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WoW ghost towns: why Blizzard’s not helping

As I return to WoW, I’ve been adapting to their latest changes aimed at normalising player numbers: cross-realm zones. Now, I’m not a fan of CRZs for various reasons but they do at least help keep deathly-quiet servers from dying entirely. That’s not, however, necessarily a good thing. Azuriel from In An Age recently discovered that, in his absence, his server had gone from ‘quiet’ to ‘desolate’.

For the past three expansions, Blizzard has been solving all the problem elements of low-pop servers except the one that matters: the server itself. Play BGs with everyone else, run dungeons with everyone else, raid with everyone else, and now even quest with everyone else. Isn’t it about time you let us be with everyone else?

As Azuriel points out, Blizzard’s been putting a lot of work into normalising player populations, easing the strain on overcrowded servers and providing playmates for underpopulated servers. Unfortunately, it brings as many problems as it solves.

Silvermoon City - frequently a ghost town

Personally, I don’t like cross-realm zones because I like having the opportunity to farm for resources or rare spawns in peace, and because they’re fundamentally unnecessary. WoW levelling rarely requires the assistance of another player (unlike, say, GW2 dynamic events, RIFT dynamic events, SWTOR heroic quests, etc) so the lack of players in levelling zones isn’t a handicap. And, on the flipside, overpopulation is rarely a problem outside the two-week period immediately following an expansion. Cross-realm zones are a drastic solution to a problem that doesn’t even exist for 102 weeks out of every 104.

And they have costs. As others have pointed out, WoW’s model isn’t set up to accommodate lots of competition for mobs or resources. Guild Wars 2 highlights the opposite model, where everyone can harvest the same resource node and you can still get quest credit and loot from mobs ‘tagged’ by other people. In this model, cross-realm zones work fine; in WoW’s selfish “everyone get your own stuff” world, CRZs just make peoples’ lives harder.

Add to that the impact on the community. During the most recent Darkmoon Faire, Goldshire on my server was suddenly a hotbed of ERP and idiot epeen-swingers when it had never been like that before – because it wasn’t my server any more, it was a generic server with people from anywhere and everywhere. Talk about destroying one’s sense of community. CRZs really fall apart when you’re looking at areas where players stand around and chat instead of get on with the business at hand, because the more you weaken peoples’ ties to their community, the less incentive they have not to act like jerks.

Unfortunately, I think we’re out of luck. As Azuriel says, “Blizzard isn’t ever going to bite the goddamn bullet and put realms like Auchindoun out of [their] misery.” And we have ourselves to blame for that, because of the way that the MMO community reacts to anything other than constant growth. Server closures and server merges are the number one sign, in most peoples’ minds, that a game is struggling, and Blizzard can’t afford to be seen as struggling, given its position at the top of the pile. Most games are forced into server closures and merges anyway, by the necessity of providing a playable environment for their customers, but Blizzard have had the resources to develop technologies that prop up ailing servers without merging them. It’s logical that WoW would have some underpopulated servers, after eight years and waves of growth and shrinkage. In their case it wouldn’t actually be a sign of failure to consolidate lower-population servers; it’s fairly clear that WoW may not be the only game in town any more, but it’s not even remotely in trouble. But WoW has a special cachet as the constant success story in an otherwise marginal industry, and I suspect that Activision-Blizzard aren’t willing to sacrifice that for the sake of player satisfaction.

My five favourite MMOs

In the spirit of yesterday’s post, here are my five favourite games that are MMOs.

It’s hard to analyse MMOs in the same way as non-MMOs, because there are so many other factors that affect one’s fun – the quality of dev support, the quality and frequency of new content, the friendliness of the community, the critical mass of players that makes a world feel lived-in, and so on.

Still, here are the five MMOs I’ve enjoyed the most – and, in some cases, miss the most.

  • World of Warcraft

Yeah, yeah, WoW is the opiate of the MMO masses; it’s old and tired and whatever. I don’t care.

