[Prior to diving into this latest edition of a growing series of articles, you should check out the backstory behind this mini-series with the initial concept primer and its first two installments that I've listed below.]
I was able to touch briefly on Ultima Online and the original EverQuest in yesterday's column entry, with an emphasis on Sandbox games and how they create a unique environment where players can carve themselves out a niche and role within the larger game community. While I personally believe that sandbox environments are the ideal fit for role-playing, that doesn't necessarily mean that themepark styled content doesn't make for great immersion and role-based play as well.
Unfortunately though, it is very challenging to successfully achieve. It has to be done just right, and very few games have accomplished this feat.
Living Life on Rails
Believe it or not, themepark styled games that contain mostly linear content can serve as effective and healthy role-playing containers. Great narrative and a larger story to follow gives players plenty of places to tie themselves into the larger events happening in the world as well as the actual game community. When you consider games that run linear content and provide various specific roles for players to assume while they play - nothing stands out bigger than World of Warcraft.
World of Warcraft
I won't dive into origins, influence, or any of the other intriguing aspects of this genre-dominating game. Instead, I'm going to really focus on the game's core gameplay and how, historically, it has allowed players to interact. Very early on, World of Warcraft actually did an amazing job of creating opportunities for players to shine and assume a role within this game's massive community, and especially within their smaller groups.
It Just Isn't the Same
The bad news is that this compelling and attractive game experience has been greatly eroded over time. I don't believe that Blizzard is really at fault here either, unless you can fault the publisher for adjusting their game to meet the community's demands. It's an interesting dilemma really. The gaming community of every online game throughout history always clamors for new features and various quality of life improvements that they want to see happen in their favorite games.
Unfortunately over time, all these "improvements" can actually begin to eat at the core experience that originally attracted these players in the first place. Specifically concerning World of Warcraft, its own players and community requests that have been added over the years are probably the primary reason that the game has lost so much of what makes the experience satisfying and fulfilling.
So much of it is irreversible at this point that now the developers are just throwing stuff in to try and keep people happy enough and "listened to" between additional content expansions to maintain their subscription levels (which to be fair is still north of seven million, last I heard). The most recent update to Warlords of Draenor has probably been one of the most disappointing additions the game has ever received. It all begs the question: Where did WoW go wrong?
Turning Back Time
If we could crank back the clock to an earlier time in WoW's impressive history, we'd find ourselves in a game that isn't anything like the current one. No dungeon finder, no flying mounts, no massive level range, and no garrisons. The game had an interesting and entertaining story, and contained equal amounts of epic adventure and amusing comedy. And all that was attractive because the IP was familiar and MMORPG gaming had really gained steam through all the hard work and efforts of WoW's predecessors.
It was solid. It was fun. And to be perfectly honest, most people really liked it. I even found myself glued to the game for almost two years as I explored all that Azeroth had to offer, and I consider myself heavily biased by my original EverQuest background. WoW wasn't a sandbox, but somehow it seemed right and it was a brand new world to explore. I felt unique back then, playing as one of the very few sword-rogues and finding my niche in both PvE and PvP environments. I had a role and it felt meaningful. The worlds were heavily populated and most players had tons of reasons to interact.
Unfortunately, it didn't last forever. The auction house got more streamlined, classes were tweaked to aid in "solo" gameplay, and more and more quality of life features were added that seemed to be driving a wedge between players. I don't believe it was intentional, but nevertheless it did compartmentalize the game dramatically over time.
WoW's Evil Modern Twin
When you log in to World of Warcraft now, everything is so segregated that you rarely see other players when participating in most of the games primary features. Even in raids and dungeon finder it often feels like you're just partying with a bunch of voiceless NPCs. There's so much UI in the way of gameplay that immersion is all but lost and efficiency has become king of all. Players just don't care about the little things going on.
Unless you're actively tied to a guild of people that are friendly, social, and committed to running player-created events, you might as well be playing a single-player game. There are just so few mechanics these days that cause players to get involved with one another in any meaningful way that doesn't feel entirely superficial or temporary.
It's sad actually, since I remember what the game was like back in 2005. And I'm not alone in my opinions either. Before I sat down to write this article I spent a lot of time talking to some of TenTonHammer's most decorated WoW veterans. They too remember earlier versions of WoW and cherish those times, because they just don't exist anymore.
When did the gameplay shift from being a social role-playing experience into a cruel lonely grind for digital shiny things?
I actually try not to think about the answer to that question, because I really don't want to know. Where or when it happened doesn't matter. World of Warcraft has become a very cold experience, especially when you compare it not just to its earlier self, but earlier MMORPGs that had very closely knit communities. For players that never got to experience first-generation MMORPGs (as I consider WoW to be a 2nd gen type of game in this genre), I just feel pity... and a fair bit of jealousy.
I pity that they never got to know what a real sandbox experience was like, and also that they only briefly got to experience what a good linear game (early vanilla WoW) feels like. At the same time though, I'm kind of jealous too. Ignorance is bliss, and I probably wouldn't feel so jaded about the genre if I'd never experienced some of the games and communities that I have prior to World of Warcraft.
As that pertains to role-based play, I really don't feel like my role has any meaning in modern World of Warcraft - at least not anything other than being a check in the Tank/Healer/DPS box for my group and/or raid. It's almost depressing how little I (and the others around me) matter. Even when I try to take the time to engage other players, the responses I get are usually some mixture of irritated, annoyed, or angry because they feel like I'm wasting time socializing instead of "playing the game".
I thought socializing was playing the game. Isn't that what massively multiplayer games are all about? I think so, and I think I'm not the only one who's waiting for a game to come along that finally gives us a chance to play together again. If you aren't a part of a community or ingrained even in a small group, you really can't have a role, in my opinion. If you are one of the few who is still a part of an active, healthy, social community in WoW, consider yourself lucky - and cherish the experience while the mechanics still tolerate it.
[Thanks for reading, and if you enjoyed this column be sure to check out my author page here on TenTonHammer and follow me on Twitter for live-notifications the moment I publish new content. And please, please consider supporting my writing here by contributing to our Patreon page. Its those contributions that help us keep this site independent and as ad-free as possible! Also, don't forget to comment below with your own thoughts, opinions, and experiences - as my own are purely singular and by no means a consensus on the topic being presented.]
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