What Was Lost

My recent playing experience has me convinced that World of Warcraft is a lot less fun today than it was in its vanilla days. This isn’t nostalgia talking — I wasn’t even playing WoW until after Burning Crusade released. But let’s say I’ve confirmed it and leave it at that.

The real question, though, is why. Without talking in vagaries or throwing down meaningless buzzwords like “sandbox,” why does the vanilla WoW experience seem so much richer than the game today? A lot of what we think about this is annoyingly unspecific; how far can we dig into it?

There’s no question that a lot of changes have happened in WoW over its 8-year lifespan. Many of those have been positive additions to the game — few would quibble with most of the new races, for example, or the fact that new lands have been added. The addition of auction houses in every city instead of just Orgrimmar and Ironforge is probably a good thing. Autoloot saves everyone some hassle.

At the same time, the very process of expanding the game also irreprarably broke some things. Crafting has never recovered, for example — crafted gear at any level other than the current cap is still tuned to a gear level before the current expansion, making it worthless as new drops have been added to the loot tables. The progresion speed within each tradeskill is still tuned to the vanilla leveling speed — meaning that now, you will outlevel your zones long before you’re able to finishing doing the crafting for those same levels, which stalls you one way or the other: either you stop level and grind crafting, or you abandon crafting and maybe get back to it later — whereupon you need to grind independently of leveling. Perhaps the vanilla game wasn’t as well-tuned as it sems today in comparison, but the general trend toward the leveling game just being a time-waster until you get to the top level was much less obvious then.

Too, it’s easy to forget just how nonlinear the questing was pre-Cataclysm. There were quests all over the place, and no particular pointers to them in many cases. Even standard zones like Elwynn Forest had breadcrumb quests between the major hubs, but also a ton of quests off the beaten track that you could find, and lots of intersting locations not directly tied to particular quests. You had chains that you’d pick up at one level and then resume ten levels later. It gave exploration value over and above the pittance in XP you got from unlocking the map sections, and you could find and do things in the order you liked, instead of just giving being given a set progression that you can’t deviate from in any significant way.

WoW was a little more challenging then, partly due to mechanical changes and partly due to even low-level gear being totally busted now. WoW was never really about challenge per se, but who doesn’t have a recollection of of dying a dozen times in the Burning Blade cave or the Fargodeep Mine, or to those fucking robots in Deadmines? In a way it was frustrating, but your forward progress never really stopped, so it could still be fun. even if you were pounding your keyboard in rage.

The world was bigger. This is an illusion, of course, but it’s a powerful one. With no mounts until level 40, no flying mounts at all, and the flight paths few and far between, for a lot of the game you had to hoof it. Which could slow the pace of play dramatically, but it also had an interesting side effect when players left the straight path and tried to find shortcuts. Sometimes they discovered something interesting up there in the hills, tied to somebody else’s questline that they would otherwise never see, or perhaps a relic of some abandoned thread of development from before release. Sometimes it was just something that ate extra time, but even then it was showing the wandering player the texture of a world that didn’t have every iota of content already lined up in order. The expectation was that things would take time, so you felt less inclination to rush and spent more effort on the journey and enriching it.

I’m hoping that EverQuest Next can capture some of this magic that even Blizzard seems to have lost their grip on. It’s probably the Last Best Hope for virtual worlds on the visible horizon; “sandbox” isn’t really the right term for this, but it’s what we’ve got.

22 responses to “What Was Lost

  1. I don’t see it necessarily as sandbox vs ‘theme park’ to use the buzzwords. But rather, as you describe here, it’s that earlier WoW really felt like a virtual world and not just a series of linear quest chains to the level cap. Some of the changes really broke that sense of a world…

  2. I’ve been following your blog for some time and this is the first article that’s got me wanting to comment on. I played WoW from Launch until the end of 2011 when, for me, the game became so stale, boring, and I realized Blizzard was taking the game in a direction to which I didn’t like.

    You hit the nail on the head for many points but allow me to add one I think is a major cause of WoW’s downturn: Simplification and complete focus (including balance) on endgame.

    The questing is a major problem. It is now designed to get you to the level cap as quickly as possible and it does this by holding your hand the entire time and giving unnecessarily high XP rewards for almost no risk. As you stated, there was a level of breadcrumb quests in Vanilla and BC, but not near what you have in Cata. I will say that questing has improved overall. but having more quests that you discover randomly and not giving you so much XP that your character bleeds it out are the two main issues.

