Who killed the power fantasy? A World of Warcraft story

I struggled to condense my feelings on the latest World of Warcraft expansion into a short easily readable and pithy blog post so I gave up and decided to write all the words instead.

Prologue: The Sword in the Stone

For a very brief moment I thought I was going to be the King of England. It was very brief, and by that I mean about half a second.

Tauren Paladin in Lights Hope Chapel

Why yes my shoulders are on fire and I do have a small bird on my head.

I went to Disneyland Paris when I was about 18 with a youth orchestra group. We were playing at one of the little side stages which was a big deal for us, but not really such a big deal for the five people who mistakenly wandered over to the backwater of the park we were playing in.

Being 18 with a youth orchestra group abroad basically means you’re in quasi-parent-guardian mode. If one of the mini-clarinetists falls over and skins a knee, you’re the one that’s responsible for tracking down a plaster and making sure they haven’t broken anything. It’s not like you can just leave them for dead and head over to Space Mountain, you have to work to stop tears and tantrums. What I’m trying to say is by the time I was in Disneyland Paris, I was old enough and in the mindset of an adult enough not to be tricked by any nefarious Disney dark magic.

In one quiet part of the park, there was a sword lodged into a stone, a la the Legend of King Arthur, a la Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. Of course you have to go and try to pull it out. It’s there. That’s what it’s there for. Everyone needs to go and try to pull it out. So that’s what I did, knowing it was a stupid prop that you were probably supposed to pose for a picture with, pretending to struggle to pull it out. Mild laughs all round.

The sword moved…

“It moved! that means I’m either worthy of the monarchy, or the reincarnated form of King Arthur himself which makes sense because the legends do say that he will return when we need him the most and I’ve always felt special, and I knew it wasn’t just an only-child thing! Also I can’t be the first person to try and pull this sword out and nobody else has removed it so it must have significance! It’s a bit weird that this quiet part of Disneyland Paris holds the key to deciding the head of state of the UK. Definitely an unconventional method of selecting governments, but in fairness I don’t really understand the electoral system either! Maybe it’s all decided by swords in stones in theme parks?”

It immediately stopped moving after it had come out about three inches. It was supposed to do this. It was a clever trick that is designed to make you laugh, and laugh I did, but I can’t lie, in that 0.5 seconds, my brain did some mental acrobatics.

Reality quickly came crashing back, but for that briefest of moments, I genuinely felt like I had been chosen for something else.

Part One: World of Lorecraft

The World of Warcraft is third generation Tolkien-spawn. Starting life as a real-time-strategy game that was originally going to be themed around Games Workshop’s Warhammer tabletop game (second generation Tolkien-spawn, having drawn heavy inspiration from Dungeons and Dragons, the original first generation Tolkien-spawn).

Tauren Paladin riding on the back of a druid

Cantering through the forest on the back of a critical character in the Warcraft lore.

It wasn’t the first RTS ever made, but it was very good. Blizzard started to build a reputation as a developer that polished its titles until they shone. They wouldn’t be the ones creating a genre, but they would be the ones to perfect it given the inclination.

There was a narrative element to the original Warcraft, but it wasn’t until the sequel came out that this started to feel more convincing. Once Warcraft 3 was out the door, we were getting into real world-building territory with some decent memorable storytelling that was not necessarily what you expected from an RTS.

Warcraft 3 started with a campaign that puts you in the platemail boots of a heroic paladin leading an army against impossible odds and undead hordes. It then makes you sit and watch as everything you do with good intentions drives that hero to the dark side, only for him to become the hero of your next campaign where you play as the undead hordes. That was an incredibly bold move, of which you practically only get in video games.

Because the developers at Blizzard loved playing popular MMO-of-the-day Everquest and had a fantasy world of their own that was starting to take on a shape of its own beyond its third-generation Tolkein reskin nature, it was in hindsight an obvious move that they were going to make an MMO. Only hindsight can tell you that they were going to make THE MMO. It always has been and always will be a risky move to make an MMO.

Now there was a world of Warcraft as opposed to a series of Warcraft campaigns driven by a story, and this meant everything needed expanding and at the same time reconciling as much as possible. With each successive expansion, some of that story and world-building needed bringing together, some of it needed changing or reworking and a lot of it needed to be made far more detailed.

As a result, the lore of Warcraft has become a relatively weighty tome with a lot more complexity than one might expect and it has also become filled with a huge cast of characters and heroes, major and minor. If you know your lore at all, it can really bring the World of Warcraft to life at certain points and allow you to completely flip out when certain characters join you for quests, or when you play a part in events of any significance. It doesn’t matter what you think of it, it’s there and it helps.

