World of Warcraft is Blizzard Entertainment’s single most successful game and the most successful MMO ever released– in 2013 it raked in over $1 billion in revenue, quadruple that of its nearest competitor that year, Lineage 1, which earned a modest $253 million. It’s also Blizzard’s longest prospering game. 2014 marked its tenth anniversary, and in those ten years it has changed a lot.
When World of Warcraft was released in 2004 it quickly garnered a reputation as a social life-destroying timesink. It was a spiritual successor of sorts to a game that initially popularized the MMO genre, Everquest, which, with its slow progression, brutally difficult dungeons and bosses, and a punishing leveling experience (losing EXP when you die for example) was an experience only meant for the hardest of the hardcore. Rob Pardo, the lead designer of the original iteration of WoW and the Burning Crusade expansion, was the guild leader of one of Everquest’s most cutting edge guilds, the Legacy of Steel. Through his experience with Everquest, Pardo wanted to create an MMORPG that was more accessible and forgiving, but just as immersive.
Cue the original WoW. With giant exclamation points hovering over quest givers’ heads, not losing progress when you die, and a rich foundation of Warcraft lore to build off of, it was a smashing hit. Subscriber numbers built and built as players sank so much real time to level their character, allowing them to explore the world and experience multiple zones fitting of their level while plumbing dungeons and questing for gear. More importantly, befitting the multiplayer aspect of the game, it was pretty much compulsory to enlist the help of others to complete harder quests and survive those dungeons. Cooperating with total strangers to achieve a common goal was not only normal but expected, and the relationships that people developed with each other from those interactions could lead to forming lasting friendships and camaraderie in guilds, the centerpiece of player-initiated organization. Azeroth was the foundation for the player to build their own story, which is a paradigm that, unfortunately, rapidly deteriorated over the years after the Burning Crusade.
The end of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion saw the release of the cross-server dungeon finder, a tool players could use to find a group for a dungeon across multiple servers without having to manually do so themselves just on their own server with chat. It would also instantly teleport the player to the dungeon with their matchmaking group, removing any excitement from having found a dungeon or the anticipation of what mysteries are inside from being at the entrance. The player doesn’t even have to discover the dungeon before they’re eligible to dungeon-find first, you simply can use it when you reach the appropriate level. What’s more, since the people that you’re matched with may be from some other server, after the dungeon run you may never see those players again.
The release of the Cataclysm expansion saw a change in quest design. Azeroth was overhauled in the wake of the “Shattering” an in-game event where environmental disasters changed the face of the world, necessitating a change in how the player would experience it too. It was streamlined completely– players would follow a distinct line of quest chains that tied into one another through “Phasing” (a mechanic where aspects of the world would procedurally change as you complete quests, but only for the player). Furthermore, leveling was made a lot faster, severely reducing the time it would take for players to reach the max level, which indirectly subtracts a lot from a players capacity for immersion because the player just doesn’t spend enough time with the aspects of the world to appreciate them fully. A player could obtain a rare blue-quality item from a level 40 dungeon, but very soon would rather replace it because they’d be hitting 47 in just a few hours, whereas just going from 40 to 41 could take a day or two in the past. Lastly, and most importantly, the need to socialize directly with strangers is drastically minimized because of the matchmaking nature of the dungeon finder and a vast majority of quests are easy enough solo, leaving many more casual guilds to be a smattering of players with no connection with one another.
Fast forward to today, hot on the heels of the release of Warlords of Draenor, and it’s even worse. Garrisons have been introduced, where all players get to have their own phased little town, completely to themselves. Quest hubs are still phased, and at the end of each chain there’s a fairly lengthy cutscene. Dungeon finders, linear quest chains, a fast-paced leveling experience, a garrison town for each player, and quite a few cinematic cutscenes make for an MMO that seems to have lost the “massively” part of its genre, and is trying very hard to be a single player RPG with online multiplayer elements, where Blizzard wants to tell you their story and not let you use the world to build your own.
It is also because of this streamlining and casualization that WoW has lost its reputation as a life-sucking addicting game. Delayed gratifications, rewards for long quests and difficult dungeons have been replaced with temporary instant gratifications. It used to be a milestone to hit max level, now you get a level 90 character for free with purchase of the new expansion. It used to be a milestone to earn enough money for epic mount training, which was a significant accomplishment because 100% increased movement speed was very convenient and 1000g was HARD to get in 2005. Now it’s something of an accomplishment to collect 50 mounts, where your reward is… another mount. This is all in an earnest campaign to make the game more accessible, and it’s easy to see why it no longer being super addicting is a good thing, however in doing so Azeroth lost a significant part of what made it the World of Warcraft, and it’s no longer the immersive virtual landscape it used to be.