December 27th, 2012
Author: James Connor
The massively-multiplayer online (MMO) genre has been a staple of PC gaming for many years, with many different takes on the genre coming and going. Prime among these has been World of Warcraft (WoW), which skyrocketed to worldwide popularity in 2004. Now in its 8th year, it charts new ground with the release of Mists of Pandaria. While reception has been favorable to this new offering, there always exists a section of players that feel that the best days are long behind them. Some will say the game has been made far too casual or that the original WoW was and always will be the best it ever had to offer. With each expansion, are we witnessing the slow death of greatness?
To understand this, let's take a look back at what WoW used to be, and what it is today. When WoW first came out, it changed the game completely in the MMO scene. Before WoW, an MMO's idea of content was making you grind mobs until you realized what you were really grinding was your soul. It introduced fluid questing, and put the fun back into the genre. I have very fond memories of these days, but I wouldn't go so far as to say they were my best in the game. During these times, my class didn't even make sense: as a Balance spec (magic DPS) Druid, there was little for me to even do that meant anything. Raids required 40 well-organized people to spend hours fighting away at difficult content for the chance to then fight your raid group over who got rewarded and how. There was no encouragement at the time to play as one of the different specs your class had to offer, it just didn't work.
Some look back on this time though, as the moment WoW was a real challenge. When you get right down to it, the real challenge was getting that many people to be dedicated and loyal to do the work they had to do. Received all of your gear from a specific tier of raiding? Great, now keep doing it for three more months while the rest of us gear up too. That was the reality for most, and it often didn't work out too well. Many would simply get the gear they needed, then dump that guild for one that was progressing through the next level of content. This created scenarios where guilds would never get past the first tier of raiding back then. I saw it tear many guilds apart, as it was very difficult to keep that many people in line for little reward.
I don't miss 40 man raids personally, as they always felt like a mess to me. I was fine with it at the time, because that's what there was. If you didn't like it then there wasn't much reason to keep playing. Even regular five-man grouping had its difficulties, as getting a group together would sometimes involve long waits, scraping together a group of people from general chat to attempt them. Of course, if you had people in your guild to do these with, it wasn't that bad getting a group together, though not without issue.
What I do miss from these days is the scope of what Blizzard tried to accomplish with some aspects of the game. We will never get an event like the opening on Ahn 'Qiraj, which involved an entire server banding together to supply a war effort, and guilds globetrotting and completing legendary quests so that one of their members could have the honor and reward of opening the gates. I remember waiting on my server at 3AM for a gnome to hit a gong. I'm sure that sounds rather boring, but at the time it was amazing, and WoW will never have experiences like that again.
As the game progressed, systems were changed to address certain issues the player base had with raiding, progression and overall scope of content. Raids were reduced to 25 people, and 10 man raids were introduced to a few areas. To some this signaled the beginning of the end for raiding in WoW. Gone were the days when 40 people marched forward to ultimate victory. Some felt like their accomplishments were being diminished, or that raid completion is only earned by the best. The fact was though, that only about 1% of the player base even got to see some of the higher-end content in the original WoW. Limiting access to that content because it should be "earned" wasn't benefitting anyone, but the most elite of the elite. What good was great content if nobody could access it? Changes had to be made, and they would continue to be made as the game grew.
With Wrath of the Lich King, all raids were given two versions to allow guilds of all shapes and sizes to experience the content at their pace. Raiders could now take on raid content in either groups of 10 or 25, or both if they really wanted. This allowed smaller guilds to still access raiding content that was otherwise out of reach to them in previous expansions. Parties could now even be formed automatically with the implementation of the looking for group tool. This allowed for easy access to the game's dungeons without the need to assemble a group from scratch. The cries continued that this content was being made too accessible, and that WoW was becoming even more casual as a result. To these naysayers, accessibility and casual gameplay was the exact same thing. The problem with this argument is that Blizzard still gave hardcore players things to strive for in the form of hard mode encounters, which rewarded raids with additional or better loot for facing more difficult encounters.
While I was not very pleased with what the Cataclysm expansion offered, it did implement many changes that I love, while hardcore players felt it was taking away their game. Namely, the Looking for Raid tool, which much like its dungeon counterpart, allows you to be placed into a raid group automatically, and have a chance to experience raid content without the worry of having to first establish a guild. This gave players a chance to gear up and practice fights for when they went with their guild, and overall allowed people to experience content they otherwise would probably never have without that tool. However, this new tool was met with the same dissenting opinions that came with the other additions to WoW’s raiding systems.
The real problem that most of these players have is that they feel like they had a special club before. in the original WoW, they felt like they were better than everyone else because they had raiding gear and most others didn't. They looked at many of these changes as taking away from their access and wealth. If others can get the same gear I have, that makes it less special. These people felt entitled to their status, and any attempts to allow others to experience that content was almost viewed like many social policies are by some in our own government. Some even went so far as to call gear obtained through more accessible means "welfare epics".
The biggest truth of all though, is that WoW was always a casual game. The MMO's that came before it were far more unforgiving about access to high-end content, if there was any to be had. The reason WoW was so successful is because it was casually accessible to a much broader player base. To say WoW was much more hardcore back then is missing the point of what the game is today. We all grew up, and the game grew up with us. These changes were made because we as players changed as time went on. I remember farming for days just to get enough gold to buy my first mount, or spending months going through Molten Core in a spec I never wanted to be. I remember spending hours trying to find the right group to do a five-man instance, only to never get the gear I needed time and time again. I remember being locked out of content, simply because I never had access to methods that would allow me to experience it. I do not think those memories define what WoW, or any other MMO.
WoW is about the adventure you have, not the gear or level of effort you put into obtaining it. With Mists of Pandaria, Blizzard has given players more content than they know what to do with, and has gone to great lengths to make it as accessible as possible. The journey through that content is still very much alive, and making it easier to access for a broader spectrum of players has not diminished that journey. With the direction Blizzard has taken with WoW, I am confident that its best days are still to come.