Don’t get me wrong: I fell out of love with Blizzard a couple of years ago, and I haven’t been inclined to cut them much slack since them. But despite my dissatisfaction with what WoW has become, it’s impossible to forget the years of happiness and fun it’s provided, or the way it’s shaped an entire industry and brought it into the mainstream.

When WoW was shaping up for release, our SWG guild put its money on EQ2 instead. Most of us weren’t Warcraft enthusiasts, didn’t much care about WoW, and many had a history with EQ that made EQ2 look amazing. When WoW came out, we were snobbish about how ‘ezymode’ it was and how it just gave you stuff on a plate – while we went back to retrieve our corpses again (and corpse runs in EQ/EQ2 were not the simple thing they are in WoW!) and earn some XP to pay back what we’d lost by dying.

And then slowly we all trickled across to WoW, and we realised just how damn good it was. Most importantly, more than any other game at the time, WoW cut away the bits of the MMO gaming paradigm that weren’t fun.1 “I’m a game,” said WoW. “I’m supposed to be fun. Stop doing those stupid grindy chores in other games, and come and play me.” And we listened, and we did, and most of us never looked back.

World of Warcraft

  • Lord of the Rings Online

LotRO is very much a game in the WoW-ish themepark model, but it’s far from just “WoW with a Tolkien theme painted on”. Its crafting system is more interesting (and more relevant), the game’s ambience and atmosphere are absolutely perfect, the narrative does an excellent job of keeping you involved in the story and making you feel integral without overriding the canon, the seasonal festivals are fun and setting-appropriate (instead of just feeling like our holidays pasted onto a fantasy world), its geography is excellent, and the community is generally peaceful, friendly and mature. And it’s got a) what’s probably the single best F2P implementation I’ve seen in any subscription game, and b) the best wardrobe/cosmetic gear system ever. The game design is great: each class feels special, with unique mechanics and clear differentiation – playing a WoW warrior, DK or paladin all feels much the same; playing a LotRO loremaster, minstrel or runekeeper does not.

It’s not perfect, of course; in particular, the animations and movement engine feel unresponsive, which drove away pretty much everyone I was playing with. The housing system is clunky and lonely, and reportedly unlikely to be improved. And there’s been some unhappiness with the direction of the Turbine Store, like the immersion-breaking $50 hobby-horse mount. Those aren’t dealbreakers for me, but sadly I don’t rule the world (yet).

But If I could wave a magic wand and make all my friends and guildmates want to play one MMO; if I could make everyone I know and want to play with congregate in one game — LotRO would, without doubt, be that game. I’m only not playing it now because nobody else is.

(It also has my single favourite MMO class of all time, the Loremaster. That class was made for me, and I really wish more MMOs had classes like that.)

Lord of the Rings Online

  • Star Wars Galaxies

Oh, SWG. I am so conflicted about you.

SWG was really my first MMO love. I’d played UO years before, but not in a particularly involved way, and I’d missed the whole EQ craze.

SWG was so very flawed. It was massively buggy – for instance, you’d quite often lose half your inventory when you crossed an invisible zone line and it wouldn’t come back for a couple of hours, which was irksome to say the least. And being very sandboxy, it didn’t take long to run out of things to do for those of us who hadn’t quite got the hang of making our own fun yet. All up, I only played for eight months or so before being lured away into EQ2 and then WoW.

And yet SWG had so much going for it that no other game has matched. Its Star Wars atmosphere was perfect – much more Star-Wars-y than SWTOR, to be honest. The game mechanics were interesting, the Galactic Civil War actually made open world PvP relevant (and thus people actually did it for reasons other than ganking lowbies!). The game encouraged roleplaying and storytelling with non-combat classes like dancers and musicians. The housing system was excellent. And the crafting – oh, the crafting. The crafting was basically perfect, and hit pretty much every single one of my buttons as far as crafting goes – and unfortunately it’s set an incredibly high bar that no game has since been able to match. I regret leaving SWG behind, more so now than ever – the classic case of “you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone”, really.

