A Brief Journey in World of Warcraft Classic

Few genres are as nostalgic for me as the MMORPG. While EverQuest and Ultima Online remind me of summer, I strongly associate World of Warcraft with Christmas break. In a bid to recapture some of that glory, I felt a bit weak during the holidays and resubbed so I could try out WoW Classic for the first time.

Old is New, New is Old

Before I caved, I tried giving EverQuest (via Project 1999) another go just to see if that might tide me over long enough to get past the “I want to give Blizzard money” phase of an obvious sickness.

It didn’t. In fact, it made things worse.

Truly, and not just on a purely nostalgic basis, I miss the pacing of MMOs of yesteryear. While some genres I feel have not aged well (like the Western RPG ala Baldur’s Gate), the humble “relaxed-but-not” and “social-but-not” MMO still has a place.

You Make the Game, Not the Other Way Around

Like EverQuest, there’s an automatic breeziness to World of Warcraft Classic. After creating a character, the game does little to hurry you along, outside a few quests here and there. For most classes, the speed of combat is tied exclusively to your health and/or mana bars holding up.

Unlike EverQuest, it feels possible to succeed early on in WoW, and less likely to be overwhelmed (outside of early cave sections). Its a relaxing pace, and, had it been fresher content, I might have been more entranced by it.

I poked my head in on my characters of current WoW. The comparison was stark, to say the least, as I quickly felt overwhelmed by multiple bars, abilities, pop-ups, world quests, etc. It has been a while since I played WoW on even a semi-regular basis. I could probably figure all these things out again, but I kinda wish it wasn’t a requirement.

Not Sticking the Landing

As much as I applaud the easy going nature of MMOs of yesteryear, neither re-hooked me. That’s not exactly a fault – I don’t feel cheated of my $15 dollars, for instance. That’s cheaper than a lot of museum visits, and that’s how I treated my time.

Both my brief tour of EverQuest and World of Warcraft Classic do confirm one thing for me: I want a new MMO like these games. There’s a lot to love about Final Fantasy XIV, but once I hit max level, that locked-in-feeling sets in with the gear grind. I hate it.

I used to be able to play MMOs in a far more serious-casual manner. It rarely mattered that I accomplished anything noteworthy as long as I enjoyed the journey. There were always things outside my reach that inspired me to stretch a bit further, or just appreciate the success of others. I felt comfortable switching between winning a PvP duel, deep diving into a dungeon, or worrying over house decorations.

Most of the fun was making friends along the way, not upping a gear score.

You can still make friends in MMOs, of course, but its a lot harder when everyone seems so busy all the time.

/hail %t

I have seen a few discussions pop up on Twitter recently regarding games as social spaces. While I haven’t followed those conversations directly, what I have read makes a lot of sense. If games are social spaces and that’s what draws so many of us to them, then why are MMORPGs, a genre that is inherently social, no longer a draw?

It all comes down to competition. When MMORPGs were new, they were a far more interactive and innovative online social space than other options. I spent plenty of time in AOL chatrooms as a kid or working on my Xanga/Angelfire/Geocities/MySpace page, but none of those things combined as easily with my love of fantasy or video games as MMORPGs did.

I do not want to comment on the merit of online gaming as social spaces for children and young adults. My eyes always roll at the “kids don’t go outside anymore and that is why this country is doomed” arguments. Wherever you fall in that argument, for me as a kid, I spent near equal time outside as I did in, but for entirely different reasons. Outside, I explored the woods behind my house in relative solitude, only occasionally bringing a friend or young relative. Inside, I spent holiday breaks from school staying up until 5 AM playing games like Ultima Online and EverQuest.

As I grew older, my time outside was largely replaced by my time inside. To this day, I still enjoy a good hike and I have incorporated daily walks into my routine, but between work, adulting, and personal leisure, I go outside far less.

Other than the obvious reason of increasing responsibility, I also ascribe some of my outside/inside shift (especially when I was a teenager) to enjoying the more complex social spaces of MMORPGs. I wasn’t a loner as a child, but I had relatively few friends and no social drive to spend time with them after school, every day, every week. MMORPGs were fantasy escapism, but they also provided me a means to acquire an identity that I felt more control over than I did my real-life self. It was easier to escape my shyness. It was also easier to feel important or validated since, in an entirely self-contained world and community, expertise in the game is attainable by most who play it and is subject less to the real world’s prejudices regarding quantity of experience, the age of the person, etc. In other words, in MMORPGs, it was easier for me to feel more important and more confident than I did outside the game.

