So What's the Problem With WoW?

As I type this, I am downloading patches for World of Warcraft. Playing this game is something I have been actively avoiding since the game's release in 2004. My only experience with WoW prior to this has been a brief six hour "test" during the beta, and extensive conversations with my friends and guild mates who have played or continue to play the game. Why I am choosing to play now isn't immediately important (I'll talk about that later if I do end up enjoying the experience), what I want to explain here is why I have put so much effort into not playing.

First, a bit of background on my experience with online gaming. It basically began in the early '90s with MUDs on the local BBS I frequented. I never really liked or got into the MUDs. Next came Neverwinter Nights on AOL somewhere around 1993, which was basically a massively multiplayer version of the old Dungeons & Dragons Gold Box series. This was fun, but I had a difficult time wrapping my head around the complexities this game introduced to roleplaying and stats tracking and so on. I watched friends play NWN and other games like Meridian 59, which seemed nice, but still not what I was looking for. In September 1997, Origin Systems released Ultima Online, which I still consider one of the best and most unpolished online experiences I've had to date.

Ultima Online was, on the surface, a fairly simple game. Your character only had three stats: strength, agility, and intelligence, which determined your "bars" of: health, stamina, and mana. There were no character levels in the game and no "experience" in the traditional sense. The game was skill based and each player could advance any number of skills by performing actions that utilized those skills. So for example, using an axe on a tree to gather wood would utilize your lumberjack skill (as well as improve your character's strength). Then using a knife on the gathered wood along with feathers would utilize your fletching skill. Firing arrows at an orc would utilize your archery skill. In my mind, this was all completely intuitive and straightforward without any complicated formulas or templates or classes or races or whatever else. You just had your human character who had skills that went up when you used them and atrophied when you didn't. Simple.

Ultima Online also featured a world completely devoid of automated quests. What? How is this possible you ask? Once again, it's completely intuitive. There are parts of the world that are more dangerous than others. Of course there are dungeons filled with all sorts of horrors, but there are also stretches of forest where liches are common (usually near ruins, crypts, and graveyards). There are forts populated by orcs. There are wandering creatures like headless, deer, and bears. A player might decide to strike out on his own to see what he runs into in the forest or maybe go to gather some wood or find a mountain to do some mining. He might join up with some buddies and go in search of trouble in a crypt or hit a dungeon or, something that happens often, gather up a group to go help out a mate in trouble with a cry of "To the rescue!" The result of all this random adventure is a series of player generated narratives. Friends and guild mates tell stories about that time they had to rescue you from the orc fort, or track down a thief who just stole heap of gold. That's our story. No one else can claim it because it was entirely unique to our individual experience.

After UO I played a little EverQuest EverQuest and then some Asheron's Call. EverQuest was much more of the traditional D&D-like MUD, but with graphics. Asheron's Call was a bit of a hybrid in which characters had both levels and skills. I was never fond of EQ's system, but rather enjoyed how AC was put together. Unfortunately for me, both felt too complicated for me to really be comfortable in. I tried some betas including the World of Warcraft beta, but never really found anything to satisfy my MMO needs. That's basically been it and I haven't played any single MMO for more than a week or so in the last six years.

So what's the problem with WoW? Millions of players the world over adore this game, how could I possibly find fault with something that so many people find so right? To start, let's talk about the things WoW does right. Like all of Blizzard's games, WoW is incredibly polished. There's a unified artistic vision that guides all of Blizzard's products and it is pretty damned appealing. I actually really like WoW's somewhat cartoony look, I think the art direction is pretty much genius. Blizzard clearly paid very close attention to the other MMOs on the market and either adapted the things they did right, or improved and polished the things they did poorly. This shows clearly in the very polished, attractive, and functional UI. WoW introduced things like quest logs and displays to tell the player how many of x item he's collected vs how many he still requires to complete a quest. Very clear identifiers for NPC quest givers. Some new ways to display timers on buffs and debuffs and so on. There's a rather wide assortment of pets and mounts. Players can find clear and useful information about items. Players can mail items and gold to other players within the game. The game was also designed with very low system requirements in mind. Players don't need powerful computers to have a satisfying experience in WoW and this serves to include instead of exclude players, giving Blizzard a much broader player base from which to recruit new addicts. WoW does all of these things extremely well and certainly better than any of the games that had been released up till that point. But... (big "but")... while these things improve the player experience, they are really just the cosmetic bits surrounding the tragically spoiled meaty center.

