I don’t like World of Warcraft (or: how I learned to stop worrying and love Guild Wars)
I’ve written about Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft in the past. Going from the initial “This is okay” to “Hopefully it gets better than this” phases, through the dreaded “This is actually pretty boring” period before finally reaching my “No way is this worth $15 a month” epiphany, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is one game I simply don’t “get”. It epitomises the “donkey/carrot/stick” school of game design (to quote Ray Milland’s character in Dial M for Murder): effectively, the designers have created a game where the constant promise of eventual reward (the carrot) encourages the player to keep moving forward, while the threat of falling behind or not getting your value for money (the stick) dissuades him or her from staying put.
Now, I have absolutely no problem with this framework, provided the journey itself is actually fun. If exploring the world, hacking up monsters and collecting loot is a pleasurable activity in its own right, as it is in, say, Blizzard’s earlier Diablo, then the continual performance of bigger and better locations, monsters and loot is no bad thing. When this becomes a problem is when the fundamental game mechanics prevent me from getting any enjoyment out of this process, as is the case for World of Warcraft. The other day, nearly two years after I last played the game, I had a sudden urge to give it another whirl. Therefore, I left it on overnight, downloading around 2 GB worth of patches and content updates, whipped out my credit card, laid down $15, logged myself in and sat down to re-enter the world of Azeroth.
First problem: I never did succeed in taking a character beyond Level 19, and, given that the game is now nearly four years old, this understandably set me pretty far behind the curve. In a world where 70 is the current maximum character level, starting out at such a low level feels a bit like being placed in the remedial class. Oh well, I thought, might as well take the opportunity to re-familiarise myself with how the game plays. So off I went to hack up some gnolls for Harry Hardwick and gather a few crimson bandanas for Melissa Silkloins or whatever their names are.
Second problem: none of this is actually any fun. After persevering for a couple of hours, I quickly came to the conclusion that I’d once again wasted my money. Now, at the current exchange rate, blowing $15 isn’t the end of the world, but any transaction where the goods delivered are sub-par is annoying. It’s particularly annoying when, as is the case with World of Warcraft, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the problem is with me rather than the game. Maybe I just don’t “get it”. After all, the game boasts a record of 10 million subscribers (that’s a whopping 62% of the MMORPG market share), and I find it hard to believe that they’re all just complete morons staring slack-jawed at the screen and dumbly clicking the mouse in the hope that they finally get to chomp on that delicious-looking carrot. On the contrary, from what I can gather, the game takes some degree of skill to master. There’s also the fact that, in piddling around the smaller scale early areas and levels, I’m missing out on the high end epic battles and quests that are supposedly the game’s main draw.
But the problem is that I have absolutely no desire to persevere with the early stuff so as to eventually reach the better material that supposedly comes later. The gameplay mechanics strike me as fundamentally crap, with slow, clunky combat that feels like an unsatisfying trade-off between turn-based and real-time, chunky, unappealing graphics, and seemingly endless hours of trawling on foot from location to location (for a fee, you can purchase a ride from one major city to another using flying mounts, and, once you hit Level 40, you can purchase a horse of your own). This is, in my opinion, definitely the weakest game in the Warcraft franchise, and I struggle to name any other Blizzard game that I’ve enjoyed less. Honestly, I’d rather play Rock ‘n’ Roll Racing again than this.
Luckily, there’s a solution. It’s called Guild Wars, and it’s like World of Warcraft, only fun. Straight off the bat, this game, which was designed by several ex-Blizzard staffers, seems to tick all the right boxes. First of all, it’s free to play, meaning that you pay a one-off fee to pick up a boxed copy of the game, and then you can play it for as long as you like at no extra charge. As with World of Warcraft, they don’t delete your characters due to account inactivity, either, so you can abandon it for months or years at a time and then hop back in where you left off. Secondly, and fairly fundamentally, it’s actually fun to play. Right from the word go, everything about it is more polished, more fluid, more appealing and just generally slicker than World of Warcraft. The combat is fast-paced and satisfying, and any location that you’ve previously visited is just a couple of mouse clicks away, thanks to the fact that you can instantaneously jump to cities and outposts from the world map instead of having to walk, fly or ride to them. Crucially, the “donkey/carrot/stick” problem is nowhere to be found. You can actually max out your character fairly quickly (Level 20 is the highest you can get), which means that, once you’re there, the “Just another half-hour and I can hit the next level” incentive is no longer present, so the missions have to be enjoyable in their own right. To Guild Wars’ credit, they are, and it doesn’t matter that you can hit Level 20 before you’re even a quarter of the way through the game. The experience of playing the game itself is enjoyable enough without character building even coming into play.
Guild Wars also makes use of the concept of instancing, meaning that, while towns are communal, whenever you enter a combat area, a separate copy of the location is created for you and your party, meaning that you don’t have to worry about someone coming along and stealing your loot or kills. Perhaps this detracts to some extent from the social aspect of games like this, but all that sort of thing is still possible in the town areas: it just means that you have to assemble your team before venturing out into the wilderness. Also, for social pariahs such as myself, the fact that you can hire computer-controlled henchmen to help you take on your opponents, rather than having to hope you can find another player or two whose goals match your own, is a big plus in its favour.
I’m currently playing the original Guild Wars “Prophecies” campaign and am having a blast inching my way towards completing it. Beyond that, I still have the “Factions” and “Nightfall” campaigns to finish (three separate Guild Wars campaigns were released, all of which can be purchased separately and work as stand-alone games, but which interlock to create a much larger world). There’s also the Eye of the North expansion set, which requires a copy of one of the three original campaigns and will supposedly help ease the transition into Guild Wars 2, which is apparently going to have its public beta later this year. Warcraft schmorcraft - you can take your monthly fee and stick it in a very private place.