When WoW launched, all the way back in 2004, I'd already been playing MMORPGs for half a decade. I'd been playing video games for a lot longer than that, right back to the very early 1980s, but I had never played a Blizzard game so the hype around the upcoming Warcraft spin-off meant very little to me.
Even so, it was impossible to be involved in the genre and not hear something about what was coming. During the six months or so before WoW launched all my attention was focused on EQ2. Who would or wouldn't be moving there from EverQuest and what the arrival of a second MMO set in Norrath would do to the fortunes and health of the first were topics of far greater interest to my coterie of online friends and acquaintances than the prospects of some vague wannabe contender.
If I knew anything at all about WoW it was that it had something to do with that easy-mode rpg Diablo that no-one I knew had ever had anything much to say about. That, indeed, was the one thing everyone I talked to agreed on about WoW - it would be an MMO-Lite experience at best.
My impression never really changed in the five years it took before Mrs Bhagpuss and I finally got around to trying WoW. It was an impression reinforced by comments from people we met in the MMOs we played. Some, like us, had never played the game, forming their judgments from the odd screenshot or review they'd seen or read. More influential were the reports from people we met in guild or groups, who had played WoW and stopped.
|It's okay, you all go on and have fun without me. I'll just sit here...|
Especially telling was the main reason they tended to give for not playing it any more: "It's okay but it's too easy. I got bored". That tended to be the gist. When we finally arrived in Azeroth at the butt-end of a prolonged MMO slump I think both Mrs Bhagpuss and I felt we were slumming. I can remember the short discussion when we decided to give WoW a try - it went along the lines of "well, we've tried everything else..."
WoW turned out to be very different from the simplistic, even childish experience we may have been imagining. It was somewhere around the middle of the Wrath of the Lich King's reign and the word among the cognoscenti was that WoW's Golden Age was already over, Blizzard's current development team keen to dumb things down for the vast, casual crowd that had turned the game into a cultural phenomenon.
I was astonished to find a much slower-paced, thoughtful, full-bodied MMORPG than anything I'd heard or read had led me to expect. I could only imagine how much more so it must have been in earlier years. I kicked myself, gently, for missing it but gave myself a pat on the back for getting there in the end.
We only lasted six months as subscribers. Neither of us leveled a character to the cap. I forget now where we went when we moved on - probably back to EQ2, I imagine. Mrs Bhagpuss has never returned but since the Free-to-20 endless trial appeared I've pottered around, on and off, here and there, now and again.
It's hard to tell, though, playing a very low-level character under the restrictions of a glorified free trial just how the game as a whole stacks up to modern expectations. This week, with the chains off and some higher-level characters to run around, I've been able to take stock and once again the facts turn out to be surprisingly different from the reputation.
|Smartest he's ever looked.|
I'm not going to say WoW is hard but boy, it's a lot harder than you'd expect. Than I expected.
Yes, there's that crazy leveling speed at the low end but stack that against what's been going on this last couple of weeks. The demonic invasions as they began gave huge boosts to xp for character of all levels. It led to vast armies of players afking alts under the xp hose to soak up those free levels.
Blizzard took objection and slammed down the nerf hammer. The intention was to make players work for their levels but way they chose to do it was highly instructive. Rather than merely cut the xp they split up and multiplied the invasion sites, reducing their duration and increasing their frequency.
This had the effect of forcing players to move their characters around the world if they wanted to carry on raking in the levels. Coming from GW2 and EQ2, I didn't foresee that being a problem. Until I tried it.
Moving from place to place in Azeroth is almost as awkward as it is in Old Norrath! Possibly more so. Having opened my map and found invasions marked in radioactive green on two continents I found myself stumped. How to get to any of them? I had no clue.
Thinking it to be ignorance and lack of current game knowledge I turned to Google. Wowhead had a comprehensive guide. My hunter was in Dun Morogh. I tried to follow the directions to Tarren Mill.:
"Tarren Mill, Hillsbrad Foothills:
- Alliance: Fly from Twilight Highlands, take Cataclysm portal in Stormwind to Twilight Highlands"
Cataclysm portal? What the heck is that? I had no idea but Reddit did. So now I need to do a quest to open a portal?
Let's step back a second.
|I just don't know what I'd do without my griffin.|
Here's the sequence. My Hunter used his Hearthstone to get back to Ironforge. From there he took a Griffin to Stormwind. In Stormwind he had to find the docks and get the quest from the Hero's Board (first enabling lower level quests so he could see it). After that there'd be a trip to the throne room of Stormwind Keep and a jaunt through another portal to Moonglade.
A bit of quest business and he'd have access to the Cataclysm Portal...back in Stormwind. So, a trip back there on a griffin, I guess, or re-use the hearthstone, if it's off cooldown, and come back round. That would get him as far as Twilight Highlands after which he's on his own - the guide ends there!
I did try but I gave up when, after about twenty minutes, I still hadn't even found the Hero's Board. Instead I flew all the damn way from Ironforge to Hillsbrad Foothills on my slow Snow Griffin. That was after I spent a third of my entire savings on a Flying License, which apparently I'd never bothered to do back when I was playing last time.
At least the Hunter has that option. The Warlock, at 50, has to take a scheduled flight or ride his goat. He's not going anywhere. I have him parked in Westfall and he's staying there. As for the possibility of even seeing an invasion on Kalimdor I've pretty much given up on that one for the time being until I can work out how to get there. Didn't there used to be a boat...?
|No, I have no idea what's going on either.|
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how old school WoW still is. It's much more old-fashioned than anyone lets on. If leveling was really so log-falling easy then why would so many people be so keen to jump on any opportunity to speed it up and so cross when they're told they can't?
If the game is such a great fit for casual players with tight schedules and real-life pressures, why is it so difficult to get from one place to another? Something doesn't add up. What about the hoops you have to jump through to get the look for your character that you want? And this Transmog is the improved version?
It seems to me that there may be more reasons for WoW's declining subscriptions than mere ennui among its existing playerbase. It just might be that, compared to almost any MMORPG of the last five, six, seven years or so, it could be coming across to new players as a tad...harsh.
It's not just the inevitable accretion of systems and content from a dozen years of operation that makes all older MMOs daunting for new blood. It's the surprising disconnect between WoW's reputation as the grandfather of casual gaming and the reality of some highly complex and rather demanding basic gameplay. It makes you think about just where Mike O'Brien's notorious manifesto snipe at games that "make you spend hours preparing to have fun rather than just having fun" was aimed.
None of which is meant as a complaint. I am certain sure that, were I to be playing WoW as my main MMORPG, I would relish the granularity and texture these legacy systems and structures support. Bring it on, I say!
For a drop-in, hour-a-day, casual MMO experience, though, it's not quite what you might expect.