15 years of World of Warcraft

What’s that trite yearbook phrase? “What a long, strange trip it’s been!”

This past month marked the 15th anniversary of World of Warcraft’s launch in North America. It’s coming during a strange year of ups (World of Warcraft Classic) and downs (financials, #BoycottBlizzard). While it’s being marked by media, gamers, and in-game activities, the 15th anniversary still seems rather subdued compared to the big hubaballo that took place at the 10th.

It doesn’t feel like WoW’s launch was yesterday; it feels like it was forever ago. The Syp from 2004 was in a much different place than the Syp in 2019. In 2004 I was 28 years old and had just proposed to my soon-to-be wife. I was still living alone in an apartment that was oddly kid-free. I wasn’t blogging back then, I wasn’t writing for Massively (which didn’t exist until 2007 anyway), I hadn’t gone back to school for my Masters, and my online gaming experience was rather limited and focused.

Back then, I played a lot of single-player RTS and RPG games. I had dabbled in Anarchy Online, but City of Heroes was where my passion was for most of 2004. I was growing more enthusiastic about MMORPGs, which was partially fueled by the lead-up to World of Warcraft over the 2003-2004 period. I remember pouring over articles and forum posts about this upcoming title, salivating over the stylized graphics and the player friendly nature of the gameplay.

I put in a couple of weeks into the beta in November 2004, mostly because I couldn’t wait any longer. You can best believe it that I was there right on launch day, too. I drove over to Best Buy and picked up a Collector’s Edition right off the shelf, not knowing that the silly pet I’d get from that CE would be hanging around with me in 2019 when WoW Classic launched.

The first few months were incredibly unstable. It was a crap shoot every day whether or not I’d be able to get onto a server to play. But I don’t remember raging at the delays; I was just incredibly glad to have some game time whenever I got it. Azeroth hooked me from the very start, and off and on, I’ve been playing in it for 15 years now.

It’s not been a perfect game, nor has Blizzard been a perfect studio. But it’s been a very *fun* experience in which I’ve met some great friends, gotten some good stories to write about, and been a reliable fallback for when I burn out in other titles.

I don’t know where I’m heading with this game in the future. Right now I’m not thinking about it too much, preferring to adventure elsewhere. But next year’s Shadowlands will be a strong siren’s call indeed, and I’m sure that this won’t be the last time I write about WoW on this blog.

BlizzCon 2019 thoughts

Both for work and personal curiosity, I watched the BlizzCon streams this past weekend. It was strange for me, personally, since I had distanced myself emotionally and mentally from Blizzard’s products, especially in light of the #BoycottBlizzard movement. But when you cover online gaming news, you go to where the news is no matter where your head space be at.

So how was it overall? Blizzard really needed a home run with this convention after the past month’s fiasco, Battle for Azeroth’s dissatisfaction, and last year’s dull convention showing. I think it got at least a solid double if not a triple, but the studio was missing that stand-on-your-feet-and-cheer moment that could have helped to really pave over the bumps of late.

Let’s start with The Apology. I honestly didn’t think Blizzard was even going to mention the whole Hong Kong thing, because Blizzard does not do humility well, but to my surprise it did just that. With protesters outside yelling for freedom and Hong Kong liberation, J. Alan Brack took to the stage and gave an apology for how he and the studio reacted last month. People have disagreed with me on Twitter about this, but I think that it was a… decent apology. Probably not sincere, probably extracted through gritted teeth. But at the very least, it was an indication that Blizzard took a serious hit over this and couldn’t afford to be so arrogant in the face of fan pushback. It will influence the decisions that the studio makes along these lines in the future.

Brack is a jerk, yes, and he and the company should have completely rescinded the punishments as a sign of good faith. That would have generated a lot of goodwill and effectively doused this issue. As it stands, people will read into the apology whatever they want because it doesn’t go far enough.

Your mileage may vary, but for me, this satisfies what I wanted to see: A somewhat contrite Blizzard that has taken a big step back from squashing opinions and free speech. It’s enough for me to end my personal boycott, although I don’t think I’ll be rushing back to World of Warcraft any time soon.

Moving on to the games:

World of Warcraft: Classic got about no real news, and no mention of a Burning Crusade/progression server. Live was all about Shadowlands, the much-rumored expansion that will delve into the afterlife zones. Maybe it’s just me, but the announcement was downright subdued compared to Battle for Azeroth’s initial reveal two years ago. No jaw-dropping cinematics or shocking feature reveals. Certainly no housing.

