The WOW Factor


WOWAfter two years away from the game, I was recently convinced by a friend to return to World of Warcraft again and play in the fantasy universe of WOW. At 10 years old, WOW remains the biggest, most-subscribed, most popular MMORPG, with around 10 million subscribers.

By technology’s rapid-aging standards, WOW is a grandfather game; maybe even a great-grandfather. It has certainly spawned a lot of offspring, although not all are legitimate.

I started playing WOW back in 2005. although I didn’t play it seriously and attentively until a little later, after the first expansion. Then I got heavily into the game, so that for a long stretch, barely a day went by without at least doing the daily quests for one or more characters.

I dutifully paid my monthly subscription fee for years. I upgraded to the first expansion set, The Burning Crusade. Then the Wrath of the Lich King. And also the third, Cataclysm, coming out in late 2010. When the fourth expansion set, Mists of Pandaria, was released, in the fall of 2012. I was already losing interest and the corny fighting pandas the expansion threw in just didn’t make me want to shell out another $50 plus the $15 a month.

WOWI slogged on for a few more months, but in December 2012, I finally gave up. I wasn’t enjoying the way the game had evolved. I wasn’t having fun any more.

I had long stopped being obsessed with finishing pointless quests, running back and forth collecting useless items for some NPC. And running was what I did most of the time. You can’t get a mount to travel faster until level 20. Flying mounts at level 60. A lot of the grind is spent running. My fingers were getting stiff.

My game time had dwindled from hours a day to hours a week. Then a month. Finally, I simply didn’t care any more.

I was tired of the repetitive canned responses from NPCs. The voice acting was old and stale. The cartoonish scenery and characters no longer amused me. I had had a small boost to my enjoyment when they added flying mounts (Cataclysm?), but that soon became tired, too. Questing and collecting and making things became a grind, not fun.

I was never big on some of the game’s aspects, even from the start – battlegrounds and raids weren’t attractive to me. Nor was PvP. I preferred questing, often solo or with a single friend, and the occasional dungeon crawl with a mixed party. But after I reached the pinnacle – level 70 at first, then cranked to 80 –  with most of my characters, it simply paled. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The expansions added territory to explore, new quests, new opponents, but generally they seemed to be a kind of kitchen-sink approach: stuff was added, changed, removed with seeming arbitrariness. The new races, the new enemies didn’t seem to match the logic of the original game series. Sometimes it felt like the whole WOW universe was designed by 14-year-olds with lots of passion but lacking a solid background in fantasy.


I liked WOW at the start for the same reasons I liked playing Dungeons and Dragons as a board game back in the mid-1970s, and liked playing many other fantasy-adventure board computer games later. They’re fun, they take you out of the ordinary, they let you engage in fantasy and imagination, and they are a more entertaining way to spending a couple of hours. than watching TV. Sometimes you need to get away from it all.

Let’s be clear: the original D&D was an exercise in imagination that had no limits outside of the basic rules (and the early, shorter rules were the best because they allowed more personal scope). WOW, like all computer games, constrains players within its virtual world. Computer games show players everything: they guide them, restrict them, define them, set their goals. There’s much less need for imagination in WOW – or in any computer game – than there was in D&D. It’s like the difference between a book and a movie.

When you first join WOW and start exploring and questing, it seems vast and full of potential. Exciting. Challenging. By the time you’ve reached level 80 – maybe sooner – you realize that it’s just a bird cage. A large, gilded cage, to be sure, but a cage nonetheless. Think I’m wrong? Try swimming or flying out to sea.

Computer games, even good ones, get old and tired. Think Doom. Wolfenstein. And WOW was that for me, so I looked elsewhere. I tried playing other MMORPGs: Rift, Guild Wars 2, LOTR online, Star Wars KOTOR. Most were basically WOW in different dress. Same sort of levelling, questing, role playing, combat routines. Sure, Rift has great graphics, GW has better co-op play, SW is set in a scifi universe… but most of these differences are cosmetic.

Of the lot, the only one I still have on my computer (aside from re-installed WOW) is GW2*. I stopped playing it seriously a while back, but still will go back into the game now and then, just for an hour or two of mayhem. It has a lot to offer, and some great features. I just tired of it. I was looking for something else to amuse me in between fits of writing.

Come back, said my friend (who had never stopped playing). Come back. It’s changed. WOW is better. Bigger, shinier. They’ve added Warlords of Draenor, a great new expansion. Things are fun. There’s loot, monsters and magic to be had. You’ll love it again.

So I said, sure. I upgraded and started new characters, began the grind all over. You need 20 spider’s eyes? Sure, I’ll go chase them up. You want me to run all the blooming back to the town to deliver this message and then run all the way back here to get a 20-copper reward and 12 XP? Sure, I’ll do it. You want me to kill eight bears and seven wolves? Done. Bring back scraps of cloth? Find a lost book? Dive into a lake looking for a lost piece of jewellery? I did – am doing – them all. Again.

So what do I think? Is it still worth the experience and the money? Has it really changed that much that it’s worth the investment?

Well, WOW has changed, but for the better? I don’t always think so. It’s become easier. Too easy, actually. You used to have to worry about ammunition, for example – archers had to bring along enough arrows to survive in the wildness and not run out. Arrows take bag space. You had to plan quests and exploration carefully. Running out of ammo mid-adventure meant trouble. But ammo took precious bag space you’d need for things you looted or gathered. It took careful planning and forethought. Now, ammo is infinite. Bags are bigger.

Elite NPCs used to be rated about five levels higher than their displayed level, so a level 15 elite fought like a level 20. Now they’re much easier to take down, probably no more than a level or two stronger than their displayed number. And players level up a lot faster than before. So that level 15 elite you couldn’t take down? Come back in an hour or so when you’re four or five levels stronger yourself.

PandariaThe gatherer grind is easier too, because things respawn much faster than in the past. All in all it feels like it’s been dumbed down for 15-year-olds who don’t have the attention span to waste an extra two minutes planning. It’s more arcade, less role-playing – which means less immersive.

It can be fun, I admit and there’s some small sense of gratification when you accomplish quests or get some achievement (ooh! 50 fish!). And the pandas don’t play quite as corny as they look.  But it’s sometimes ridiculously easy. When I started playing WOW, I died a lot in combat, especially in dungeons. Nowadays I hardly get a low health warning. Maybe I’m just being more cautious, but I think not.


So I’m slogging through it again, micro-managing the virtual lives of four characters, doing the gathering, the auction house, the dailies and all the rest. Trying to determine if I I am really having enough fun that I should plan to do this for longer than the two months play time I got myself.

I’m not sure. Let me get a couple of characters up to level 90 and into Draenor and I’ll let you know.


* One of its main attractions in GW2 is how it handles levelling. In WOW, each zone or province is rated according to the level range of the NPCs. Player levels are independent. So a level 15 player can enter a level 50 area – and die pretty quickly if they attempt combat. But a level 50 can enter a level 15 area and easily slaughter everything in your path. And get no points for any of it, since the gap between levels is too great. In GW2, if the player’s level is higher – say level 50 – it is adjusted downward if the region’s level is lower, to one or two steps above the zone’s maximum level. So a level 50 entering a level 15 zone is no longer invulnerable: it becomes a level 16 or 17. Stronger than the NPCs, but not that much more, and you still get enough points to make combat worthwhile. It also means high-level characters can’t just waltz through a hostile zone: you have to fight your way like everyone else.

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