybe the intention is always to make a bunch of changes so that the game feels different for a while?

  2. bhagpuss November 23, 2015 / 10:41 am

    I don’t think WoW is in any way exceptional in the extent or severity of its lurching. To me that feels like the norm in any MMO that lasts more than a year or two. And it’s an extremely familiar phenomenon to me from my non-gaming life.

    I’ve worked for several largeish companies and corporations over my adult lifetime, in insurance, telecommunications and retail. One thing they all had in common was a perpetual lurching from idea to idea, concept to concept, position to position.

    Two things seem to drive the desire for perpetual change – boredom and ambition. If you have a stable and settled management structure and a workforce that includes a lot of longtimers people get bored of doing things the same way every day. There’s always a push to change this around, do that a new way, not because there’s anything wrong with the status quo but just because everyone has had enough of it. If you have an unsettled management team an/or workforce, with new people joining and others looking for advancement, everyone feels they need to make their mark by doing things differently.

    Often these changes are couched in terms that suggest they’re being made to increase profitability or efficiency or for the benefit of customers or clients but really those are fig leaves for the real intention – either to make coming into work each day less unbearable or to push someone another step up the career ladder.

  3. Tyler F.M. Edwards November 23, 2015 / 11:54 am

    For a long time, I tolerated — even enjoyed — WoW’s constant change, but I’m starting to come around to your view, Syp.

    We’re now at a point where Blizzard’s stated intention is to abandon each new feature after the expansion in which it was added and where warlocks are being essentially rebooted as a new class for the second time just since I started playing one, and the novelty of change has worn off.

    It’s not even so much the changes themselves that are the problem, but the lack of stability. How can I become invested in anything if everything is subject to change or removal at any time?

  4. ironweakness November 23, 2015 / 1:13 pm

    I’ve been thinking about going back lately, or at least checking things out again like you did. There’s a comfort and nostalgia there- it’s the only game I’ve stayed with for several years and the only one in which I felt rooted into a solid guild community- but then there is also a sadness, because I feel like a stranger when I return.

    It’s like visiting an old childhood school or neighborhood. The memories and physical reminders are (mostly) still there, but they’ve moved on and so have you and the old relationship can’t be picked up so easily.

    I think about going back, but I probably never will, not long term anyway. What I’m looking for when I return is no longer there, and what leads me to consider returning anyway is that I haven’t felt that “belonging” and “awe” in any other MMO either.

    I think we get too efficient with our MMO gaming and the worlds lose their “bigness.” WoW was certainly big when I played because of the land masses, but it was also big because everything was unfamiliar and being discovered for the first time. Now I’m surgical with my approach to an MMO such that even Word of Warcraft feels small.

    Perhaps that’s what the genre sorely lacks right now, a sense of unfamiliarity and discovery. Most games follow the same pattern and we, the MMO players know can follow it blindfolded. Perhaps we put too much emphasis on features we think will provide that feeling of “wow” when it’s the massiveness of the unknown that really captured our hearts and drew us in to the genre in the first place.

  5. jameshateswordpress November 23, 2015 / 3:33 pm

    “it’s frequently so drastic that it gives me the impression that Blizzard has no confidence in its design”
    YES!! Exactly!!

    Oh, and a pocketbook is the same as a billfold, my friend.

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