    There’s nothing wrong with bouncing between two or three zones for the same level range, be it 5 or 10 levels. Apparently, Blizzard thought otherwise.

    I remember when Ghostcrawler was talking about one of the big changes going from Vanilla questing to Cata. They were getting rid of all the quests that required you to travel through multiple zones and dungeons as if that was an issue. As I saw other people comment, people didn’t do those quests because of the travel – they had shitty rewards compared to many of the easier and less time consuming quests. There was one that I vaguely remember for the Horde. It started in Stonetalon from a Tauren in a tent near the Venture Company area. It sent you all over hell and high water. Took you several levels and tons of traveling to complete (and if I’m not mistaken, elites were involved as well). Well guess what the reward was? A choice of a crappy green.

    Then there’s the dungeon finder. They might as well have deleted the rest of the world when this was added except for the fact that those doing DPS needed something to do for 30 minutes while waiting for a dungeon invite. And while the reworked dungeons have much better boss mechanics, they are still simple in comparison to the rewards you received.

    When they added XP to gathering and PVP, well that just made things move even faster. Ok, I can sympathize with the PVP folks, but did we really need XP for gathering? Seriously?

    Ultimately the focus on endgame is the issue. Blizzard wants to claim that the financial cost (purchase of licenses and subscription) is a problem and while I agree with some that it likely deters new people, I do not believe it is solely what is causing them to lose subs.

    Look at the content they have created. You can only do so much raiding, Battlegrounds, or Arena before you finally say “I’ve done this 100 times in this exact dungeon. I’m bored of it.”

    There’s definitely repetition in the questing. 80% of the quests were “Go here, kill X# of these” or “Go fetch me this or take this to this person” but given the fact that you at least visited multiple zones for the same level range and read more of the game’s stories, it felt less repetitive. Through all that however, in Vanilla, you still would have spent more time raiding MC than completing every quest available to your faction.

    Oh there are so many things I could touch on about WoW now vs Vanilla, BC, and even the early days of Wrath. I literally would be able to take 8 hours to write an entire article.

    TL;DR: Questing too simple, easy; leveling too fast.

  3. Pingback: Quote of the Day | Bio Break

  4. I think it’s a genre issue as well, to be honest. It isn’t so much that I desire the absolute sandboxes of games like Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies, or even the fairly sandbox nature of Everquest. However, I definitely don’t want the complete, for lack of a better word, gamification of the genre. Everything is instanced or a queue or heavily covered before release on a website or designed with absolute certainty in an overall framework. I like my MMOs to feel a little rough around the edges: a mix of passionate experimentation and logical creation. WoW feels sterile and uninspired.

  5. Pingback: Rearview Mirror | pOtshOt

  6. Those robots in the Deadmines that you remember so fondly were added in Cataclysm. :)

    But seriously, the games have only gotten better. I tend to think it’s the players’ colossal sense of entitlement that’s makes everything seem terrible.

  7. @Coreus: Apparently you’re talking about something different in Deadmines than I am; I never ran it after Cataclysm. I mean those little automatons that are spawned continually by goblin mechanics or something like that. Those were there from the beginning.

    If things are working for you better then ever now, then I’m happy for you. I mean that in all seriousness; some aspect of the game that you most enjoy may indeed be working better today than ever before, and you may even be in the majority. If as I suspect (from your excellent blog) that you’re doing a lot if instances, I can well believe that could be the case, as development over the last five years or so has focused strongly on instanced content. Dwindling subscription numbers would seem to imply at best a shrinking majority, however, and I suspect that a very substantial number of players would agree that the game has lost something. It’s a subject that this post and the responses to it (here and elsewhere) only scratch the surface of.

    I don’t think it’s indicative of “sense of entitlement” though, that for a stated subscription fee I should get a game that I enjoy. If I don’t, it’s not necessarily the game’s fault, except that in this case, I used to but don’t anymore. No one needs to be villainized over this, and I have not (I think) done so, even if I have presented the game’s recent evolution as a misstep.

      • I thought he meant the harvest golems. I have fond memories of pugging classic Deadmines back when people would yell at you for calling it “DM”, but I have no memory of plural robots in the original– just that one shredder boss.

        • /jokingly DM stood for Dire Maul, ya noob! Real WoW pros called it VC (Van Cleef)!

          But seriously, I remember the old robots, goblins released them in the upper part and they were absolute murder on my poor priest … especially since I was putting talent points into Wand Specialization.