This aspect of being a part of big world-changing events brings about the first crack in World of Warcraft as an experience. Alongside these heroes and a patchwork of events stitched together through three RTSs and at this point seven releases of the World of Warcraft itself, you have the player. More accurately, the 10 million+ players.

The players don’t quite fit. They never fit. The lore and the story for the most part is played very straight. It’s one of the reasons the big Warcraft film felt a bit odd to veterans of the game – it all looked about right, the geography seemed pretty faithful, the orcs looked amazing, but it was missing that giant cow wearing goggles, wielding a shotgun and riding on the back of a chunky motorbike just trundling past doing their own thing.

Player characters feel like interlopers. Tourists just travelling through. The <your name here> hero of the world. Players in the World of Warcraft are guests in a theme park and that theme park is designed to give as many brief moments of wonder to the player as possible, but just occasionally, some of those moments land.

World of Warcraft: Legion has taken that half a second of my divine-right-to-rule-as-declared-by-Disney confusion and stretched it across an entire 100s hour online experience. The latest expansion to this wildly successful MMO truly cements World of Warcraft as Disneyland online. This is no longer a role-playing game. It is now purely a power fantasy theme park.

Part Two: Join the Queue for the ‘Save the World (of Warcraft) ride’

Most expansions of World of Warcraft have some headline feature to draw players in. It might be the introduction of flying mounts, a new class, a new race or a player-owned garrison. In Legion, one of these headline features is that the game gives you a famous artifact weapon that stays with you throughout the storyline and it puts you in charge of one of the in-world class factions.

This means that Justhoof Hoofington, my Tauren retribution paladin, now wields the Ashbringer, probably the de-facto iconic Warcraft sword – a great two handed weapon with a shiny circly bit in the middle that has been talked about by various characters since the game’s original release. Players have been wanting to find this since the very beginning. There even used to exist a quest line to find it, but it was never possible to complete it.

Lord Hoofington is also now in charge of the Silver Hand, the holy order of Paladins that was commanded by a long-dead character from the RTS series. The order operates out of a secret underground base under a chapel in the Eastern Plaguelands where they used to operate as a defense against the hordes of undead.

Getting these accolades and swords heaped on you feels great. Except, standing in the great hall and surveying my troops, I realise there appear to be a lot of other Paladins walking around like they own the place and surveying troops. I can also spot a few other Ashbringers slung over shoulders of these ideas-above-their-station rival paladins.

Tauren Paladin flying away from Dalaran

A regular daily commute in the World of Warcraft.

I can only assume that these other imposter-paladins were all just told that they were actually in charge, and were given replica Ashbringers, because I clearly have the real one and it’s really me who’s in charge here. I’m calling the shots. I have the sword. None of these other paladins that seem to be doing the exact same things as me.

After a while, once you’ve let the imposter-paladin issue sink in, you start to notice that the world itself is sort of just waiting for you to turn up before anything interesting happens.

They all need your help specifically. They call you by name, in the text at least – the audio doesn’t actually say Justhoof, but it’s implied.

Although, sometimes you notice someone turns up just before you do and then they clearly head off to do the same thing that you’re heading off to do. Maybe they’re helping you out, but it’s starting to feel a bit strange and is happening too often to be a coincidence.

Sometimes someone rides up behind you on a noisy smoke-belching chunky motorcycle as your story moment is ending. Then they hang around a bit, as if they’re having a story moment of their own. But you’re the hero, right? You. Only you. They can’t be asking for everyone’s help!

Of course it’s always been this way. MMOs require a certain degree of suspension of disbelief to get into, but it suddenly all feels a lot more pronounced.

You no longer really have the down time to look at your hard won loot and to plan your next adventure. There’s no cresting a hill to survey the landscape and take in the immensity of the world before you. You don’t find yourself watching the sun come down as you trudge across the terrain in search of a well hidden quest goal.

You don’t do any of these things because if you so much as blink you’ll find you’re already been whisked up by a Hippogryphonwolfboar to take you to the next place where you can earn the blessing of the ancient Vrykhul deities to attune you for the trials of valor to earn the Aegis of might (which has much better stats than that rubbish that you’re carting around for a shield anyway) before handing in a discarded fel machine part to a goblin who’s going to teach you how to make gun-goggles. Then it’s off to the sanctum of Dalaran to warp off to another part of the world in search of a shiny ball of light that fell from the sky and could be the key to saving the world and by the way you need to be learning some new cooking recipes so you can earn this nice hat that gives you +5 cooking.

Occasionally you’ll be asked to collect a bunch of bear hearts.