The level squish is of some concern. I’ve talked about this in the past, so suffice to say that my fear is that this is the easier fix than actually making levels 90-120 relevant. I’m just tired of leveling up and having no permanent benefit to show for it. If this changes it, then it has my leery support.

But… one of WoW’s greatest strengths over the past couple of expansions has been its zone designs and smaller stories, and I see hints that Shadowlands will be no different in this regard. I see places I genuinely want to visit and explore. I want to hear more about players will be given more in terms of character choice and growth. And I hope that Blizz has learned from the missteps of BfA while taking the best of that expansion and Legion going forward.

I’m also seeing Blizzard trying to iterate on what’s worked in the past and prune out what hasn’t. More character options, new skills, better options, more support for alts… yeah, this is good stuff. I’m more on board with the level squish now that we’ll have the option to start a new character and simply go through a single expansion to get from 1 to 50 and then jump into Shadowlands. That’s a great way to encourage alts and give us more ways to level.

Overwatch 2: Short of this sequel/expansion becoming a full-fledged MMO, there wasn’t much chance of this drawing my interest. It’s a colorful, personality-laden world… but it’s just not my style of gameplay. PvE story missions are a step in that direction, but it has a ways to go to being the kind of game I’d want to inhabit, not queue up for.

Diablo IV: My impression upon watching the announcement and the subsequent panel is that Blizzard wasn’t quite ready to show this game off. It really looks like it was rushed to get some sort of demo done for BlizzCon, but I would bet my wooden nickels that originally Blizz wasn’t going to reveal this until 2020. It’s bloody, it’s gritty, it’s less colorful than D3. I don’t know. It’s hard to get excited with this and without knowing more about it. We’re definitely a long way away from seeing this released — 2021 or 2022 at the very least.

Walking away from World of Warcraft

If there’s a game that you absolutely, positively can’t walk away from given a good enough reason, then you might be in the throes of an actual addiction. I feel that it’s a good inner test of priorities if I am able to disengage and walk away from whatever MMO I’m playing at the moment if the situation requires. Shows that I’m the master of the game, not that it is the master of me.

So the decision to close down my World of Warcraft account due to last week’s #boycottBlizzard movement and head on to different online pastures wasn’t as painful as I might have assumed. Maybe it was even time to put that game down for a while and explore elsewhere, especially considering how many other games have made a play for my interest.

I put the question out to Twitter about possible replacement games, just out of curiosity for what people might say, and I got the following responses:

  • Caravan Stories
  • LOTRO (which I am playing)
  • Astellia Online
  • Ryzom
  • EverQuest II
  • Star Trek Online
  • Guild Wars 2

The latter two have been on my mind lately, and so I dipped into both of them this past week, as well as geared up for some serious ArcheAge unchained. I’ll talk about all of that next week, but right now I wanted to write about what it’s like to mothball an MMO that you weren’t burning out of but decided to leave for another reason entirely.

It’s strange, because it requires a mental shift as well as a schedule change. I’m not obsessed about my games, but I am interested in them and do think about what I want to accomplish in them when I get to the last couple hours of my day. Suddenly removing WoW from that equation felt strange, especially as I was working on a few different projects in that. But again, it wasn’t painful or even that much of a sacrifice.

It even felt kind of heady to have the freedom to explore elsewhere. I’ve sometimes thought about doing a monthly rotation where there’s a new game every month, but really, I have that option now and I don’t want to pin myself down.

What I sometimes need is the motivation to get out of my MMO comfort zones and routine. That motivation can come from extraordinary circumstances, like this boycott, but more often than not I’m lured by others talking about a game, significant developments in the game itself (business model shift, relaunches, expansions), and long-simmering curiosity.

It’s like this in real life, too, when I’ve gotten too deep into my sacred routine to where I need the occasional prod to jump off the rails and do something different, something not scheduled. I don’t need to ruin my routine, but I need flexibility and a mentality that is open to something different that day so that I don’t get stale and rigid.

We’ll see where all this goes this month, but for now, I’m going to walk down some other paths with my hands in my pockets and a whistle on my lips.

World of Warcraft: Druids with bones to pick

When I finally got flying back on my World of Warcraft account and cleaned up the rest of my Death Knight’s quest log, I had that immense feeling of satisfaction that comes with concluding a lengthy project. Not only did I have flying in Battle for Azeroth now and forever but I also had the freedom to choose what I wanted to do next in the game.

