Saturday, August 20, 2016

Getting There : WoW

The current demonic invasion of Azeroth has been both profitable and revealing. The more I play World of Warcraft the more I realize it isn't and probably never has been precisely the game its public image would suggest.

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.


  1. What you encountered is something that has been around more and more since Twinking dwindled in popularity, namely lack of understanding of how low-level play really 'works'.

    That Guide at WoWhead for example seems to be written entirely from the perspective of established, max-level characters, and for those using the portals you acquired in Cataclysm makes sense, being the shortest route and all.

    In general the thing about WoW is that you get progressively more rewards for having an easier time of it the higher level you get, which was even more pronounced before Cataclysm changed the 1-60 experience as Vanilla quest structure was much more demanding than that of Outland (which in turn was more demanding than Northrend etc.).

    Originally that stopped only with Raiding (Battlegrounds at cap were the same difficulty as during levelling, you just got more Honor for them and had shorter queue times) but LFR argueably changed that, too.

    For low-level characters the rule of thumb of getting where you want to be is look at the continent maps etc.,follow the main road and pick up the Flight Points on the way.

    Swimming used to be a great alternative but they added sharks along the Wetlands coast and several other such areas. Similarly, you used to be able to use the various Summoning Stones and the physical Dark Portal in the Blasted Lands on any character that could reach them (being low level you draw more attention from mobs that outlevel you) but they changed that somewhere in MoP and Cata respectively.

    What still works and should argueably be your first priority is asking a Mage for a Portal to Shrine/Valley, the main hub in Pandaria, and setting your Hearthstone there. At least currently still that hub has useable by all Portals to all the main Faction cities, Shattrath (original Outland) and Dalaran (northrend). The last one has a portal to the Caverns of Time in Tanaris near Gadgetzan(Kalimdor).

  2. For Alliance the most straightforward way to reach Tarren Mill is following the road out of Ironforge east to Loch Modan/Thelsamar (flight point), continue that road through the tunnels to the Wetlands (flight point to the right), continue the road west to Menethil Harbor till it shows a split to the north (a Goblin vendor is nearby the road) and follow that split north (flight point near a dwarven citadel, which lies near a big bridge you'll cross into the Arathi Highlands).

    From the Arathit Highlands it gets a bit tricky as they started to update the Zone with Cata but stopped while being half done.

    You keep following the main road to the west, eventually encountering human soldiers to your right. That's near Refuge Point, the only Alliance Flight Point in this zone. Go back to the main road, continue till again there is a split north and follow that way north. You'll quickly enter a tunnel and the beautiful Hinterlands. Follow the road west till you see the Dwarven citadel of Aerie Peak on your right, and pick up the Flight Point there. Go back to the road and continue going south towards Hillsbrad by riding down the valley, you'll see named ruins at the end of the valley. Then go west across the river and you should see Tarren Mill with its Tim Burton architecture.

    There are alternative roads (Chillwind Point in the Western Plaguelands is the otherwise closest FP, a Portal: Ancient Dalaran is the quickest but you need slow fall/Flying to survive using it) but this is the most straightforward and despite the lengthy description takes about 15 minutes to set up - after that one can just use the griffons.

    Azashara is probably not worth it (Forest Song in the NE of Ashenvale is the closest official flight point, while the invasions are to the far east of the Azashara zone close to the main Horde city, by the time you get there on foot/land mount the event is likely already over).

    Tanaris/Gadgetzan is a bit tricky. The simplest-but-deadliest one is using the aforementioned Portal to the Caverns of Time from Dalaran (Violet Citadel, up the stairs) and then move SW towards the NPC hub near the silithid crater (Goblin flightmaster, several other goblins and contraptions) . Then move back north east towards the coast and go north to Gadgetzan (flight point) which basically looks like a Tattooine settlement run by Goblins.

    The tricky part is that the mobs here are 40+, meaning that you will need to dodge them or run the risk of having to corpse-hop.

    The basic rule of thumb of crossing an area filled with skull-marked mobs is to never stop to engage them but maxing out on movement. On a mount you are likely to outrun them indefinitely as WoW mobs have very short leashes and only keep bothering you as long as you hit them. Only engage them if there is no chance anymore of outrunning them e.g. dismounted, losing much health per hit etc. as at worst you'll have to make a smaller corpse hop.

    Again, this may seem like a long slog but it actually isn't, zones in WoW are pretty small for the most part.

    In general, collecting flight points/accespoints to the griffins is a minigame of sorts that can actually be a lot of fun on low level characters, and personally I'd advise unlocking the griffin system as much as possible for any character one expects to play for a longer time as each and every special event having unlocked the map pays more dividend.

    If you get really stumped I can create a Veteran character on Kilrogg and hop along (I have access to multi-person mounts).

    1. Wow, that's a comprehensive travel guide alright! Thanks for putting it together - there's some useful info in there that I'll use.

