Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Game Analysis: Part 1 - World of Warcraft
(If there aren't any glaring objections, I'd like to take this assignment in multiple parts, as 1) I do have quite a bit to say that may not be obvious at first glance due to the way I play games, and 2) I really, really, loathe when I type up a cartload of stuff and have the page 404 - I've developed a paranoia of that over the years)

First of all, let me say that I'm glad that we're talking about subjective experiences in games, because due to my somewhat eccentric, OCD personality, my experience with any form of entertainment is pretty atypical.

I think that it is impossible nowadays to speak of digital narrative and social/virtual interactions without reference to MMO games, and World of Warcraft (Blizzard, 2004) in many aspects represents the epitome of the genre, standing head and shoulders above all the competition, past and present (many of which ironically coined themselves 'wow killers' only to get curbstomped by reality) in both subscription numbers and content.

The cool thing that Blizzard has done with the game is that it has something for everyone, whether it be competitive gaming (many will laugh at this one, me included at times), casual gaming, role-play, simple objective completion, making virtual profit off the infamous Auction House/trade channels, or simply just enjoying a good tale. And all this is tied together by the fact that the game is a huge social circle - people of all the aforementioned walks interact with each other on the same (four-hundred-odd) realms.

WoW's general backbone experience is: levelling, and the game at maximum level (currently 80) which many will argue is where the game really begins.

The Narrative
World of Warcraft is (obviously) based in the Warcraft universe, which started in 1994 with the RTS game Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. The underlying story which is the brainchild of Chris Metzen has gone several overarching reiterations/retconning, although by the time Warcraft III (2002) rolled about, the universe was rich and stable enough to support all kinds of tangents and canonical spin-offs - as of now we have comic books, novels, and of course, in-game content delivered through the WoW platform, all giving glimpses into Metzen's universe.

From the exploration of the homeworld of the Orcs (original storyline is Orcs invading the Human world) and what drove them on the warpath, to the elemental mysteries of the land Warcraft takes place in, to kingdoms new, fallen and long gone, to villains past, present and future, to the ethereal 'emerald dream', Metzen's universe is currently large enough to fill up a dozen seasons of TV series, with enough heroes, villains and noteworthy characters in between to fill up several virtual museums.

The player is presented bits and pieces of the story through quests, various readable knicknacks in cities/libraries/dungeons, recently in-game cinematics, and of course, the timeless process of hands-on whoop-the-bad-guys'-asses action in dungeons (and larger, harder dungeons, called 'raids' - more on that later). The amount of story that is crammed into the world that has little to do with the main plot is amazing, and a testament to the quest designers' creativity. From the tale of Mor'Ladim (which is a pretty long quest chain ending with the moving defeat and redemption of said character), all the way to tributes of real-life occurences such as Sully Balloo's letter the levelling experience is chock full of narrative that the average player won't find when just rushing to the end.

The latest expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, adds cinematics into the mix. Players are breadcrumbed into eventually facing off with Arthas, a villain from the Warcraft 3 era. In fact, the entire expansion is about Arthas, including cinematics that highlight key points in the story, including his eventual defeat. (spoilers!)

However, an interesting dilemma comes up: When you allow players (<-- note the plural) in a massively multiplayer online game to be the heroes in the story, how do you cater to the fact that there are literally millions of players doing the same thing and reconcile that fact with the need to have a cohesive story? My personal take on it after seeing things unfold is that there basically exists two different versions of the Warcraft story: Metzen's story, which is canon, and does not contradict itself throughout its' entireity, and World of Warcraft's personalized retelling, which is specific to each player that plays the game and while follows the same broad strokes, is not necessarily canon.

For example, let's take Onyxia, a major villain in the original World of Warcraft release. There was a long questline that led up to the eventual face-off and defeat of Onyxia (and back then, guilds who managed to kill her were BAD-ASS) However, recently rewritten lore in the form of the story arc of King Varian Wrynn (published comics) reveals that in fact, it was he and a small band of his friends who ended the threat. Naxxramas, the final raid zone of the original game, was in fact stormed not by players, but by other characters within another set of media.

