On September 2, 2001 Blizzard Entertainment announced that they were developing World of Warcraft (WoW), the company’s first massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG or MMO). This was somewhat surprising considering the company was most famous for its real-time strategy games such as Warcraft III and Starcraft. After nearly five years of development the game was finally released on November 23, 2004 to widespread critical acclaim.
WoW is a MMORPG which means that it is a role-playing game that takes place in a persistent online world where space is shared with large groups of other players. Unlike some games that concentrate mostly on winning individual “games,” WoW focuses on long term goals with a consistent group of people. In WoW your character is consistent and while he or she may evolve over time, they can no more change their key attributes than you and I can.
Two predecessors to WoW were Everquest and Ultima Online. Ultima was a sequel to an already existing single player game franchise and therefore relied mostly on their already established niche community. Ultima also had a steep learning curve and had little to no protection from “griefers” or players who spend inordinate amounts of time attempting to ruin the experiences of beginner and casual players. Everquest improved many of these problems and introduced rudimentary 3d graphics. The result essentially set the standard for most MMO’s to come. Despite this, it still had its share of problems that kept it from reaching the mainstream, most notably the hours of mindless grinding necessary to level up characters as well as the unforgiving level of difficulty.
Although WoW works on a similar template to Everquest, it acknowledged and fixed many of the things that held its predecessors back. Unlike both games, WoW has almost no penalty for death. Making for a far less frustrating experience. WoW also introduced a far smoother learning curve that introduced game concepts slowly over time so as not to be overwhelming. WoW also had the most impressive graphics of any MMO at the time of its release. They weren’t just sharp, but also stylized and diverse, giving the user the impression that WoW is a breatihing real world. Similarly to Ultima, WoW also came prepackaged with an audience, but the Warcraft universe games were far more popular and therefore brought over larger numbers of players out of the starting gate. Lastly, WoW links up directly with the story and mythology of the previous games which makes the player feel like they are an integral part of a struggle they have been following for years.
When a player starts a new game of WoW, the first thing they must do is join a server and create a character. Servers are divided into normal, pvp and role-playing. This gives options to players who would prefer not to engage in combat with other players or for people who enjoy playing their characters as if they were actually part of the WoW mythology. Character creation is very important because it determines an unchangeable path that the player must follow. For instance a gnome mage will start in a different place and have a completely different play style from an Orc Shaman. Players can choose from ten races which are split into two opposing factions. Each race has slight statistical differences but are most different aesthetically. Class choice is also essential as each class plays radically differently although they are each created to balance with each other so no class becomes overpowered. Lastly, players must choose how they will distribute their talents. Each class has three distinct talent “trees.” Each level a player gains also comes along with a talent point which can be placed in any of the trees to further customize the character’s specialties such as healing, offense etc. This wide breadth of options ensures that there are rarely two players with the identical characters or play styles.
A large portion of the game is spent questing and leveling up. The higher level a character is, the more powerful he/she becomes. Increased levels are gained by getting experience points (xp) from quests and monsters. The amount of xp needed increases greatly with each passing level, forcing the player to constantly search for new challenges in order to progress. Characters also increase in power as they acquire gear, a task that takes precedent over leveling when a player reaches the “endgame” or the highest possible level. Gear is generally considered the primary means by which a character’s skill is judged since epic level gear can only be acquired by completing long and extremely difficult and/or tedious tasks.
Because I was already familiar with leveling and doing group dungeons, I decided to concentrate my presentation on the pvp (player versus player) aspect of the game. When WoW first launched, there was no formal pvp in place. Horde and Alliance players were free to kill each other, but there was no rewards for doing so. Eventually the honor system was introduced and offered rewards for players who were unusually proficient at killing players of the opposing faction. Later on, Blizzard added the Battlegrounds which matched similarly leveled pvp seeking players together in an enclosed area to do combat with each other. The battlegrounds eventually became the most predominant form of pvp in WoW, but many players felt that the ability to quickly come back to life in battlegrounds made it a question of time, not skill when it comes to receiving rewards.
Blizzard’s solution to this was to add the arena combat system. Arena fights are either 2v2, 3v3, of 5v5 and when a player is defeated, they are out of the fight for good. This forces players to refine their skills as one weak player can greatly weaken the team’s chances of victory. Each week Blizzard ranks the teams against each other based on their win/loss record. Although this system does force players to rely more on skill, the fact that some players have vastly superior gear still keeps many games hopelessly unbalanced.
As we saw in Morningstar and Farmer’s “The Lessons of Lucasfilm’s Habitat” creating online social worlds is ain inherently unstable process that can lead to unexpected occurrences. In Habitat, players were able to exploit price differences to make extreme am oungs of money, or illegally obtain a death ray gun that was more powerful than the developers intended regular players to have. Although WoW has been mostly successful in keeping players from cheating, unexpected things still happen. The most famous incident was the “Corrupted Blood Plague.” Blizzard added a new dungeon with a patch, the boss of which gave players a disease called corrupted blood that transferred to others around them. Instead of disappearing after leaving the dungeon as was originally intended, the disease spread throughout the whole world, killing lower level players instantly and repeatedly. Interestingly, the corrupted blood disease spread in much the same way that epidemics do in real life.
One of the most interesting things I found in my outside research on the game was a website called “The Daedalus Project.” The runner of the site named Nick Yee has surveyed over 35,000 MMO players and keeps the statistics available on his site for people to read as well as writing articles on his findings. The site has a wealth of information, far too widespread to accurately cover here, but there were a few things I found particularly interesting. Many people assume that the majority of online game players are children or teenagers, but Yee’s surveys show that the demographics are actually far more complex. Only 25% of WoW players are teens, 50% work full time, 36% are married and 33% have kids. This was interesting to me because it shows that WoW clearly has appeal to a wide group of individuals despite the seemingly niche market of fantasy and role-playing game fans.
One of the issues raised in Turkel’s article on videogames is that of potential gaming addiction. She says: “If there is a danger here, it is not the danger of mindless play but of infatuation with the challenge of simulated worlds. In the right circumstances, some people come to prefer them to the real.” This has clear applications to WoW as many players seem to prefer the complex but ruled and ordered world of Warcraft over the often more mundane aspects of reality. Yee also sees the potential for gaming addiction, saying: “There are a variety of mechanisms in MMORPGs that may encourage obsessive usage. MMORPGs employ well-known behavioral conditioning principles from psychology that reinforce repetitive actions through an elaborate system of scheduled rewards. In effect, the game rewards players to perform increasingly tedious tasks and seduces the player to “play” industriously. These environments also encourage making friends or joining guilds that then become sources of social obligations.” I can personally attest to the truth of this statement, as the game starts out quite easy with tasks that are easy to accomplish and give good rewards but as the player grows in level it takes increasingly longer times to get things done. This eventually creates a situation where the player finds him or herself playing for hours at a time and still not feeling like they have accomplished all they hoped to in the session which in turn makes the player feel like playing even more. I hope this presentation has been informative and helpful to anyone who was interested in a brief introduction into the history, society and play mechanics of World of Warcraft.