Saturday, August 1, 2015

Blizzard's Sin

Presumably as a promotional boost for their latest expansion (in which I assume you'll get a chance to play as a demonic koala or noble opossum race or something) Blizzard sent out a wave of spam offering old players seven free days' worth of revisiting the product guilty of destroying the MMO genre for a decade. Which is nice, because it gives me the chance to visualize exactly when and where World of Warcraft betrayed everything it had promised to its initial customers.
Start with this snippet of every character's skill window. Back when World of Warcraft first launched, MMOs were still promising to be roleplaying games in which players interacted according to their characters' nature, following the behavioral rules set out by their characters' race, class and other restrictions. Languages were promised as an immersion facilitator and were supposed to be coded into gameplay mechanics. You would start with your character's core language or two and would need to learn others as you went to interact with various NPCs, and some options might only have been available by bringing along a friend who spoke the local dialect. The classic example cited during beta was that of warlocks needing to learn demonic speech in order to control their summoned pets. This feature was completely abandoned. Roleplaying was completely abandoned. Blizzard refused to implement any of the necessary restrictions to enforce or even incentivize in-character behavior. Almost immediately after release, guilds which had chosen any thematic restrictions (druid guilds, dwarf/gnome guilds, etc.) died out as players found no incentive to restrict their social networking, and all-race, all-class clusterfucks took over.

Remember this as emblematic of both WoW's decline in quality and its rise in popularity. This is how Blizzard ruined the genre: by building up its initial hype on the backs of informed niche-market customers who were seeking the ultimate escapist fantasy, a persistent world in which they could give meaning to their actions through the impact they could have on other players, then dumbing every single game element down, removing any expectations of quality in other to draw in ever more simpleminded mass-market deadheads with no attention span or capacity for appreciating the complexity a true virtual world can offer. That first part is what died with World of Warcraft. The second part, the simplistic instant-gratification loot-farming and achievement-grinding gameplay devoid of any ramifications is what every other company has been attempting to copy from WoW for the past ten years and more. The first, WoW's initial set of campaign promises during its beta, was the true definition of an MMO. The second, its shameful decline, the falsely labelled MMO experience which (because WoW was the first such game to break out onto the mass-market) was most gamers' first and only exposure to the MMO label, is the false definition with which an entire generation of gamers has grown up.

However, those who remember the early promises of MMOs as persistent worlds before the meaning of "massive" was forgotten and everything boiled down to endlessly slaughtering the latest re-skinned, static, endlessly respawning goblins for achievement unlocks likely still hold some nostalgia for World of Warcraft's backstabbed promises. I know. I still remember the false hope. I still miss that feeling of finally finding panacea, one single world into which I could escape from reality.

I miss that sense of wonder and hope at the start. I miss Loch Modan.
In this very spot, when I was still under level twenty, I rushed to help one of my guildmates, a Paladin, who had been ambushed by undead rogues and whatnot. At the time, however, Paladins still had more of a class personality than being healers in plate armor, and because they had bonuses against undead, I found him laughing by the time I got there, surrounded by four re-deaded undead. Granted, that much imbalance was indeed too much, but did Blizzard ever try to make it work? Mmmnope! Removed altogether.

This is where a few of us started on a journey to help that same paladin on his level twenty class quest. This was when the world itself still had some meaning, when you needed to travel and not simply teleport wherever you wanted to. The objective was an instance deep within enemy territory, in Silverpine Forest. We gathered and traversed several higher-level areas, dodging mobs which could have instantly killed us, hiding behind terrain, having stealthers scout ahead to tell the paladin when the coast was clear of enemy players. We had no time to fight. We were on a mission. Yes, the quest was invalidated by the idiotic leveling mechanics which allowed any paladin to simply get a top-level buddy as his bodyguard, but this was a problem to be addressed, patched, fixed into functionality. Instead, the entire notion of epic cross-map adventures was abandoned.

This spot is where I began to realize that questing was too simple in WoW. I wrote a guide to Loch Modan quests to help my guildmates level more efficiently through it. It became so popular that our website shortly exceeded its bandwidth limit (which didn't take much in the days when many players were still on 56k dial-up modems) but it's where I started seeing the "kill ten rats" routine as a chore, something I was mostly trudging through seeking more complex and meaningful content. Spoiler alert: never really got there.

