I’m going to type this out, and then I’m going to look back on it, go “oh, how dreary…” and wonder why I didn’t write some dark poetry about the matter instead. I don’t intend to be so melodramatic, but the fact is that I feel I’ve been at this juncture many times before. Sure, the universe waxes and wanes; months or years pass; I’m on the wagon again, I’m off the wagon again. I don’t dislike World of Warcraft, or Blizzard, or generally most of what they’ve done with it, but like any long-term relationship, Azeroth and I are bound to hit some rough patches along the way.
That’s not to say that outside forces have not been actively intruding on our alone time, because they have — I’ve been working my day job a lot more than usual, while seeking to regain my social life several nights a week and dealing with lots of other more personal problems and stresses brought on by the rigors of just… well, trying to live. But that’s not the crux of it, and I’m not here to say that I feel my life is that much better for not spending a great deal of it plunked in front of my computer screen.
It’s more that I don’t feel that “alone time” is as interesting or valuable as it used to be. For all the content added in Cataclysm, I honestly find fewer and fewer aspects of the game that continue to appeal to me. Maybe that’s because so much of it has been streamlined — there’s a difference between increased convenience and catering to the lowest common denominator, a tightrope I feel Blizzard isn’t quite able to walk as well as it used to. With no challenge, no exploration, most content in a game (MMO or otherwise) is only fun the first time through by sheer virtue of its shiny newness.
This is the unfortunate downside of its current state: bulldoze through all the quests in a zone until you’re prompted to go the next one. There might be a lot of quests, but if you’ve done ‘em once, you’ve done ‘em a million times. I think the only entertainment I’ve ever really been able to squeeze out of leveling an alt is attempting to optimize my path to the level cap — how can I max out my XP bonus and what quests/activities will offer me the most experience in the least amount of time?
PvP? A big, fat meh. I enjoy competitive gaming to a degree, but I’ve never liked it enough in World of Warcraft for it to remain a selling point and my disappointment with the most recent additions to this side of the game is evident.
What else is there? Archaeology? Professions? Rare pet hunting (and, yes, I actually resorted to that for a couple of days recently, to no avail)? The one thing I hold any remaining interest in at the moment, raiding, is something I’ve been unable to do in at least a month. As much fun as a small, tight-knit guild can be, you’ve got to deal with the distinct possibility that losing just one key player completely destroys your setup. This person leaves, you can’t raid. You can’t raid, people lose morale, and even less start showing up. Eventually, you lose morale, too, and with it, all desire of playing World of Warcraft.
This is the dilemma I’m facing right now. Once again, yes, I’ve enjoyed going out, making new friends, and having real-life adventures. But I like my video games. I always have and always will, that isn’t going to change even if I must adjust my schedule just a little bit. There’s always the possibility of joining another guild, but that doesn’t quite feel right, either. I’ve been playing with most of these people for years. I know how they act and how they react under pressure; we mesh and we work well together when everybody is paying attention. Let’s face it, when you lose your guild, you lose your friends, and that’s what makes an MMO worth playing once you’ve taken a lap around the solo content. And this is the third… fourth… fifth time that it’s happened? A single man can only take so much!
Despite all these problems (and I admit some of them are certainly personal ones), I can’t help but feel there is a greater issue here. As I re-read the list of potential in-game activities above, I have to wonder why they aren’t any fun for me. Why don’t these activities (raiding aside) hold my attention? And I begin to realize that the blame can be placed squarely on Blizzard for creating a dull game. You don’t know how hard that is to admit. I like Blizzard games quite a bit, as I’m sure most of the people reading this do. But this is no simple criticism of recent patch notes or whining over a class nerfs, puerile acts that we see happen far too often. No, this is the sort of revelation that I can look at and say to myself, “Holy crap! I’ve felt like this for a very, very long time, and I was just afraid to admit it!”
World of Warcraft has expanded massively, but only in the sense that it has added to its girth, and not to its height. For all of its iterative developments (advanced shadows/water effects, for example), the engine is still grossly over-aged. The number of quests available expands with each expansion, but the variations upon them remain primarily cosmetic or otherwise inconsequential. It reminds me of the more recent entries in the Ridge Racer series. Namco isn’t really great at creating new content for this long-running series and so the Grand Prix mode in the recent 3DS version is about the same as it was in the first PSP release several years ago — a large number of events used to disguise the fact that you’re really just racing the same fifteen (or so) tracks over and over again in different combinations, most of which are from past titles in the series.
In terms of World of Warcraft, a quest is a quest is a quest. The few new “types” introduced are far and few between because they’re harder to implement on an aging and incapable engine. And it hurts even more when you can tell where the development team has put in most of its effort, because you can easily tell when they don’t. For instance, there are some cool things that happen in Hyjal, but it was sort of hyped up like “yeah, you’re going to have to fight back against the minions of the fire realm and restore the lands that have been burned!” But in reality, there’s only one area that becomes partially regrown and it’s handled in a very clumsy way. No cutscene, no graceful transition. The whole change just sort of blinks into existence 5-10 seconds after you’ve completed the quest to enable it.
Likewise, the lore spreads outwards, but never feels like it significantly moves forward. As obsessive and protective as Blizzard (Metzen, especially) seems over Azeroth, there are unforgivable gaps and lapses in the storytelling. So many threads are often left hanging or, if resolved, in an unsatisfying way (and when they are resolved, it might be several years later). There has to be a more efficient and engaging way to do this. Instead of introducing tons of new characters, make better use of the ones you have, and let’s see them more frequently. So many of Azeroth’s heroes (and villains) feel like they’re just making a cameo whenever they show up, when they should be tightly bound to the plot. And if you insist on creating new ones, make them truly significant.
I’d also like to see the plot progress more organically, instead of in this piecemeal fashion linked directly to major content patches (most of which will only focus on a tiny parcel of the overall lore anyway).
I could go on and on, but I don’t want to seem like I’m just whining about things. It’s just that I see these issues as a threat to the virility of the game and its continued prosperity. When opinions shift on World of Warcraft these days, I feel like the peaks are getting shallower and the valleys are getting deeper. People may be momentarily swayed by positive changes, but the ones perceived as negative are all the more damning.
There are new titles out there, cresting on the horizon, that are finally starting to give the game some stiff competition. Don’t get me wrong, WoW is still an industry juggernaut, but all those labelled as its “killers” in the past have failed primarily on their poor development. Bugs, shallow content, and half-assed gameplay will destroy a competitor faster and easier that the mere presence of World of Warcraft, itself. But the new crop is in bloom — Rift, TERA, Guild Wars 2, to name a few — and it seems as though they have finally taken the sins of their predecessors to heart.
Once again, sorry for being so dreary, but if you’ve read to the end of this, then I imagine you might feel the same way, too. Or perhaps I’m simply trying to talk out and confirm some of the suspicions I’ve had of the genre for awhile now. After all, I’ve spent at least half of a decade playing WoW, and beyond their “shiny newness,” there’s no telling how quickly I may get tired of these new MMORPGs once I’ve experienced everything they have to offer.
Either way, the general level of quality, and ambition, is already much higher than it was just a couple of years ago, and for the first time, I can honestly say there may be another MMO out there that will get me to cancel my WoW subscription if my frustration with the state of the game doesn’t do so first.