Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Problem with WoW

Last year, I would have told you that I refuse to play Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games on principle. The very concept of a static-state world that I can never meaningfully save, shared with an obscenely large population of peer heroes and heroines, was anathema to my concept of a good game. Two months ago, I would have told you that even though I spent a few months playing City of Heroes, thereby redacting my earlier stance that such a static world could not make for a good game, I would still refuse to play World of Warcraft, because Blizzard was making far too much money to tolerate based on relatively little content. Has any single video game ever had a larger profit margin? I haven’t run the numbers, but my perception as a consumer is that it’s unprecedented.

Nevertheless, I could not have commented on the quality or the experience of WoW the game; my objections were purely philosophical, and I could not rationally say that it was a bad game. In the mean time, I’ve corrected that fact. I broke my long-standing boycott against Blizzard and shelled out $20 to purchase the game, which gave me a month of play time, most of which I used before deciding to allow it to lapse (as I quite adamantly refused to set up a repeating payment). As a result of that experience, I can now report on why I do not like World of Warcraft.

Barred from an Entire Class of Objects

One of the first things I disliked about WoW was how difficult it was to even attempt to emulate an old D&D character. His name was Harek. He was a dwarf, and his class combination was so specialized I didn’t hope to find an analogue in WoW, so I just made him a Warrior. Rather particularly, he wielded a glaive and wore a (roughly) Corinthian helmet. Now, I’m a fan of polearms. I think they get far too little play in fiction, despite their prevalence in actual ancient combat. I was appalled that pole weapons of all sorts were perfectly absent from the MMO D&D Online, thus ruining my chances at emulating a good few D&D characters I’d once played. And if DDO can’t do it, what game can?

I learned at about that time that, while spears and other polearms exist in WoW, you can’t get them (even if you’re one of the classes that ever can) until level 20, which amounts to a good many hours of gameplay. So, if I want to play Harek, I have to slog through the first 20 levels and then pick up a spear. What’s more, I learned that headwear – of all sorts, aside from the useless, ridiculous, and temporary Halloween masks – is similarly barred to lower-level characters.

What really cheeses me off about that is how it grates against the concept of a simulation. In real life, spears were an extremely common rank-and-file weapon, because they strike an excellent balance of killing power and cost (wood being far easier to come by in ancient times than copper or iron, and a minimal spear requires only very little metal). Swords, on the other hand, were far more commonly found in the hands of the better-trained warriors; in any case, they were more difficult to manufacture and required more metal. Basically, this means that a new recruit is most likely to start off with a spear. I simply cannot imagine what rationale would make it reasonable to allow swords to a level 1 warrior but not spears. I find it quite unlikely that Blizzard used a highly exacting simulation model to determine the damage and speed ratings of the weapons, which drove them to the conclusion that no spear or polearm would be balanced for a level 1 character. And it’s not even like it’s particularly rewarding to get a spear; they manufactured a sense of reward for those of us who want to go the spear route that wouldn’t otherwise have been there by holding them off for 20 levels.

I’m not sure whether the prohibition against headwear is more or less reasonable than that. Why can’t my level 1 character wear a hood or a goddamn hat? I’m not even saying I want to gain some big benefit from it. I’m willing to pay my hard-earned gold for a little optional aesthetic customization. The whole concept of putting a minimum level on powerful items is perfectly reasonable, because it prevents the potentially abusive practice of decking out your level 1 alternate character with endgame-level gear from your main. However, in a world full of magic where the external appearance of an item does not necessarily determine its functional qualities (i.e. how many points of armor, or how much damage per hit), there’s no game-balance reason to prevent low-level characters from wearing any sort of hats or, for that matter, pauldrons (often known in the game’s own terminology and the parlance of its players as “shoulders”).

The fact of the matter is that certain entire classes of objects – spears, hats, and shoulder armor – are prohibited to the lowest level characters, for no logical reason and in fact against logic. This was one of my first problems with WoW, but by no means a deal-breaker. It just contributes.

