In World of Warcraft (Blizzard, 2004), I am a night elf hunter. I have a wolf named Meadow (named after my dog in real life). We journey the neighboring continents of Azeroth together, in search of new gear, more quests to complete, and raw meat to keep her happy so I don’t end up losing an arm. On the backs of griffons I ride to get from one area to another, occasionally hopping on board a ship to voyage across the sea to the other continent. The variation between areas in the gameworld is sometimes staggering; walking through the dark and foreboding Duskwood will lead to the lush jungles of Stranglethorn vale. There are visibly different species located in each area, to be killed for their leather or the most basic need of experience. In World of Warcraft I am on a mission, whether I want to be or not. There is always something to do, no matter where I am. There are no loading screens. I am always in the game. There is no end.
The mass appeal of World of Warcraft lies in its simple approach to gameplay. Adopting the familiar “kill-reward” philosophy of point-and-click action RPGs, the basic premise behind World of Warcraft is to allow players to build powerful characters through accumulation of new powers and equipment. Stretching this simple mechanic to its utmost limits, it’s easy to become absorbed to the point of obsession, whether it’s to finish “one more quest” or obtain that elusive piece of armour to complete the set. While not medically recognized as being an addictive substance, it comes frighteningly close.
The tasks set before the new player are simple enough: go out into the wilderness and return with 10 crocolisk skins. Upon returning a reward is bestowed, and a new quest is given. This cycle repeats until you’re in a new town, where new quests can be given out. Except the name of the beast to harvest materials from has changed, and perhaps even its level relative to the character. The cycle repeats in an endless loop, but the change in environments and subtle modifications to objectives cause an automatic suspension of disbelief. Not to mention the increasing quality of loot.
And this has all been done before in other games. I’ve played RPGs that offer the exact same thing, even with the online component. So why does it work? What makes the overall experience so different, and why do my non-gamer friends keep talking to me about it? What World of Warcraft does well is the lower levels. This is the key for any MMORPG to be successful: ensnare the new players for the long term. Develop the foundation for an immediately gratifying timesink, so that future hours spent can be justified. It’s a brilliant system, and it works wonderfully: there are now five million subscribers worldwide that share these thoughts.
While my night elf hunter was in the low levels, I had picked up a difficult quest in the Dwarven Wetlands and thought I’d be able to complete it with my wolf companion. After a number of deaths, I decided to join a small pick-up group that was forming up on the outskirts of the Wetlands. I was uneasy about this, because adventuring alone made things predictable.
Strategies were formed in the heat of battle: the mage took care to stay back and do damage from afar and I sent my Wolf in close to occupy our adversaries while also doing ranged damage. The Paladin served a dual purpose in taking melee damage and healing our party. After a few moments we had achieved an equilibrium; our enemies fell quickly after each of our coordinated attacks. We had succeeded by working together. For a brief moment in time we had a real sense of purpose. Once the area was cleared and the magic items accounted for, we parted ways. Perhaps I would see them online again sometime.
The in-game community is arguably the most captivating reason people log in to the game. Towns and Auction Houses are usually filled with other players either chatting about the game and generally taking it easy, or planning a high-level instance raid. Guilds are formed among in-game acquaintances. These people are usually playing the game at the same time and typically share the same interests. They assist each other with quests, trade items, and create a general family-like atmosphere. The social experience is what ties World of Warcraft together – it gives a reason to interact with the player-driven environment instead of only consuming in-game content. It creates purpose.
As a result World of Warcraft is able to secure player mindshare – relying on players to spend time building their characters, as well as making enough of a social investment in the game to require regular visits. In my first year of playing I had joined two guilds, both of which spawned from real-life acquaintances but resulted in introducing me to people far outside my regular social circle. What did it matter that I had never met these people before? Our perfectly balanced group was about to embark on an instance raid of a dungeon. I was in charge of drawing enemies close to the group so they could be slain individually. There were responsibilities for the other group members as well: healing, tanking, buffing. Each role was important – death was no longer just an inconvenience; it meant the difference between finishing the quest and having angry guild mates shouting at you for ruining everything and wasting valuable time.
And this is the point where World of Warcraft becomes more than a game. It’s another life.
This week’s Gutter Guest has been Andrew Smale, who’s been a PC gamer for 17 years. He was part of the final stages of World of Warcraft’s beta testing, and a regular player since early 2005. His fervent opinions on gaming can be found at Tales of a Scorched Earth.