Three years ago I found I had a little more time on my hands than I had for the past five, and decided to get back to my gaming roots. Back in my high school days we had done lots of tabletop gaming, but had also jumped into the computer gaming pretty heavily with Wizardry and Ultima for the Apple II. College hit, and then work, and then things got really busy. Fast forward to 2009, and I log into World of Warcraft (or “WoW” as it is universally called) for the first time, and if I am not addicted, I am certainly damn intrigued.
In many ways, Warcraft is leaps and bounds ahead of the old games of even 10 years ago (although I might argue about Myst and Thief a bit). The landscapes are beautiful (albeit a bit cartoonish – really, just a style choice), the game plays smoothly and easily, there are a ton of things to do, and many, many ways to meet up with friends online. In fact, if there is one thing that I can say about Warcraft, it’s a fantastic way to meet up with friends who may be spread far across the country, and lots of ways to stay social within the context of the game.
So without further ado, here’s my list of what I have learned and what I love about Warcraft, and see as a possibility for the growth in games in general. Next time, we’ll talk about the things I’m not so enchanted with.
Azeroth is Big — and Beautiful
Graphics have come a long way in games, and even with WoW’s 11-year old engine, the visuals still impress. Entering Warcraft’s Azeroth, and certain “zones” (themed landscapes within the 3 major continents), can force you to stand back in awe and look around. As a new player, entering The Great Forge in Ironforge, or the subtle spookiness of Darkshire, or the rustic majesty of the Howling Fjord is something you remember far into the game. While I can’t say that these visuals are the very best in gaming (see Skyrim for that), they are still beautiful.
The size of the world and the variety of “things to do” allow you to pretty much play any way you like. Wanna go questing? Lots of folk will hand out jobs for you. Feel like taking it easy and working on your fishing skill? – sure, it’s easy to find a scenic stream and kick back. The auction house is there for those wanting to work the economy (and their bank account). And those are just a few of the downtime activities – dungeons, battlegrounds, raids and arenas are all more intense activities that require teaming up.
Playing Warcraft Together is Much More Fun Than Playing it Alone
The number one reason for playing Warcraft is that there are a TON of other people playing it – 10 million at last count, and although some subscribers have left, that’s heads and shoulders above every other online multi-player game. There’s a good chance your boss or a co-worker secretly plays a little Warcraft in his or her off hours. When you first log in, you are given a little background on the situation in your homeland, and immediately handed a number of quests to complete — clearing out some creatures that have taken over a local mine, in my case. At this point, you could very easily be off to the races playing solo – quests are plentiful in the game, and are the way to progress when friends are not available. Little help screens pop up now and then to introduce a new concept – moving around and aiming at things, using your spells and abilities, visiting the local vendors. I was lucky enough to have my brother arrive with his new character and show me the ropes, and soon enough we had progressed 10 levels in short order.
For new players, quests are great. You set off on a tour of the world enjoying the sights, get to understand the mechanics, challenge yourself with some fairly easy goals, and learn a bit of the world’s background story. However, most questing is done solo – players who have been at the game for a while have seen all this before, and so for them it’s a bit old. The real action is in the battlegrounds and arenas (player-vs-player or PvP), and in dungeons and raids, wherein a team of players gets together to overcome more challenging obstacles.
For most people, the team-play is the single most important reason for playing an MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) game in the first place. If we wanted solo play, we’d just be playing a “shooter” or a solo console game. So battlegrounds and areas are a great place to team up and defeat the other guys; it’s the challenge of defeating characters with a real person behind them. These range from capture-the-flag type scenarios to full-out storm-the-castle encounters. Arenas are small-group challenges set in a smaller space usually with a single goal – some kind of loot — for the winners.
PvP is for the most competitive types of players, but Dungeons and Raids are for those who love the teamwork aspect of the game as well. Dungeons are for smaller groups – usually 5, while Raids are more epic affairs, requiring 10- or 25-man groups and LOTS of coordination. Typically, a series of quests will eventually lead to a dungeon or raid at some point, at which point you’ll need to “group up” in order to overcome the bad guys. These bad guys can be divided up into “trash,” groups of servant-level bad guys that are usually overcome more easily, and “bosses” who are much more powerful, and sport special abilities or spells that make them much more difficult to defeat.