Honorable Paladin and Warrior of the Light, Leeroy Jenkins

This game takes itself seriously, to a degree. It has pretensions of telling an epic story about the battle between good and evil. The music that plays when you ride into Stormwind can give you chills, if you’re in the right state of mind. The problem is that, though the game takes itself seriously, the players wouldn’t be caught dead doing the same. As a D&D player, I imagine that I have some concept of what should be expected from the roleplaying of certain concepts. To name one example, I would emphatically say that if you don’t have a good concept of how to roleplay and you don’t plan on putting lots of effort into spoken interactions, you probably shouldn’t be playing a Paladin in D&D. The very concept of Paladins, with their dogmatically static alignment and code of conduct, begs for strong roleplaying. An orthodox Paladin should be expected to be the wet blanket when less pious characters decide they want to take liberties. Every once in a while, you may have a Paladin who flouts tradition, acting and speaking more roguishly while managing to maintain proper conduct. This is an effective trope when it’s done rarely and deliberately. If every Paladin is like this, it gets old very quickly, and you start to wonder what it means to be a holy warrior in the first place.

In contrast, your typical WoW Paladin did not choose that path because it would make for interesting roleplaying. Your typical WoW Paladin chose that path because they’re competent in melee and have substantial healing powers, making them versatile and easy to play, particularly solo. In D&D, the difference between the Fighter and the Paladin is mostly one of personality. They do essentially the same thing for the party, with significantly different aesthetics. In WoW, the difference between the Warrior and the Paladin is just a different power set. Paladins have no required code of conduct in WoW – how could they, without a Dungeon Master to mediate individuals? – so they have no reason to behave differently.

Why does this even matter? Well, I personally find it sad that a perfectly serviceable fantasy world is overlaid with a ridiculous army of loot-farming psychopaths with arbitrary diacritics in their names (which, in their defense, allow them to recycle unoriginal names without tagging the completely immersion-breaking numerals we usually see on usernames elsewhere). I wish Blizzard had had the foresight to know that their game would be ludicrously successful, so that they could dial down the aesthetics to a degree that would at least approximate the level of inanity that’s demonstrated by the players. Perhaps a consult with the writers of Munchkin d20 would have done them right.

Are You Really in That Much of a Hurry?

If you’ve ever looked at the chat window in WoW, especially in a city, you’ll notice that sometimes people abbreviate things. A lot. Stormwind is SW, which runs a substantial risk of being confused with the direction “southwest”, which has no small chance of being used, considering the extensive geography of the game. Ironforge becomes IF, which on numerous occasions has led me to assume somebody is inserting a rather emphatic conditional into their sentence for some odd reason. You may be familiar with the old “lfg” for “looking for group”, “lfm” for “looking for member”, I assume, and a whole bevy of abbreviations for various trade- and profession-based requests.

In this section, I find it necessary to bore you with linguistics. See, these abbreviations constitute a linguistic change in the dialect of WoW players. There is a widespread agreement that these abbreviations are appropriate and will be understood as the user intends them. I would question whether they’re justified, though. For instance, the greatest volume of chat that goes on is in cities, which is generally considered downtime, since there’s next to no questing done in cities. I would argue that the small amount of time saved by failing to type large chunks of words is only a small gain compared to the substantial cost of it. As I demonstrated above, it is very easy for the uninitiated to be confused by the dialectical changes among WoW players. Before I’d even played an MMO, I heard people speaking of “mobs”, pronounced as the Standard English word, and I assumed them to be talking about large bands of monsters, in accordance to my understanding of the word from prior experience. I later learned that a “mob” is in fact a single monster. Still later, I learned that, rather than having anything to do with the word “mob”, it was an abbreviation of the word “mobile” that dated back to text-based games.

Now, “mob” is an especially problematic word, and I’ll tell you why. No, you can’t get out of this. See, first of all, when people pronounce rather than type it, they generally do so in a way that, objectively, could be considered wrong. I say this because the word originated as a truncation of the word “mobile”, particularly its first syllable. In the context of that word, the pronunciation is “mowb”. Yet, when isolated, we pronounce it “mahb”, by analogy to the actual word of the same spelling and a different meaning. The larger part of the problem here is that it is extremely easy to confuse the WoW word “mob” with the English word “mob”, which have very different meanings; since WoW dialect is a subset of the English language, a newcomer will naturally have a difficult time telling which bits of player speech are WoW-specific and which would also occur in the English they already know.

