World of Warcraft is Blizzard Entertainment's entry into the insanely lucrative Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game market. Offering players the ability to choose among 13 races from two different, perpetually warring factions and exploration of an enormous and diverse world, World of Warcraft peaked at 12 million subscribing users, each one paying a recurring fee of about US$14 per month. Originally released in 2004, the game has gone through four major revisions since then, adding new territory and new playable races, updating the expansive storyline and mythology, and occasionally restructuring the world map. Minor revisions are also frequent, addressing issues with balance and fun, but because the game changes so often, there's a lot of obsolete and incorrect information floating around, even on the major sites like WoW Wiki and WowHead.
And I'll tell you what, if you're looking for a way to kill massive amounts of time, this is the way to do it.
After EverQuest was launched in 1999, it quickly earned the nickname EverCrack, referencing the addictive quality of the game. Media reports were filled with stories about people skipping school and work to play, greatly affecting their quality of life and productivity. I swore at the time that I would never subscribe to an MMORPG. As other games were released to increasing subscriber levels and increasing media attention, up to and including parents neglecting their children's care, I counted myself lucky that I hadn't gotten started.
Then I cut off part of my thumb with a utility knife. Oh, the pain, the pain... for days it was almost impossible to concentrate on anything else. My left thumb was almost useless, restricting my options for distraction. I really needed something to burn through the hours while my thumb healed, and anything to keep my mind off of it was welcome.
I vowed 12 years ago never to subscribe to an MMORPG, but World of Warcraft is now free to play, up to level 20. You see, the first hit is always free, then they start charging you after you're hooked. Less scrupulous purveyors of affordable entertainment have known this since time immemorial. Hoping to turn the notorious time sink to my advantage, I downloaded the trial version and started up a Troll Warlock.
I immediately discovered how addictive these games can be. You see, the trick to MMORPGs is that you've always got something to do — there's always some goal to reach, or some skill to level up, or some achievement badge to earn, or some storyline to run through. Individually, each of these tasks will take less than half a hour, but they pile up quickly, encouraging you to grind through them one at a time until they're done. But it's never done, oh no, when you finish one quest you're usually either given another, or told to go to another part of the map to find another city with tasks that need to be accomplished, only in need of a lone hero to face the challenge.
World of Warcraft builds on the storyline from Blizzard's Warcraft franchise, starting from Warcraft: Orcs and Humans back in 1994. A relatively simple Real-Time Strategy game compared to modern installments, Orcs and Humans had a relatively simple plot, more of an excuse than anything else, driving the conflict forward. It was a hit, and spawned the sequel Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness and its expansion Beyond the Dark Portal, detailing what happened after the Orcs won the first game and the Humans rallied for a counter-attack with their elf and dwarf allies against the new Orc allies, the trolls and ogres. Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos and its expansion The Frozen Throne massively expanded the mythology of the Warcraft universe, making the Orcs a more sympathetic race in the process, victimized and persecuted by past mistakes and demonic corruption.
It's clear that Blizzard had none of the current background and storyline planned out from Orcs and Humans, the plot was built piecemeal as necessary to advance and expand the games. However, they did manage to put together a cohesive narrative and detailed cosmology to glue together all of the various elements they added over the years with a minimum of retcons and contradiction. The result is a complex and detailed history about a mad titan who seeks to destroy the very universe he helped create and the critical role the world of Azeroth plays in his Burning Crusade to destroy creation. Each of the races has a background explaining their motivations and the conflict between the two factions.
And each of the 13 races in the game (six Orcish Horde, six Human Alliance, and one "neutral" race that can join either faction) plays through their own separate section of the storyline as a sort of training ground to learn the game. How far this goes varies from race to race, most of them can easily take you past level 20 before joining the generic faction storyline, but others such as the gnome storyline only last a handful of levels before joining up with the dwarf plot, and the worgen similarly join up with the night elves. Although there's little reason to continue along with the plot you're "supposed" to, joining up with (for example) the draenei plot is a bit awkward as the storyline assumes you are a draenei and have been through their introductory quests. You could spend weeks playing the game just to play through the various plotlines and learn what each race hopes to achieve.