          Oh, the days.

      • In the goblin foundry, the mechanics would ‘cast’ a little robot golem and enough of them could quickly overwhelm the party.

    • I don’t get a lot of feedback on my blog so I really appreciate the compliment. :)

      I guess when I talk about sense of entitlement I mean the way so many WoW players seem to expect the game to keep on being magical like it was when they first started playing (or whenever their most magical time was), and if they stop having fun, they blame it on the the game having “lost” the magic, rather than realise the fact that most people just get bored doing the same thing over and over for a long time, even if that activity is the most awesome thing ever.

      Alex Brazie [WoW dev] posted a great little essay about ennui in WoW on his blog a while back, which formed the basis for most of my opinions on this stuff. — http://alexanderbrazie.blogspot.com.au/2012/10/ennui-repetition-and-dissatisfaction.html

      • See, that’s totally fair, but I link what you’re talking about with nostalgia. I don’t think it has anything to do with a sense of entitlement. That folks are burned out after 8 years or more is totally not surprising.

        I dismiss nostalgia in the case because there is a well-populated private server with a credible (imperfect, but credible) emulation of vanilla WoW happening. And for me at least a substantial amount of the magic was still there. I elected not to continue playing there because of the legal and ethical issues, but it was a valuable experiment.

  8. Maybe I’m misleading everyone by calling them robots out of vague recollection. I’m talking about those mobs in the Goblin Foundry part of the dungeon that spawn other mobs as long as they’re alive.

  9. When you make the transition into endgame you really can’t expect to crush the damage meters. Don’t feel all insulted and indignant, it really isn’t your fault. When your questing and leveling you don’t really focus on gear much. Not to mention making sure you have the correct pet or spec to achieve the numbers published on Elitist Jerks or some of those other Hunter sites.

  10. WoW has alot of years under it’s belt. It’s going to suffer from a wide range of aches and pains as it ages, not the least of which is players that started back in Vanilla or BC having gone through their personal “golden era” with the game and naturally feel to move on to something new. Established social ties of fellow players that may be leaving start to give that feeling some players get momentum. For these folks, the game just feels “old,” quite apart from any actual mechanics or content.

    As the game is years old, it’s also not going to attract the newer crowd that are looking at shiney new releases.

    From the standpoint of one player who started midway through Wrath, however, the game is superb in most of the aspects I’m looking for in a game. MoP is a quality offering. The world and the number of things to do seem endless. Especially if one doesn’t play 24-7. Hopefully Blizzard still finds the business value in continuing to keep the machine going for this smaller group of enthusiasts. Cheers.

  11. Good article. I do think Wow has lost its magic since Vanilla, and I think it is the loss of the immersive “virtual world”. When I played wow for the first time in Vanilla, it felt like I was personally experiencing a fantasy novel. I felt like I could “live” in Azeroth. It was a magical experience.

    Wow has become a lot more “gamified” now, and I think it has lost that strong RPG feeling which initially attracted a lot of people. People who talk about nostalgia and burnout are right to a degree – these are factors which can cause a loss of interest. However they don’t preclude people losing interest because the game itself has changed. I think we can all agree that wow has changed a lot over the years, so should n’t we also expect people to like it more or less as a result?

    There is a great podcast called “warcraft less travelled”. Each episode is a 5 – 10 minute description about a particular area in Wow, mostly pre-cata. Listening to that I can recapature some of the magic that wow used to have for me.

  12. I recently quit WoW because it became a game of too many “shoulds”, and too few “wants”.

    End game progression is a rat race of repetitive and often unfun tasks to be completed “daily”. When I wasn’t playing, I was twitchy about getting to my computer to “get some things done”. Constantly trying to fill that bucket with a teaspoon.

    Playing low level alts like you mentioned is now completely borked. The magic has just gone.

    Can’t tell you how nice it is to have my free time back.

    • ‘I recently quit WoW because it became a game of too many “shoulds”, and too few “wants”.’

      This, in a nutshell. I’ve recently come back after taking a hiatus for 4-5 months and all I see is ‘need to dailies,’ ‘need to do LFR,’ ‘need to run heroics.’ Due to valor caps and ridiculous VP item costs, I feel the need to do all this stuff, but absolutely none of the ‘want.’ It’s not how I want to spend my time in game and it makes me realize that WoW still has one of the most punishing gear grinds in the Western market.