Sunday, September 29, 2019

Keep Pushin' 'til It's Understood: WoW Classic

I spent most of yesterday in The Badlands. It wasn't planned. Nothing much that I do in Classic ever is. When I logged in, around 10.30 in the morning, my Hunter was a sliver into 36. By the time I parked him in Ironforge for the night, around 9pm, he was a quarter of the way through 37.

I'd been playing Classic pretty much the whole day, with a few breaks for meals and so on. Every day I seem to play more and want to play even more than that. I don't have anything going on right now that says I shouldn't, so why not? I can see how people had problems back in the day, although I played EverQuest with equal levels of compulsion for many years and things never got out of hand.

Still, it's an odd sensation, one I haven't had for years and had almost forgotten. To a large extent it's why I became so connected to the hobby in the first place, this sense of doing what I want to be doing more than I want to be doing anything else. Not sure if it's to be commended or condemned but I'll take it for now and willingly.

As I've mentioned a few times, two of the biggest appeals, for me at least, of this type of gaming are, on the face of it, mutually exclusive. Firstly there's the zen-like calm of grinding. I purely love roaming around, finding solid spots to settle down for a while, clearing everything, filling my bags and my xp bar, then moving on to find somewhere new and do it all over again. It's calming, relaxing and satisfying.

Secondly, and apparently counter to everything I just said, there's the way leveling a character in a well-designed MMORPG makes me think. My mind is abuzz with ideas and theories. I watch the pathing, the spawn patterns, the way the zone is laid out, how the loot drops, trying to figure out the patterns.

How I ever hit anything firing into the air like that I'll never know.
At one and the same time I'm inside and outside the gameworld. The imaginative part of me is looking out through my character's eyes, seeing what they see, feeling what they feel, living another life. The analytical part sits back and observes, making mental notes, seeking to lift the casing and pry apart the gears until I understand just how the mechanism works.

In many more recent MMORPGs either one or both of these aspects is truncated or absent. The mechanics are so plain and obvious they pose no puzzle or the gameplay is so linear and story-focused there's no space for imagination at all. In the least interesting examples of the genre both of those things co-incide.

WoW Classic, like EverQuest, Anarchy Online, Dark Age of Camelot and most of the other MMORPGs that came before it, allows huge scope for the player to lose themselves in the moment while marveling at the architectonics. Classic is perhaps the most refined example of that model, the zenith of the design curve before the decline and fall into barbarism that followed.

It took me around six or seven hours to complete the whole of Level 37. I did it with a mixture of questing and grinding, much of that grinding coming via the very sparse quest drops themselves and the over-packed wildlife that somehow proliferates in the seemingly inhospitable Badlands, ironically a place far, far  more barren than the eponymous Barrens themselves.

From rain-soaked lakeland to arid desert in a journey of a hundred meters.
At 36 I was just about at the lower limit for the zone. The entry-level mobs in the valley leading from Loch Modan (and what a bizarre climactic transition that is...) were exactly my level but most of the time I was killing things two or three levels higher. With rested xp that gave between 400 and 500 xp a pop. My rested xp lasted about an hour.

I discovered through experimentation that the limit of my ambition was Level 40 mobs. I tried to avoid them but, due to some really selfish behavior by some other solo players, I had little choice. I was hunting Lesser Rock Elementals, for which I had two quests, both requiring drops. I had competition: a couple of Night Elf druids and another Dwarven Hunter, all in the low 40s, six or more levels above me. And they all had mounts.

We could have grouped but most players now are too canny to party up for quests that require drops. It often takes longer than soloing them. People only tend to do it if they're struggling on their own. If these players, in their 40s, had deigned to take on the Level 40 elementals, things would have gone better - for me. Instead all of them chose to cherry-pick the lower mobs, which, due to their mounts they could get to faster than I could.

"Suppose I shot you. How'd that be?"

That left me with a choice: wait until they got their quota of shards, when, with a bit of luck, they'd leave or take on the highest mobs in the spawn. I chose the latter. I only died once, when a second level 40 spawned on top of me as I kited my pull. I say "kited" - more like walking backwards, desperately trying to disengage, so my bear would take aggro, which he never did, then feigning death until the bear died before reviving him and starting over.

It was challenging, as gamers like to say. It wasn't efficient, though, or relaxing. I got about half my drops that way and then, suddenly, I found myself all alone. The other annoying members of my notional "Alliance" had, presumably, gotten what they wanted, leaving me to face the full respawn.

Which was great! I was able to choose my targets like picking favorites at a buffet lunch. In about a quarter of the time I'd already spent I had the rest of the drops. I handed them in, or some of them, and moved on. On to Shimmering Flats, a continent away, for the second hand-in. Classic is nothing if not determined to keep you moving.

