The immortal phrase “how hath the mighty fallen” came to mind within my first hours attempting to return to my once (and arguably still) favorite game of all time. World of Warcraft.
I used to be a WoW addict. In the sense of the definition of an “addict,” I would frequently log in on my days off of work at 4am and play all day well into the evening, occasionally kipping away to have a walk with my former SO or to grab a snack. On work days, I frequently fantasized about the game and occasionally even had a pocket notebook where I would jot down little intentions or plans to most efficiently play — especially when I was grinding out a reputation such as the Furbolgs of Felwood or the Mag’Har (yeah, I’m dating myself). As soon as I’d get home, many days I would sit and play in my work uniform.
I did this for years.
I had begun playing around the end of Burning Crusade, and very immediately had a full-blown addiction to WoW, skipping meals and occasional family get togethers to play. The positive offshoot of this addiction was that it was so great that it helped me starve off the dozens of terrible friendships I had formed in my young adult years and even helped me overcome my 3-pack-a-day smoking problem (at one job, my nickname was actually “Smokestack” due to my continuous chain of cigarettes — I listened to a great deal of HIM and Lamb of God as a young, impressionable man which arguably led to me picking up the habit).
By the beginning of 2014 as the Mists of Pandaria expansion began winding down, I was faced with some harsh realities:
- My desktop was quite old and frequently slugged along through MoP. I did not have the financial ability to upgrade at this stage of my life.
- I was about to begin my Bachelor’s degree and my management jobs were growing more pronounced. My professors placed me into Master’s level courses working with them in small group settings. These were advanced and mentally demanding.
- But most of all I was just tired of the direction the game was going in.
I had initially been incredibly overwhelmed (in a good way) by the vastness and breadth of WoW. There were zones that were non-linear to leveling meaning that I would frequently spend hours scouring Azeroth for the next area to level. The stats were often ambiguous and many. The concept of you being an adventurer crossing paths with myriad NPCs who sent you on a variety of quests that garnered your character more competence and skill (read “experience points” and “levels” and “skill points”) was appealing, most of all. You genuinely felt like the arduous and frequently tedious grind to the level cap was almost like reading a series of short stories about a singular character — a hapless hero on a long road to great things and all the denizens of the world they encounter along the way who sent them on adventures.
And I absolutely adored both the complexity of the game, itself, as well as the format it was presented in.
As the game developed over the years, however, three big things happened that struck me. Upon returning, I couldn’t help notice they became even more pronounced:
Firstly, the “dumbing down” of it . Removing stats. “Smoothing” of the level experience to be more directed (no more willy-nilly trying to piece together a few quests here, a few there, and hunting around). Further incorporation of almost perversely forced group play through raid finders and expansion on the original dungeon finder.
Second, the “plot” of the game began making the player character less central and feel more as if they were a player in the world of heroes instead of being a hero-in-the-making to join their ranks.
Thirdly, and for me, arguably what was the single largest reason the game had began going downhill: imbalance between the leveling experience and the endgame experience.
When I downloaded the latest version of WoW this last week, I told myself I needed to be open-minded but also be prepared to not enjoy myself. I knew when I had resigned back at the end of MoP that Blizzard had obviously decided that they wanted to emphasize the endgame (number 3, above), make the game more “insta-accessible” (number 1), and drive the story (kind of 2, though upon reading the TL;DR versions of what I missed over the years, I felt more disappointed at the number of Deus Ex Machina style stories I found).
To use the frequently over-quoted Illidan — I was not prepared.
I promptly made a new character, wanting to experience the new 1–60 format they revisited. After toying around with (and marveling at) the new character models, races, classes and features, I decided I’d do a half-and-half of familiar and unfamiliar and made a Blood Elf Rogue. I had mained a Blood Elf Warlock literally from 2008 when WotLK released until the day I resigned, so coming back to them felt natural. However, I had never been particularly good at the melee classes and always wanted to try the Rogue, it having been one of the only classes I never had been able to historically get past about level 25.
I had to immediately spend about 30 tedious and frustrating minutes redoing all my settings, action bars, and keybindings. A good portion of it was also trying to get acclimated to the UI changes (why did they decide to put the bag slot/tray in the absolute lowest possible corner?) and the new menus. I was somewhat relieved to see that I still had my long list of titles (“The Beloved” was what I chose as a former reputation geek) and my 100+ mounts (Al’ar and Fiery Warhorse, both attained before they were likely fully farmable, were quickly placed into their slots for use).
