Pop culture juggernaut that it is, "World of Warcraft" continues its steady lurch forward. Despite a dwindling number of subscribers and some fan dissatisfaction with the way the last two major updates to the game were handled (with months of no new content creating a stagnant experience for many), as the game nears its 12th birthday and this week's launch of the "Legion" expansion set, I find myself willingly catching up on trailers and info for a game that I haven't played in years and whose unyielding grasp made me quit Boy Scouts back in the day.
Just kidding, it was Pokemon that made me quit Boy Scouts. All WoW made me retreat from was a healthy teenage social life and my high school's highly competitive JV bowling team. (I had the goods; what could have been!) I've more or less shaken the hold of the beast, but it's hard not to look back at what initially made the game so captivating for so many people, and why WoW — and the wider MMORPG genre — now seems to be on the wane.
The most obvious draw at the time of initial release was the game's scale. Azeroth, the game's setting, was and still is huge, requiring a not-insignificant amount of time to traverse. There was the mystery of the expanse, the encouraging call of a digital void, the fun to be needled out of ditzing around environments in hopes of finding some in-joke the dev team had left for adventurous fans or to just see what was over the next hill. If you wanted to (and had the free time), you could — and still can — march your character across a continent top to bottom.
Problem is, players stopped wanting to. It's not that the sense of exploration is dead — most current MMORPGs realize the navigable expanse is a huge draw for many players. In WoW's case, the later updates to the game have upped its emphasis even more than the base game ever did, adding achievements (a sort of in-game tally of bragging rights) for those who still felt the urge to roam the pixel landscape.
But these additions, including a steady stream of quality-of-life improvements have made it easier to dive into WoW without the sometimes-absurd timesink requirements to get up and running that the game held at launch, also made the game more isolating and performance driven. Things like fast travel options and other changes made it easier to jump right into the game's meaty action, but it also caused players to experience the game at a heightened pace, and often subconsciously encouraging them to leave behind older areas that didn't have immediate statistical benefits for their character. Dicking around in the Barrens is fun and all, but after a few hours, what's the point?
There's the argument that the older versions of WoW, the first few years after release and the earliest expansion packs, had a better game world than the current version. Making up for that, the version of the game you can pick up and play now is, for the most part, a more solid game.
And there's certainly some truth to that. But I don't think it's so much that the current game world has decayed from what it once was. A steady shift in the player experience (and player expectations) have changed what WoW has to offer, but it's not dead yet.
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