The very first thing, and possibly the greatest single flaw, is WoW's laser-like focus on questing. From start to finish, players are guided through the game by quests. These quests are either small and standalone, or follow larger story arcs that explain background of characters and races and the relationships between these races. Characters basically run from quest giver to quest giver, collecting and completing quests in order to get better equipment, money, or experience. For the player, this keeps things fairly simple. Players are told exactly what needs to be done and when completed, are told the result. Simple and neat. There are even addons that guide you through the quests, no thinking required!

Next there's the issue of how quests impact the persistent game world. In the simplest terms possible, there is no persistence. Let's look at an imaginary quest in which an NPC asks that a player gather 6 bear pelts by killing these embiggened bears, so as to thin the population of this invasive and dangerous species. No big deal, right? Except, the player is killing bears, and that guy over there is killing bears, and that other guy is killing bears, and the 4.7 million other characters who started off in this zone had to kill these bears. By this time, all the bears, all of the bears' ancestors, and all of the bears' potential ancestors for the next hundred thousand years should have been annihilated. Nearly all of the quests I am familiar with are of this nature in which everyone is asked to do the same thing and everyone completes it, giving me the distinct impression that every individual in this world exists in his own personal reality bubble that never seems to intersect anyone else's reality bubble. I feel like I'm playing a single player game in which other players happen to be walking through.

Out of these quests comes the stuff, usually referred to as "loot." That which you get from the successful completion of quests or off the corpses of those felled in battle. Loot is a reward. Most loot comes in the form of weapons, armor, or components necessary for tradeskills. These items serve the dual purpose of assisting characters in battle by way of their various and often unique characteristics, and to identify to other players what quests or other accomplishments a character has completed. Usefulness in battle aside, these items are mostly just achievements. Something to show off to others. Other than achieving the highest levels possible, acquiring the bestest loot is pretty much the only goal of the game for the vast majority of players. This is really just the game catering to the basic human desire for validation from his peers. While all games do this, it's the WoW-like games that emphasize it as a driving force of the greater player-base. This is where acquiring loot becomes significantly more important than, say, following the game's major story arcs. We're not going into that dungeon to find out what happened to the valiant hero of legend, we're going to acquire the holy mace of bear smiting! And related to my point of a lack of quest persistence, there is an unlimited supply of these "unique" and special items. Anyone who meets the requirements can get a hold of an uber item, so even though this mace is mentioned in the ancient texts as the mace the valiant paladin took into battle with him on his final day, 674,000 characters somehow managed to find and wield this same mace...simultaneously. At least until they found a better weapon and auctioned the mace off.

My final major issue looks at how anti-guild WoW is. This may seem odd to most at first blush, afterall, WoW comes with extensive guild-management tools built right into the game. Players can form a guild and manage it with ranks and privileges and all manner of titles and tabards, but that's not what I am talking about. The problem with guilds in WoW has to do with the game's level-based structures and rules. Nearly all of the game's content is segregated so that access is limited by character level or sometimes even character race and class. This creates tiers of access and gives players something to work toward. You may be level 20 now, but you've heard guildmates talk about how cool that 40th level dungeon is, so you put some extra time into power-leveling through so you can see it for yourself (and get some of the great loot that gets rewarded down there). That's great, except that as the only low-level player in your guild, you are pretty much forced to run through all those levels on your own or with other random strangers. What's the point of being in a guild if you spend the first 70 or so levels playing without your friends? The strict level-based system stratifies the guild members into groups of similarly leveled characters. Sure, they still have people to play with (hopefully), but your exposure to guild members is going to be limited to those around your same level. Then what happens when one of the guys you usually play with falls behind or power levels ahead? People you're used to playing with are no longer available to you. It's really frustrating to be playing a massively multiplayer online game and feeling completely alone, not because you don't have any friends, but because the game's own mechanics are telling you who you can and cannot play with.

