Don’t have time to play WoW? Not enough time to raid? Blizzard has never made it easier to feel connected to Azeroth without actually playing. Case in point: in 2006 Blizzard’s Shadow of the Necropolis patch unveiled the long awaited Naxxramas raid instance that brought the dreaded Scourge back in force to plague Azeroth — well at least some of Azeroth. After a full year in development and the forthcoming Burning Crusade expansion only a few months away, Blizzard was determined to make sure everyone could experience Naxxramas regardless if they would be able to actually visit the instance in game or not. Welcome to the new generation of “virtual” virtual worlds.
The release of Naxxramas was hailed with all of the fanfare of a triumphant Roman general returning from campaigns in distant lands. I’ll never forget seeing the Naxxramas cinematic blaring from all of the massive video screens hinged high above the Blizzard pavilion during the 2006 E3 in Los Angeles. Every demonstration terminal had pre-made characters with full Nax gear where players could log on to a special test server and try out the forthcoming Burning Crusade expansion. Most of the WoW devotees who swarmed around the Blizzard area “oohed” and “ahhed” at the Tier 3 set of armor. Little did those people know that most of them would never get to experience Naxxramas in person — unlike the lucky few who are able to experience raiding content first hand. Instead they would be relegated to experiencing the new instance by watching downloadable gameplay trailers and reading about it in convenient web previews.
Blizzard knowingly released a major instance integral to Warcraft lore that would not be experienced by the majority of their paying subscribers due to the advanced difficulty of the content and the time required to complete such content. This created a problem for Blizzard: how could they justify releasing content that was targeted at so few people without alienating the majority of their playerbase who is paying the lion’s share of the subscription fees? Their answer was to promote and sell the Naxxramas “experience” to those players who would never actually enjoy the content first hand. Live events and non-raiding quests were implemented so that the great unwashed masses could feel like they were a part of this momentous occasion in Warcraft lore. Full blown dialogue in the form of lore and quests along with their respective rewards were made available on their website to enable players to fantasize about actually being there in lieu of actually participating in the battles themselves. When the actual patch went live scripted events were triggered in every major city in an effort to make everyone feel “included” in the storyline.
The release of Naxxramas marked a turning point for WoW. It went from primarily being a game where a casual gamer could experience the major plotlines directly as a participant to a game where most players would end up experiencing the game vicariously as spectators on the sidelines. I believe this is part of a disturbing trend in the MMO industry where average players who find themselves being shut out of first class content instead turn to MMO websites and discussion forums to live vicariously through the achievements of others. Rumor has it that Naxxramas is a masterpiece of challenge and design; all the more a pity that such a gem has intentionally been made obselete and unattainable to mere mortals.
If this trend continues, we risk becoming virtual benchwarmers. Today’s casual gamer and even the average raider is in danger of being relegated to the sidelines as the professional gamer carries the torch for the rest of us. Just as in the past we cheered on the super heroes of cinema, we now cheer on the uberguild superstars and celebrities. Enter the WoW euro guild Nihilium: one of the first sponsored guilds who actually plays WoW professionally for a living. Recently they gained fame by being the first guild ever to vanquish the uber boss of the Burning Crusade expansion: Illidan Stormrage. In a recent interview with WoW Stratics, Kungen the guildmaster proudly related that the video of their feat has been downloaded over 300,000 times by WoW fans across the world. There are even websites like WarcraftMovies.com that have thousands of videos of various guilds defeating bosses throughout Azeroth. Sitting on the couch and watching your favorite guild defeat the bosses in dungeon XYZ has never been easier.
The underlying strength of online gaming has been that it provides the user with an opportunity for participatory entertainment. MMO companies should be creating worlds where the majority of their subscribers can physically experience the majority of their prime time content firsthand. In-depth previews of quests and items, voluminous amouts of text lore on company websites and gameplay trailers are no substitute for the player actually being there in person. When a company starts employing smoke and mirrors tricks like Blizzard has done in covering their tracks with the release of Naxxramas, they are doing the paying subscriber a great disservice.
On a somewhat related note, by officially releasing spoilers on major plot lines and quests Blizzard is demeaning the actual benefit of being physically present in the world to experience events as they happen. The so-called Scourge invasion was promoted months in advance by Blizzard which ultimately killed the sense of immediacy and element of suprise. It’s a good thing for the free world that Blizzard wasn’t in charge of the D-Day Normandy invasion back in World War II.
The basic premise of MMO’s is that players should have a chance to actively participate in the worlds they inhabit and fully experience content in all its scripted glory. People who love to rail against video games should save their scorn for other forms of entertainment that are passive in nature such as sporting events and television. While some may argue that sports spectators are indeed active and not passive, the fact is they have no direct role in the outcome of the game. Spectators watch history unfold; they don’t make history.
Video games put the player directly in charge. Granted, the entertainment and fun derived from the gaming experience is proportional to the effort of the player. However, this is only true to a point as the content has to be created with reasonable difficulty in mind. When new content is released that can only be experienced by the privileged few (who have the required time and resources to expend) it exposes a major disconnect between the gaming company and its subscribers. Imagine if Disney created an amusement park where everyone had to be 7 feet tall to get on the rides and made those under 7 feet tall pay all the same. People don’t go to Disneyland to visit the concession stands, they go to fully immerse themselves in the richness of the rides and attractions. People don’t play MMO’s to be bench warmers and 2nd class citizens, they play to be heroes and experience the first class content that they are paying for.
When the vast majority of your subscribers will never be able to realistically experience the major storylines of your virtual world, you have a serious problem with the direction of your MMO. I would like to ask Blizzard one question: just how many hours a week do I need to realistically devote to your MMO before I qualify to experience the main attractions of the World of Warcraft?
Another interesting phenomenon is the role that uberguilds play in the marketing and promotion of online games. For years now, various uberguilds have been posting online accounts of their raids complete with screenshots of the encounter and treasures obtained. For most players, this is as close as they will ever get seeing those dungeons. MMO companies have welcomed this practice much like top fashion designers lend out their haute couture creations to celebrities in the hope that increased exposure will result in more buzz about their products. Is it any wonder that a disproportionate allocation of resources is dedicated to creating content exclusively for raiders? Perhaps unwittingly, raiders have become promotional stooges for MMO company marketing departments with only purple pixels as compensation.
On a personal note, I have found my own journey in the world of MMO’s to be problematic of late. There was a period of my life where I had a lot of free time and MMO’s filled that void. As a player that used to be an avid EQ raider and guildmaster of a large WoW raiding guild, the realization that I am completely out of touch with the current raiding game is bittersweet for me. The cost of being an uber raider is too high these days, so I’m content to exist on the bones that Blizzard tosses out to the casual gamers every so often. Although I am happy to be spending more time with my wife and non-gaming activities, there is a sense that I am missing out and that the parade has passed me by. How do I fill this virtual vacuum? I indulge in a guilty pleasure; I end up reading about the exploits of people who can actually still play on MMO related websites and forums.
Somehow, by keeping up with who’s killed the latest uberboss makes me feel connected to a MMO I barely play. I can’t help thinking that there are many folks out there that are in my situation including the people who actually make WoW and other MMO’s. Note to existing and future MMO companies: I already have a full-time job; I don’t need another full-time job playing your MMO. Until an online game is released that allows players like myself to fully participate in the prime content, I will continue to experience the lore and the adventures second hand — through the deeds of others. Perhaps this has been the way of the world since recorded time as people have always turned to spoken word, music, books and movies to relive the experiences of others. Funny though, I thought MMO’s were supposed to be different.