Basically I have come to terms with the fact that the game I am playing isn't 100% canon, but instead a slightly different retelling via artistic license, in the interest of an enjoyable experience. That in itself is an interesting exercise in non-linearity, when you come to think of it. :V

But enough talk about the narrative, 90% of the people who play WoW don't even care about it - let's move on to what makes people value their characters and what in essence puts the "game" into MMORPG for WoW!

Dungeons and Raids - the Social Requirement

As I mentioned early on, it is very easy to hit the level cap in WoW. The main driving force behind the game is how people 'upgrade' their characters at this maximum level. The game at this point revolves around multiple tiers of 'progression' in terms of your character's gear. The basic premise is that gear from 'tier 5' should allow the average player enough character power to defeat and slowly acquire gear from 'tier 6', and so on and so forth. Every once in a while, Blizzard releases an expansion that raises the level cap and resets progression for everyone by giving e.g. quest items of comparable power to the last tier of the previous expansion.

However, there's a twist to this. First of all, the majority of good 'loot' comes from grouped content, in the form of raids. Raids basically require 25 (or 10 for a watered-down version) people acting in tandem to defeat bosses. The beauty of this is the fact that bosses drop 2-3 pieces of gear, and are generally on a 1-week reset timer. They also have the potential to be soul-crushingly difficult, requiring for example perfect execution over 10 minutes by everyone, or the attempt 'fails'. These two added together lead to the basis of guild interactions within the game.

Basically within the population, groups form up that regularly raid together. Within these groups, trust and camaderie (and often violent, explosive bouts of e-drama) are built, as you eventually learn who is capable of performing during raids, and who's the proverbial deadweight. The simplest premise of this is trusting that the 24 other people (and a few more actually) will log on at specific times so that the raid can actually happen. Social ties are built as guilds share loot and eventually the sense of accomplishment of killing the final boss of a raid dungeon.

Another thing to note is the vast gap of skill level present in the game. The 10 classes available in the game are, despite what a vocal section of the playerbase say, pretty well balanced vs each other in terms of requiring a few in the raid, and the difference between a player who knows what he's doing and one who's clueless is very, very, very, VERY quantifiable. Blizzard generally releases bosses tuned to require at least a certain amount of gear, and knowing how to play can substitute for a lot of that requirement, resulting in earlier kills by guilds who are good enough to pull it off. Hence, the 'competitive' side of the game - boss kill bragging rights, world placings, regional placings, etc.

So Falk, this is all nice and good, (and probably a hilariously Captain Obvious-esque read to people who -do- play WoW) but what about YOUR subjective experience?

Before moving to Boston, I had the privilege of raiding with Tsunami, a guild based in Australia. We were perhaps what you could call a 'world class' guild, competing for world top-20 first kills of new bosses that Blizzard released.

The dynamic of the guild was pretty interesting. Our number one priority was maximizing the amount of return from the investment of our 4 nights a week we devoted to raiding. This meant that if someone wasn't performing properly, they'd probably be out of the raid roster pretty fast. It was almost a professional sports team in terms of expectations. Most of the trials who 'didn't make the cut' understood that the guild wasn't a social guild - you didn't get raid spots or loot just because you were the friend of someone who had already contributed a lot - you had to pull your OWN weight.

You learn that what you want and what the guild needs are often at odds. That piece of loot which may be an upgrade to what you have, may very well serve the guild better in the hands of another that allows the guild to kill other bosses faster (resulting in more loot long term - dice-rolling random nature of loot generation aside)

You learn a lot about accountability, about how to make sure someone can cover your responsibilities should you not be able to be present.

I personally learnt that when playing games at this level, sometimes it becomes less of a game and more of a job, but hey, if it's enjoyable overall, it's enjoyable, right?

Despite the status of the guild not being a 'social guild', social ties were easily formed within the guild. It's only natural when you ride together, suffer together and celebrate together that you learn to trust. It was at the point that we'd be able to mostly trust each other with account logins should someone be required to attend to something on a particular night (Hey, being a WoW nerd is only a ticket to skimping -so much- of real-life activities!) A bunch of the guild met up at the end of last year to hang out, from all parts of Australia.