Without a doubt, World of Warcraft is the premiere MMO. It is surprisingly well known among people who have never played or seen a video game in their lives. It's been the source of real life love and real life tragedy. It's created friendships and enemies. It's made some people rich and others destitute. There is no question that World of Warcraft has impacted the world and changed how we view and play MMOs, and above all else, that is my greatest issue with WoW. People now identify WoW as the benchmark by which all other MMORPGs shall be judged. Because WoW is a success, any other MMORPG that wishes to achieve even a fraction of WoW's success must meet and exceed WoW's basic play mechanics. In short, WoW is creating and nurturing an industry of copycat MMORPGs because players have developed and built the expectation that any "good" MMORPG will be at least as good as WoW in the ways that people are familiar with. In fact, the only place that MMOs really try to diverge from WoW's formula is to dramatically increase the visual aesthetics of their games, which will almost always end up hurting them as they reduce the pool of potential players who meet the system requirements. As good and as popular as WoW is, as a gaming experience it has been built on a deeply flawed foundation that is now propagating throughout the industry. I can only hope that some innovating developers can find a way to eliminate these issues and strike out in new directions, forging new ground, and creating new completely unique holy maces of bear smiting.
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Re: So What's the Problem With WoW?

You make some good comments in here. I wanted to address a few since I am a WoW addict,haha. I agree with you on most of them. I hate the fact I can't go and adventure with lower level people. Final Fantasy Online has some way of handling that. I think you can actually down level yourself to adventure with a friend, but your equipment doesn't downgrade with you so you need to have another set of stuff to adventure when you're lower level. I think Warhammer Online does it in reverse. You can go to higher level things with your friends and you'll be upleveled to their level for what you're doing, you just won't get the additional levels of skills. When you leave the area, you'd go back down to your normal level. Not sure if that makes sense or not. I totally love the idea of not having levels and want to see another MMO like that. On persistance, WoW has been toying with that. There are things in the Lich King where once you finish them, the world changes for you. It's pretty cool. I don't want to give away too much but thought I would bring up the fact WoW is trying to make it so your world can change. Hopefully you see the other fun things to do in WoW. Even if we're not adventuring together, I feel we still get to talk and help eachother out and thats what guildies do :)
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Just to be clear...

I wrote this as a response to all the people who ask why I don't play WoW now or in the past. Obviously I have very strong feelings about it and just wanted to get those arguments out there so I could point to them and simplify the explanation process.

I am enjoying the game, but I think that's about 90% because I'm playing with you all. Most of the reason why I started playing was so I could talk with you all more often and be a little more socially involved with what folks in the group are doing. So to me, WoW is more a medium to engage my friends than it is a game I'm really interested in "winning."

No matter how hard Blizzard tries to make the game persistent, they will never make it right. Same with the level issues, the game mechanics simply won't allow for it. Making the game world change for me doesn't do anything for my sense of the world since, once again, this only impacts my own little reality bubble.

I guess in the end, if someone wants a persistent experience, they simply shouldn't come to WoW expecting it. Which is obviously one of the reasons why I avoided it for so long. :)
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Re: So What's the Problem With WoW?

I've never played another MMO, so honestly I don't have anything to compare WoW to. It's kind of funny because I think I like it for all the reasons that you dislike it. I like the individual questing because it gives people an ability to level and do things in the game, even when everybody else is playing somewhere else. Also, I like how people will be able to have "equal" access to good loot in the game. I've been able to play much more this last semester than in the past. But when I don't have as much time to play, I appreciate the chance to get the same awesome "mace" as people who have more time to play and have had more chances at getting it. But b/c I haven't played other games, I actually don't know what I may be missing. I agree that the best part is just playing with people you know though. :)
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Re: So What's the Problem With WoW?

Those are very legitimate desires in a game, but I feel like, if that's what you want out of a game, you would be just as well off playing a singleplayer roleplaying game that you don't have to pay a monthly fee for.

I guess I feel like, if I'm playing a massive multiplayer game and paying a subscription fee for it, it shouldn't feel like a singleplayer game. In which case, that fee is really just going toward constant content updates and not really the whole MMO aspect.