Friday, October 09, 2009
World of Warcraft Review
As every serious MMORPG reviewer knows, it takes 5,000 hours of played time to be able to really judge a game. ;) Ed Zitron jokes aside, I've been playing World of Warcraft for over 5 years now (beta included), and the 5th anniversary of its release is near. As the game has matured a lot in that time, I think it is time for a new review of World of Warcraft:
Technology: World of Warcraft is not the most high-tech game out there. The system requirements were already on the low side in 2004, and by now it runs on about any machine, even 8" netbooks. The advantage of that is universal accessibility, but the disadvantage is that the graphics aren't quite as pretty as those of some other games. Fortunately the cartoonish style of WoW graphics ages better than pseudo-photorealism.
On average over the last 5 years, World of Warcraft has been relatively low on bugs, and high on server uptime, compared with other MMORPGs. That is not to say that WoW didn't have extremely difficult periods, especially at the start, where bugs were still more common, and the influx of large numbers of players caused server stability problems. And changes to the game which made instances a lot more popular during Wrath of the Lich King led to "no more instances available" problems at peak times, which are just currently being resolved. Nevertheless one has to be careful, because memories are selective, and tend to remember short periods of problems far more than long periods where everything runs smoothly. Thus I'll stay with my overall judgment that *on average* World of Warcraft had less bugs and better server uptime than its competitors.
Content: World of Warcraft is a big game. Not necessarily in terms of virtual square miles, but in terms of content filling up those virtual square miles: Number of zones, number of quests, number of different monster models, number of dungeons, number of races and classes, number of newbie zones. While there are certainly some bottlenecks, you can play at least 4 different characters (2 Alliance, 2 Horde) from level 1 to the level cap while repeating only very little content. Thus replayability of WoW is high, compared to other MMORPGs.
World of Warcraft already was a big game when it came out, and two expansions and several content patches added even more content. Unfortunately that also has some bad consequences: New content often makes old content obsolete, and especially the old dungeons and raid dungeons nowadays are more a tourist attraction or place for high-level characters to boost low-level characters than challenging content. Even Blizzard admits that, and started recycling old content: Naxxramas, Onyxia, and replacing a lot of old content in the upcoming Cataclysm expansion.
On it's fifth anniversary, World of Warcraft will only have two expansions out, with a third one expected for the sixth year. That is not very much, compared to other MMORPGs. There is a wealth of evidence of large numbers of WoW players running out of content between the release of one expansion and the next, leading to dips in activity, followed by peaks of resubscriptions when content patches and expansions arrive. This is certainly one of the weak spots of World of Warcraft: In spite of huge annual profits, Blizzard has never been able to add content at a fast enough rate to even keep the average player happy. Given the size of WoW's subscriber base, that led to a curious phenomenon where the success of other MMORPGs to some extent depends on whether they launch in a peak or a valley of World of Warcraft.
The other side of the coin, and the excuse Blizzard likes to use when explaining why they can't produce content any faster, is the extremely high quality, level of detail, and what is often called "polish" of the content of World of Warcraft. Every corner of the world is hand-crafted, and while you might encounter the same building or cave in different corners of the world, there aren't huge areas of boring, computer-generated landscapes with nothing to do. Most things serve some purpose, and even the things that don't are crafted with a fine level of detail. There is a lot to explore in this world if you are so inclined.
Accessibility: World of Warcraft is a comparatively easy MMORPG, with mass market accessibility. The advantage of that is obviously that people who would never have played a game like Everquest now find themselves playing World of Warcraft. The disadvantage is that large parts of WoW are not very challenging to a typical gamer. Furthermore what challenge there is, is concentrated in the endgame, forcing players who like a challenge to rush through the leveling part of the game to get to the challenging endgame part.
Some progress has been made over the last 5 years in moving from a game offering just a single level of difficulty to having some content available at different levels of challenge and reward. But offering a challenge to all players all the time is still way beyond the possibilities of WoW, and maybe MMORPGs in general. Efforts to at least smooth the transition of challenge level from the leveling game to the endgame have been made with some success, but met with some resistance of players who would have liked the raiding endgame to be reserved for a small elite of players enjoying a higher degree of challenge.
Part of the accessibility comes from Blizzard not being overly serious about the lore of the World of Warcraft. The game is full of in-jokes about Leroy Jenkins, "more dots", and funny references to the real world, like a Haris Pilton NPC selling expensive handbags. Of course the result is often somewhat incongruous, with crashed spaceships in a magic forest and elves riding motorcycles through medieval cities. Ultimately WoW has always been more a "Game of Warcraft" than a "World of Warcraft".
Social factors: Every gamer at least knows somebody who plays World of Warcraft, there is a huge network effect of people playing WoW in part because their friends play. But this is based on inherent sociability of the MMORPG genre, not a specific quality of World of Warcraft. In fact World of Warcraft is considerable LESS social, and LESS fostering direct social interactions between players than most other MMORPGs.
The main culprit here is the leveling game. Not only is it totally possible to level up all the way to the level cap in WoW without ever having spoken or cooperated with another player; but in many cases group play is even actually discouraged: Quests are organized in a way that doing them with friends takes longer than soloing them. The experience point distribution for groups is organized in a way that people earn considerable LESS xp per hour in a group than if they solo. And the looking-for-group functionality of World of Warcraft, after several modifications, is still substandard, and suboptimal.