      In the post I am probably making it sound more of an issue than it is , partly for dramatic effect and partly to make a point about how far removed WoW still is from the fast travel that's the norm in most MMOs nowadays, even though when it began it was seen as the quick and easy version. I did level my hunter all the way through Vanilla and Burning Crusade up to the start of Wrath of The Lich King (when I logged him in for the first time since the re-sub he was in Northrend somewhere). Along the way I opened most if not all of the flight stations in both Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor so I have all those unless they got removed with Catalysm. The Warlock was around fifty so he has most of the old world too.

      It's one thing to have the basics done and entirely another to remember how to use them, though. I have hundreds of shortcuts and clever tricks for getting around in EQ2 and EQ1, for example, but if I take a few months break it still takes me a good while to remember how it all works. And it's been over five years since I traveled beyond the starting areas in Azeroth.

      It will all come back to me in due course I'm sure if I stick around. Especially if I stop doing Invasions and start playing normally! In the meantime, though, I will definitely make a point of opening that Pandaria hub - that sounds particularly handy.

      You should think about starting a blog of your own, by the way - assuming you haven't already. Those two comments would make a great post in their own right.

  3. Btw, the now-horrendous look of Gnomes is actually the main reason I stopped p(l)aying the game, even if you toggle the new models off they're now all surly and moving like midgets in Gnome costumes - nothing like the cheery bundles of perky joy Gnomes were prior to 7.0.

    If you play Warrior/melee you'll also have to hear their painful squeals a lot since 7.0, which US Forum posters have likened (correctly imo) with some quite horrid sounds.

    1. I'll have to have a look at some old screenshots of my gnome Warlock - I can't actually remember what he used to look like. I don't mind the current look although he certainly has a lot more facial hair than i would ever have given him.

    2. The changes are most noticeable on female Gnomes. They changed from chipper to terminally depressed.

      I am one of those people who could learn to grudginlgy accept a lot of game changing crap from Blizz, also because next Expansion they'd change it all again anyway, but essentially replacing characters you'd build and known for years with others was the final straw.

  4. I bounced between EQ, UO, and then EQ2 and WoW. I think you would've loved vanilla WoW. It really was a better sequel to EQ than EQ2 was, even if EQ2 stood on its own (but in different ways) too.

    If you ever see the opportunity to get in on an emulated vanilla server, I'd love to see your full account of a foray back into Azeroth as it once was.

    1. Trying a vanilla WoW emu is on my long-list of things to do one day. If they ever sort anything official out that might make it actually happen.

  5. The thing is I think WoW probably was very much a "Fisher-Price MMO", as I saw one reviewer describe it, when it released, relative to its competition at the time, but it hasn't evolved at the same rate as the rest of the industry, so now it's the over-complicated unforgiving old school game, relatively speaking.

    As for difficulty, it's a far more complex topic than most would tend to present it as. A huge amount of WoW's content is pathetically, insultingly easy, but there's also some content that's almost unbelievably difficult. On top of that, the underlying systems of the game, despite a certain degree of simplification over the years, are still fairly complex and can be pretty overwhelming from the perspective of a new player.

    There's a lot of skewed perception, too. "WoW is an easy game for kids" is such a meme that people will keep beating on it regardless of how true it may be at any given time, and MMO players are fond of confusing more buttons and knobs for true complexity. A lot of people will tell you that the new talent system is dumbed down compared to the old one, despite the fact that under the old system you'd basically just Google the best build and never change it, whereas now there's a lot more room for personal preference and/or meaningful choices based on the needs of the moment.

    As for travel...

    The info you got about the Cata portals is outdated. Sometime recently they changed it so they unlock automatically based on level, no quests required. You should have access to portals to any zone that is appropriate to your level. By 85, all will be unlocked. If none are available, you wouldn't be able to unlock them by questing anyway (I think). If it's any consolation, flying from Ironforge to Hillsbrad isn't much farther than from Twilight Highlands.

    As for getting to Kalimdor, you have a few options:

    -Use Cataclysm portal to Uldum (if you want to reach Tanaris) or Mount Hyjal (for the northern zones).
    -Ask a mage to port you to Theramore.
    -Go to Dalaran in Northrend and use the portal in the Violet Citadel to the Caverns of Time in Tanaris.
    -Take a boat from Stormwind Harbour to Darnassus (it's the dock with the Nigh Elf architecture).
    -Take a boat from Menethil Harbour in the Wetlands to Theramore. I think that's still an option, anyway -- I haven't tried it since MoP.

    You also might want to consider asking a mage to port you to the Shrine in Pandaria, or getting there naturally by questing (requires 85+). Most people set their hearthstones there because it has portals to every major city.

    1. "Fisher-Price MMO" is a brilliant description and I think your first paragraph neatly sums up exactly what I was getting at. Perceptions do tend to get set in stone at a particular time and are very hard to change regardless of the facts as they may later develop. I think WoW is stuck with its less-than-accurate image for good now. Pandaria certainly didn't help, either.

      And thanks for the run-down on getting to Kalimdor. Now you mention it I'm pretty sure I used to use the Menethil Harbor ship to get to The Barrens. I'll have to go see if it's still sailing.

    2. The trouble with Pandaria is there was such a huge gulf between how it was advertised and its reality. Every trailer was just a cutesy mess of "lol pandas." It's like they wanted to prove the haters right.