That actually proved to be a more complicated question than I had first anticipated. Originally, I figured that I was going to get my Gnome Hunter out of dry dock and get her caught up while doing some Engineering with her. For several days, that’s just what I did, hitting level 120 and enjoying the sensation of casually questing and looting around the islands. Yet I wasn’t that satisfied with her, and I think it’s because she felt redundant to my main character — in terms of being a pet class — and less effective in terms of AoE damage.

I realized that I wanted something much different for an alt, and that led me to consider a few different options, including resurrecting some other level 100+ characters or rolling a Dark Iron Dwarf Shaman. But one night I pulled the trigger on a Kul Tiran Human Druid — something I had been thinking about for a while — and there was no going back from that.

The Druid gave me a much different experience than the Death Knight while offering me some new twists on the old formula. Most notably was the ability to be a human when not shapeshifted, which is something I always wanted in the game, and the neat wicker-bone animal forms that are radically different than the other Druids. Looks and visual style are important, and that could go a long way to keeping my interest.

The actual Druidic playstyle is another major benefit. The Druid is the only healing class in WoW where I feel like I am not underpowered while questing and leveling in a healing spec. In fact, I stay in restoration 100% of the time, choosing whatever talents I can to augment my DPS while keeping my healing toolkit intact.

Here’s another twist for my experience: I’m not questing. At least, I’m not questing for right now. I haven’t ever gone through the game once Blizzard put in that level-scaling tech, so now I’m finding that no matter where I go, mobs and quests stay on-level with me and I don’t have to go hunting around for XP. Instead, I’m doing two things with my time: I’m running around zones farming ore nodes (and heading back to town to work on engineering) and queuing up for dungeons. Between those two, I’m getting plenty of XP, great gear, and enjoying a relaxed, laid-back experience. Plus, I get to heal in dungeons, which is something I’ve greatly missed in WoW.

The long-term goal is to progress her through all of regular engineering, then to the other tiers as I work my way up without any huge rush. If I’m not 120 and ready for the next expansion in a year, oh well, it’s not a big deal. This is my alt in every sense of that word — an alternative experience to simply enjoy rather than to feel like I have to follow the same deep ruts that Blizzard and players have established for main characters.

Flying transforms Battle for Azeroth questing

As I said on the Massively OP Podcast last week, I’m not going to defend Blizzard’s habit of continually taking away flying from us with each World of Warcraft expansion, but I have noticed that there’s a powerful psychological effect to being denied this for a year and then earning it back. The second I got flight in Battle for Azeroth, it was like I had hit New Game+ mode for the expansion.

That tied in really well to putting my Death Knight in dry dock (at least until Patch 8.2.5) and dusting off my neglected Gnome Hunter. I had left her at level 116 and only one zone partially done, so she had a lot to do. And now she had the convenience of sky transport to do everything that my DK had to do while staying on the ground.

Really, getting flight transformed everything. I stopped planning routes or calculating the time left on my flight whistle and just enjoyed the freedom of flitting around to points of interest as I willed.

I started exploring out-of-the-way locales that I had missed before, such as this abandoned ski resort where the penguins have taken over (and are apparently greatly enjoying themselves). And questing turned into a super-relaxing gig, since I could just snap up all of the quests in the area and then start gnawing through them in any order I wished. Seeing rares, mining nodes, or treasure chests became an exercise in mounting up and rushing over to snatch them.

Obviously, this all results in a much faster questing pace than before, which is fine with me. I’m trying to get my Hunter up to 120 by the time the next Timewalking event happens so that I can seriously gear her up in those dungeons over that week.

My Beastmaster changes up my playstyle from my AoE-happy Death Knight. I’ve had to do some tweaking and experimentation, but I’ve started to get into a good rotation that heavily favors pet damage and long-distance support. It’s not as easy to mow down huge crowds as with the DK, but I think it’ll be just fine once I get her stats up to spec.

In the meanwhile, I’ve started to work on her other objective, which is to become my Gadget Gal. I grabbed Engineering and Mining and got to work leveling those up, even though I have no idea how do Engineering in this day and age. It’s a huge mountain of crafting, but I am sure I can climb it one toehold at a time.

And I’ve really tried to work on theming her with this. I switched her over to some awesome Ghostbuster-like goggles and the most gadgety-type rifle in my inventory. I don’t have much for the rest of her gear, but I hope that’ll come in time.

I am super-pleased that I have two mechanical pets fighting for me: my robot squirrel Tippytoe and my brand-new mechanical chicken. Haven’t given her a name yet, but I’m sure it’ll be a pun. All of this is combining into a look that I really love, and I appreciate that I have the flexibility to pursue this goal to this extent. What do you think?

