24 May 2012

My Kingdom for a World... like Warcraft?

This post may shock you.  I am going to do something that seems impossible amongst MMO blogs today.  Ok, not impossible but certainly rare.  I'm going to say nice things... about World of Warcraft.  I know, I know... pick you jaw up off the floor.  Nothing seems to be more en vogue these days than to bash the "king," and I've certainly been just as guilty of it as anyone.  Of course if Blizzard wouldn't make it so easy to mock some of these recent decisions, maybe we wouldn't have so much to complain about.  But something occurred to me last night, and as is the case with many of the topics for my blog posts, I got up this morning inspired to say a little something about a game that while I do not miss, has something going for it that most of its players don't even realize.

What is a "World?"

What do we look for in an MMO?  It's a basic question and the answer is different for everyone.  I'm not going to run through the Bartle archetypes in this post, but if you haven't taken the test yourself I would highly recommend it.  The results can be fascinating.  My answer to that question is not found specifically amongst those archetypes and has more to do with the structure of the virtual world that the game is set in.  For me, a good MMO feels like an actual world.  It should feel like a real place and include many of the things that one would find in a real place, albeit on a much smaller scale.  It cannot be just a series of "playgrounds" full of monsters to kill and loot to obtain.  Much of my enjoyment of a game comes from feeling like I am part of this place that my character is inhabiting.  And nothing ruins that sense of being part of a world more than this...

I'm "picking" on Star Wars: The Old Republic here because it is the most egregious example I've experienced recently of this phenomenon.  For all it's varied planets, space stations, and other locales... SW:TOR barely even feels like an MMO to me because you are utterly bombarded with loading screens, instanced areas, and other "partitions" that separate you from other players and the game world at large.  And yes, I understand that the space setting requires a bit more of this as the game does not take place on a single world like WoW or RIFT or TERA.  But when it takes three loading screens just to get from your space ship to the planet you just landed on, it really kills any sense of scope that the game may possess.  Every game I have played recently has this problem to one degree or another.  SW:TOR is the worst offender, but TERA, RIFT, and The Secret World are all guilty of it as well to varying degrees.  You never feel like you are in the world.  The constant use of loading screens and instances just reinforces the feeling of separation... of "smallness."  RIFT probably does the best at making its world feel continuous, but its problem is simply that Telara itself is too small.

The WORLD of Warcraft

So I said this was going to be a post with good things to say about WoW, well this is it.  Of all the MMO's I have played, no game has done a better job of creating a single, seamless world that feels large and lived in than WoW.  Aside from the way it handles Outland and Northrend (which I will admit is still a bit wonky) WoW's game world is continuous, open, and varied.  You can walk from one end of a continent to the other, never experience a loading screen, and find all sorts of random farmhouses, caves, towns, and outposts to explore.  It hits all the right "notes" for me in terms of what an MMO world should feel like.  I should not be exposed to a loading screen just for walking ten feet across some imaginary line.  I should feel like the world is "lived in" and not just a playground for monsters that need killing and boar tusks that need collecting.  In short, Azeroth feels like a real place.

What I find so ironic about this is that this is the "feature" of WoW that gets the least attention and is probably appreciated the least by its players.  It is sad and unfortunate.  Blizzard and the WoW developers pour so much effort into creating raids, PvP, and other endgame features.  They have turned the game into essentially nothing more than a "lobby" where players sit around their capital cities waiting for their raid/dungeon/PvP queue to come up so they can do "real content," when there is plenty of real content all around them.  There is such a rich and varied world in Azeroth to explore, even more so since the Cataclysm expansion completely revised the game world.  I remain confused as to why Blizzard put so much effort into crafting that world when they really don't encourage people to use it.  They just push people to "endgame" and then herd them into queues like standing in line at Disneyland.  "Step right over here kids, experience the Dragon Soul ride!" And yes I understand that is the underlying premise of any "themepark" style MMO, but WoW has really gone off the rails a bit in this sense.

So for those of you that are still WoW players, next time you log in, do yourselves a favor... take a minute to appreciate the world around you.  It really is a pretty good one.  Don't just hit that LFD button and squat by the AH in Stormwind waiting for it to pop.  Go see something.  Heck even after all this time, you might still find something you had never noticed before.

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