Sunday, January 6, 2008

From WoW to Meh

From time to time, I get in discussions with my friends about World of Warcraft. Most often, these discussions revolve around the things that we wish the game designers at Blizzard had done differently. So after a recent discussion about it with my roommate, I decided to commit some of my grievances and ideas to paper. Please note that if you've never played WoW, following discussion may be a bit hard to follow.

To start off, I should note that I played WoW for quite a while. I first played it during the open beta, and then I played frequently for the next 2 years. I did take a few breaks though... school and WoW don't mix very well sometimes. I was in a guild with my friends where I raided in MC and BWL (pre-BC), and although we were never really pushing the new content, I do have a good grasp on the end-game. I also played for a few months after the BC expansion came out, so I feel I know the game pretty well.

I should also say before I get started that I really enjoyed playing the game. It kept me hooked for a long time. I've yet to see another MMO as good. But still, there are things which bother me. Things which tarnish an otherwise great game.

Putting Aside Our Differences

I guess I'll start with what I consider to be the biggest mistake that Blizzard made: giving Shaman and Paladins to the opposing factions. It really, really bugs me. That change itself bugs me, but it also bugs me inasmuch as it is the poster-child for lazy game design. There are many reasons cited for why this change was made. But they are all pitiful excuses. What it comes down to is this: Blizzard catered to the complaining of thoughtless, asinine whiners instead of doing the hard thing of making the game better. The game needed more diversity, not less! There's no good reason, not one from a game design standpoint to make that change to the game. It's just a cop-out. It was just easier for Blizzard to make everything the same.

In fact, I believe they should have done much more to make the races and factions different. The racial traits are a joke. Yes, some of them are pretty useful. But overall it makes little difference what race you choose. Everything revolves around what class you chose. They should have added more classes! There are a lot of good ideas out there for adding new classes! Instead of giving Shaman and Paladins to the opposing factions, they should have said, "We know there are some complaints about the differences between the Horde and Alliance. But it's the differences that really make the factions unique and fun to play, so in that spirit we are introducing two new faction specific classes for the Burning Crusade!"

But instead Blizzard bent over like reed in the wind, kowtowing to the infantile demands of the player base. Now, I'm not saying they should ignore or try to irritate the player base. Rather they need to act like a wise parent and not give in to every little demand of children wailing in temper tantrums. Typically it's a very vocal minority which stirs up the forums asking for changes. And like children, these players only think of themselves and what would best suit them. They have no idea what makes a good game. They never seem to consider the game balance or direction as a whole.

A perfect example is the differences between classes. Probably 50% of the forum is full of threads like this: "Class X is overpowered, class Y (my class) needs buffs!" In my opinion, each class should be fun to play and be well designed. But if one class has trouble beating another in 1-on-1 combat, so what?! Why should that matter so much? Instead of focusing on how we can make everyone equal, focus on the differences! If one class is scissors, just accept the fact that they will beat paper and rock will in turn beat them. Things would be much more interesting that way.

I guess that's enough on this subject. The bloody mass on the ground which once was a dead horse has been utterly pulverized.

Customization & Itemization

On a related note though, one of my other grievances with WoW is the lack of customization. Sure they give you a choice of race and hair and what-not. Sure they give you a talent tree. Sure there are a bunch of different weapons/armors to get. But in practice, these make very little difference.

First of all, there really aren't any big differences between race. It's just a shell. It's just how you look. And that's not much of a customization... especially when you cover up with your armor. As I mentioned before, the racial traits are very insignificant. What I'd like to see is some major differences! Here's an Orc, he's really strong! Here's a Dwarf, very sturdy (stamina)! Here's a Night Elf, very agile! But no, that's not how it works. It all depends on the class you chose. No one cares that you are a female Tauren or an Undead male. They care that you are a hunter or a rogue.

So since class is the important thing that matters, how can you set yourself apart from others of your class? Talent trees. Except that most players tend to create similar builds. In fact, they get online and discuss which builds are best. Oh, and don't forget that you can change your spec anytime you want! There's just a minor charge... and with all the gold in the BC expansion, you could change your spec a couple times a day!

Okay, so you aren't set apart by your race or your class or your talents. So... how about gear? Yes. This is one way you can customize you character... just so long as you are willing to wear inferior gear. Because the good gear is pretty narrowly defined. Everyone tends to wear the same stuff! And if they aren't wearing the same gear, it's only because they can't get what the others are wearing! The itemization is pretty ridiculous. Instead of branching out with various items which are similar or equivalent, everything is either better or worse than what you already have. So just look on your WoW website of choice to see which one is mathematically better. Oh, and if you make a mistake, you can always go back and trade in your quest reward for the other one!!

