A Tourist in Azeroth

This story is about World of Warcraft.

I say that up front so that you can bail early if you like. There seems to be a pattern where an otherwise interesting writer will develop a World of Warcraft addiction and decide that everyone in the world wants to hear the details of his character’s armor. (This happened to Joi Ito, for instance, who tried to bring to WoW the same insufferable gravitas that he brings to everything. It didn’t work.)

There are a few things that prevent me from developing this addiction (most notably my attention deficit disorder to anything that doesn’t make me money), but I have been enjoying the free 10-day trial of the game. And in the process, I have some observations to make about the game design that I hope are interesting to those of us who play games that don’t require a monthly fee.

I have had two other experiences with multiplayer online RPGs. In the early 1990s I helped test and played around with James Aspnes’ TinyMUD, and in the 2004 timeframe I tried out City of Heroes at the urging of a friend of mine. From a high enough level, if you squint, all of the modern multiplayer RPGs are simply Diablo II grafted on top of TinyMUD.

One thing that surprised me about World of Warcraft is how weak the first few hours are. City of Heroes leads with its strongest punch, giving you the best character creator ever made, and then throws you into the middle of every comic book you ever read. World of Warcraft, on the other hand, drops you in front of a quest-giving robot and practically begs you to “grind” – kill meaningless enemies – for several hours before getting to anything interesting. City of Heroes made the player feel important from the get-go.

The complexity in World of Warcraft only opens up after you’ve been playing for a while.

To me, the most impressive technical achievement is that the world feels seamless. Throughout the parts of the game that I’ve seen, never once while in-game have I had to sit and wait for a “Loading…” screen. If you have to descend into a cave to search for loot, it flows smoothly from the outer world. Fly across the ocean to another continent, and you watch the scenery below you as your griffin beats his wings beneath you. Surely there is some sort of loading or paging going on under the hood, but the user never feels it.

I describe this achievement as “technical”, but its impact on the immersiveness of the game can’t be understated. Like so many other people, I have a short attention span. “Loading” screens do more than provide entertainment while the computer gets work done, they provide a cognitive break. When I’m playing a game and a load screen appears, more often than not I will look away. Maybe I’ll go get a cup of tea, or pause the game, or check my email. World of Warcraft doesn’t have these cognitive breaks, except for those that the player makes for him or herself by retreating to a safe place. The end result (at least for me) is a sort of tunnel vision composed of equal parts concentration and fatigue. You eventually look up and find that several hours have passed, and you hadn’t noticed.

This is made worse because the game is online, and thus, “always live.” Take Diablo II as a counterexample. As an offline game, it is perfectly interruptible. The phone rings, or your dog barks, or your boyfriend asks you a question, and you can quickly tap the “Escape” key and refocus on whatever needs attention. When you’re ready to begin play again, choose “resume game” and you pick up where you left off, with no in-game penalty. In World of Warcraft, no such safety valve exists. The game’s very mechanics require you to make a choice between real-world concerns or in-game penalties.

Penalties, in World of Warcraft, can be expressed in terms of time. Death is no more than a minor inconvenience, which is on the whole a brilliant design decision. You either must run back to where your corpse was (spending time) or suffer some slight degradation in your equipment which can be fixed with money (which takes time to acquire). Since the world is live (and monsters constantly reappear) taking a break feels like putting down a book with no bookmark. Or being halfway into writing an essay with no way to save your work. The inability to take a cognitive break on the micro level (no pausing) is echoed on the macro level (interrupting a ‘mission’ to teleport back home puts you back where you started).

All of these factors are in place before you even consider social interactions. They are dictated, perhaps, by the game being an online multiplayer game. But you feel these pressures even as a solo player. I haven’t done much playing with other people, since as is well-documented, both psu and I sort of despise online games, although we carve narrow exceptions for games we can play with the small group of people who can stand to be around us. I can only imagine that the pressure social players feel to play continuously is massive. In addition to being somewhat punished by the game mechanics, they feel that they might let down other players.

Compared to City of Heroes I found the character development to be comparatively boring: for all of the Diablo-esque skill tree management, most of the characters I met in World of Warcraft felt fairly interchangeable. To this day, I can still tell stories of characters I met in CoH, because they had been skinned with creativity and with a great concept. I haven’t seen that latitude in Azeroth. This is largely balanced out by the fact that the larger world of Warcraft is more fully developed and realized.

Much has been said by others about the “grinding” mechanics and the time commitments required from World of Warcraft. I have two observations on this topic. The first is that the game very deftly forces players into multiplayer collaboration by increasing their combat abilities linearly, but not their, for lack of a better term, refractory period between battles. Thus more and more collaboration is required as the player advances through the game, especially in the face of larger groups of enemies.

Lastly, I’m reminded of the cynical take on John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ask not what your country can do for you,” speech. Simply put, it’s that people double down on their bets, and the best way, as a politician, to get votes is not to promise things, but to ask for them. If you get a vote by giving something to a voter, he’ll vote for the next politician who gives him more. But if you get a vote by asking for something, he’s yours for life.

The relevance here is that World of Warcraft, a game that costs $15 a month to play, comes in a box that by itself costs around $40. I have to wonder how many people have dived in as deep as they have simply because, in that first month, they were determined to not let that $40 sunk cost “go to waste.”

World of Warcraft is a brilliantly designed game, with a number of intrinsic game mechanics that require the player’s complete attention for extended stretches of time. I’d love to fly around and explore Azeroth with no such requirements, at my leisure, and with no other players to interrupt or distract me. But I realize that in saying that, I’m actually saying “I wish they had made a completely different game.”

My trial account runs for another week or so. Though I’m not likely to have a lot of time to play, feel free to drop me a line in the comments area below, or on Twitter if you feel I’ve misrepresented (or perfectly captured!) the spirit of the game.