The question here is whether the time saved by abbreviating – usually not a matter of character survival; if it were, I would forgive it – is a fair tradeoff for the alienation of newcomers. I say it’s not. The fact that I have to endure the obscene lag caused by a crowd of superpowerful yet idle heroes with their particle effects and epic mounts – not to mention their goddamn helmets and goddamn pauldrons – is alienating enough, without having to piece my way through a forest of dense abbreviations.

My Superpower is Unlimited Resurrection

If you’ve played WoW, especially solo, for any significant period of time, you’ve probably died. Quite a fair bit, I’d imagine. If you’re like me, you’ve probably used the death system to accomplish a quest. What do I mean by that? I’ll start by explaining the death system for the two of you left who haven’t played WoW. When you die, your ghost appears at the nearest cemetery, in front of a “Spirit Healer”. You’ve already taken damage to all your equipment equal to 10% of the max endurance for each piece. You now have a choice. Get resurrected by the Spirit Healer right there, take 25% more damage to your stuff, and suffer the debilitating resurrection sickness for 1 minute per level above 10 you’ve reached. Or, run off (albeit at a modestly faster rate than when you’re alive, but you still can’t fly) and find your body, at which point you’ll resurrect at that location (or close to it) with no further penalty, appearing with half your HP and (if you use it) mana. It’s usually the best idea to do the latter. By now you’ll realize that when I say “unlimited resurrection”, I do concede that you won’t be able to do it more than 10 times before you have to get your gear fixed up.

Like I said, I’ve used this death system in order to complete quests. There’s one particular quest, at the end of a chain in Loch Modan, where you have to kill three named troggs (troll-like monsters, whose name was probably pilfered from Tolkien’s “torog”). These troggs are in the back of a cave dungeon. I should be rather thankful that the death system allows me to resurrect right there in the cave, rather than forcing me to run the whole dungeon again, because they can be rather tedious (never mind that the irritatingly rapid respawn rate usually means you’ll have to fight your way back out just as hard as you fought your way in). Take a look at how I accomplished this task. Remember that I have to kill all three of them. Also remember that they’re huddled close together, so there’s no chance of fighting one without attracting the attention of (in game parlance, “pulling”) the others. This is a quest appropriate to my level. I shoot one of them, effectively pulling all of them, and start whacking away at the one. I manage to eventually bring one down, but by that time I’m critically wounded and I lack the ability to keep myself fighting or to escape, so my only choice is to die.

Now, remember also that no matter how badly wounded a monster is, once their current encounter is over, unless they’re dead, they snap back to full health and return to their hangout point. So nothing I can do short of killing one of the three will make a lasting impact. Even then, the impact won’t last terribly long; I’ll only have a few minutes before he’s back up. Sure, I won’t actually have to kill him again, but it will make it harder to take down the other two. So, after I killed the one, I died, and ghosted my way back to my body, where I resurrected close enough not to have a hike but far enough that they wouldn’t jump on me immediately. Once I was back in fighting shape, I repeated the process I started at the end of the last paragraph. I bring down the second. Still, I’m in no shape to bring down the third. I die again. Repeat. My quest is done. I probably died again while rushing out from the cave.

I hope you found something wrong with that. At their best, video games should allow their players to more or less emulate the kind of actions their supposed character would do. Most if not all of us want our games to play out as cinematic simulations of action or adventure stories. But look at what I had to do to accomplish this quest: I beat the troggs not by being a totally badass warrior; I beat them by having the ability to resurrect within a minute or so and come back for more. That’s got nothing to do with my character and everything to do with the game system. I was forced to abuse the game system in order to accomplish this quest. Goddamn, WoW, you made me metagame, and you know how much I hate metagaming.

You Can Do Anything, but You Probably Shouldn’t Do Most of It

Part of the charm of MMORPGs is the wide open sandbox. You’ve been provided with a world, and a number of brief story paths that are completely optional. You don’t actually have to quest at all, as it would be technically possible to grind your way through the monster-infested wilderness all the way to 80. But what truly irks me about WoW is that there are simultaneously so many options and so few good options.

