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Bill Murphy: The Reshaping of Worlds

Column By William Murphy on December 02, 2010

I’ve been checking in on the changes to World of Warcraft made by the 4.0.3 patch. I’m still not one hundred percent sold on Cataclysm being worth my personal purchase, but I know I’ll cave and try it eventually. What’s good enough for now however is this entire re-shaping of the world that’s happened. Azeroth in MMO form is now six years old. I know there was really no reason Blizzard should have felt pressured to change anything about their virtual world. When you’ve got so many millions of subscribing players, it’s probably a risky move to pull the rug out from under them and change a lot of what they’ve come to know and love. But as far as virtual worlds go, isn’t it more feasible that they should change?

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The real world doesn’t stand still just because we like and get used to the way it looks and behaves. It’s always growing, changing, evolving. Sometimes for the worse and other times for the better. But it changes. One of the biggest drawbacks, and perhaps it’s a double-edged sword, for MMO gaming is the fact that the worlds we love hardly ever change. Sure, they expand when new content is added in and new lands are unveiled, but they never really “change”. Nostalgia is nice, I love being able to go back to my old games and feel at home, but I look at it much like going back to one’s hometown after being gone for a long time.

The old stomping grounds are comfort for a time, until you remember why you left in the first place.

Let’s take WoW as an example. I’ve never been a constant subscriber to the game, but I’ve pretty much played it for at least a portion of every year since it came out. I played it for the most time from its launch until late 2005. Since then I’ve gone back and forth from other games, fallen for new worlds and new characters, but always revisited WoW time and again. The problem is for me, that as the game gets older I have a harder time reinvesting in new characters no matter how much I once loved that old content. For me, it’s not the mechanics of WoW that are dated as I still think the game plays very well, but rather it’s doing the same quests over and over and over that makes it hard to get motivated.

Cataclysm alleviates this. Sure enough not every zone has had a complete makeover. Just as though you’ll be doing roughly the same things in post-Cataclysm Azeroth as you were doing before, only now it seems they’re a bit more dramatic. For example, in the starting area of Elwynn Forest you’re still going to spend your first thirty minutes running around killing a certain number of things. Only now instead of kobolds, it’s invading Horde. Instead of picking grapes for wine, you’re putting out fires in the vineyard. It’s minor changes to the look and feel of the zone. Northshire Abbey has gone from peaceful haven for new human heroes, to a place that’s under constant siege after the return of Deathwing.

A lot has changed in WoW with the coming of Cataclysm, but the core of the game remains the same. I find that many of the old areas are new enough for me to be interested in them again, and I suppose that’s the point. This is the expansion that’s not just about going another handful of levels higher, but about revisiting old areas and finding them awash in a new light. Is it just a fresh coat of paint? Mostly. But it’s a nicely applied fresh coat of paint. I hope this goes well for Blizzard, honestly. I hope it’s well received by players to the point where it happens more often. I want to see content patches that focus on things happening in zones which make them over. I want the next expansion to do away with Deathwing’s destruction on Stormwind and start some new world-shattering event. I want the world to keep changing, in short.

And I want more games to take note and follow suit.

How many of your older games would you like to see re-done with what the developers know now many years later about quest design and art design? How many older games would you like to see the world actually evolve in? One of the best things about MMO gaming is that we have huge worlds to travel and interact in, but I don’t feel out of line saying that they age poorly. Now there’s not a whole lot that a studio can do to make a game’s mechanics grow. They’re limited often by the tech they have at launch. But the world can change. Just because the gameplay and systems will mostly stay the same, doesn’t mean the world we play in has to.

Perhaps some of the upcoming games on the docket will avoid this altogether. Certainly Guild Wars 2 seems poised to with its dynamic events system. Rift also seems ripe for the idea of world-changing events. DCUO is planning on having a comic book to go along with the game (much like CoH) and have monthly updates to the game itself. Hopefully some of what story we see happening in the comic will translate over to the game, and vice versa.

Really, I feel that one of the industry’s growing trends is the notion of evolving and changing game-worlds. I look at what CCPG is aiming to do with Dust and EvE, and hope they’re planning something similarly ambitious with the World of Darkness. In fact, now that I think of it, this whole article might be rendered moot in the coming years. Maybe Cataclysm isn’t just a re-shaping of Azeroth, but a symbolic event for the future of online gaming. Maybe in the next five years we’ll really start to see some truly dynamically changing worlds that react to players’ actions and desires.

Hey, a guy can dream right?

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Bill Murphy
Bill Murphy came on as a full time writer with MMORPG.com in 2010, his extensive knowledge of the genre and ability to turn a phrase have been a welcome addition to the MMORPG.com team.
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