It's always difficult to write public posts about WoW because the game arouses such strong passions, both positive and negative, in the people who follow it. It looms over the MMO landscape like an unshakeable monolith and, if you believe the hype, people either love it to bits or hate it to death with nothing in between. Well, I'm an in-betweener and I'm going to write about WoW today; I'm well aware of its flaws and it has some very specific shortcomings when it comes to my own play-style, but I've always been willing to admit that there's an awful lot WoW gets right, too.
A quick tangent here: yes, I know WoW has issues. No, I’m not saying it’s a perfect game. I no longer debate these things with anyone who is so entrenched on one side or the other that they can’t even consider a point of view other than their own. Zealotry and fanaticism are distasteful and pointless in terms of debate, no matter what the subject. End tangent.
One of the things WoW understood, acknowledged and worked with very early on is subscriber churn. Players come and go from MMOs, playing a few months and then moving on for a few months or years before coming back for a few months. The trend was just starting back in 2004-2005, but these days it's a well-established fact of MMO life. Most of the gamers I know haven't played the same MMO solidly for the last 10 years, and I'm no exception. For one thing, boredom tends to set in with any game you play for any length of time; and for another, there's always a new game just around the corner, and most gamers are nothing if not enthusiastic about new games. (How long the enthusiasm actually lasts is another issue, especially with the crop of rather lackluster MMOs we've had in the last couple of years.)
I think Cataclysm raised our expectations across all play-styles, and in hindsight it may not be all that surprising that it didn't live up to all of them. The more vocally disappointed players seem to be the ones who played the raiding and item-treadmill game for years, getting bored but powering on, to whom Cataclysm isn’t really offering the fundamental changes they were hoping for. For someone like me, however, who didn’t take part in the endgame before and who didn’t play long enough to really get bored and frustrated, this expansion has been hugely entertaining.
Six years in and one Shattering later, it seems to me that WoW didn’t so much remake itself as give itself one hell of a makeover. The basic features – the gameplay, the dungeons, the item and reputation treadmills – remain fundamentally unchanged, though they’ve been cleaned up and tweaked, and this may be what some of the unhappier players find unforgiveable. I’m not entirely certain any expansion content would have made them happier or less frustrated unless it actually created an entirely new game, and that clearly wasn’t going to happen (and might still have horribly misfired, since not everyone has the same expectations).
Why would Blizzard mess with what is unarguably – at least to date – the most successful MMO formula out there, especially if you’re looking at the bottom line? From a business perspective it would be entirely idiotic to totally alter what ain’t broken to begin with. Let’s not forget that for every stridently bored and jaded player complaining on forums or blogs, there are probably 5, 10 or even 1000 other players who are still quietly having a good time. Good news doesn’t get page-views, especially in the MMO world.
I’ve got no firm data on this (remember: o-pi-ni-on) but if my old Icecrown guild is anything to go by, we’re a microcosm of the larger player base as far as Cataclysm is concerned. A whole bunch of us came back to the game to see what Cataclysm was all about (and it’s been great to see names I hadn’t seen in half a decade!) – a few of us hated it because it didn’t deliver what we’d hoped, many are happy with some stuff and less happy with other stuff, and quite a few of us are just generally having a whale of a time – and I’m one of them.
One of the things I’ve found very interesting about Cataclysm is that it really is obvious the designers have learned a thing or two since the game launched. The new starting areas are emblematic of the process: they’re not so much entirely different as cleverly renovated, and since I believe the mandate was to do exactly that rather than turn the entire game into something nobody would recognize (which really would have caused a backlash, in my opinion), it seems to have been pretty successful. Skills, spells, items and quests have been streamlined in a way that’s extremely useful and actually rather fun for everyone except the elite 0.01% who already have 10 levels 80s and are bored to tears – and again, I really don’t think any changes short of an entirely new game would make those people happy.
This goes beyond starting areas though. As I’ve leveled my hunter through the 60s, 70s and now 80s, I’ve had to quest as a naga, trust goblins, make peace with elementals and generally do things that just didn’t exist back in the early days of WoW. Pre-Shattering Azeroth was basically about wiping out anything and everything that wasn’t Horde or Alliance, and I’ll admit that I hate murlocs and nagas with a passion that might be just a tad excessive. Post-Shattering Azeroth is a sundered world that is learning to unite – however unwillingly – against an overwhelming common foe, and I am really enjoying the whole shades-of-grey thing that was only there in the odd hidden corner in WoW before.
Building condos on Darkshore beaches for displaced murlocs is both funny and somehow poignant. WoW has always known how to do humor – it’s an essential story-telling tool and it’s used a lot in post-Shattering Azeroth; I’ve laughed out loud a number of times, even though everywhere I look (especially in the Cata content) everyone is under siege and fighting desperately just to stay alive. What’s new is that the humor is often a gloss for a deeper and rather interesting poignancy. It’s a less complacent world; it’s a far less self-righteous world, and as an adult player I’m discovering depths I didn’t think WoW possessed nor ever would.
To me, WoW has always been like that slick, expensively-dressed, very glitzy person you come across now and then – the type of person that’s briefly entertaining but easy to dismiss as shallow and ultimately empty beyond the colorful trappings. Which isn’t entirely fair, especially after Cataclysm, because now it’s quite clear that the designers did learn from their experiences over the years and that maybe they’re trying to show that they, like the rest of us, have grown up a bit.
I can’t gauge the expansion on how it handles raiding, because that’s not what I do – though I will say that a) I’m finding myself a little tempted to find out, now that we’re not necessarily talking 40 people and 5 hours of my life gone in one chunk, and b) from listening to most of my raiding guild-mates, I have the impression a lot of thought went into those too. But as far as handling everything else goes, my experience is that it’s lured me back in and that I’m having a great time from level 10 to (currently) 84. It may not last, but what does in MMOs anyway?
Change is not always a bad thing. It may not be exactly what we want or expect, but given how unrealistic and self-interested MMO gamers can be, that’s not always a bad thing either.
Image credits: Motifake.com