When you finish something, maybe you’ll get a little video advancing the story or maybe a little scene will play out in front of you, but don’t linger too long – it’s time to head to the next themed land and try some new roller-coasters! You’re done with Vrykul land, now it’s on to Naga land!

And that guy on the motorbike. It looks like he’s coming too.

Part Three: Delusions of Grandeur

I’m not the first person to point out that World of Warcraft is designed like a theme park. They follow very similar design sensibilities.

Disneyland features something the park designers called “hidden Mickeys” – basically these are notable landmarks that are visible at certain locations in the park which give guests an idea of where they’re heading to, so when they get there later they are both excited to be at the place they saw earlier and also not completely confused by this new piece of architecture.

Warcraft has always been full of this sort of thing. It’s very good at getting you to head in a certain direction by setting things up with little tricks like this. It’s mostly just good game and world design to guide people along a path without them really knowing it.

Tauren Paladin by an ethereal fireplace

Pretty sure someone on the Warcraft dev team is a Dark Souls fan.

Since the last expansion, it has been a lot more rewarding to go a little bit off the beaten path and dig around in caves, but even with this, at no point are you ever in danger of going completely off the rails. In fact, when you start going in a direction other than the suggested path, you get a little sensation in the back of your mind that you’re going the wrong way through a combination of UI elements that make it clear where you should be for the current quest, and environment design which makes you realise that trying to jump over this wall that’s slightly too high for you to reasonably jump over is probably not the right way.

Azeroth has become an incredibly safe environment considering it is almost constantly in danger.

The safety that the players are in at practically all times is probably the oddest aspect of World of Warcraft now. Over the years, the designers have been methodically sanding off any rough edges and smoothing out any bumps in the game to keep play as continuous and seamless as possible. As a result, a lot of the things that might have previously walloped a careless player or someone who doesn’t completely know what is going on have just disappeared.

It even applies to the danger inherent in social interaction. By this danger, as opposed to any actual nefarious social mishaps you could fall into, what I really mean is danger to your most precious resource: time.

Joining a group to do one of the co-op requiring dungeons is now as simple as joining a queue, whereby you specify which role you are going to do, and select which dungeon you want to do. In the original iterations of Warcraft, there was often risk attached to this if you didn’t have a regular group. Assuming you were on your own and trying to join a group, you had to:

  1. Find four other people who wanted to do the same dungeon as you
  2. Ensure one player would tank and one would heal
  3. Find your way to the dungeon door itself in the world
  4. Help the other people get to the door when they got lost in ocassional labyrinthine caves
  5. Hope that the tank and healer knew they were in fact tanking and healing once you started the dungeon
  6. Hope the group knew what it was doing and understood basic mechanics like threat and not standing in fire
  7. Hope that at least one person had done the dungeon before and could warn people of any unexpected fire that you might end up standing in
  8. Find your way back into the dungeon and regroup if you die
  9. Hope that nobody would drop out randomly half way through, risking you having to start at step one again
  10. Hope that nobody would try and steal all of the loot and cause drama at any point

In more recent versions of World of Warcraft, to do a dungeon, now you have to:

  1. Queue up for a dungeon (random, or of your choice) as a selected role
  2. Be automatically teleported there with a balanced group, often within seconds
  3. Hope the group isn’t a bit off, but if anyone drops out or is kicked, they can be replaced automatically, often within seconds.

They’ve even smoothed over loot dispute by just straight up assigning loot to the relevant classes in instances. You can get through hundreds of dungeons in the time it would take you to get through a couple in the old world.

Out in the over-world, it’s now easier to stay alive, you don’t have to recharge health or mana as often and the quests are grouped together to minimise pointless travel and back-and-forthing. The way you are encouraged to travel from place to place even ends up feeling like a bit of a roller-coaster, taking you through different areas within a single themed region, facing off against varied foes and never staying in one place for too long.

What this means is that this is no longer a traditional RPG where you are put in the shoes of the hero and told to save the world, this is instead a semi-interactive experience where you sit in the hero-cart and occasionally hit the animatronics with a foam sword as you breeze past them, only for them to reset behind you for the next hero-cart. Occasionally you will get off the ride for a little bit of story, or for a snack break.

Part four: Like coming home

World of Warcraft: Legion is not anything new. It is World of Warcraft, but moreso. The team making this has had a lot of practise, Blizzard have a lot of customer-usage data and analytics about what does and does not work, what is and is not popular, and they are unusual in that they are constantly acting on it.

I have been having an on-again off-again quasi-abusive relationship with the World of Warcraft for about 10 years now. I jokingly refer to the times I return to it as “a relapse” but really, I’m only half joking. There is something here that just occasionally tricks me into forgetting about the theme park and fully immerses me in the world, flaws and all.

