Saturday, November 16, 2019

Slip Sliding Away: WoW Classic, EQII

So, I kind of stopped playing WoW Classic. How did that happen?

I certainly wasn't planning on stopping. Up until I wasn't playing any more I'd been enjoying myself. Sort of. Self-evidently, not enough.

The thing is, Classic had slowed down. A lot. In a reply to a comment I made on his post about the fifteenth anniversary of EQII, Wilhelm said:
"I think WoW was really the sequel to EQ. It was an obvious upgrade/development of EQ and even the Blizz team has recognized this up on stage at BlizzCon. It was EQ without the suck, to borrow the phrase from DAoC. It has changed a lot over the years, but WoW Classic has given us a glimpse of how it took the EQ idea and ran with it. Even things people complained about in WoW, like instanced dungeons, were lifted straight from EQ."
And that, really, is the problem. What I always enjoyed the most in EverQuest were the early and middle levels. The starting areas, Qeynos Hills, East and West Commonlands, Steamfont Mountains, Butcherblock, Oasis, The Karanas... all those amazing, atmospheric, immersive open zones, where you could roam and explore and lose yourself in another world.

The expansions managed to extend that experience, re-making it, fresh and new, keeping the impetus going for years. Rise of Kunark was almost literally another EverQuest added to the first. Shadows of Luclin was a third. They could quite easily have been released as sequels, not expansions.

By the time EQII arrived in late 2004 it might as well have been EQ4 and WoW could have been EQ5. And all of them had the same fundamental drawback, at least as far as I was concerned: the fun came in inverse proportion to the number alongside your character's name.

As was discussed at inordinate length around this corner of the blogosphere back in August and September, WoW Classic reminded us of the reasons many of us fell in love with the genre: the worldbuilding, the pacing, the immersion, the need to think and plan and consider. The satisfaction of setting and meeting achievable goals in a manageable timeframe.

At the beginning of the journey, all of those pleasures and more come thick and fast. Every session is a round of markers met; improvement is continual and ever-present.

As the levels tick by, things slow down. Plenty of people found it slow going from the start but in the forties and fifties time crawls. Also, the exhilarating freedom that so exemplified the early game begins to dissipate. The choice of zones in which you could adventure narrows just as the time you need to spend in them increases.

Meanwhile, the invisible hands of the game gods begin to pull on your puppet strings. Where once your destiny was your own, now it seems written in code. Quest after quest directs you on where to go; the slow-going travel that once seemed natural and organic when it was your choice becomes onerous and artificial, imposed from above.

Every second quest seems to involve travelling halfway around the world to speak to someone who then sends you on to the next stop on what feels like an increasingly arbitrary journey, mostly in circles. Where early on you found yourself tasked with taking messages to the next village, now everyone you need to speak to seems to have vanished into the forests or the swamps of a faraway land. Every item so vitally needed for the next step of the ill-understood errand you've foolishly agreed to run for a stranger is only to be found on another continent, in some obscure corner that they can only describe in the vaguest terms.

Meanwhile, the game gods have become increasingly impatient at your lack of interest in the tests they created for you. Quest after quest seeks to send you underground, into dungeons filled with vicious creatures far beyond your capacity to handle. Only by banding together with others can you hope to survive, let alone prosper.

As you approach the level cap, both games ramp up in similar fashion, each level requiring palpably more effort, time and patience than the last. The difference I perceive is this: in the original EverQuest and for its first several expansions the game's developers really didn't care what you did while you played. They laid out the buffet: it was entirely up to you what you chose to consume.

Some of the "suck" Blizzard endeavoured to cut from the fat of EQ was that lack of direction. WoW Classic starts out feeling wide-open but in fairly short order, certainly by the mid-30s, it becomes apparent that there are expectations. There's a path you're expected to follow and the quests you take provide the map.

It is entirely possible to side-step all of that, should you wish. Many people choose to level their characters mostly or entirely by running instanced dungeons. It's equally feasible to ignore both quests and dungeons altogether, roaming the world like a one-person Golden Horde, laying waste to all before you. Grinding mobs to level, more prosaically.

WoW Classic, though, doesn't have the infrastructure that made mob grinding such a pleasurable pastime in EverQuest. As we discussed at length, the communities of the two games, springing as they did from the same rootstock, grew in very different directions.

There are no camps in Classic. You can't roll up at a handy spot, start killing and expect to have others come join you, settling down for a full session of chat, banter and occasional thrills as new acquaintances and old friends drop in and out. Everything in WoW is much more functional.

