Can 12 million active subscribers be wrong?
Daily updates from Craig’s week in World of Warcraft
Day One: The Price of Free
Like the shamed businessman who conceals his copy of Hustler inside the Financial Times, I bought and quickly hid my World of Warcraft trial disc inside a new copy of Brütal Legend.
I’m ashamed to have World of Warcraft on my laptop.
Watching the WoW episode of South Park I didn’t see a clever and exaggerated satire but instead saw an accurate documentary of the pitfalls of addiction. 12 million active subscribers running around and hitting fruity coloured scorpions and making numbers appear above their heads is not a demographic I want to join.
My suspicion is that WoW will be a potentially limitless world constrained by artificially limiting rules where experience points drip fed from repetitive tasks will slowly fill up meaningless progress bars. I won’t be able to swing a level 9 sword if I’m level 5 even though a sword is a sword and does not require further study to operate.
So I’m not going into this unbiased but I am optimistic. Blizzard must be doing something special in there.
Installing WoW turned out to be my first act of epic heroism taking me a little over a day to do.
The free to download trial of WoW is a staggering 12 GB which on a tight 10 GB per month broadband package forced me into HMV where I bought a trial disc while avoiding eye contact with the sweaty man behind the counter.
The second wave of shame came when the apparently decrepit trial disc required an additional download of 9 GB in order to bring it forward from the original 2006 game through 2007’s The Burning Crusade and 2008’s Wrath of the Lich King expansion before KOing my connection by downloading some preparatory groundwork for the newly released Cataclysm expansion.
That’s one hell of a free trial you got there, Blizzard. Cost me a month of loading web pages straight out of 1994.
In many ways this was the perfect introduction to the psychological tactics on display. Clearly 12 GB is the whole game and in the 7 days available in the trial I must have only experienced an infinitesimal sliver of that content. But after taking so much effort to download it all I am hesitant to delete it.
Which is why I’m ashamed to have WoW on my laptop. Because I know even if I don’t like it I’m probably going to keep it there. It’ll always be there, watching me.
Before I’ve even stepped onto the fields of Azeroth I feel Blizzard have the drop on me.
Day Two: Meet Mortalla
Mortalla is an Undead Mage who likes ranged attacks, jumping and being unable to speak easily to anyone because people on trial accounts have their lips sewn together. She’s everything I ever wanted and less.
In order to play with Alan I had to be in the same faction (slightly bad Horde not slightly good Alliance), same realm (PvE not PvP) and on the same server (EU not US or RoW). Your first day on the new job tends to be mostly HR and acclimatising to my new surrounds.
If you’re struggling to read around all the acronyms then see it as preparation for playing WoW as a complete beginner because surprisingly little is explained in the game itself. There are townspeople who would tell me more about classes, talents and armour and such but I couldn’t find them until I found the townsperson who could tell me where the hell the others where. I gave up asking why I couldn’t wear a leather belt of appropriate level (apparently I can only wear cloth- allergies, you know how it is) and consulted the WoW Wikipedia page instead.
A PvE or Player vs Environment realm essentially means we were all on the same team fighting against Blizzard’s AI programmers. Which is fine by me as I prefer to play with friends rather than against them. Outside of player initiated duels or guilds it did look like everyone was just passively occupying the same space and going about their own business more or less independently.
In a PvP or Player vs Player realm I could have been attacked and bullied mercilessly by higher levelled players as well. Being too weak myself to do anything other than die and cry, I would have biding my time begrudgingly until I was the bully at which point I could find the WoW equivalent of using a horse to kick people off the sides of cliffs. Seems to me that the whole point of a having thousands of players should be to allow their myriad interactions, malicious or not, to impact the experience of being in that world.
I cleared most of the quests in Deathknell which introduce the basic combat system and questing trope of “Bring me so many of This Thing”. I wasn’t expecting much more to begin with but I certainly wasn’t expecting to kill flying Duskbats that drop no Duskbat Wings or to take down galloping Scavenger Wolves that drop no apparent Scavenger Paws. Maybe the wings and paws were destroyed by my sweet fireballs. Or maybe it’s just bullshit illogical trickery to lengthen quests.
