The Dismantling of Azeroth

When Blizzard announced their list of perks for committing to a year of World of Warcraft (exclusive mount, beta testing for the next expansion, free copy of Diablo 3), I really wanted to get back into the game. After all, I’ve always liked World of Warcraft. These perks seemed to make a deal that couldn’t be refused.

I’ve been away from World of Warcraft for a while, though. I played briefly after the last expansion pack was released, but I didn’t get very far – mostly due to other games and projects. So, before committing to a full year of the game, I wanted to see if it was something that I could once again play on a regular basis.

As I started playing, there were a lot of things I immediately enjoyed. The classic look and feel of the game was still intact, for example. While the graphics haven’t been updated in any significant way since its first release, it’s a very comforting environment. Sometimes a hyper-realistic environment can feel intimidating. Plus, for veterans of the game, the familiar feel is like slipping into your favorite pair of fuzzy slippers.

I had never completely played through the start of a Worgen character, so that was my test bed in my latest play session. I have to say that, overall, Blizzard did a truly fantastic job with the introductory environments and quest lines for Worgen. Up until about halfway through, I was certain that I would be continuing to play.

But then I started to notice big holes in my favorite slippers.

The first sign of trouble came with leveling up, and seeing how the different classes had been changed. I’ve played as both Hunter and Druid previously, and these were the classes that @ndoto and I played in our recent adventure. There are quests near the start of a hunter’s or druid’s journey that help define who they are, and establish their role in the world.

For a hunter, it’s getting their first pet. At level 10, there is a quest that introduces you to the mechanic of taming a wild creature as your pet, and how to control it. For a druid, it’s getting your first form to shapeshift into, and how this benefits you.

In addition, for hunters, you learn how to respect the natural world – to not only take advantage of its resources, but also give back in kind. For druids, you learn that using a creature’s form isn’t something to be taken lightly. It’s a gift to be used responsibly.

They were powerful, role-defining quests. But now – they’re gone. Instead, you talk to your class trainer, and in exchange for a few silver, you instantly get these abilities. No lesson, no adventure. Just getting something for nothing.

In previous versions, it was possible for a hunter to feed his or her pet in order to keep them happy. If you did this, your pet gained an attack bonus. If they were neutral, they attacked normally. And if they were unhappy, there was an attack reduction. Again, this all plays into the “respect nature” theme that you used to learn from the hunter-specific quest. But just like the quest, this ability is now gone as well.

Hunters use ranged weapons a lot. This is a key part of their arsenal, along with their pet. Previously, you needed to keep ammo for your ranged weapon – arrows if you were using a bow, bullets if you were using a gun. These are now completely removed. You have infinite of both. On the one hand, this certainly makes things easier because you don’t have to worry about keeping an ample supply of ammo. But on the other hand, ammo used to have varying damage ranges and bonuses, which you no longer get as an advantage.

One of the things I enjoy about open world games – be they World of Warcraft, Assassin’s Creed, or even Grand Theft Auto – is exploration. There are always surprises to be found in a well-constructed world. These surprises may not always be positive, but they help make the environment more realistic, and make the player more sympathetic to the events going on around them.

In World of Warcraft, exploration used to be a large part of the game. You could fast travel to other parts of the world – but only if you had been to that place before. Now, though, you can fast travel to new places even before you’ve discovered them through exploration.

It would seem like Blizzard did everything in their power to allow a player to take shortcuts – which is why it’s so surprising when an obvious change hasn’t been made. For example, one of the professions I chose was skinning. Previously, the skinning profession required you to carry around a special skinning knife. With all the other changes, it would seem like something as silly as this would be removed. But no, you still need to buy and carry a skinning knife. I’m not complaining – this is how it should work. But it’s completely inconsistent with Blizzard’s other changes.

In the end, it becomes excruciatingly clear that Blizzard has one thing and one thing only in mind: getting you to the end game. My guess is that for most players, this is an acceptable thing for the company to do. And when I say “most players”, I mean players who have leveled up a character three, four, five or more times already, and are tiring of the “class-defining” quests, or the “inconvenience” of having to keep an eye on ammo.

I’m in the minority, obviously. I have never reached the level cap with any character in World of Warcraft. I enjoy the task of building a character, learning the lore of the race and class that I chose. I like the things that add realism – ammo, having to feed your loyal companion, or learning the lay of the land.

There is certainly a point where you can go too far. For example, Skyrim’s weight mechanic — where carrying too many items weighs you down so that you can no longer run – is probably a bit much for an MMORPG like World of Warcraft. But some aspect of realism keeps the game interesting, and helps the player feel like they’re investing in something worthwhile and tangible.

But all that has been taken away. Parts of the game that I was eager to pay for previously have now been removed, without any alternative. Suddenly it becomes clear why Blizzard is trying to get people to commit to long subscription terms – there isn’t much else keeping players involved in the game. There is a lot of content once you reach the level cap, certainly, but is it enough to keep subscribing for a long period of time?

It also becomes clear why the first twenty levels of the game are now free. The Worgen introduction was very well done, and is bound to hook a lot of new players. But the rest of the twenty levels are engineered so that you quickly move along , building level upon level, getting stronger and more skilled, until you are suddenly blocked.

Somewhere along the line, Blizzard must have decided that this is the way to ensure a healthy bottom line. I wish them the best of luck. But World of Warcraft is now much less interesting to me, and I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be playing it. I don’t say that easily, either. I love the world of Azeroth, and I’ve devoted a lot of time to it – time that I’ve enjoyed immensely. But Azeroth is changing to suit a different kind of warrior.

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