      And then you actually play it and it's all dead mothers and tortured husbands and formerly beautiful lands dying and you're like, "Holy Hell is this ever dark." It's probably the most mature expansion they ever did, but you'd never know it from the marketing.

    3. Actually there is one other major way to get to Kalimdor, namely the ships between Ratchet (Barrens/Kalimdor, near Crossroads) and Booty Bay (lowest part EK/Stranglethorn vale).

      At level 90 (iirc) there is also a teleporter to Ratchet in the Pandaria Shrine, though it costs gold to use.

  6. I myself didn't start playing WoW until the end of Pandaria for many of the same reasons. Despite that, i have trouble going back to any other MMORPG simply for how clunky combat feels compared to WoW. EQ2 drives me crazy in comparison even though i love the overall game. WoW just has the combat feel down in my opinion.

    1. This is something I read all the time and it's so very far form my own experience with WoW that I find it completely mystifying. I have always found WoW's combat a bit floaty and disconnected but I have really noticed it strongly since I began playing my higher levels again. There seems to be a lack of visual signifiers for most of my abilities to the point that I am frequently not sure whether an ability or spell has fired at all. I have been using channeled skills even when they aren't all that appropriate because at least I can see the line of light and know for sure that I'm hitting the target.

      I would put WoW close to the bottom of the list of MMOs I've played as far as "responsive combat" goes. Coming to it from GW2, which has incredibly tactile combat to the point that I can literally feel the spells impact on many occasions (the sound effects actually cause a vibration through my desk and chair that I can clearly feel and associate with the action my character is taking), combat in WoW feels like it's happening in some kind of a void.

      I also find the combat animations don't seem to match what I expect - the timing often seems to be off or they are just peculiar. The inability to dodge is also driving me nuts - made worse of course by me using the GW2 UI mod! Everyone else seems to agree that WoW combat is the gold standard for the genre though so it must be me...

    2. It's not just you. I've never been able to understand the praise for WoW's combat, either. It's gotten a lot better over the years, but it's still terribly floaty and stilted.

    3. Abilities go off when i hit them. I can't explain better i suppose. Whereas EQ2, GW2, and other MMO's, there's a tiny delay between what i press and what happens. It's very minimal but i notice it and it drives me crazy.

      As far as tactile feel to combat, i agree. Many games do that better.

    4. 7.0 changed a lot of the original animations and to supposedly flashier-yet-more-samey animations, so that may be a factor, too.

      Arena players esp. have been complaining that this makes it a lot more difficult to 'tell' what an opponent is about to do, as well as making mastering 'the art of fake-casting' less relevant.

      In general it seems that on average players that have returned to/started to play WoW now are more happy with the state of the game than those who played it uptil the recent Patch.

  7. I really would recommend either buying the latest expansion and going through the leveling experience with a boosted 100 or getting on a vanilla private server and trying that out. WoW always has a really fun leveling experience but Blizzard is very much fire and forget about it. It ends up getting caught in this weird limbo of people who just want to skip it so they can hurry up and raid with friends but getting pissed about anyone straight up skipping it. So instead of adding anything to the experience to make it more modern or enjoyable blizzard just boosts experience gains (and now give out tokens) and lets it rot.

    1. I think you've hit the nail on the head with the "fire and forget" thing. That's very much what I see Blizzard as doing. It's almost as if they'd rather be releasing each expansion as a new game entirely and maybe that would have been a better plan.

      If I was seriously intending to play WoW as my main MMO I wouldn't use the boost at all until I'd first made a new character and played it all the way up to max level by questing through the world - or at least getting to the point where that was either not possible or not enjoyable. I'm all for jump-starting new characters after I've paid my dues but I would never skip the whole process.

      As it is, though, there's no chance WoW is going to become my main MMO. It's currently occupying the second slot behind GW2 that's normally filled by either EQ2, EQ or whatever new MMO is flavor of the month. It'll probably hold onto that position until either the new EQ2 expansion or the open beta of AdventureQuest, both likely to arrive in the autumn. Then it will slip back into the pack of MMOs I play now and again when the mood takes me.

  8. Thank you for the kind words. You seemed stumped, WoW is pretty skimpy on explaining things (it e.g. still doesn't have a single Quest or whatever explaining the Auction House, despite being the main source of gold, and inflation/how do I make gold? being one of the number one questions of newcomers), and the guides are all focused on people who should know better (call me a snob, but I don't think someone should be max level in a virtual world game while not knowing the lay of the land let alone being unable to read and use the map) so I was 'triggered'' to help you out ;)

    I have thought about a blog in the past but a.o.t. because of various reasons I can't commit to producing content often enough to warrant one. Also, I don't feel like making up for Blizzard's, to put it bluntly, incompetence/negligence, or write about it in what's supposed to be my downtime.

    For a recent example, with the recent 7.0 Legion pre-Patch they removed all predetermined Strength Armor Craftables below level 40 from the game while double-dipping for Agility Mail (now both Blacksmithing and Leatherworking provide those, LW due to having them added and Blacksmithing because they changed all pre-40 Recipes to Agility).

    Similar with how they handled the new animations/old models, and the botched Wardrobe system.


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