Before I stopped playing I spent several sessions in Felwood. There are a number of quests there which require you to kill twenty or thirty mobs of specific types in specific locations. These are all quests that would go much faster if people grouped up to do them in the way it was widely reported to be happening, routinely, in the game's starting zones.

By the forties, no-one is doing that any more. Not on Hydraxian Waterlords at the hours I play, they aren't. Instead we have anything up to half a dozen individuals all competing frenziedly to tag each required mob as it spawns. Occasionally a small group might roll in, usually a trio for some reason. They will proceed to monopolize the area until all of them are satisfied, while the ungrouped players who were already there make do with any odd spawns the incomers miss. Then the mini-group will leave and we all carry on as we were.

Only once in several hours over several days did I get an invite from anyone to join them at one of those hunting grounds and that, as sod's law would have it, was when I was just running through on the way to somewhere else. And, of course, I didn't send out any invites either. We are all culpable for the culture of our servers. And it seems we're all either socially inept, bloody-mindedly stubborn or just plain lazy.

The upshot of all this is that although I was still enjoying myself when I played, I was increasingly finding my enjoyment frustrated and obstructed by the mechanics of the game, by the behavior of others and especially by my own lack of desire to engage with anything remotely uncomfortable.

Still, I would have carried on logging in every day, chipping away at the levels in pursuit of my declared intent to get my Hunter to 60 before cancelling my subscription, had it not been for EQII's fifteenth birthday and the Dragon Attack event.

I only popped over to see what it was all about and to get some background and some screenshots for a blog post. I had no intention of staying. But I played EQII all last weekend and then every night this week after work, killing dragon after dragon after dragon.

In seven days I've taken so many characters through the required four kills to get the mount/illusion I've lost count. I think it's eight but it could be more. I've logged in characters on different servers to do the event and last night I even logged in my old account, put my level 95 necromancer on follow and two-boxed my way around the spires until she, too, was able to fly as a dragon.

For the first few days I was aware I wasn't playing Classic. I'd played it almost every day since launch so I felt the lack like a chore not done. By Tuesday, though, I wasn't pretending to myself that I'd do "just one more dragon" then go level up some more in Azeroth. I was at a point that I've reached so often, where I stop playing a particular MMORPG long before I'm bored or frustrated with it, without ever really deciding to leave.

After a full week of nothing but dragons I think I might have burned out on that event for a while. But I have a huge pile of dragon parts piled up waiting to be crafted and I know that while I'm doing that I'll hear "dragon up!" in chat and the cycle will begin all overt again.

It's hard to resist a call to arms, especially when it's framed with such inclusive, dynamic urgency. Chat is buzzing with common purpose in the way Classic's was six weeks ago and isn't any more. In WoW, last week when I was playing, I regularly went the best part of an hour without seeing a single person speak in general chat.

Few people need to call out to random strangers any more. Almost three months in, social networks are established. Everyone's guilded. Everyone has a friends list. Surprisingly, I'm in a guild. Actually, I'm in two. I had loads of speculative invites, all of which I turned down until I got one from a gnome-only guild and another from one for banker-alts. I accepted both. I even talk to people in them.

Even so, I don't want to take it further. To get the most out of Classic now those wonderful early levels are done I know I'd need to move into group content and I'm just not interested at the moment. It would be the worst time.

Most of my gaming is happening after work, when I'm usually tired - sometimes very tired indeed. The prospect of locking myself into sessions where other people will be relying on me to stay for a couple of hours or more, doing things that might require real attention and care, seems deeply unattractive.

Especially when compared to a place where I can come and go at will, with no penalty and no guilt. Where my presence is welcome (every EQII public event always wants more people) but not missed. Where I can feel sufficiently active to be engaged but not so active as to be unable to relax. And, crucially, where every battle ends with a genuine chance of a worthwhile reward.

After the Dragons and the puppets (didn't mention them but they're still in play, too) comes Frostfell and the expansion. It's a lot of competition for a game where my horizons seemed to have narrowed to grinding mobs for xp and materials that my crafters can't even use unless they, too, grind more levels.

This is almost exactly what happened on my original WoW run back in the Wrath of the Lich King. era. I began to run out of steam in Un'Goro Crater, struggled through Burning Crusade and tapped out at 72 in the first or second zone of the third expansion. I lasted six months there but if it hadn't been for Battlegrounds it might have been less.

Which doesn't mean I'm done with either WoW or Classic. I am still going to get to 60. And I will certainly be back when Battlegrounds appear. Whenever that is.

For all its many merits, though, I don't think Classic is going to be a permanent home. More like somewhere I visit now and again. EQII, it seems, has triumphed once more. No matter how many times I drift away it always pulls me back.