The real push for addiction, though, is the quest system. After the opening narration for your race, the first thing that happens is that you're given a simple quest. Upon completion, you're given another one, and then another. At some point you'll notice that another character close by will also want to give you a quest, and this is where the game sinks its claws in.
The overwhelming majority of quests are of the "go over there and kill X of these mobs" variety (sometimes disguised as "get me X of these items", for which you will need to kill at least X mobs to collect since drop rates are usually less than 100%), but often a second character will add "say, as long as you'll be in the area, could you do this for me?", netting you extra experience, items and gold. Sometimes you can have three or four quests that all take place in the same area, with different people asking you to kill mobs, loot items, gather hidden treasures, and perform some generic "action" on a terrain feature (whether it's re-activating a long dormant crystal, burning a mummy, turning a valve, or poisoning food stores, it's all the same thing — your mouse cursor turns into a yellow gear, you click on the item, and after a second or two you are informed of success). This can easily make you feel like you're saving time, rather than just frivolously wasting it away more efficiently. Tip: Always accept all available quests immediately or you'll find yourself going back to areas you already explored and fought through again (especially quests from items you picked up or looted).
Once you've cleared the quests from one area, you're pointed to the next area to go do the higher-level quests over there. You are never left wondering what you're supposed to do next or how to go about it, it's always clearly spelled out for you. Your map will even display the general locations you need to go to in order to look for hidden things. You're rarely lost or confused and in a near-constant state of accomplishment and reward.
Travel time is a huge consideration. Up to level 20, you'll get most places you need to go by walking, and it takes considerable time to get from one location to another. Exploring the map will take even longer. In addition, if you get off the main roads, wandering monsters must be avoided or fought through, increasing your travel time. To get from one major city or region to another, however, flying beasts can be hired at surprisingly reasonable prices to transport you around quickly, but they only travel between general areas, not to specific quest locations.
At level 20, you can learn how to ride animals such as horses or dinosaurs, cutting your travel time considerably and keeping you largely safe from wandering monsters (although some races and classes such as worgen and druids have other, earlier options). This is conveniently the free trial level cap, giving you a taste of exploration of the expansive world while keeping you too low-level to actually experience most of it. Even later in the game, you can learn to ride flying mounts, which not only keep you completely safe from wandering monsters, but also fly right over terrain you would otherwise have to go around.
An optional mechanic in World of Warcraft is learning professions. Although not necessary by any means, each one provides a unique benefit to your character. Each character can select two of the eleven primary professions in addition to learning the four secondary professions. Each profession is leveled up by practicing it, for example the First Aid profession is leveled up by taking linen cloths looted from enemies you defeated and making bandages from them, which you can use to heal your character. At higher skill levels, the basic skills eventually stop giving you skill points for practicing them and you move up to learning and practicing more advanced and useful skills, for example creating antivenin from venom sacks looted from slain scorpions.
The primary skills come in two broad categories, gathering and production, and most characters put a compatible pair together. For example, Herbalism pairs with Alchemy or Inscription by allowing your character to gather the herbs necessary to produce the reagents or inks used in those professions. Otherwise you need to buy the ingredients gathered by other players at an auction house, which can be expensive and have an unreliable supply (on the other hand, a small fortune can be made selling gathered materials to relatively wealthy, high-level players looking to level up their profession skills).
Building up skill points in your professions takes lots of time. Gathering the materials requires finding them around the map or killing and looting mobs for them, both of which eat the minutes away. Even the Fishing profession, which requires nothing more than a pole and a body of water, takes up to twenty seconds for each cast, meaning an investment of 15 minutes just to reach the second skill level (and the time investment goes up from there). For the other professions, most of the gathering can be done as a distraction while working on other quests, although you may find yourself slaughtering low-level mobs indiscriminately when you just just a little more boar meat or linen cloth to level up your profession.
One quick tip I should mention, some of the nicer production profession recipes in Blacksmithing, Tailoring, and Engineering require light leather, which their associated gathering professions do not provide. This can be very difficult for low-level players to obtain, so if you want to make those recipes I suggest starting out with the Skinning and Leatherworking professions. This will allow you to collect 5-10 light leather (more would be overkill) very quickly, at which point you could unlearn those professions and learn the ones you actually wanted.