Guild functionality in World of Warcraft is also extremely basic, it took years to even add a guild bank to the game, and many guild features common to other games don't exist yet in WoW. Furthermore the raid-based nature of the endgame has led to guilds sorting themselves by level of skill and time spent for raiding. Thus where in previous games guild recruited people on the basis of social compatibility, many WoW guilds recruit players on the base of their character class, talent build, and gear. Guild-hopping, that is gearing up in one guild, only to leave it and join the next more advanced guild, is unfortunately common in World of Warcraft.
On the positive side, Blizzard is working on improving social interactions between players. Yet another new looking-for-group system, this time with cross-server dungeons, has been announced, possibly before the next expansion. For the next expansion the addition of various guild features, like guild achievements and bonuses for belonging to a guild have been announced. It remains to be seen what the social effects of these changes will be.
Gameplay: World of Warcraft has a gameplay which is nowadays considered very middle-of-the-road: It is based on character classes, with each character having a level, and gaining new levels via experience points handed out for killing monsters and doing quests. A majority of gameplay activity is spent in combat, with combat consisting mainly of launching sequences of spells and abilities by pressing the corresponding buttons on a hotkey bar.
Critics tend to forget that it was the popularity of World of Warcraft which turned this type of gameplay into what is now considered bog-standard. While many of the elements existed in 2004, the MMORPGs you were likely to play in that year (Star Wars Galaxies, Final Fantasy XI) did not conform to this standard. Usually WoW is considered to be an evolution based on the original Everquest, but there are important fundamental philosophical differences in game design between these two games. Everquest is a far harsher, far more social, and far more open game.
What people actually experienced as being "new" in 2004 in World of Warcraft was the strong degree of guided gameplay: Quests were not separate entities, or random, but combined into a quest system, which would guide the player through all the interesting corners of the zone he was in, and then send him off to the next zone when he was finished. You can look through all the reviews of World of Warcraft from 2004, and you will find that quest system positively mentioned in every single one of them. Of course this "playing on rails" has disadvantages, and can feel artificial, but in 2004 it definitely was an innovation, and it greatly added to the accessibility of World of Warcraft. While veterans and fans of sandbox games might scoff at directed gameplay, new players actually enjoyed being told what to do. This is also visible in the fact that far from trying to break out and look for more freedom, players install addons like Questhelper or Tour Guide which enhance the playing on rails experience.
While quest-based directed gameplay was and still is popular, the quests themselves weren't actually all that good. Very few quests remain memorable, and for the first 4 years of World of Warcraft nearly every quest fell into a small range of types, involving nothing more than killing monsters, and going from A to B to click on something. The Wrath of the Lich King expansion improved the quality of quests noticeably, improving storytelling, adding more vehicle-based quests, and introducing phasing, that is the illusion of your quests changing the world. The Wrath Gate quest line is way past the "kill Hogger" experience of vanilla WoW.
The combat part of gameplay unfortunately didn't improve much over the years. The number of buttons you could possibly press grew, giving an impression of added complexity. Combat got faster over the years, and mostly in raid encounters players were more and more forced to react to raid boss special abilities. But the basics of group combat, with its holy trinity of tanks, healers, and damage dealers, never changed. Solo combat is still not very interactive, what a monster does is utterly predictable, and often doesn't matter at all to your tactics. And while raid boss encounters are "difficult" insofar as everybody in the raid has to react correctly to a bosses special ability in split seconds, they are still completely scripted, with no need to develop strategies, as the strategy is available as video on YouTube. Of course combat being extremely easy during leveling is designed on purpose for accessibility. And the arcade game-like nature of raid encounters is specifically targeted at the young male audience most likely to spend hours raiding several evening per week. Nevertheless a somewhat more interactive, unpredictable, and tactically interesting combat would have been nice.
Summary and outlook: World of Warcraft is a huge game of high quality, which is accessible to nearly everyone, with very few barriers to entry in hardware or player skill requirements. While it is far from ideal as a social, virtual world, it does offer thousands of hours of popular directed gameplay, with a constant stream of virtual achievements and rewards keeping the players happy for years, literally.
Seen as "entry level" MMORPG, World of Warcraft is definitely the best game on offer, and it will most probably still be around in a decade, and still have significant numbers of subscribers. But at the same time WoW will have produced millions of players who grew beyond what this game can offer: Players looking for something which is more a social virtual world than just a game, players looking for more freedom, players looking for more challenge, or players looking for different and more interactive gameplay. Given how well World of Warcraft still sells, and that its players base hasn't been significantly growing any more for some time, it is likely that there are already more ex-WoW players than current subscribers, waiting for a game with a similar level of quality, but being of a more advanced level in several aspects. Thus instead of a "WoW killer", the next big thing is more likely to be a game "beyond WoW". It just isn't obvious what this game beyond World of Warcraft will be, who will produce it, and when. Too many people are busy either copying World of Warcraft, or badmouthing it, in a mistaken, pseudo-religious, "there can be only one" belief, and that "copy or damn" approach hinders analysis of where the strong points of WoW really are, what MMORPG players really want, and how one could develop a better game.
But the simple truth is that World of Warcraft is quite a good game, with serious limitations, many of which are an inevitable consequence of it's mass market appeal. Improvements are still likely over the coming years and expansions, but it is improbable that WoW will grow far beyond it's current limitations, and keep us all playing happily forever. World of Warcraft certainly has earned its place as a reference for the MMORPG genre for years to come, and will be forever part of the history of MMORPGs. But World of Warcraft is not the end of this history. Sooner or later a game beyond WoW will write the next big success chapter of that history, and break free from WoW's gravitational pull.