So no matter how hard you try to customize your character, in the end you're still cut from that same cookie cutter.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat...

The Burning Crusade expansion and numerous patches brought a lot of new things to the game. Or did they? Although there are some very cool things in the game, everything you do can be narrowed down into a few categories.

Dungeons - Whether you are in a 5-man or 40-man instance, the gist is basically the same. Go in, fight some trash mobs. Fight some bosses to get their loot. Maybe we'll even attune ourselves for more dungeons!

PVP - Fight with other players. Need I say more? You can even fight in battlegrounds or fancy-pants arenas.

Quest - Turn in 3 lion pelts, 4 zebra hooves, and 2 bug eyes? Run to some other place! Kill 30 guards. Bring me some mats. Escort some guy. There are a few more, but basically you'll be doing the same quests in your first week as your 152nd.

Farm / Grind - You need 100,000 dark iron bars to make this thingy which will be made obsolete in a few patches. Better get mining. You need gold for a mount. Mats for all kinds of items or professions. Want some potions for your raids? Better start picking those flowers.

Explore - There are a good number of places to visit, and Blizzard has done a pretty good job of making places unique. But there aren't new (or different) things to do when you find that neat little place.

Socalize - You can chat with your friends and guildmates! That's great! Oh but that's not really playing the game, per se. Nevertheless, you'll spend a lot of time doing that, so fire up your Ventrilo!

Run In Circles - In place. Literally. Jump around on your mount. Oh, now you can fly in circles too!

So really, most players do the above things to level up and get better gear. Unless you just like PVP for PVP's sake.

Lack of Consequences

It really doesn't matter what you choose in the game. In fact, I recently heard that you can even go back and exchange your quest rewards if you don't like the one you got! I suppose the worst you can do is to get hated with all your factions. Then it will be a long road to get back in their good graces... but still possible in most cases.

Passive Storylines

There is a lot of text in the game. In fact most every quest has a good amount of ... *click*. Don't need to read that crap. Just need to see what kind of quest it is. Kill some murlocks, got it. Who cares why.

My biggest problem with the storytelling in WoW is how passive it is. It never takes you by the collar and throws you into a compelling story. I never found myself suddenly aware that I was just playing a game because I had been drawn into a story. If you want story, be prepared to read. A lot. If you're lucky, you might even find a quest that has some story to it (along with some very slow walking NPCs).

Oh, and one other little detail... the story is rarely about your character. It's always about some WarCraft lore. And if, by chance, you stumble onto a quest that says it's about your character, it's also the story of thousands of other players. You brought Thrall the head of Onyxia? Great! Wait around Orgrimmar long enough and you'll hear about somebody else who's done it too!

Now I understand that everyone needs a chance to do the quests. And you can't really expect Blizzard to make unique quests for all the millions of players. But it means that you have to make your own story, for yourself.

It's sad that most of the stories in WoW are carryovers from WarCraft I, II, and III. Now those games had some great stories. It makes sense to me though, because in those games you could tell the stories about important characters. The decisions of someone like Arthas had huge impact! But in WoW, the only "important" characters are the NPCs... and those are killed and respawn all the time. All the important or interesting characters from the WarCraft RTS games are either faction leaders or bosses.

Time Investment

World of WarCraft eats time like Unicron eats planets. Now I'm a big fan of the idea that some things should take time in the game. Instant gratification is lame, because then you never care about what you did. (Incidentally, that's why getting a kodo mount for my Orc warrior was one of my crowning achievements.) But it takes forever to do anything!

Now in a lot of cases this problem doesn't really come from the game design. But it's hard to be able to log in for just a half hour (or just an hour for that matter) and accomplish anything. Supposedly you can get on for a short time and finish a quest or two. Except that you have to travel there because you hearthed back to the inn. And you have to wait for the zeppelin or boat. And you may have to wait for your group members.


So I guess I'll end my ranting and raving now. I'm sure if I thought about it for a while I could come up with some other laments about the game. In my next few posts I plan to outline some ideas that I've had which I think would make WoW a vastly better game.

Overall I think that World of WarCraft is one of the best games of its kind. It kept me hooked for a long while, and even now tempts me to play from time to time. But it may well be the last MMO that I play. Although I have ideas to improve the game, there are some fundamental problems which make me skeptical of all MMOs.