I’m very happy to discover, though, that there’s a team of volunteer devs developing a Star Wars Galaxies emulator/private server project, at SWG Emu. I haven’t checked it out yet, as I’ll need to find my original game install discs, but this might be my only chance to get my SWG fix again.

Star Wars Galaxies

  • Glitch

Glitch was a magnificent experiment from a startup studio called Tiny Speck. It launched as a browser-based MMO in 2009 and ran until December 9 this year; they simply couldn’t find a way to make it a viable concern. It also didn’t help that they were tied to Flash, and thus their future in mobile gaming – which would otherwise have been a perfect fit for Glitch – was limited.

Glitch had a sense of fun and whimsy like no other game I’ve ever encountered. Almost entirely combat-free, it revolved around exploration, social and emergent gameplay, and crafting. You gathered cooking materials by nibbling piggies, milking butterflies, and squeezing chickens. The fact that there’s no longer a game where you can milk a butterfly makes the world a sadder place, in my opinion.

Glitch

  • DC Universe Online

I can’t believe I’m putting this on the list, but I actually think DCUO belongs here. (This is the spot where I had about five contenders, all with pros and cons, and eventually I decided DCUO came out on top.) I played it constantly for a couple of months in early 2011 and then dropped it like a hot rock, focusing at the time on all the things it did wrong, and not giving enough love to the things it did right.

So let’s get that out of the way up front: it was a great game, ahead of its time, that was hampered by a horrible console-compliant port, utterly inadequate multiplayer features and a user-hostile interface. (The month-long downtime due to the PSN hack didn’t help, either.)

At the same time, though: it pioneered AoE keybound looting and the limited-toolbar MMO style, its movement engine was the most fun I’d had just running around in any game since WoW’s flying mounts (and it hadn’t been topped until I discovered Firefall’s jump jets), the combat system was unique and even healers got to beat stuff up, instance play supported duos, the instances were fun and interesting, the setting was true to canon, and it had Mark Hamill voicing the Joker. Flying over and around Metropolis was just amazing, and the game deserved a lot more credit for its good points than it got.

DC Universe Online

  • Honorable Mentions
  • All of these games were in competition for the fifth slot which eventually went to DCUO:

    • Star Wars: the Old Republic – would have been on the list, were it not for the limited replayability contributing to a player exodus and stale endgame. As a levelling game, it’s superb and would have been at the top of my list, but the fun stops suddenly when you hit 50. Well, it did for me, anyway.
    • Firefall – without a doubt my favourite surprise of the year, this MMOFPS will almost certainly be on my 2013 favourites list. But right now it’s still in beta, and they’re adding content and changing things quite radically and frequently. It’s unreasonable to assess the game right now, because it’s definitely not a finished product.
    • RIFT – I had a lot of fun in RIFT this year, but it’s just not compelling enough to draw me in when I’ve already got other themepark MMOs on the go. It lost the competition for my time against SWTOR, then TSW, then GW2 and now WoW. I like it well enough, but apparently I just don’t love it.
    • EVE Online – spaceships and lasers; what’s not to love? Well, the community full of toxic asshats, for a start. But more importantly, the existence of easy RMT takes something away from the game. I could spend twelve or fifteen hours mining like crazy to make myself half a billion ISK, or I could spend fifteen dollars in the EVE store and net myself half a billion ISK with about three mouse clicks. Don’t get me wrong, EVE’s still fun, but the existence of RMT (and my introduction to it very early in my EVE-playing career) takes away any incentive to do pretty much any PvE in the game. Add to that the fact that the only way you can improve your character is just to wait for RL time to pass and there’s little incentive to play EVE as anything other than “oooh look at the pretty spaceships”; it’s lost the risk-vs-reward factor necessary to make it a game.
    • The Secret World – another game about which I’m conflicted! TSW’s writing is the best I’ve ever seen in an MMO, the setting is refreshing and novel, the character progression system is very flexible, the missions are compelling and the investigation missions in particular are just amazing. Unfortunately, it’s plagued with a lot of challenging, grindy combat that dilutes the awesomeness down to merely ‘okay’, and it lost the competition for my time and attention. I’m not done with it, but I’m also not feeling the itch to go back any time soon.