Upon finally feeling like the layout was somewhat resembling what I remembered, I set to the quests and very rapidly was disheartened to realize a majority of the enemies scaled with my character making much of the entire experience of leveling less of a challenge and more an exercise in trivial grinding. Initially I thought “well, perhaps this is part of the new format of the starting zones,” remembering that they were essentially the only areas in the entire games where all enemies had yellow bars in the first place.
I was incorrect.
I quickly discovered what seemed to be a majority of zones had a similar scaling feature. I also was a bit perturbed to find most of the “classic” zones of the Eastern Kingdoms/Kalimdor were still utilizing the Cataclysm quests. It had bothered me how many of the quests released during Cataclysm felt like they were written with an attempt to be humorous. A few comical ones peppered throughout the game are essential, sure, but in Cataclysm (a literal sundering of their world) suddenly many NPCs had silly and often bizarre quests for my character.
I spent a bit over an hour to reach 10. Along the way I appreciated not having to return to a trainer each level or two to learn a new spell (at times for a brand new player, the costs of spells used to be truly exhausting, but it was all part of the experience). However, at 10 when I had to choose which path I’d take and then subsequently realized the other abilities would essentially be off limits, it seemed to be the point where I came to the recognition all gamers dread — the point you realize you are no longer enjoying yourself.
I continued playing for some time, achieving a higher level and experiencing time-walking through some of the content I had missed, but the thought that loomed in my mind was — as I opened this article — “My God; this game has (continued to) changed for the worse.”
A few days have passed and I admit I have returned to playing on my favorite WotLK private server (where I will chuckle and admit I have accumulated about 50+ days played spanning over a few years), but I’ve spent this time to grow a more mature thought about the Retail WoW experience.
It simply is no longer my cup of tea. My.
The game didn’t necessarily get worse but simply changed its form. WoW still boasts a huge population (albeit perhaps not as large as it did in the heyday of Wrath or Cataclysm), has a width and breadth of lore and immersion probably not enjoyed many places else in the gaming community, and is still pretty good game, overall.
Circling back on my commentary on why I, personally, believe WoW ended up in its current state (which arguably was what pushed much of the most veteran members to scream “Bring back Vanilla!” and some of them to move to private servers — there are dozens of densely populated ones where players will stay for literal years frozen in one specific expansion to perfect content):
The game lost the balance of the immersion of the leveling experience and the endgame experience.
In so many words, what was once 50% leveling your character and immersion in the lore of the world and 50% conquering the biggest/baddest in the endgame devolved into 10% get your character as quickly as possible to cap and 90% focusing on the endgame.
For many players this probably works just fine, but I would argue that it does so at the cost of the poetry and artistry that is the entire world the developers have crafted. They spend thousands of hours writing dialogues, short backstories, and quests for the player to be immersed into which slowly develops their character into the most formidable form of themselves — into a hero. All these quests were peppered across a vast and beautiful world full of factions and lore which we could experience. Experience is the word, here, to pay attention to. You had an experience leveling through it.
Then, something happened. Something happened and WoW suddenly lost that half of its soul. It had essentially boiled down to a numbers game. “How quickly can I get this character to level cap, through the soft gear cap and then raiding/arena-ing?” And from there, it just becomes an increasingly tedious game of min-maxing across multiple characters.
For the record, the “something” that happened was the addition of Bind on Account Heirloom gear which did two things for a player.
1. Made them able to largely solo the majority of content through to cap.
2. Gave them a good taste of leveling up to max faster (which is compounded by one).
When Blizz added BoAs, the race-to-cap snowballed, so they added more BoA gear, guild bonuses, and eventually overhauls to the leveling grind as a whole making it trivial to the point it totally lacks any real challenge for most players.
Do I still enjoy WoW? 100%. I definitely will continue to enjoy casually playing on my old Wrath servers, as for me that was the peak of the game for balance, and for me is what I loved, and I’m positive that millions of other players will continue to enjoy WoW in its current iteration. While I lament that I cannot come back to the Retail edition as it, well, just doesn’t do “it” for me — at all — I must recognize the impermanence of all things. Even one of the greatest games, ever.