As the core of any RPG is killing things and collecting things to sell and buy more things it strikes me that running around Azeroth is a lot like running around a shopping centre.
Collecting scavenged goods from around town or delivering letters to neighbouring Brill, destroying some farmer’s pumpkin field along the way, were far more rewarding tasks simply in terms of enjoying the architecture of the world. Given WoW’s low system requirements (a crucial feature to its success) the art direction of the locales and creatures is brimming with personality and style. Exploring the vast orc city of Orgrimmar carved into a mountain side or delving into the winding caverns of Undercity were surprisingly gratifying experiences.
And it would be even more gratifying if I was doing something interesting.
Day Three: The Life and Death of Samuel Fipps
The more I play WoW the more it feels like navigating a Lord of Rings themed version of Facebook; it’s high fantasy elf soap operas where everything exists in disparate pages and lists, it makes more sense doing it with your friends and a lot of it feels abstracted from the real world.
There are windows and buttons everywhere and they can all be maximised, minimised, pressed or left alone to obscure the screen and block what’s actually happening in the game space. Such clunky interface left me disconnected from the action- I wasn’t casting spells or swinging my staff or dodging attacks so much as I was sequentially pressing 1,2,3,4 on my keyboard and dragging icons between windows.
The quest Marla’s Last Wish typified this dichotomy. The quest window is split with the top half clearly in Lore Mode:
While the bottom half cuts to the chase with Game Mode:
Bring Samuel Fipps’ Remains to Marla’s Grave, then return to Novice Elreth.
And on the side quest list we have: [Samuel’s Remains] Buried: 0/1
They’re trying to tell some fairly interesting stories but it doesn’t seem to translate well to the actual game. This is especially the case when I have to arbitrarily kill an arbitrary number of Rattlecage skeletons. Why do only twelve skeletons require a beat down when more are also in the field?
So off I went to find Samuel Fipps. I stalked around his campsite, picking off his crew one by one before running in and jamming a fireball down Mr Fipps’ gullet.
Then I stood beside his corpse confused.
How do I pick up this corpse? How do I bury it? Do I need a shovel or will there be one at the grave? Is there an action button I’ve overlooked or context sensitive command I’ve not noticed?
I’m sure experienced MMORPGers will scoff but I didn’t know what to do. Then I noticed in the log window that in my aimless clicking I’d acquired Samuel’s Remains as loot.
Then Samuel Fipps respawned and attacked me. I thwacked him with my staff, killing him once more and returned to pondering what to do with this second corpse.
The third time he spawned I gave up and fled with his bodily remains showing in my inventory window.
The grave was easy to find considering how sparkly and glittery it was and after dragging the skulls icon over the grave I fulfilled Marla’s last wish.
As I stood at the campsite watching some sort of large bull creature chase poor, poor Samuel Fipps once more, the logistics of telling so many million players the same stories became apparent. This is Disneyland and we’re all going to go on the Indian Jones Adventure ride and we’re probably all going to get the gold too. I guess I’m okay with that.
Day Four: Halloween Treats
Prepare yourselves, the bells have tolled! Shelter your weak, your young and your old! Each of you shall pay the final sum! Cry for mercy; the reckoning has come!
I was in Brill when the Shade of the Horseman descended upon the village on his flying horse throwing flaming pumpkins at the buildings. Blizzard bought a lot of pumpkins with those monthly fees and quite rightly there were a lot of fun Halloween things to do. Apparently they celebrate each of the race’s festive holidays too.
As the fire spread to the buildings I joined a nearby group of impromptu fire-fighters to battle the blaze. Collecting buckets of water from a well and targeting the flames to throw them was perhaps the most dynamic and most powerful experience I had in my short time in WoW.
The town still burns. A cleansing fire! Time is short, I’ll soon retire!
