Sunday, September 1, 2019

A Change In The Weather: WoW Classic

When it rains itn Loch Modan, boy, does it rain! Following Friday's post, which Kaylriene followed up today, I was trying to take some comparison shots with the graphics turned up to the max but the weather wasn't having any of it.

I love weather in MMORPGs. It can make a huge difference, not just to the feel of things but also to the gameplay. When I first played EverQuest in late 1999, rain closed down the field of view to such an extent it was dangerous to carry on roaming. It was imperative that you be able to see potential threats before they came into aggro range and in a rainstorm you couldn't.

If it happened to come on to rain at night, forget it. Night-time in EQ was difficult enough under moonlight but once the cloud cover filled in and the rain began you might as well just find the nearest shelter and wait it out.

Not that being indoors meant you were safe. I once spent the entire game night huddling in a hut in West Commonlands, only to be attacked through the walls by something I never saw. I managed to kill it but it wasn't until daylight that I found I'd been fighting a bear. It was dead, slumped against the stone wall, through which it had somehow managed to claw and bite me.

I guess that outfit has a certain practicality in conditions like this. Those pants are going to rust, though.

In retrospect, the game must have told me in chat what I was fighting. EQ records every last detail of gameplay in the chat log. I was so in the moment that I never even glanced at it. It was immersion of the deepest order.

By the time Kunark arrived, with its heavy jungles that already limited visibilty to a few yards, rain spelled almost certain death in some zones. It was fine on the flat plains of Lake of Ill Omen, but once you zoned into neighboring Firiona Vie you were spider bait for the hideous Drachnids that lurked in the sodden foliage. I used to wait at the zone line until the rain stopped, even if it took twenty minutes. A death would take far longer than to recoup.

Over the years a lot of that difficulty got smoothed over, even as the visuals improved by orders of magnitude. Bad weather became something to appreciate aesthetically rather than react to with frustration or fear. Final Fantasy XIV has some truly gorgeous weather effects, particularly the way wind and sand interact in Thanalan. Thunderstorms in Elder Scrolls Online are so spectacular I once spent most of a session trying to get a screenshot that did them justice.

Bear! Where the hell are we? Where the hell are you?
WoW Classic sets a solid balance between appearance and reality. The rain didn't really inconvenience me yesterday, let alone discourage me from adventuring around the Loch, but doing so felt very different from the day before. 

When the weather was fine I'd been stopping every few minutes to take screenshots of the slowly setting sun and gosh-wow over the amazing rose-petal clouds. Now I was hunkering down, pushing on with the task at hand, getting things done despite the inclement weather, just as a true dwarf should, rather than wasting time lollygagging at the pretty view like some species of elf.

It was daytime when the storm set in. I'm not sure how much more inconvenient it would be in the dark. I'm also not all that likely to find out. WoW has a very unusual day/night cycle, one I'm not sure I've seen used anywhere else in the genre.

I love the smell of wet fur in the norning.

In most  MMORPGs day and night have specific lengths. Day is usually considerably longer than night and the whole shebang rolls round in an hour or two. In WoW a day lasts as long as it does in real life. So does night.

It means that if you play on your closest geographical server cluster - EU in my case -  and you start playing at 8am to finish twelve hours later (not that 'Im doing that...yet) you'll play in daylight the entire time. I'm currently seeing maybe a couple of hours of night, at most, before I log out around 10pm.

On the other hand, if you play on a US server, as I did on one of my free trial accounts, you would barely see daylight at all. Perhaps the soft region lock worked in my favor after all.

Now that's what I call a hunter's moon. If only this was a PvP server...

That said, night, like weather, is more about immersion and atmosphere in WoW Classic than it is about inconvenience. I was in Westfall after darkeness fell last night and I was able to roam and quest without any difficulty. Well, without any difficulty caused by the failing light, at least. The hordes of players made finding anything to kill a bit of challenge. These things are much more civilized in the dwarf lands.

The corrupted farmland of Westfall may not have the rugged drama of Loch Modan but the moon coming up over the hills towards the sea was spectacular. There were players silhouetted against the huge orb as though they were auditioning for the poster for E.T.  If this was WoW Live, someone probably would have flown past on a bike.

It looked positively ethereal. As Kaylriene so rightly says, "It doesn’t look realistic because it doesn’t need to – it is a fantasy game creating a fantasy world".

My beard needed a wash anyway. Been a few months.

And it's also a game designed, back in the early 2000s, to be less alarming, less frustrating, more welcoming than its predecessors. The balance Blizzard struck between challenge and difficulty, between inclusion and exclusion, between skill and enthusiasm, worked then and still works now.

By dint of top notch art design and world-building, coupled with a desire to render the gameplay the designers themselves loved more readily accessible to a wider audience, World of Warcraft broke down the walls of a niche genre and opened it out to the world, many millions of whom grabbed it with both hands.

No-one knows why WoW became such an unexpected success. Many have tried to emulate or recreate the magic and all have failed. Evidence suggests Blizzard had no more idea how they bottled lightning than anyone else. They veered away from the formula that had worked so well and the whole genre trailed after them. The rest of the world promptly looked the other way and the walls of the niche stood themselves back up.

And finally it ends. Now all  I need is an ale or three to wash away the taste of all this water.

We are, as they say, where we are, but nothing says we have to stay there. I never played Vanilla WoW so, for me, the emotional impact of Classic is both limited and filtered through a lens formed by my prior and far more formative experiences in EverQuest. Everything in Classic seems both harder (compared with almost any current MMORPG) and easier (compared with EQ circa 1999-2006). It's impossible at this stage to predict how big Classic will get or how long its current boom will last but I tend to agree with SynCaine, when he says

"Classic isn’t just a chance for non-Retail players to enjoy WoW again; its also a live demonstration of all the ways Retail went wrong with WotLK and beyond, as well as the rest of the genre when it copied that version of WoW."
If Classic does continue to be both a popular and a commercial success for some time to come, it could pose problems for Blizzard at corporate level. As someone said (and I have to paraphrase this because I can't remember where I read it or who to credit) Blizzard won't want to have to answer questions at an earnings call about why they wasted ten years going in the wrong direction when they already had the most profitable gameplay in the genre nailed down.

It's obviously not that simple and I don't believe Classic will outstrip WoW Live but there's a seed of truth in there, somewhere. I feel we're at a turning point for the genre, or we could be. If nothing else, Classic's overwhelmingly positive reception must surely give energy and confidence to developers looking to make more complex, nuanced, wordlike MMORPGs like Pantheon or Project: Gorgon.

Perhaps we'll even see a new cycle of Classic clones. That could be... interesting.


  1. This reminds me of the Misty Mountains in LOTRO, when the snow started it was impossible to see in front of your characters hands - really dangerous to go out and quest in a blizzard in that zone.

    1. The first instanced "dungeon" in Rift that I remember is actually outdoors and it has the most blinding snowstorms I've ever seen in a game. I do like snow effects. I wrote an article on "Good Snow Art" in comics once...


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