It’s happened again: I’ve hit that proverbial wall I seem to regularly cycle toward; the feeling of seeing no point to continue playing. I’m talking about World of Warcraft, a mainstay of my daily gaming diet for years now. A game that, years after I took my first few steps in its lush worlds, still caused me to jump excitedly up from my desk and grab the next person I saw just to tell them about how awesome the new races are, or what hard-to-get achievement I had unlocked.A game that has made me both eagerly anticipate the latest expansion months prior to its release and leave my computer unplayed for months at a time, dreading to return to “the grind”. There’s obviously something spellbinding and addicting about World of Warcraft, or else millions would not be logging into Blizzard’s servers daily to get their fantasy-MMO fix. But I know I’m not alone when I say that – for me – there’s a certain saturation point inherent in playing the same game for years, and even with new content and improved questing/leveling/dungeons/everything, I reach my limit in shorter and shorter intervals. Could this time be the point of no return for me…?
So what’s a gamer like me to do? Despite having gone for stretches of time lasting months and months during which I logged into my WoW account on a daily basis, I would consider myself a casual Warcraft player. I don’t play for the non-stop heroic dungeon running for upgraded blue gear for my characters. I also don’t participate in the extremely competitive and hardcore raid culture (which can go from extremely competitive to extremely verbally abusive, if your gear or skills are deemed in any way inferior by fellow raid members). I try not to play for the minute grind of top-level faction rep. And I definitely don’t play for boasting rights over how many level 85 alts I have in my stable. That’s not to say that I’ve never had the urge to see what epic gaming moments lie in wait in a certain instance or other, or endured repetitious reputation grinding in pursuit of a title or reward (Argent Tournament, I’m looking at you!!). I’ve partaken in making it a point to cultivate a warrior tank to lead groups in dungeons, and I have been in pursuit of that elusive piece of gear to boost my gear score by a few more points. But these experiences do not make up the bulk of my game experience within WoW. I play for the variety first, the comraderie second, and the thrill of a good story third.
The origin of my gradual disenchantment, and the reason for its reappearance every couple of months, is that I simply feel that the three things I crave foremost – variety, comraderie, and story – are increasingly in short supply. The variety of gameplay found in quests was, prior to the latest expansion, fairly small. Most quests would follow familiar archetypes: “go to and talk to “, “kill of “, or “kill until you receive “. Each zone would provide a few exceptions to the rule, but in the grand scheme of things, leveling took the form of repeating a set of actions until the desired outcome was achieved; rinse and repeat. Still, this did not become a bother to me early on in my WoW career. When my original Night Elf druid took his first quest assignments and began exploring the forests of Teldrassil, the then-current level cap of 70 was still far in the future. Along the way, I found added entertainment in creating characters of different races and classes to explore the biggest variety of storylines I could; a Dwarven paladin and Human assassin joined my character list. This eventually led to trying my hand at practicing wicked deeds, and leaving the Alliance behind in favor of Horde malignancy and ruthlessness. Many good times were had learning about the Scourge with my Undead warrior and getting closer to nature with a Tauren hunter. With the exception of a few minor experiments with other race/class combinations, and my Undead death knight (who had not yet come to be), these four made up my main stable. As every WoW player will find out sooner or later, no matter how far removed in allegiance any two characters are, or what different backgrounds and paths you may have chosen for them to follow, there comes a point when any toon will leave his faction’s and race’s stomping grounds, and venture out into common areas frequented by scores of other player types. It’s at this point that the inevitable overlap occurs, and quests you’ve completed on one character come back to haunt you, again and yet again as you try to bring multiple fighters up through the ranks. The problem is compounded when you hit the level-cap ceiling, and have no way to go but back down to a lower-level alt and repeat quests you’ve slogged through before. In this equation, boredom can quickly set in for the casual gamer.