Addiction: Raids and Instance Dungeons
When you need a break from single-player quests, multi-player instance dungeons and raid groups offer non-stop action and teamwork to get through a gauntlet of enemies and mini-bosses to defeat some powerful boss at the end. A tool built in to World of Warcraft allows you to get in line to collect a group of people to run through your choice of dungeons, with anywhere from five (for instance dungeons) to forty (for the larger raid groups) players cooperating.
The basic strategy is for a player known as the "tank" to attract all the attention and get the mobs pounding on him to the exclusion of the other team members, while the "healer" keeps him from dying and the "DPS" (damage per second) players do the majority of the killing while trying not to "draw aggro" (attract the mob's aggression) away from the tank. This is done with a series of carefully controlled "pulls" (attracting the attention of a small group of mobs without attracting other, nearby mobs to join the battle and overwhelm the team through numbers). If any player fails to perform his function properly, it can result in a "wipe" (getting the entire team killed).
Raids provide some of the best rewards in the game in terms of experience, items, and gold. A typical five-man instance dungeon uses one tank, one healer, and three DPS, while raids use larger groups made of up to 8 five-man teams.
Another quick tip, for some reason the DPS role is by far the most popular for players although I find it the least interesting — the sole strategy being to maximize your damage output without drawing aggro off the tank. This means that healers and tanks have much shorter wait times in the dungeon finder queue, because the DPS players are usually waiting on them to join. While healing can be kind of fun, it's largely a matter of managing your mana while trying to keep the team healed efficiently — you're mainly watching green bars go down and making them go back up again while trying to stand well clear of the action. The tank role is the most interesting, always at the center of the action and responsible for keeping the rest of the group safe, although when things go wrong the tank absorbs the bulk of the blame (fairly or not).
Remember how much fun you had and how many hours you spent catching 'em all? With the Mists of Pandaria expansion, you can now play Pokémon in World of Warcraft with the Battle Pet system. Unfortunately, Pokécraft is not available to the trial accounts, so I can only say that based on the YouTube videos, it's pretty much what it sounds like.
Gold is the basic unit of currency in World of Warcraft, being worth 100 silver, which is in turn worth 100 copper. The free trial version limits players to 10 gold, which a player will probably approach around the time they reach the free trial level cap of 20. There are many, many ways to earn gold, including running quests, looting enemies, and creating items to sell or auction with your professions. Unlike many similar games, World of Warcraft does not allow players to buy gold with real-world money.
In order to buy increasingly powerful armor, weapons, and bonus items, a player needs a constant influx of gold. The way Blizzard Entertainment wants this to occur is for the player to play the game — completing quests, running dungeon raids, and selling or auctioning items you can make. This takes a long time, though, and some players have found alternatives.
The practice of "gold farming" involves giving your account password to someone else, usually in a country with low labor costs but a good computer infrastructure such as China, so he can play the game for you, grinding through hours of repetitive, high-profit gameplay to earn gold for you in exchange for real-world money. Alternately, you can purchase powerful items on real-world auction sites (as opposed to World of Warcraft's in-game auction system) such as eBay for real money. Both of these practices are against Blizzard's license agreement and Blizzard may take action against your account for it.
So the game is fun and addicting, why not buy a subscription and keep playing?
Well, it's fun and addicting because it's shamelessly manipulative, keeping my brain in a constant, low-level reward state by giving me a series of simple tasks that can, individually, be completed quickly. I'm very much aware of how carefully calculated and exploitative the game is at every moment, and I'm torn between the shame of falling for it and the pleasure of falling for it.
Still, there are a few things that do bother me about the game that aren't quite right.
Challenge: For the first 20 levels at least, the game is carefully tailored to provide a low level of challenge at all times, and there's a very fine line between challenging and impossible. Everything in the game has an experience level rating, and you generally can't defeat anything more than two or three levels above your character's level, at least not alone. As long as you follow the quests in the order provided, you're generally slaughtering your way through a series of enemies that, individually, pose no real threat to you. Your character heals all damage taken and regenerates all mana in between fights, so each fight is its own self-contained moment with no consequences extending to the next one. The challenge is learning how to pull mobs into single combat with you without letting them gang up — in many cases even two mobs can overwhelm and kill your character unless you have some kind of crowd control ability that allows you to run away.