 In the five or so hours I spent in Badlands I noticed several things:
  • Badlands may be the most orange zone of all time. And there's some stiff competition for the title. Orange is weirdly popular in MMORPG-land.
  • The developers made no concessions whatsoever for Alliance players when designing this Horde-oriented zone. There's no griffin station, no friendly town, no facilities beyond one merchant who'll buy your beast body parts while selling you nothing you could conceivably want. It's another example of world-building trumping convenience.
  • The concept of "Zone Sweepers", much higher-level or more dangerous creatures that patrol an otherwise level-consistent area, was still very much alive and well in 2005. I was killed while selling to that one vendor when a group of half a dozen patrolling ogres, all in the low 40s, passed by. Later I watched a Level 45 Elite Giant aggro and kill another player at the same supposedly neutral camp. I'd seen him coming and was high on the hill behind with a great view of the action.
  • Fixed camps with predictable spawn timers, familiar to me from almost all MMORPGs that preceded Vanilla WoW, are very much the norm in Badlands. I camped a three-spawn of ogres for half a dozen respawns and they popped exactly on cue, in the order and at the spots expected every time. The much larger camp of evil dwarfs did the same.
  • Loot in Classic is better-ordered and distributed than in most MMORPGs, then or now. It's a point that deserves a post of its own, but the gist is that creatures drop items that seem approximately appropriate to their species, and drop them with reasonable predictability and regularity. This means you can set out to hunt a type of creature in the expectation that it will give you the the items you need and expect. It also enhances the underlying sense that you are in a "real" place with rules that make some kind of natural sense.
  • On the other hand, the developers acknowledge that it's still a game and that players will happily step away from immersion for a moment if the door opens to advantage. Any mob can unexpectedly and entirely unpredictably drop Something Good. Few gamers are going to complain that they just found a Green chest piece worth several gold at the Auction House on the body of a buzzard.
In a day's play I looted maybe half a dozen greens, which seemed well-judged by Skinner's standards. It definitely kept me interested every time I searched a corpse, my interest turning to surprise and joy when I saw Blue.

As Shintar observed, Blue drops are genuinely rare in the open world of Classic. In my first, full month of play I'd found just one. Yesterday I found two. The first was a Blue gun, Ironweaver, pried from the bloody corpse of a Coyote. I'd considered buying the same gun at the Auction House several times but couldn't justify the expense.

It was a decent upgrade for me at 36, although it would have been better five levels earlier. The level of items that drop in Classic vis à vis the level of the mobs that drop them or the area they are in is something I might delve into in more depth another time.

The other Blue was utterly random. It came from a grey-con kobold I killed on my way to Shimmering Flats. I only picked on him because I thought he might be carrying silk. Instead he gave me a nice off-hand item for Priests or Druids. If only I had one of either...

All in all it was an excellent day's play. The pacing suited me almost perfectly and I came away with that curious feeling, so familiar from countless sessions in the semi-distant past but so unusual in the long years since, that I'd achieved something.

I used to lie in bed after playing EQ all evening (or all day if it was the weekend) and drift off to sleep while enumerating my achievements in game: two bubbles of xp (40% of a level) on my druid; half that on my Shadow Knight; a Named killed that dropped an item worth a decent amount of Platinum...

Those felt like real, imaginary achievements. Not like the codified "Achievements" so many games now record on my behalf for doing things so trivial I hadn't noticed I was doing them or so abstruse I would never have considered doing them at all, if it wasn't that they came with some bribe attached.

Again, I'm not sure how "healthy" this is. Some might suggest it's part of the wider problem solved by subsequent design choices that changed the entire genre for the better. I wouldn't agree. I might even mutter the word "lockboxes" under my breath.

Probably not. I wouldn't class myself as ever having been subject to an inability to control my own tendencies towards excess, either in gaming or any other sphere. I don't feel, and never have felt, the need to be protected from myself, either in how I spend my time or my money. Increasingly I object to being herded in that direction.

So, I'll carry on playing what might seem like an excessive amount of Classic until it either becomes impractical or I start to lose interest. Whether that will happen sooner, perhaps when I reach the doldrums of the forties as warned about by Belghast, or later, as I suspect, in a matter of months rather than weeks. As always, we will have to wait and see.

For now, I'm having fun and feeling pretty good about my choices. Can't really ask for more than that.


  1. "Firstly there's the zen-like calm of grinding. I purely love roaming around, finding solid spots to settle down for a while, clearing everything, filling my bags and my xp bar, then moving on to find somewhere new and do it all over again. It's calming, relaxing and satisfying.