My biggest problem, and the one that really sent me over the edge, is that I can’t play the game I want to play. I could try, sure, but it wouldn’t get me anywhere. A relatively early example was when I had it in mind to remove some of my warrior’s armor, a purely aesthetic choice that I knew would bring gameplay consequences. If I attempted to fight monsters and complete quests appropriate to my level, I would find myself getting damaged beyond normal tolerance levels. The only benefit was that I would save money on repairs – and, of course, I’d look more original, and isn’t that supposed to be part of the draw of MMO games? At that time I imagined an alternate reality where the game adjusted for my (by choice) inferior armor by supplying me with proportionately higher experience rewards, to reflect the greater self-imposed difficulty of what I was doing. The World Ends With You, a quirky JRPG for the DS, does that nicely: you can move a slider to level yourself down as far as level 1 or as high as your current actual level in order to get better material rewards from monsters in exchange for greater challenge. I know it would require some playtesting on the part of Blizzard, but it couldn’t be that difficult to have something of the sort.

It bugged me from the beginning that some classes were described as being “better” than others. To wit, Paladins and Hunters. I played a Warrior, a Rogue, a Priest, a Paladin, and a Hunter for significant periods (to levels 22, 13, 17, 20 and 20, respectively), and I can certainly say that I had easier times of it with those two. It really annoys me, both in computer games like this and tabletop games like D&D, when there are such obvious “best” choices; it makes me feel cheated by the game when I try to go a more original route and suffer for it. Even as I was playing my Warrior, I was consistently finding myself being pressured into choosing one build over another, and I was met with scorn when I expressed a desire to play a balanced character, who was decent at multiple roles. I was further confounded by the apparent necessity to follow very strict guidelines when playing in a group for the game’s earliest major instanced dungeon, the Deadmines. In retrospect, I can’t fault my other players for wanting something of me that I wasn’t giving; I must instead fault the game for making some courses of action so much better than others.

The quest structure, as well, annoys me consistently. Aside from the inanity of individual quests, which almost always amount to killing X number of monsters, gathering Y number of item by killing monsters, or something not too dissimilar from either, I take issue with the fact that, when following optimal practices, every character of a given race will do approximately the same set of quests. The limit of 25 quests at a time is far too generous to prevent a single character from accepting and completing every single quest in a given zone while it’s still remotely close to his level. This essentially means that every human character will be playing more or less the same game, but with a different set of powers. I think it would vastly improve the replay value of the game, as well as increase the individuality of characters (I’ve often observed a set of mail armor on other characters that I recognize very specifically as a sort of uniform, because it’s different from actually precedented medieval armor in the exact same way as mine was) to have mutually exclusive trees of quests, rather than the same old chains repeated ad infinitum nauseamque. If everybody is always doing the same quest chains, and the best gear always comes from quest rewards, then there’s a tendency for characters to look a lot alike if they’re questing in the same area.

When I was starting to have a rough time with my Priest (whose original D&D incarnation wielded a spear rather prominently, thankyouverymuch), I decided to take him to Dwarf territory in order to get him some lower-level quests, sort of a vacation to get him a level or two before he went back to the higher-level stuff. It’s surprising, really, how much of a threat monsters who are only slightly below the “appropriate challenge” threshold actually are in large groups. In that experiment, the reduction in experience reward was in fact too much to justify the small degree to which the tasks were easier at my level.

