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Monday, July 30, 2012

History of the World (of Warcraft): Part I

In deciding which game to write about for my first game-focused post, I figured I should start with the title that I've played more than any other game in the past 10 years or so. Heck, it's probably my most-played game ever.

World of Warcraft was released in 2004 during my freshman year of college. I had played a little bit of Warcraft II and heard one of my friends talk about Warcraft III, but to be honest I wasn't that interested in WoW. I remember sitting in a Multivariable Calculus recitation one day, looking around the room while the TA went over a homework problem. 5 or 6 kids in the room were playing WoW and paying little attention to what was going on around them - the university required everyone to have a pretty beefy laptop coming into their freshman year, so basically everyone on campus had a portable WoW-capable machine. I wondered why anyone would want to pay $15 a month to play a game.

Fast-forward to 2005. One of my online friends with whom I had fragged with for 3 or 4 years finally convinced me to give the game a try. I managed to pick up the game for around 30 bucks, so I remember thinking to myself, "If I play out my free month and then pay for a couple more I'll be on the hook for $60," basically the cost of any other game out there.

Four years later I finally cancelled my subscription.


A Not-So-Brief Summary of My Time in WoW

I took my time hitting 60 on my main (and only) character, then started PvPing heavily. At that time the PvP system was a gigantic grind that basically rewarded whoever played the most during each week. I managed to hit the 3rd-highest rank playing solo (most players who went all the way ended up sharing accounts) before giving up the chase. At that point I turned to raiding, which at that time meant grouping up with 39 other people for 3-4 hours to tackle ridiculously long dungeons for the best loot available. Raiding lies at the heart of the end-game WoW experience and is what kept me interested in the game for 3-4 years. At the same time, raiding is what ultimately drove me away from the game for good.

When WoW was first released, everything was pretty much a novel experience. Granted, Blizzard borrowed a bunch of stuff from other early MMOs (Everquest, etc.), but WoW's widespread appeal and accessibility meant that for most of the people playing the game everything was fresh and new. In the span of a couple of months you went from poking things with a stick by yourself to working together in a group of 40 people to kill gigantic end-game bosses. The system wasn't perfect and there was a lot of dead weight and logistical nightmares involved in raiding with 40 people, but it was fun.

The WoW cinematic was pretty amazing for 2004.

Burning Crusade, WoW's first expansion, was the golden age of WoW. Raid size was reduced to 25, removing some of the headaches of organizing gigantic groups. Individuals were more accountable, content was harder, and things were that much more exciting. I dabbled in guild and raid leading during BC and had a lot of fun - being in large part responsible for the success or failure of a group amplified the feeling of accomplishment when the guild progressed. The expansion's last raid dungeon, The Sunwell, turned out to be incredibly difficult and a large percentage of the player base never experienced it. A similar situation happened in "vanilla WoW" with Naxxramas.

Enter Wrath of the Lich King. Blizzard decided that difficult instances were a necessary part of the game to keep challenging the top guilds in the world, but accessibility of content was their new priority. Every raid had a new 10-man mode, usually easier than the 25-man companion version. Each raid also had both "normal" and "hard" modes; normal ended up being ridiculously easy while hard modes had a significant jump in difficulty. Getting loot into the hands of players to keep them interested was Blizzard's new number 1 priority and they expanded on earlier point-based currency systems to give players access to powerful gear without a ton of effort. Things were taken to even more of an extreme in the latest expansion, Cataclysm, with raid-quality gear attainable through dumbed-down random-group "pick up" raids.

I ended up quitting WoW at the end of 2009 in the middle of WotLK. The last couple of years away from the game have given me perspective and afforded me the chance to play a couple of other MMOs. In the next segment of my WoW dissertation, I'll take a look at what I believe to be some of the major flaws of the game today.


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