Tauren Paladin walking in the moonlight

For half a second I believe it is me and only me that slew the Lich King, that I alone stood against the wrath of Deathwing, that I took up arms against the Burning Legion and led my devoted order of the Light against the armies of darkness. I didn’t even do half of those things in the actual game, but the NPCs that talk to me don’t always seem to realise that, so I believe it all the same.

For half a second, I forget about that other guy creeping up behind me on his chunky motorbike. For half a second, I am blind to the guy in front of me who just got stuck trying to jump over a rock. For half a second, I genuinely hear the NPCs call out my name in their dialogue, despite the fact they cleverly avoid ever needing to say names in the audio whilst still including them in the written text.

For half a second out of every hour, I feel like I am the only hero that Azeroth has.

I can’t in all good conscience recommend World of Warcraft: Legion. I can’t even recommend it to former players. This isn’t some high-handed moral decision or arrogant superiority about what is and isn’t a good and worthy game or anti-MMO snobbery, it’s purely because I know I am compromised on this game.

With the World of Warcraft, I don’t know if I love it or hate it. I think I’ve felt both for it at certain points, but regardless I sure do like playing it an awful lot every now and then, even more so whenever it does something vaguely interesting or new.

I have a complicated relationship with the World of Warcraft, but my goodness is it interesting as a thing that exists as a work of design and consumer psychological affinity.

Part Five: Bad days out at bad theme parks

I’ve been a middle aged Peter Pan for as long as I can remember. What this means is I’ve refused to let go of some of my more childish pursuits, explaining why I’m currently looking at a Lego pirate ship on my desk, but I have always prided myself on being overwhelmingly sensible and a little bit boring.

Therefore, being in a theme park or funfair and not having a terribly good time whilst everyone around you appears to be losing their minds is not an unfamiliar feeling to me.

I ploughed a bit of time into Star Wars: The Old Republic shortly before my Warcraft relapse, because I decided I wanted to be a jedi with a space ship for a bit. The Old Republic came out in 201x and was billed as a Warcraft killer and frankly, if anything could kill Warcraft at this point, it would be wielding a lightsaber whilst being scored by a John Williams substitute.

Tauren Paladin squaring off against foes

Through the course of play, things often line up to look rather cinematic, even if the interface can quickly become a cluttered mess, especially with custom add-ons and plugins.

It did not kill Warcraft. News of Warcraft’s demise were very much exaggerated. It always is.

Star Wars: The Old Republic has somewhat of a community around it. It has enthusiastic Redditors who don’t understand why anyone would just settle for the free-to-play model. It has the odd critic that will sing the praises of the slightly dull and stilted story. It wins a lot of friends by giving you a spaceship at some point in the levelling process. You can get away with a lot if you give someone a spaceship.

If World of Warcraft is a theme park that you buy a ticket to and explore all day, The Old Republic is a fun fair where you have to pay per ride. You can still see people having fun whilst you’re sat counting your pennies and trying to work out if the dodgems would be a better investment than a lump of candy floss.

The Old Republic makes so many upsell attempts and throws so many calls to action it gives the professional digital marketer within me a headache. It feels like every menu you can open has at least one bright orange button highlighted that will invite you to enter payment information and buy a premium currency. Items are dropped into your inventory that you can only use once you pay up. You can only make your droid look a bit like R2-D2 if you pay up. You can only store stuff in your ship’s hold if you pay up. You won’t level up as fast as everyone else unless you pay up. Not having fun? Maybe you should pay up. You only start having fun once you pay up.

All the while, The Old Republic itself feels as rough-edged as it possibly could. In place of Warcraft’s smooth edges and seamless questing, you have vaguely Star Wars themed locales with endless identical mooks attacking you in winding-yet-linear complexes. In order to hand in quests, you frequently have to walk all the way back to where you picked them up, which might have been fine ten years ago, but will not fly in 2016. I’m not even sure it flew in 201x.

My jedi runs awkwardly with an overly-starched robe superglued to his legs that flick back and forth as he shudder through the grey and smoggy underbelly of Coruscant whilst my Minotaur Paladin wields the Ashbringer from the back of a Twilight Drake soaring through the skies above Azeroth.

It’s clearly not easy to make a theme park and yet my disappointing budget-jedi experience just shines a light on how nothing about the World of Warcraft is lazy. A lot of people wrote the game off when it looked like Blizzard was chasing the Chinese market and themed an entire expansion around pandas, but everything in Legion is polished far more than it needed to be.

Tauren Paladin riding on the back of a raptor

This is a world where you can loom menacingly over a settlement you are about to clear out atop your riding-raptor.