And this is where the game really shines. Solo content is fine as filler, but it can become boring and even lonely as you trudge along encountering and dealing with the pre-scripted speeches, written text quests, and robotic wandering monsters. Once you enter a battleground or dungeon, you are suddenly thrown into an environment with lots of real people, and you realize how much more interesting they are. WoW provides a simple instant messaging area where folks can type in messages to the rest of the team, but especially with larger groups, a voice communication service such as Ventrilo becomes important if not mandatory. The dungeon content is always more interesting and dynamic than the questing content, and each dungeon has its own flavor, theme and strategy required. There’s a lot of fun in bantering back and forth with your cohorts as you make your way through the dungeon passages, and a real sense of accomplishment when you defeat the final big baddie, especially if your group has “wiped” (all team members killed) a few times before doing so. If the dungeon was especially memorable, it can end up being a topic of conversation over beers the next time you’re out with your buddies.
Guilds are a way to group with regular gaming buddies, and there are many here to fit various gaming styles. Often a guild will pick a particular focus – be it running large group raids, roleplaying, casual group questing, or all of the above. Joining a guild is easy – often players will be invited as they are traveling through the major cities – it pays to wait, however and take a look at what the guild is all about before joining up. You’ll want to be sure your guild matches your play style. Creating your own guild is considerably harder – you’ll need to go around and petition for enough signatures before you are allowed to create one, and managing a guild – especially a large one – can almost be a full-time job. Our small guild games regularly, and we do a minimum of maintenance. Larger guilds, however, have the advantage of numbers, and can more easily muster the number of players to take on a large or difficult raid. Again, be sure you want to commit to a the management tasks of a guild before starting your own, and decide early on whether you want to be casual or goal-oriented in your guild life. As with all groups of people, politics and drama are present in guilds a well, so taking the time to understand how you prefer to group up before doing so, will make WoW grouping a lot more fun.
Friendships Made Online Are Real
For all the talk about WoW being virtual, it’s really just as much a social medium as Facebook or Twitter, with the added feature of shared experience. Folks who have never met in real life finally do at conventions, and some of these friendships stay solid for years – some even develop into marriage. I think the popularity of MMOs says something profound about our need to connect and share stories, but I will even say that there’s something different about an MMO friendship and a Facebook “friendship.” While Facebook is a way to stay connected with old friends, or to send updates on what’s new in your life, MMOs are shared experiences that are more intimate, even though they are in the context of a fantasy setting. You can learn a lot about a person by the way they behave in one of these worlds – petty grievances, arrogance and selfishness become very apparent, just as generosity, teamwork and kindness do, and your experience of the game will very much reflect how you interact with the “toons” (in-game characters) around you.
One mention should be made here about the different “realms” (a.k.a. “server”) you can choose for your characters. “PvE” or Player-vs-Environment realms do not allow players to fight (and kill) each other, except within certain structured settings – a duel, battleground or arena. “PvP” environments allow player-vs-player fighting anywhere in the world, and are much more stressful or invigorating, depending on your point of view. “RP” or roleplaying realms are for the players who like to remain “in-character,” and avoid modern day lingo or “gamespeak.” In practice, very few players roleplay their character, but it’s interesting to see the people using medieval language in the trade channel. As an old roleplayer, this is something that I miss, but I’ll talk more about that later.
The trade channels are the initial way folks communicate with each other in-game. This is basically a built-in instance messaging system that allows you to type in your message publicly or privately depending on who you are “talking” to. Once you start doing dungeons or raids where the action can be very quick-paced (and taking the time to type over chat can be the difference between in-game life and death), many players switch over to a voice-over IP service (VOIP) such as Ventrilo so that they can speak to each other over headsets and microphones. The banter over Ventrilo can be hilarious, and is actually one of the most fun aspects of the game. Here’s the heart of social play, and the game really becomes better once you start using voice.
Which brings me to my last best learning in playing an MMORPG. The social aspect of the game is what really makes Warcraft, and any other multi-layer game for that matter, worth playing. While solo play is fun in short spurts, it just can’t sustain prolonged playing. Those stories of the anti-social gamer might be true, but it would most apply to those who have decided to play the game in a vacuum, simply doing solo quests, and never grouping up with friends. In the end, it’s up to the player to decide how to interact with the world, and perhaps this is an irony that is lost on those who seek to escape from the “real world.” No matter where you go, you still need a community, you need family, you need friends; it’s just as true in the virtual world, and as one straddles that with the real world, the most fun will be had by those who keep that in mind.