It's kinda cool thinking about it - latency from Australia/Asia to our WoW servers (based in LA) was nothing to joke at. We'd wrestle with connectivity issues that most American guilds never dreamed of. We raided 4 nights a week on a progression cycle where guilds at our level of progression usually go for 5 or even 6 nights a week, and we still manage to do pretty well in relation. One of the last major progression cycles I participated in (before preparing for Berklee consumed my time) resulted in Tsunami claiming Oceanic First for Algalon, one of the 'trophy' bosses of the time. (That video is me playing, btw. It may look simple, but it's not! But going too far into game mechanics will make this aberration of a post even longer than it already is)

The OCD Factor

I'll be honest. I have a near-autistic completionist tendency for certain things in life. Doing things in WoW was a big sate to that thirst over the course of a few years. There's a saying 'if it can be done, someone will do it' and that was my motto for WoW. From reputations (Most of which give no benefit whatsoever) to my ridiculous urge to complete every single quest available to me in the game, I chipped away at it all.

In Wrath of the Lich King, Blizzard implemented an Achievement system - little things that ranged from getting a haircut, to reading certain books in the game, to collecting a set number of pets, to doing ridiculous red-herrings during boss encounters, which was all recorded. This sent me head over heels, because now I had EVEN MORE THINGS to complete!

It made me stay up for ~56 hours straight (only with a 2 hour nap near the end) to level from 70 to 80 as the game launched, letting me claim the Realm First 80 Server First 80 feat of strength (of which, obviously, one person per realm ever gets). For the record, WotLK launched on Thursday, and I -did- attend college on Friday.

It sent me back over all the territory I'd explored previously, leading to discoveries of things I never knew were in the game. It made me reevaluate certain things and come up with creative solutions for feats that usually would require more than one person to complete.

It made me wake up at odd hours of the night to scour the continents for rare mobs that would spawn once every ~6hours to a week to tag and kill them - And what a sigh of relief when I finally crossed that last one off the insane scavanger hunt, 2 weeks after I'd found everything else. I hate my luck.

It finally gave me a title (fittingly enough, "the Insane") for having a bunch of exalted/maxed-out reputations that I'd worked on years ago. Finally, due recognition for my autism! For posterity's sake, one particular faction required an extremely unconventional method of collecting and turning in "Darkmoon Decks", of which most people collected maybe one in their entire life to turn in for a trinket. Over the course of 8 months I filtered the servers' economy with a fine tooth comb, scouring the Auction House almost daily for the things I needed. Over the course of 8 months I built 108 of those damned decks, and all for... an exalted reputation no one even cared about.

That was only one of the factions. Another required pickpocketed lockboxes - about 2700 of them, and you could only pickpocket (with a 1/10 chance per mob) with a Rogue which I levelled to 70 just for that purpose. His name is aptly "Boxcollecta". There are other factions involved of course, but let's not even start talking about those.

Sometimes I look back and I wonder if the hair loss was worth it. ;p In a sense, it was - that particular feeling of accomplishment I got when I finally stood in front of that Darkmoon vendor, turning in all the decks in a way that was never intended by the games' designers, finally reaching a goal which after 2 months in looked like an impossible task. I guess I taught myself a lot about patience and perserverence in the process.

After coming to Berklee, I guess I'm nowhere near as hardcore as I once was. I'm still in Tsunami, but the raid times are a little prohibitive (3am Eastern... hmm) so I'm unsure what I'll do with the character. I'm definitely not selling though - I'll never understand people who can take that plunge and part with their characters, even if they'll never play them again. I guess I have a somewhat sentimental attachment.

If you've read up to this point, I'd like to congratulate you on being able to survive reading about my highly subjective experiences and analysis of the social stigmas surrounding World of Warcraft. I hope you aren't at this point as bald as I am and I'll see you in part 2 where I analyze yet another game and take 8237482374 pages too many to do it.

1 comment:


    (ps. I'm a lazy bum so I'm not going to fix them)