9:00 PM - Orgrimmar - Horde Capital City
I've just zoned in and the city is deserted. No players, no NPCs, just empty buildings. There are conversations in the chat window, but I can't see anyone. I know there are a lot of people here but they're invisible. Suddenly my character freezes in mid stride. A short pause, and I'm looking at my desktop. After a few minutes, I'm able to log back on and enter the auction house.
The graphics in World of Warcraft are fantastic. In creating the gameworld, Blizzard chose an amplified, almost caricature style. Rather than resemble a "real" goblin city or night-elf grove, the game looks more like a high quality animated film. The landscapes are imbued with generous amounts of color - even the snowy peaks around Ironforge and the dreary swamps in Dustwallow Marsh - so that it has a vibrant, almost surrealistic quality. But this does not mean that the effects aren't of the highest quality. Lighting effects are fantastic, textures are very good, buildings and other structures exhibit a great amount of detail. There's no denying that the graphics in World of Warcraft are as good as any MMO on the market.
Sound is equally impressive. The music is beautiful and matches the environment. When coming into a florid meadow, a soft melodic tune plays where a thundering drumbeat is heard upon entering a dry desertscape. The background music plays for a moment then fades off, which is exactly what it should do. It sets a tone and then gives way to sound effects. If it were to constantly repeat it would quickly become an annoyance, but Blizzard avoids that by keeping it unobtrusive. Sound effects are superb. Battle sounds are sharp, magic effects have a whimsical quality. Echo is employed inside caverns and other spaces to great effect. Voice is present when speaking to NPCs, but it is merely stock phrases and is not a verbatim recitation of the text. Still, it adds to the interaction with NPCs and is a nice feature.
In fact, there is little about this game that isn't "nice," "well done," "excellent," or some other superlative. The game is outstanding in just about every area. The biggest problem comes in the area of performance. World of Warcraft is a victim of its own success. Many remember the first few days when the number of servers was doubled because of the high demand. Even more have been added since then and other improvements have been attempted. The problem is that almost half a year after launch, Blizzard still hasn't solved its server problems. Users on higher population servers are put in queues when attempting to log on, which can result in waits of several minutes or more, and even after waiting there are times when the users have trouble getting into the gameworld. A recent effort to alleviate some of the population problems by moving players to lesser populated servers met with limited success. A solid solution for overpopulated servers has yet to be presented.
Servers have gone down several times during prime playtimes (Saturday afternoon, Friday evening) and have required emergency maintenance. This might have been understandable in November, but we're five months down the road and it's still not unheard of. A recent feature patch caused all sorts of havoc. Blizzard should be applauded for adding new content, but their time would be better spend eliminating all the existing problems before introducing a slew of potential new issues.
Another way Blizzard could improve greatly is in the area of customer service. A quick perusal of the official boards will show that there is a good amount of dissatisfaction among the game's paying customers. Certainly some of the support shortcomings have to do with the overwhelming workload, given the success of the game, but that should be all the more reason to double or triple the support staff and make sure that customers have no cause to complain about service. Beyond that, there are just some bad decisions, like the recent banning of a number of people because of speed hacks and gold dupes. No doubt there were many cheaters in that group, but several innocent players were caught in the guilty-until-proven-innocent approach Blizzard took, including one player banned for having too much gold. It turned out that he was the treasurer for a high-level guild and was collecting money from members to help them buy mounts. Regardless, the worst was assumed and his account was banned. It took a huge entreaty from dozens of members on the boards to have the account reinstated.
These are important areas and they need to be fixed quickly, but they are not endemic to the actual game. In other words, it's not a design flaw that will requires millions of dollars to reprogram. All it will take is a few more servers, an effective population management plan, and some more warm bodies on the Blizzard customer support team to make it all better. With 1.5 million people paying $50 for the game and $15 a month, that should be no problem. World of Warcraft is a fantastic game in almost every respect. It's a shame to see it tarnished by things that are so easily remedied.
7:30 PM - Login screen
There's a new patch, so I have to download it before I can enter the game. I start my download, but the other 1,499,999 players must be downloading it as well. It takes over two hours to download less than 100 MB on a high speed connection. I restart the client and try to log in. I won't be successful until two days later. It's easy to get caught up in World of Warcraft, but nights such as these serve as a harsh dose of reality. I hope I won't be telling this story many more times.