So, I imagine some of my choices are pretty unusual — but it’s also true that many MMO players get fixed on just a game or two, and fleshing out a whole list of five can be a bit hard. What would your five favourite MMOs be?

  1. Like XP loss or XP debts for every death. Like corpse runs where you respawn alive but your gear’s still on your corpse waiting to be retrieved, in the middle of all the mobs that killed you the first time when you had all your gear. Like needing a full group of players, including a tank and a healer, just to be able to kill same-level non-elite mobs. Like having to run almost everywhere in a world full of monsters you can’t solo because taxi points are few and far between. And so on.

Hotel WoWlifornia: you can never leave

I quit WoW when SWTOR was released. I was so incredibly burnt out on WoW, compounded by five years of guild leading and three of raid leading. I’d been really excited about SWTOR for a couple of years, and I found Cataclysm a tiresome and unengaging chore – were it not for my responsibility to my guild, I’d have quit WoW at the end of WotLK, and been happier for it.

So off I marched to a galaxy far far away, and I was pretty confident that I was done forever with WoW. I mean, never say never, right? But I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to play it again. So when SWTOR didn’t have the staying power we’d hoped, I sampled GW2, Rift (again), TSW, and flitted through a variety of other games (and lost part of my heart to Firefall along the way). I was singularly unmoved at the launch of Mists of Pandaria, the first WoW expansion in which I’d been entirely uninvested. Admittedly, I was happy to hear from the blogosphere that the Pandaria questing experience was excellent, and pet battles and the Tillers did pique my interest somewhat… but you couldn’t have those without the rest of WoW, so no dice.

A Walk in the Jade Forest

Yeah, so, it turns out it’s harder to resist WoW than I thought — especially when all your friends go back to it within the span of a single week.

I’m not entirely happy with Mists of Pandaria, mind you — what they’ve done to paladin is heartbreaking (so much so that I’m probably actually going to focus on a different character this expansion, for the first time ever), and I still hate the new talent system. I’m unlikely to commit fulltime to WoW as “my game” ever again; there are too many other games out there that offer me things WoW doesn’t.

But I can’t deny that I’m having fun. Mists of Pandaria might just be “more of the same”, but Blizzard has refined the formula time and again; the execution is so polished it gleams. And it’s nice to have company, too; it takes a lot to build a guild, and since WoW we’ve only ever reached critical mass in SWTOR. It’s very comforting to log into a game and know you’re going to see another dozen names around, instead of wondering if anyone’s going to be around tonight, and that’s an experience I’ve been missing in my recent gaming life.

So, Azeroth, I’m back. I haven’t moved back in, and I’m not sure I’m planning to, but I guess it’s a good thing I never gave back my key, right?

The trap of linearity

Tobold is experiencing Mists of Pandaria largely spoiler-free, and is concerned that MoP is shaping up to be just as linear as Cataclysm.

Blizzard is making most of their money from people like my wife, who was subscribed to WoW all the way through Cataclysm, and was busy leveling alts.

Mists of Pandaria might well turn out to be the worst expansion ever to level alts in. It has the linearity of Cataclysm zones, but where Catalysm had two possible zones to start in, Mists of Pandaria only has one. The Jade Forest might end up being more hated than Hellfire Peninsula, because in Hellfire at least you could skip the quests you didn’t like. All the talk you heard about Blizzard making MoP more casual-friendly is going to come to nothing if those casuals become bored of leveling alts due to linear questing.

An SWTOR mission

This is exactly the problem I encountered with SWTOR. The class quests are unique to your class, but the rest of the zones are incredibly linear, with very little room for deviation. The best you can do is try to get ahead on XP and skip side quests, but you can’t just ignore a zone planet completely even when you’re totally burnt out on it.