I think the thing that bugged me the most, though, was what the game actually is. A game can be defined by what’s challenging about it. Action games require you have quick reflexes and react in real time. Turn-based RPGs require you to manage your magic wisely and appropriately build your characters (and sometimes grind for experience) outside the battles. The challenge in WoW is aggro management. In groups, it means keeping the monsters focusing on a designated “tank” while the damage-dealers perform their eponymous role and the healer does likewise (for the tank, who should be absorbing all the hits, making the healer’s job simpler). In solo play, this means being pedantic about where and how you engage in combat. Especially if you’re adventuring on the knife edge of your capacity to best single monsters, your worst fear will be attracting (“adding” in game parlance) additional monsters before you’ve dealt with the first. It can be difficult to know beforehand how far two monsters have to be from each other before they’ll reliably pull separately. What’s more, some monster camps are so designed that you cannot possibly hope to achieve a necessary objective (the body of the guard being watched by murlocs in Elwynn comes to mind) without engaging two or more at the same time. And you have to be well above a monster in level before you can handle a whole gang of them at once; by that point, they’ll be worth crap for experience, if anything. As a side note, I was rather disappointed that, even given my Rogue’s hiding ability, I could not achieve these objectives without breaking my cover and having to fight whatever’s there, even if I was able to stealth my way through an entire dungeon to get there.

What’s It All Mean?

I like playing a game where being strategic is compatible with being heroic. In World of Warcraft, I’m afraid that attempting to roleplay a character in the context of the world and the tasks I’m given would result in great amounts of frustration and wasted time (if time spent on WoW is not considered wasted on principle). Quite simply, the game that I want to play isn’t there in WoW.

There’s a rather large body of theory about tabletop gaming that addresses three aspects: gaming, simulation, and roleplay. Gaming refers to the issues of balance, playability, and fun that make a game what it is. Simulation is all about creating an imaginary world that emulates a consistent if not realistic world. And roleplay has to do with storytelling and characterization. It is usually said that D&D as a system is almost exclusively gaming-based, but it doesn’t close any doors against roleplaying, and simulation is still possible to achieve with a little effort on the part of players and Dungeon Master. The fact that my level 1 character can’t wear so much as a hat makes the simulation aspect extremely hard to reconcile with WoW. And the fact that attempting to react to the environment in a character-appropriate way would result only in frustration makes it next to impossible to consider roleplaying in a way that’s meaningful to gameplay.

I’m sorry, WoW. It’s not you, it’s me. I’m sure there are 11 million other people who can accept you for who you are.

Appendix: What Changes that will Never Actually Happen would Make Me Want to Play Again?

1. Devise a system that scales experience rewards to the quality of your equipment. Some characters have the best possible gear for their class and level. Others don’t. That makes the same tasks easier or harder to complete; I’m just saying the experience should reflect that. I should be able to send my warrior unarmed and unarmored into monster-infested territory and still get an XP reward that’s appropriate to the actual difficulty.

2. Broaden the curve of experience rewards, at least downwards, so that I can make meaningful progress from an easier challenge.

3. Create a richer tree of quests that reflect multiple aspects about a character’s past, and that result in aesthetically different rewards.

4. Either reduce the aggro radius for monsters, or spread them out so their respective radii aren’t so damn close to each other.

5. If you’re going to give stealth abilities to Rogues, let them use them to bypass the most difficult fights in some circumstances (i.e. when the objective is to get something, not to kill something), not just the tedious series of easy fights on the way.

6. Make the rank-and-file fights in instances a little easier, so we have time to relax between big challenges. It’s fine if I have to manage aggro in a big important set-piece battle, but I don’t want to do it for every stinking minion along the way.

7. Tweak the difficulty so that characters die less often in areas appropriate to their level (which could go hand-in-hand with #2 above, if you’re making a broader range of foes “level-appropriate”), but it’s okay to proportionately increase the cost of dying. As it is, dying is too frequent and too cheap. If, say, it were made half as frequent and twice as expensive, I would consider it an improvement.

8. Give us level 1 spears, hats, and pauldrons.

9. Make advancement easier for solo players. The World of Warcraft is populated with millions of illiterate yokels and teenagers. Some of us still have the self-respect to not want to deal with them.

10. My progression, which is fantastic up to 10, slows to a crawl through the teens. Do something about it. I’m getting bored and seeking out bigger challenges only results in frustration.

11. Bring me 17 Mountainfang Gnoll vertebrae. They all have full spinal columns, but they’re so brittle they’re liable to crumble into dust during the fight, so you may only find one good one for every six you kill. Good luck with that.

12. While we’re at it, don’t think I haven’t noticed that every single proper noun is just two common nouns artlessly welded together. I’m on to you.

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