As much as I miss specific bits of gameplay, it is the social aspects of MMORPGs I miss the most and the thing I have had the hardest time recapturing. Journeying back to EverQuest or World of Warcraft, I rarely reintegrate into the current community and find it hard to continue playing without finding those I already know and who I most often speak to independent of any specific game these days.

Back to competition, MMORPGs are not going against AOL chatrooms anymore, but are instead going against a world that has evolved with them in mind and largely stolen their best bits for their own. Most multiplayer games these days come with their own chat tools regardless of how persistent their games worlds must be. If they don’t have the chat tools, then there are a ton of platforms that will provide the same functionality. Beyond those platforms, it’s not unheard of to hand out a phone number or email address, much like I used to have an AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ handle, only now we can reach one another anywhere with cellphones.

Almost every game is its own service now or directly integrated into a broader service otherwise. As such, the only unique thing left to the MMORPG genre are the things that were always horrible at worst and to the player’s test at best; namely, excessive grinding, bloated but weak content, and intentionally complicated sub-systems in the name of “simulation”.

This bothers me. A lot. While any future MMORPG has a good shot at being a great multiplayer game, I worry that the bar is too high to make a MMORPG that is a great multiplayer game. Developers must navigate a world that has largely left the genre behind while trying to compete against established evergreen games (League of Legends, Minecraft, Fortnite, DOTA 2, etc.) that may never sunset. Worse, MMORPGs need to target these gaming behemoths directly if they want to capture enough market share to sustain themselves. It used to be that MMORPGs were too expensive to make, but now they are too big a risk to attempt.

It leaves us all with a catch-22. Do we hope for MMORPGs that are good enough gameplay-wise that they may get lucky and catch on? Do we hope for MMORPGs that embrace the games-as-social-spaces that focus primarily on being an interactive super-chatroom that is engaging to a wide audience? Do we hope for both and get neither?

I wish I still had a guild to chat about this with while I run meaningless circles around Orgrimmar.

Massive Nostalgia Vol. 167: Downtime

This post is part of a series of everyday posts for Blaugust. If you’d like to know more, click here.

Since I deleted most of my old content, I am starting in media res with my volume numbering here. You have not missed volumes 1-166.

I remember in the third grade (ages 8-9 for non-Americans), we had a pen pal project. Now, I recall nothing about whom my pen pal was nor do I have any way of proving that a small southern town had contacts anywhere abroad, but these are the truths my mind has decided are facts.

I do recall it being a profound experience to realize that I could send a letter across the world and receive something back in a relatively short time. It was a moment that simultaneously made the world smaller and larger for my impressionable mind.

Similarly, I remember playing Ultima Online a few years later and marveling at how I could play with people all over the world inside a video game. Of course, with Ultima Online, you had to meet in person in-game to speak since there were no /tell or /whisper commands. There was a magic in-game telephone but it was rarely convenient.

Playing MMOs in the last several years and especially World of Warcraft in the last several weeks, I miss having the downtime to just talk to strangers. Sure, it caused me anxiety to talk to people online and not everyone was nice or worth talking to, but I made some really cool in-game friends that way.

Like pen pals and mailing letters, the notion of downtime itself seems quaint. Why force players to wait? Why give them nothing more to do than to talk to one another anymore? Instead, give them queues and quests and quick generating resources and graveyards with minimal walking and the list goes on.

It is probably for the better that we have less downtime. I don’t have to wait for a rarespawn to pop or waste most of my free time finding a group. Still, I miss the slower pace and the thought/time I could put into just occupying a digital space with others. I miss being amazed that my handwriting and my little piece of paper could make it around the world and back again too.

I refuse to say things were better or that we need to go back. That’s just an old man (in MMORPG years, at least) yelling about the good ole days.

But like so many old men, I am allowed to miss my youth where things were better and wish I could go back to those days one more time.

Sometimes it is easier to embrace the contradictions in life rather than choose between something you feel is objectively true and something you feel is subjectively true.

Let me grab a cane …