  1. I remember back during my first real run at WoW, when we came over from EQII, hitting that narrowing of the choices. I had a couple characters stop around level 40. It wasn't until I had a regular group... our first guild was anything but a regular group, though I think we were burned out from our long run at EQII... that I was able to push through that. There is a bunch of group content such that if you can get just three people together, with one of you willing to heal, you can make headway without it seeming so narrowly directed.

    1. The choice of zones in the 50s isn't that bad - there are at least eight decent options, which is actually a lot. My problem has been the incredible amount of travelling between them if I dare to accept any quests. It's almost a comedy routine - every zone I go to, the NPCs want me to go to another, often the one I just left.

      It's ironic, considering how I was singing the praises of the travelling in Classic a few weeks ago, but there's a big difference between having to run the length of Duskwood between each quest and having to fly from the North of one continent to the south of the other. I had one three hour session where I *literally* spent over two hours either running, taking a boat or sitting on a griffin.

  2. The launch of Endless Conquest in Dark Age of Camelot this week derailed me in classic. The assortment of classes included in it is pretty limited, but they happened to include one of my favorites. DAoC used to play like molasses compared to WoW, but the modern game is actually blisteringly fast (in terms of leveling speed) compared to classic.

    1. It's on my list to play but I'm holding back until I have time for it. I was mightily puzzled by the almost total block on crafting in the free version, though. I can't remember crafting being particularly important in the DAOC I played at launch. What's that all about?

    2. The only crafting I have done was to make saddles. No venders sell them, and they are quite nice. Crafting is a big part of getting templates (best in slot end game gear sets) together, so I imagine it's a way to encourage players that get really serious about the game to sub up. That said, I have never played at that level and so the lack of crafting is not something I'll miss. As long as someone is willing to sell me a saddle, I'm good.

  3. I'm back in Classic because friends are still thoroughly enjoying it. That's the only reason I'm playing it, as the shine wore off for me before I went away last time (end of September, one character in late teens of levels). My interest in the game outside running dungeons with friends lasted not even a single month.

    This post really struck a chord with me within this context. WoW was my first proper go at an MMO and after the first year or so of playing I'd developed major altitis, your post explains why this happened rather neatly. I have clear memories of how slow leveling was. I remember discussing leveling paths with my husband for different alt characters because we had nothing to do on our level-capped characters and because the higher-zone leveling was so painful that it required some planning to get through it.

    Is this and unfair comparison though, was EQ2s later leveling just as painful in earlier years? I've not leveled past any free mount or other rewards on a EQ2 progression server to be able to compare this for myself.

    1. It's partly the eternal "end game" problem MMORPGs have suffered from for as long as I've been playing. Either the game changes gear at level cap, often turning into what might as well be a different game altogether or it carries on much the same, in which case players gradually lose enthusiasm and drift away.

      I'm not sure any developer has entirely solved that problem yet. I've been known to sing the praises of just "living in the world" in MMORPGs but realistically what I mostly do is take regular holidays in numerous worlds. And even when I do "live" in one game (I've played GW2 with no significant break for over seven years, for example) I take lots and lots of "holidays" in other games.

      Playing alts is a way of taking holidays within a game, I think. I do a ton of that, too. Classic gave me about ten weeks of living almost full-time in Azeroth, which isn't bad. It's back to being a holiday home now, though.

      As for EQ2, levelling was apallingly slow back at launch. At least as slow as Classic, almost certainly slower than Vanila WoW was. It didn't really speed up for a couple of years at least. It was also, arguably, more linear. Travel times were lower though.

  4. Very interesting read and I recognize myself in so much of what you write. Back when I first stopped playing WoW it was also just something that, after 8 years of playing it religiously, just sort of fizzled out into not happening anymore. All that time I had imagined my end would come with a bit more bang, that I would sit down and decide I didn't want to do it anymore but I just kind of… stopped thinking about it and suddenly I noticed I hadn't logged in for a while and I guess I was done.

    When I tried Legion or whatever expansion it was I had exactly the issue you describe. My options were either to play content all on my own, and it just wasn't very fun that way. Or to play with other people and I had neither the energy not the time to invest in that. That fizzled out pretty quickly as well.

    So far it has not come to that in WoW Classic. Your post did make something clear to me though. My highest level characters are level 33 respectively and it seems like when I get around there somewhere I've rerolled alts and started over with some other class rather than continue. I do still log onto all of my characters but I definitely suddenly go from playing it almost every day to maybe every fifth day. Is it, like you say, something that happens around that level-range that makes it harder for me to log on? I'll have to ponder that for a little bit, maybe that will spawn a blog post of my own.