The fire was put out and the Shade defeated only because there were about fifteen or so other real people really throwing fake water over fake fire with me. You couldn’t do it alone, at least not easily; it required strategy and cooperation.
While I’m sure this quest was a relatively unimportant vignette in the scheme of things for me it showed that exciting opportunities exist with large groups of players where it’s not just a boss enemy who has 40 times everyone’s health and therefore requires 40 players to defeat.
So eager you are, for my blood to spill. Yet to vanquish me, ’tis my head you must kill! [Horrifying guffaw]
Best of all is that we all got pumpkin masks and magic sweets that turned us invisible or made us fly and stuff.
I still don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing apart from adding quests to my shopping list as I wander around. Who’s the bad guy? Is there a bad guy? What’s my motivation? I feel like I can only see a few feet in front of me in a world that stretches over the horizon.
I can see that one of the motivating factors would be the loot. I’m level 9 right now so if I push to level 10 then I can wear this level 10 robe that I’ve picked up. Everything I encounter that I can’t do is just out of reach. The moment-to-moment is arranged like a series of carrots on sticks.
But all the loot I’m acquiring is meaningless to me right now and is understandably low level crap- tattered leather belts, faded clothes armbands or items I can’t use. The carrots are tasting very much like sticks.
Day Five: Ragefire Orc Chasm
Day Six: The Treadmill
Following the repeated runs of Ragefire Chasm I took a day off and saw a friend do some standup. As I watched her thrust a latex vagina at the crowd I realised I was missing out on WoW time. Hardly a flash on the road to Damascus I know but it caught me off guard.
I’ve spent the past few years listening to video game podcasts in which WoW is a gaming constant- something played for long stretches in amongst and around the new releases. They spoke of it as something that absorbs their time until either they burn out or take a break.
More striking to me is when they spoke of other games eating into their WoW time. I watched footage and I couldn’t see it. Somewhere amongst the staid repetition was some covert killer idea that kept them coming back for more.
In my brief time I think the killer idea isn’t a single idea at all. It’s more like a special set of circumstances that come together to cause an itch in a part of your brain.
It’s an intentionally confining world built completely around the notion of levels and tiers such that the apparent empowerment stems that confinement. The itch develops when an item is of too high a level to use but is scratched upon reaching that level. The itch starts when dying in an area of more powerful creatures but is scratched upon return with new spells, items and armour. The numbers get bigger and bigger numbers are always better.
Satisfaction came from this incremental progress. Disappointment came from knowing that progress was on a drip feed. People are quick to cast aspersion towards Zynga’s social games for this bit-by-bit model but it’s clearly the driving force in WoW too.
Obviously trying to play any MMORPG in a week is in no way an accurate representation of what the game is about. I hear the game only really begins after level 20 but if I told you the Harry Potter books only really get good after the fourth book, would you bother with the first three? The latest expansion Cataclysm while aimed for the high levels also breathes new life into the beginning experience. Perhaps after I’ve tried out some of the other MMOs I’ll return and give it another spin. Like I said earlier, this 12 GB will sit on my hard drive forever more.
I would like to see more of WoW– to travel across its vast continents and experience the impressive creatures, environments and architecture on display. It was fun, more than I expected, and there is now an itch to play more.
But, and this has been the elephant in the room all week, I’m not paying a monthly subscription.
Paying to play WoW every month changes everything. There’s an extra unwanted incentive to keep playing to “get your money’s worth”. I don’t want a reminder to play a game appearing on my bank statement. I simply don’t have the cash to invest.
I’d be paying to rent time on a treadmill. The more time I spent on the treadmill the more I’d see. But I can only run as fast as the treadmill lets me. Time is rewarded more than skill. There’s a vibrant and exciting world I wish I could explore.
But I’m stuck on the treadmill. And I don’t have the time to invest hundreds of hours to get to the really cool stuff.
Can 12 million active subscribers be wrong?
I think so. At least at the beginning, maybe it changes later.
Best get a second opinion from the 70 million playing FarmVille.
Alan has spent a few months playing WoW so go check out his proper review.