    Secondly, and apparently counter to everything I just said, there's the way leveling a character in a well-designed MMORPG makes me think. My mind is abuzz with ideas and theories. I watch the pathing, the spawn patterns, the way the zone is laid out, how the loot drops, trying to figure out the patterns."

    These two sentences more than anything makes it such a crying shame that there are parts of Asheron's Call that drove you away (i.e., the rather feudalistic approach to 'allegiances').

    For these are two areas the game excels at. Right down to the level of different creatures in different areas being weighted toward different types of materials, 'things' and workmanship vs. value balance.

    Whether we're talking within dungeons or overland, you can tailor the types of loot you'll see a heavier weighting of to fill your bags. (I'm still trying to remember/find where Mahogany is more prevalent for example. I need to break some stuff down in order to buff up the damage modifier on a few bows. :))

    As to the introspection on whether this is a 'healthy' degree of interest to have in the game or not -- FWIW, I think you're fine from what has been described. The issues only really start kicking in when the degree of involvement starts coming at the detriment of other things. Be it study, work, relationships or whathaveyou.

    Given that doesn't appear to be the case, I wouldn't worry! Unless you see that scenario changing soon where you will have to start worrying about work or the like again soon and wanted to start tapering down a little and setting a routine before it is forcibly put upon you. Hehe.

    1. Nah, I'm not worried about addiction to gaming or anything else. Never have been. I have a non-addictive personality in that I can make a decision to stop doing something and I'll stop completely and stay stopped. I've done it with smoking, drinking, weight and a few other indulgences over the years. It's mostly just a trick of flipping a mental switch, something I learned to do in my early twenties.

      Up to that point, though, I can over-indulge with gusto! And in the case of WoW it's not like I don't have the free time right now.

      Asheron's Call is an interesting case. Leaving aside the peculiarities of the Allegiance system, I had a couple of other major issues with it that reading your posts has brought back to me. I remember logging in and being totally confused as to what I could, should or might want to do. I can;t remember exactly when I tried AC but at that point I'd definitely played EQ for a few months and probably Anarchy Online and The Realm. Maybe more I've forgotten. So I knew roughly what to expect,

      AC had none of it. I remember there being virtually no guidance of any kind as to what to do. I imagine the Allegiance system, which I wasn't going to touch with a ten-foot pole, was intended to take up the slack but all I ended up doing was wandering about with not even a hint of an idea what I was there for.

      The other major problem was the graphics. I'm not a huge graphics purist but I do need to be able to appreciate the saesthetic of what I'm looking at and even by the standards of the day I found AC very hard to take, visually, something that's strongly supported by the screesbnots you've posted. They make EQ of the time look like GW2 by comaparison.

      Reading your posts, though, I am intrigued. If we were in an MMORPG lull right now I'd probably already have made an account to go take a look for myself. As it is, that will have to go in the possibles file for some future date!

    2. Interesting on the graphics front, I wonder if there is a degree of 'what you're used to' in there -- as I find EQ to look far less palatable. Like you I don't need graphics to be amazing, but... EQ falls pretty far below the bar.

      I'm still somewhat intrigued anyway just by the strength of posts I've seen around the place, but I would've put AC to be head and shoulders over EQ graphically any day of the week.

    3. Oh, and there is guidance now in the form of some opening quests and the Facility Hub -- I've accepted their presence now I think, but still have mixed feelings on their inclusion.

      Otherwise though completely agree -- there was essentially no out of the gate guidance, and by the timeline you suggest I wouldn't imagine there even to have been an abundance of new players in the outposts to get started with (even if had been so inclined).

    4. It's fairly unusual for me to dislike any MMORPG based on what it looks like, though. I tend to think they all look pretty good, all the way back to UO. I'm quite easy to please on that front. Graphics is a weird one, anyway. Like art in general, there's no telling people that they don't like what they like, even if you have the academic background or the artistic training to give chapter and verse on why they're wrong. I thought EQ was astonishingly beatiful to look at back in 1999-2000 and I still think it looks pretty damn good now.

      Interestingly, I can remember thinking the opposite about AC at the time, so it may say more about my perceptions and tastes rather than any absolute difference between them. I doubt there's actually much technincal variation between the two of them so it probably comes down to set design as much as anything.

  2. Bhagpuss - I think it is in the badlands that the little nugget of "Conan's" tomb is hidden. Very vague memory has it at the top of 3 small hills in the NEE of the zone. Your orange screenshots remind me strongly of it!

    1. Aha! I'll take a look next time I'm there, which probably won't be long from now. Badlands isn't the only very orange zone in Azeroth, though!


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