    1. It happens to me over and over with MMORPGs. I think it's mostly that new things are more shiny. For all that some commentators like to talk the genre down, most of the time there's more going on in the MMORPG scene than I can keep up with. Somethig I'm playing needs to be more than just pleasant, enjoyable and familiar when the competition is new, curious and exciting.

      The "gets less exciting and more repetitive the longer you play" issue is a major problem for the whole genre, though. It's no wonder so many newer MMORPGS seem to want to try to be all things to all players. Sticking to the core principles and doing them well is admirable but I'm not sure it works over longer time-scales.

  5. Personally I deal with the really long gryphon rides by using them as dedicated AFK time. I've taken a shower more than once while my character was flying cross-continent!

    I think your criticism of options narrowing down is fair, but I actually kind of like the way the game gradually funnels you into grouping. About ten years ago, I remember people complaining that MMOs with raiding as major endgame transformed too starkly at the level cap, that you'd happily level solo all the way to max level and then run into a wall as you were suddenly required to do things with other players. I like how Classic does it more gradually. Sure, it might cause people to drop out if they balk at the prospect of doing dungeons, but nobody can claim to be surprised that a lot of endgame activities involve grouping.

    1. I think it made sense in 2004. It's very interesting to compare it with EQ at that time, too. EQ started out with no particular plan for how players should proceed through the content other than the need to be a certain level to survive. As each expansion arrived a clearer through-line developed, with people feeling they needed to do their Epic weapon quest and then follow a specific raid progression. The expansions increasingly had actual storylines, too.

      Lost Dungeons of Norrath, 2003, added instanced dungeons along with hubs and transport to get to them. In retrospect you could see this as the pre-cursor of WoW's Dungeon Finder, which didn't arrive until late WotLK in 2009, I think it was. The dungeon Finder removed all that fiddly going to NPCs and talking to players that EQ left in with LDoN (and notably SOE chose not to use the LDoN functionality in future expansions).

      We know what we think of the Dungeon Finder now, love it or hate it, but in Classic what I see is, once again, a refinement of how things worked in EQ. Both games have a group-oriented end-game (EQ at the time by and large had a group-oriented low and mid game, too) but as you say, Blizzard made an effort to structure the game so that players feed into that end game more efficiently and comfortably.

      The really intriguing part is how they didn't stick with that, even though it self-evidently worked. The sales of Vanilla, Burning Crusade and WotLK speak to how well. Instead, from mid WotLK until today, they've done everything they can to remove most of the things I'm complaining about (if I am complaining - not sure I am). The way leveling has been speeded up, trtavel time reduced and socialization removed from grouping addresses all the things that have apparently contributed to my drift away from the game - and their subs have dropped by maybe 75%.

      It's a puzzle...

  6. MMO's have a whole lot more to compete with today than they did in 2004, in terms of time commitment. In tongue-in-cheek fashion I offer cell phones(mobile gaming), social media, movie/music streaming, youtube and a host of other online activities that people have grown accustom to engaging in, and they all directly compete with our amount of available free-time.

    I fondly remember the blog posts of old when people talked about being a "one MMO type of person", and dedicated themselves solely to it. In my case, in 2004 at least, WoW would win hands down as my free-time absorb-er due to the fact that I had just came over from the FPS community. At 40(in 2004), I could no longer compete with the reflexes of the younger crowd and WoW was like a breath of fresh air in that regard with its game play and social elements. Plus, I had a lot of the WoW lore experience due to having played Warcraft already by that time.

    I've been at level 60 for a few weeks now in Classic and am still enjoying the ride. With the release of PvP this past week, I've found a new interest and have began to set some goals that I never attempted in Vanilla. I'm playing Classic much differently than I did in Vanilla, as I leveled mostly through the use of dungeon runs, so now I have a world of quests awaiting me in zones that I have not even stepped foot in...even at 60.

    In the end, I still commit myself to only one MMO, and that allows me to maintain my fun-factor without feeling pressured to monitor my time spent in-game.

    1. One thing that has really surprised me is how many zones are almost completely unfamiliar to me. Even though I played a full six months, probably getting on for 40 hours a week back then, I only played Alliance and only levelled two characters past 40. In Classic, some areas were as familiar as my own back garden, even after ten years, but others I can't remember ever even seeing, let alone questing in or exploring. I also don't rememeber flying all over the world anything like as much back then. I wonder how much of that had already been changed by WotLK?

      Anyway, what I will do at some point is play a Horde character or two. They have even more zones that will be completely new to me. Probably have to wait til the New Year, though, or even Spring, what with the EQ2 expansion and GW2's Icebrood Saga coming up before Christmas.


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