This pretty much killed any desire I had to play alts in a serious way in SWTOR, despite my interest in the different classes and their individual stories. It is, I think, probably the single biggest flaw with SWTOR: the replayability is very low1, which means that there’s little motivation to continue subscribing2 after you’ve played both factions to level cap. Even raiders need something to do outside of raid times.

Tangentially, The Secret World has the same problem — however, it’s less of an issue in TSW because you can do everything on one character (except experience the very small amount of faction-specific content), so a) there’s less impetus to play alts, and b) you’ve got a lot more to keep you busy on your main character anyway.

Totally linear quest progression is, I think, a design mistake for a traditional MMO. It may enable the devs to tell more interesting, engrossing and epic stories, but it’s at the expense of replayability, and replayability is where the MMO money is.

  1. Relative to most other MMOs.
  2. For most people.

How Cataclysm killed WoW for me

A crying paladin.So Mists of Pandaria went live last night, I gather? This is the first WoW expansion where I haven’t been even remotely interested. For every previous expansion I’d beta-tested, prepared exhaustively, pre-ordered, and blogged extensively about the whole experience. For MoP, I watched over Kris’s shoulder while he did ten minutes of questing in the beta, and that was enough to satisfy my curiosity.

It’s an odd feeling. I don’t miss WoW, but I miss missing WoW, if that makes sense. I played WoW to the exclusion of every other game for nearly six years, and for another year unenthusiastically. For those first six years, though, WoW captivated me; I had a lot of spare time on my hands for health reasons, and I poured much of it into WoW. And as a result, I felt I’d “mastered” WoW; I felt completely at home in the game. I wasn’t a hardcore raider because I preferred my more laid-back raiding guild, but I knew the mechanics of my class inside-out, I knew the lore behind the content, and I had all the advantages that six years of enthusiastic play will give. I had all the little convenience doodads to port hither and yon, I had all the obscure and useful crafting recipes, I’d maxed out almost every faction, and I knew all the shortcuts – the hidden questgivers, the fastest way to a given location, the best way to level to 40, whatever.

And then along comes Deathwing and everything changes. All of a sudden Azeroth isn’t familiar any more; I no longer know it like the back of my hand. Everything up to level 60 is different; content I knew and loved has just disappeared – replaced in some cases, gone forever in others. I don’t feel at home any more. It’s like coming back to the town where you grew up to find that the streets are all there but every building has been replaced. 1 There’s no sense of history in wandering around these zones any more; no nostalgia or fond memories, because everything I did has been wiped away.

But the game was still similar enough that I have no desire to spend another six years reacquainting myself with all the little ins and outs; it wasn’t new enough to make that fun again. I’ve levelled my squillion alts, and the game’s not fresh enough any more to warrant levelling another squillion.

And then you add the final factor: the homogenisation. To be fair, this was a trend that began in WotLK; tidying up the messy, asymmetric old content to make it all shiny and ‘balanced’ – but WotLK only applied the principle to its own content, whereas Cata went back and swept everything away with its shiny new broom. Everything’s neat and tidy and organised – and as a result it feels planned to within an inch of its life, orderly and symmetrical and completely inorganic and uninteresting. It might be more balanced, it might be smoother for a new player, but I prefer crunchy and interesting to smooth any day.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t think Mists of Pandaria is for me. I’m not interested in the direction in which Blizzard is taking the game, and Cataclysm swept away my nostalgia, familiarity and comfort. Really, Cataclysm made it easy for me to leave WoW, because it cut the cords holding me there. So I moved on, and I’m not sure I can ever go back again. I’m sure at some point in the next year I’ll succumb to a moment of weakness and pick up Mists of Pandaria for a while, when there’s nothing else to play and nostalgia is particularly strong, but I don’t think the Azeroth I miss exists now, and this new Azeroth isn’t home any more.

Whatever happens, I’ll still miss missing WoW, and I’ll be happy for the people who can still love WoW the way I used to.

  1. And the trees all look identical, and are made of plastic. Whoops, was that cynical?