Loch Modan is also where, much later, I realized that WoW's crafting system had become a joke. Having played EVE-Online before WoW, I was still working under the assumption that any MMO developer would try to work all of the available world resources into a scarcity-driven player-driven, crafting-driven in-game economy. Then came WoW. I was at maximum level and passed through Loch Modan again for I-forget-what reason and spotted players gathering starter resources. They were gathering resources which served no purpose but to increase their skills so they could go to the next zone and mine slightly higher level resources to increase their skills to yadda-yadda. No attempt was made to integrate crafting into the game as a whole. It became a minigame unto itself.

I miss the world tree.
I miss feeling small, feeling as if I were wandering through a new world as a butterfly through other butterflies' hurricanes. There were gigantic spaces here to explore, tangles of player intent within which to define oneself, locations within their existing stories within which our individual dramas could play out. I don't miss the destructive corollary:
These towering demons dripping with special effects are not end-game monsters. This is in fact one of the very first quests you're sent on in the elf starter area. I don't miss realizing that Blizzard was throwing out all pretense of scale and proportion in favor of catering to idiotic little snots with no attention span who were merely playing for constant validation at every step, who wanted every single thing they did to look like a kamehameha, who wanted every monster they kill, no matter how trivial, to look badass so they could feel badass for the free win they're handed again and again unto infinity. A true persistent world makes you feel small. WoW and WoW-clones make you feel big, pat you on the back, hand you undeserved endorphin boosts at every step.

I miss Duskwood.
It featured long, story-based quest chains with real characters, desperate souls falling prey to deceit and darkness, one of which culminated in a public event: spawning an abomination to attack the town, tying an individual player's quest completion into a spontaneous town defense for unwitting visitors. It made me hope that quests would be used to promote roleplaying and other payer interaction in the future. They were not. I miss the dawning woods catacombs.
This is a dungeon as dungeons should be: uninstanced. You could fight through its ranks of undead and come out the other entrance a hero. We used to dream that such open-world objectives would decide the fate of the zone as a whole, that destroying the lich Morbent Fel would improve the lives of other visiting players, provide them with new resources or town services. Instead, "dungeon" came to mean instanced dungeons in which your actions meant absolutely nothing, pocket universes completely devoid of ramifications among the persistent world at large. Minigames.

I miss this spot at the border of the Tanaris Desert and Un'Goro crater.
I knew this rise by sight, from far away. Many times, while being chased by enemy players through the desert, I would run to this exact location. Druids in cat form, you see, took reduced falling damage. I would drop onto that barely-visible ledge below then down into the crater itself. My pursuers had the choice of giving up the chase or plummeting to their doom. Even players of the classes which could have followed me down the cliff, most were not ready for the eventuality. How many mages carried feathers around as a spell reagent for "feather fall" anyway? One became famous for luring a couple of gankers to their deaths in this spot. Ah, but that was while spells still required reagents, while planning and foresight were still valued, before complexity became a dirty word.

I miss Un'goro Crater. More games should have remote areas populated by dinosaurs. We need an MMO modelled after Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World. However, Un'Goro crater was also where I realized WoW's PvP would likely never evolve past idiotic griefing. There were no towns in Un'Goro, nothing to fight over. The only reason to fight each other was to ruin each others' day... and it was one of the most popular gank locations in the game. Un'goro was where PvP became redefined from meaningful faction conflict to idiotic, simplistic dick-measuring over who killed whom.

I miss water adventures.
I miss the added difficulty of managing my oxygen level and moving in three dimensions at slow speeds. I still remember killing a rogue who tried to gank me by fooling him into following me to the bottom of a lake then using entangling roots on him until he drowned. This was before everyone was given crowd control immunity items so rogues and warriors couldn't have crowd control classes escape from their griefing.

I miss Tarren Mill.
For a very short period of time, Blizzard made some pretense of instituting true open-world PvP. As is so often the case in war, random spots where forces meet can become the most desperate conflicts, and this unassuming little quest town was, for a couple of months, World of Warcraft's Hamburger Hill. Day after day we pushed each other back and forth across this road, hoping that with time this conflict would gain meaning, that we would become able to take control of Tarren Mill, that our efforts would change the game map. They never did.

World of Warcraft was supposed to be, above all else, a Warcraft game. It was to be a strategy game from a single unit's perspective. You were supposed to be a common soldier rallying your guildmates to help your faction change the face of the game world, advancing battle lines across blood-soaked landscapes, gaining and losing ground in dramatic sieges. Instead? Kill ten rats.

I miss Blackrock Mountain.