Death: On those rare occasions when mobs manage to gang up on you, death is almost meaningless. Your ghost shows up at the nearest graveyard and an arrow on your mini-map points you directly toward your corpse so you can resurrect and continue your quest. You lose nothing except 10% of your equipment durability; not the items you've collected, not your gold, and barely any time, just the travel time to go find your corpse. While the durability penalty for death is much higher than ordinary combat, you still need to die several times before repairs become mandatory, and even then only if you aren't replacing it with better armor anyway. While this does keep the game from ever giving you a sense of failure or disappointment, it also affects the thrill of avoiding any possible setbacks, since the consequences for failure are few and minor.
I never feel powerful: My first role-playing game was the original Final Fantasy. A few hours into the game, if you have a red or black mage in your party, you can learn your first multi-target spell, FIR2, which can obliterate entire groups of enemies at once. Suddenly, those packs of six to nine wolves that had been causing so much frustration could be wiped out with one impressive attack. It made you feel powerful for the first time in the game. World of Warcraft doesn't have a moment like that, instead focusing on a steady level increase over the hours. Sure, you get more abilities and spells as you go, but there isn't a specific moment you can point to and say "This, here, is where I started to feel powerful", no spell that removed an annoyance that had been causing you problems up until that point. The closest the game comes to this is giving you the ability to ride a mount at level 20, decreasing travel time and allowing you to run past most wandering enemies.
I don't feel useful: Of course, being a massive multiplayer game, completing a quest can't actually change anything. The next player who comes along also needs to be able to complete that quest. Kill a boss monster, and he respawns in a few minutes. Slaughter a village of enemies, and they come back. Rescue a captured ally, and he's back in the cage the next time you look. There's no permanence to your actions and anything you do is undone in minutes. You're expected to move on to the next series of quests and never look back to say "That wasn't like that when I got here, I made that better."
Multiplayer gets in the way of solo questing: The multiplayer aspect of World of Warcraft just gets in the way during solo quests. At least up to level 20, where the free trial ends, all the quests can be completed alone. You can, but don't need to, team up with real-world friends or on-line members of your guild to run through them more quickly or at a lower level, but for the most part all the other players do is get in your way. If you get to a dungeon, cave, or mine a few minutes after another player has just gotten there, you might walk through finding a string of corpses instead of the enemies you expected to fight. While this doesn't sound bad, remember that the enemies respawn after a while so the next player can fight them. This might happen while you're right in the middle of them all. Boss characters have to respawn quickly to give everyone a chance to kill them, leading to an odd sort of immersion-breaking queue of players waiting their turn (the game mechanics do make kill-stealing impossible, though). Another player running a collection quest next to you might grab the items you need, forcing you to wait for the items to respawn. You don't really get anything in return for these annoyances. The MM part of the MMORPG only comes into effect with the auction house, battle pets, player versus player fights, dungeon raids, and battlegrounds — and while it works very well for them, all of these thing are outside of the quest system.
Repetitiveness: This game is incredibly repetitive. Nearly all the quests are slight variations on "go there and kill X mobs" (the developers being well aware of it, as the game contains several in-jokes and references to the "twenty bear asses" meme). The combat itself is almost the same every time, changing only when new abilities are gained on your way up the experience levels. Although every race and every class, even priest and warrior, can fight its way equally well through the quest system, the way each class will do so is the same slog. Buff yourself, pull a mob, debuff the mob, kill the mob — all done with the same five or six buttons in the same order every time. All the variety is in the racial storylines, class abilities, and profession activities and bonuses.
Quitting is hard. There's that one last quest in your quest log you haven't finished yet, that achievement you've almost earned, that next dungeon you haven't raided yet, or another skill level to learn in your profession if you just had a few more raw materials. I've almost finished exploring this territory, what does the next one over look like? Maybe I want to try being a healer today instead of a tank, see what that's like. I haven't tried PvP yet, there's this new Battlegrounds system for massive player armies to fight over territory, that sounds fun. What exactly is the deal with Murlocs, anyway?
There's just so much to do in this game, and Blizzard is adding new features regularly.
Maybe just one more dungeon.