Losing steam with WoW Classic

Compared to the first week or two of WoW Classic, I can definitively say that I’m losing steam with my eagerness to log in and put in some serious play time with this version of the game. That doesn’t mean I’m done with it… just slowing down. Retail WoW and LOTRO are of more interest to me, so it’s hard to give Classic my all when I just want to log into those other titles instead.

And I guess I keep thinking of the long-term future of Classic, which bugs me. I mean, starting a new character is a lot of fun. Feeling that sense of progression is downright terrific, with talent points and expanding inventory and green gear that feels more precious than any purple in retail WoW. Yet what lies at the end of this road? What happens even midway down the road, when I hit level 40 and start slowing down in that progression, start seeing fewer quests, and start thinking far more about the big dead end wall that waits at the end here?

Maybe my brain has been hardwired to expect at least an illusion of a future from MMORPGs, because I’m having a hard time facing a game that (at least so far) has a stopping point with no development or expansion past that. Would the community — would my guild — pick up the slack to provide the “content” needed to fill this void? Or will I spend a hundred or so hours working on a toon that has no greater future?

Hey! I just saw some of your relatives in retail WoW the other day! They’re far better dressed and give their regards.

Anyway, I’ll get over myself here. I’m not done with Classic, in any case. In fact, I rolled up a new Troll Shaman the other night that I’m really starting to warm up to. My problem with the Tauren Shaman was always the bulk of the character and the thought of having to ride kodos at level 40, so a Troll seems like a better option for the class. Smaller, almost human-like in profile with a bit of punk attitude.

Something that I haven’t seen people talk about much is using questing guides to level more quickly and efficiently in Classic. Back in vanilla, I always used such guides because I hated having to hunt down the odd quest or spend too many hours doing nothing but grinding. Joana’s guide was a go-to for me, and I was pleased to see that it was still around. I was less pleased, however, to see that most of the guide is behind a $37 paywall. I guess if you put in the effort to create all of that, you have the right to charge for it, but that’s a chunk of money that is up there in the “buy a new game” realm for me.

How’s Classic going for you? Picking up steam, losing steam, or full steam ahead? Give me a steam rating on this.

World of Warcraft: Mechago-go-gadget flying!

In contrast with Nazjatar, the OTHER Patch 8.2 zone was an actual delight of questing and theme. Of course, I’m totally pro-Gnome, so of course I’m going to enjoy an island full of cyborg Gnomes, giant robots, goofy gadgets, and even Terminator-esque alternate realities.

While I haven’t talked about it much this past month (or at all), I’ve been logging into WoW to play in Mechagon in my quest to (re)gain flying in Battle for Azeroth. Unlike Naz, Mechagon eschewed world quests in favor of a rotating series of daily quests. Don’t really see much in favor of one over the other, but once I figured out this different format, I was scoring about 1,000-1,500 reputation a day… plus a lot of other materials.

Mechagon is just so much better than Nazjatar in so many ways, which makes me glad that I saved it for last. In addition to the cool theme, the island is easy to navigate (always a HUGE plus), has a lot of humor involved, pays out in tons of loot (I got a wicked one-hand chainsaw sword that I now treasure), and even has a questline that results in a really cool ground mount:

It even transforms, sort of, into a motorcycle! And hovers in the air! If this thing flew, it’d be my new all-time favorite. As it is, I’m glad to toss it into the mount mix.

So yeah, all around good questing fun in Mechagon. I even got a little into junkyard tinkering, which is a sort of crafting vendor that takes all of that junk I was picking up and turns it into some helpful gadgets and other nice goodies.

Ultimately, however, my eyes were fixed on the goal of getting revered with the Rustbolt Resistance, and last Thursday, it finally happened. I was free. I was flying once more.

After over a year of being grounded in this expansion, now I literally have wings. I know we can bandy back and forth the reasoning and possible virtues of Blizzard withholding flight at the start of each expansion, but I won’t deny that it ends up being a massive headrush when it is returned after so long.

Oddly enough, this kind of marks the end of the journey for this character, now that she’s got flying. I’m not going to push her forward in gear progression, and she’s all caught up on questlines. So I spent some time cleaning up her inventory, transferring some stuff, and then getting back into my Gnome Hunter for a trip back through the expansion and a side excursion in Engineering. I might be the only person more excited about retail right now than Classic, but… flying. It’ll make a second run-through so much more satisfying.