Here, at what was for a while one of the main end-game locations, PvE met PvP. The mountain contained four instances for both factions. Players had to travel to the instance entrances on foot. Factions met. Fights ensued. It was the closest WoW ever came to meaningful PvP, to fighting each other for control of actual objectives. On busy nights the inside of the mountain was littered with corpses. On Friday and Saturday nights, that little ledge at the bottom on my right was the most coveted spot in the entire game world. Dozens of players would crowd onto it trying to keep control of the path into instances so everyone in their group could make it inside. It wasn't quite the dream of controllable faction objectives, but it was the closest WoW ever came. We rushed and gritted our teeth up and down those giant chains. Priests mind-controlled enemies into the lava. Rogues waylaid enemy reinforcements as they trickled in. Warriors led charges and Paladins and Shamans stopped them in their tracks.
This was before teleporting became the sole method of travel, before WoW was tailored to impatient little imbeciles who want everything now-now-now, who can't be bothered to fight for their right to party, who don't understand that in a persistent world PvE, crafting and PvP must interact, that this creates the interdependency which drives a real player community and not just a random assemblage of disinterested casuals looking for the same anonymous quick thrill they could get in any Counterstrike server.

I miss the old WoW instances: stealth runs in Lower Blackrock Spire with a three/two split of rogues and druids bypassing trash mobs for quick loot, Stratholme runs during which the ziggurats would recharge so quickly that you had to coordinate your group to drop them all at once, forty-player raids in which every five-player group had its assigned role and each player had to be aware of his individual role, where coordination was the operative word. I miss challenge.

I quit WoW when the Silithus raids came out. I re-activated for a month or two when Burning Crusade came out, hoping Blizzard would take the chance to revitalize a weak product's gameplay. Instead, I found a game where every meaningful requirement for planning and foresight from food/water requirements to spell reagents to travel times had been removed and everything was more instanced and less relevant to the persistent world than ever. Even instances were shrinking instead of growing. I found a combat system where tanks no longer carefully built aggro on one mob at a time but simply constantly taunted everything at once, where healers no longer had to balance their heal stat with other functionality, where careful pulling via hunter traps had been eliminated and my druid was no longer a hybrid class but merely an overspecialized mage, priest or warrior stand-in from one form to the next.

Worse, I found a game which had completely abandoned any pretense of being a virtual world, and this is what has dictated industry expectations from then onwards: busywork. Hand the players constant endorphin boosts, keep them constantly spinning their wheels on endlessly repeatable small-group instance farming. Never demand anything which might require involvement or intelligence. Roleplaying and strategy scare idiots away and this is now a mass-market genre. It must cater to idiots. Excise all the old hopes, murder quality and slit the throat of complexity. Instead of throwing customers into a brave new world, isolate them. Keep each one running the gear-farming treadmill, locked in an operant conditioning slot-machine nightmare, desperate for that next piece of loot, that next pop-up text telling him he's saved he world (though there no longer is any such world because everything lacks interconnection) and keep them all paying.

Blizzard was in a unique position, when World of Warcraft launched, to raise the bar, to fulfill MMOs' failed promise. They had the funds, the popularity, the willing involvement of hordes of nerds willing to put the effort into keeping a true virtual world alive. Instead, they threw the bar out altogether. They knew where the money was, and marketed to the most worthless segment of the populace, to the majority. They marketed to imbeciles with no attention span, no appreciation for a coherent fantasy world, no sense of building a personal identity, no sense of proportion and their own role within a persistent community.
Blizzard not only caters to but promotes stupidity, not because they were constrained but of their own choice. World of Warcraft, despite its balance, bug, server stability and other problems, would have been the most successful MMO no matter what. Blizzard's hype machine ensured that. They did not choose to destroy the MMO concept to stay in business. They were already making money hand-over-fist. They chose to destroy the best incarnation of escapism for sheer greed.

Capitalism is a sin. I don't mean this in the religious sense but as both insult and injury to intellect, to scientific, social and artistic advancement. World of Warcraft is a giant leap backwards perpetrated in place of the best chance of advancement. It represents willful destruction by those who were best placed to create within their artistic medium. WoW represents everything that's wrong with the game industry because it had the best shot to do everything right and threw it away because enough profit is never enough.

I had a seven-day free offer within WoW. I've used maybe a couple of hours of it flying around. I don't even need to visit any of the new areas. Playable Pandas and a retconned orc race tell all I need to know about how this game has progressed since I last declared it disgusting. There is only one thing left for me to do. I am a druid. For aeons, the druids slept in their barrow-dens beneath the new old world of Kalimdor, dreaming. WoW represents a stolen dream. The only thing left is to recapture it. I have taken my character back to the dream, back to the betrayed promise of the beginning, to dream once more, and forever. He will remain there, sleeping in the barrow dens, until the end of the world.
Good night and good-bye.

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