People have been reporting on declining subscriber numbers for Warcraft for about as long as the game has existed, but even if it were drop dramatically, it would still have the largest subscribed player-base in the entire industry thanks to a tremendous amount of social buy in from the community that has built up around it. It didn’t need to make the effort to draw these people in further – they’re in already and don’t want to leave. It didn’t even need to make this sort of effort to draw someone like me in – I’ll probably always pop back for a month or two to find out what’s changed and what’s going on, but they do it anyway.

I have a fear that Warcraft will never go anywhere and will just be a thing that exists forever. Gaming’s first long-running soap opera. The Coronation Street of MMOs – it only takes a couple of sessions to pick back up where you left off, only a couple of quests to catch up on the story, and plenty of incentives to make your reintegration as smooth as possible.

I also have a feeling that they will keep updating the theme park. They will keep adding new lands and new attractions as trends change and things go in and out of fashion. Maybe Warcraft feels familiar and engaging because it is always exactly what it needs to be at the time it needs to be. If Star Wars: The Old Republic, a game less than half its age, can feel horrendously dated already whilst World of Warcraft continues to feel infinitely playable and familiar like it always has done, maybe this is simply a testament to the design prowess and business acumen of Blizzard.

Warcraft will never change because it always changes. It will constantly mould itself around us to keep the endless power-fantasy rollercoaster going until one by one, we leave happy but over-tired wearing their murloc hats and trailing alliance or horde balloons behind us.

And of course we’ll be back again next year for another tour round the park when the new area opens up.

Epilogue: A message from the future

I recently met up with myself in a café. I was travelling through time but had missed my stop, so ended up here with time to kill before the next machine left for the future. Apparently ending up in 2016 is the new falling asleep on the tube and ending up at Walthamstow.

With time to kill, I called myself and we met up at a Café Nero. Cafés have become very rare in the future – they’ve all been replaced by small independent shops. It’s difficult to tell how old I am. I’ve gone grey, but that’s started already so that doesn’t help. I look tired, but again it could just be a matter of a couple of rough nights with a teething baby rather than the inexorable march of time.

We got talking about comics, TV, the surprise twist at the end of the final book of Game of Thrones that reveals it was all one big game of Dungeons and Dragons all along and it pans out to be the start of Stranger Things season 6 (it was a long wait to the finale of Game of Thrones apparently) and inevitably video games.

Most major publishers have gone out of business and have been replaced by the most successful indie developers who have gone on to become massive major publishers and there is once again a new indie games movement looking to topple the major publishers.

I made a very popular sequel to Crisis Captain that was downloaded 10 million times at $1.99 a download, but due to a weird glitch with paypal, the money ended up being re-routed to Battersea Dogs Home and I couldn’t bring myself to ask for it back.

I’m also playing Warcraft again. The latest expansion, World of Warcraft: Return of the Lich King, is Blizzard’s second Nostalgia Expansion™. They’ve been taking the original games and expansions and redoing them so all the content is as smooth and polished as possible. The initial relaunch of World of Warcraft: Classic was a tough pill to swallow for a lot of true Warcraft veterans, but that’s not who Blizzard were targeting. Instead, they were after the children and in some case grandchildren of original players and wanted to introduce the World of Warcraft to that new generation.

Original players were also mostly lured back with the introduction of classic realms which let them go back to the very original release of the game and see just how dated and terrible it feels to play now.

Tauren Paladin fishing

When all else fails, there is always fishing. Always.

World of Warcraft is also now available on all major smartphones, Google Glass, Sony Walkman 2.0, the Sega X, all 15 major virtual reality headsets (except the Oculus Rift which is suffering after the implosion of Facebook following Mark Zuckerberg’s current bid to become president of the Moon) and Mac.

I reminded myself of this blog post and asked if I could add this epilogue to it. It gave us a bit of a headache, because we both remember writing this so we could refer to it when we met each other, but we obviously hadn’t met each other yet so it’s not clear where this content actually came from.

I said it was fine, but that really, I didn’t have much to add. World of Warcraft was still doing what it always did. In my eyes, Warcraft hadn’t changed. There were a few new features added here and there – seamless integration with Warcraft 4: World of Strategy came in after one of the expansions and an ill fated cross-promotion with the beta of Starcraft Universe nearly killed off the entire company at one point, but apart from that, it’s still Warcraft.

Combat is basically the same. Quests are basically the same. The world itself is basically the same.

Of course, combat is now real time, quests are tailored to each player and the world was redesigned a couple of times again, but it’s still the same. It’s still World of Warcraft. Just more polished.

Still no Half-Life 3.

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