Now, I know Blizz has addressed these problems with its latest expansion, Cataclysm; hence the earlier note that the above situation was prior to the last expansion. Trust me, no one was more excited than me to leave the frozen wastes of Northrend behind for a bit and explore all-new continent zones, most notably two new starter areas for my Worgen mage and Goblin shaman. And, yes, while I had new starter areas to conquer and brand-new zones for my level 80 death knight to advance in, it was a blast to get back on and delve in. But, as the old saying goes, “The higher they are, the greater they fall”. Exactly three times in approximately the month-and-a-half following Cataclysm’s release did I get an overwhelming and almost palpable sense of despair that I had reached an “end”: twice upon completing each of the brand-new racial origin stories, and a third (and more bone-chilling) time upon hitting level 85 in the sands of Uldum. Do I want to continue exploring new content with my capped Undead, but get little for it in the form of rewards, or do I want to go back and return to an old alt (or even a brand-new one), aware that new questing isn’t going to have that same sense of freshness it once had. And what happens when I get to second new character? I’ll likely find quests I’ve done before converging and running together, and the routine will begin anew. I’m aware of new and more streamlined questlines, overhauled dungeons, and innovations that make navigating the world more appealing, but it may be too little, too late for me.
The second feature of WoW that certainly doesn’t hold me in thrall the way it once did is the social aspect of it. Through joining or creating several guilds, I’ve come to learn some cold and hard truths about many of my fellow players: It’s rare that one can find a fellow player of similar maturity or play-style. With the game being as popular as it is, and as friendly to new players as it’s become (“watered down”, according to hard-boiled veterans; and yes, I too remember when I was saving up every scrap of spare change to save the required amount to finally ride my mount at level 40!), there are many, MANY younger or immature players online. While I’m all for everyone doing their “thing”, finding a reliable group of fellow gamers to group with or build a guild community is now all but impossible. Luckily, I’ve found my core group of players I can count on, but I sure don’t feel that I’m playing with thousands of like-minded gamers either! So it’s either stick with your tried-and-true group or go it solo; even the dungeon finder system can be a crapshoot and give you allies who’d just as soon do a Leroy Jenkins on your team and kill the time you just invested in your dungeon. So the lesson learned is to come prepared to the game with an entourage, because you likely won’t find others willing to stick it out with you for the long haul.
Finally, I LOVE for my games to have good stories. And WoW does have lore to spare, but is it easily accessible to the average gamer? I found myself tuning out storyline as often as not as I slogged through zone after zone, quest after quest. I could tell you basics about the developing story, like the bullet points in the Lich King saga, or how Orcs came to be on Azeroth. But in a game as non-linear as World of Warcraft, it’s natural that progression cannot be purely story-driven, and so the story becomes an optional thing: it’s there for you if you care to pick up on it, but you can just as easily get from point A to point B in the game with no knowledge of all the infinitesimal pieces of plot that make up the world of Azeroth. Personally, I also didn’t find the plot to be an easy thing to keep up with, as you’re often exposed more to the troubles of a village fisherman who has lost his prized lure or a trader who will pay you to procure him tiger claws to sell than to the movers and shakers of WoW, the leaders and other persons of importance in each faction. This means the important pieces of storyline may be delivered far apart or in an unhelpful order, and you’re once again reduced to simple errand boy, just struggling to keep up with the basics of life. I just didn’t find the presentation of the story to really pull me into the experience.
Let me close with a few side notes, now that I’ve vented sufficiently. First, I’m sure I could catch much flak for my views, since there are many who love exactly the things that bother me about the game. A common piece of advice delivered in response to complaints is “If you don’t like the game, just don’t play it anymore!” – I know, because I’ve given the same advice to others myself! To this I’d like to say two things. First, that is EXACTLY what I’ve done for the time being! Second, I’m certainly not hating on the game; the opposite is true – I’ve enjoyed and loved the game for years. But I do think I’m voicing some common frustrations of long-time players, who’ve put much time and effort into their game, and may feel more alienated at this juncture. I would welcome your take on my views, and would enjoy to find out how others out there feel about these issues. Let me end with a few optimistic words for the future: here’s to waves and cycles! For every low point, a wave will rise back to a new crest again, and each cycle will come back to its starting point. I don’t know when, and I don’t know for how long, but if you’re a fellow WoW gamer, then you and I will see each other online, kicking some Murloc ass!!