Azeroth is a huge game world with a lot of variety between the different zones. It has an enormous amount of lore, countless characters with a detailed backstory and even a lot of the items in the game have a story behind them. With such an enormous world and so many things happening all around you, it shouldn’t be a problem to go out there and have an adventure on your own.
Well, I’ve tried, but it’s really hard, and Blizzard seems to be trying their hardest to implement changes that somehow directly affected my current “adventure”.
You see, I really like customization and trying new things that are a little bit off the beaten path in games. When WoW was fresh I didn’t really bother all that much with this, because I still had plenty of fun with the regular content. Especially when playing your first character everything is new and exciting. But after a while you start to see a pattern. Enter a new zone, do a bunch of quests, get some new items and gain a level or two, go to the next zone, repeat. Well, if you like playing just for the story, that’s probably fine the first time around. When you start a new character and eventually end up in a zone you’ve already quested through with your first character, things might get ugly. Suddenly Random NPC-Guy #25 has lost his treasured hanky…again! In the same place! And it has been picked up by the same Random Evil-Mob #412! Again! What are the odds? Especially considering that Random Evil-Mob #412 should be dead, because I already killed him.
The fact of the matter is, that everybody experiences exactly the same story, due to the quest-heavy gameplay. While you sometimes have the choice of going to another zone for a few levels, especially with the expansions, the experience is insanely linear. Chances are…no, there’s not a chance…it’s a fact: Nothing you do in WoW hasn’t been experienced exactly the same way by millions of people before you. People with the same class, spec, equipment and professions have done exactly the same quests in exactly the same order with exactly the same outcome. They’ve seen the same “shocking” twists, killed the same “super evil” enemies just before they could blow up the universe and there’s nothing special about anything you’ll be able to do, especially while leveling your character.
It was more or less like that right from the start, but it has actually gotten a lot worse. Nowadays, the first expansion, The Burning Crusade, is considered to have a very unstructured and badly paced questing structure compared to later expansions and the overhaul the 1-60 content received with Cataclysm. To me that’s a very good example how the gameplay experience progressed.
I remember my first questing through the Outland zones quite well. At first it was a lot of fun, the rush and excitement of the very first WoW expansion was really something special and that experience will never be reproduced as long as WoW exists. But I wasn’t even halfway through Hellfire Peninsula when I started complaining about the quest structure in the game. All quests were in one zone, you hopped from quest hub to quest hub and when you left a zone you could rest assured you had seen everything. In WoW classic you didn’t have any choices either, but the zones weren’t self contained and a lot of quests lead to other zones or another continent and there often were quests “hidden” in remote corners of a zone, only available through rare quest drops or by simply being available at unusual levels (like the lvl40 quest in Westfall).
These days Blizzard doesn’t think that’s such a good idea so they force feed you all the content, making sure there’s nothing left to discover after casually finishing a zone.
I actually had to accept the quest at one point, because I couldn’t farm leather anymore…the damn thing kept popping up every 2-5 mobs and throwing the old one away each time to skin the mob got pretty annoying.
So, questing and story isn’t something where you can experience something unique or at least create a custom experience, which leaves the gameplay or the way “how” you play through the linear content.
Over the years, both gear and talent trees have been streamlined to reduce mistakes players can make while equipping their character or choosing a spec.
On the gear side, it’s pretty difficult for a character to wear a huge amount of the “wrong” gear, like equipping random cloth items with agility or choosing the wrong quest reward. Item drops that made no sense for a regular build were entirely removed from the game, you won’t find a robe of the monkey on a random mob anymore and in Mists of Pandaria, you can’t even select from different quest rewards, as the game automatically gives you the one that’s best for your class and spec.
Of course, in theory these changes made sense as selecting the wrong quest reward didn’t help anybody and usually a warrior would pick the strength shield and not the intelligence ring, so why give them a choice in the first place? Agility cloth items weren’t actually used by anybody either, right? So get rid of those as well, nobody will miss it. But the way I see it, this changed two things.
First is the removal of responsibility. Nowadays “If the hat ain’t red it belongs on your head!” won’t necessarily result in a catastrophic failure anymore. Players don’t have to think about their gear anymore, because they can’t go wrong. You can’t need on items not designed for your class, you can’t make a mistake when buying valor/justice items anymore, because you have to actively change the item list to a different class to buy the “wrong” item.
My second point is the inability to do something different on purpose with equipment while leveling a character. I put a lot of time into theorycrafting weird classes such as a melee mage, a tank priest and others. Of course these specs are by no means viable, but it was possible to think outside of the box and create something interesting. With the removal of odd gear, my melee mage already took a huge blow, but I wasn’t ready to give up since I spent a lot of time on the talent spec (I worked on the char during WotLK) and was eager to see how it played out during higher levels.
So Cataclysm came and simplified the talent trees a lot. Now it was impossible for a new player to make totally wrong choices because the amount of “useless” filler talents was significantly reduced and a character also got locked into one talent tree until a lot of points had been spent in it. So no more spending points all over the place. However, this also made it impossible for my little melee mage to make use of the odd talents scattered over the three trees. While I could still walk around hitting stuff with a stick, it wasn’t interesting anymore, because I didn’t have the benefit of all the passive talents. I even made sure not to learn any spells that could potentially damage an enemy from the trainer. Since you get all abilities automatically these days, that’s more customization feature out of the window…and one less thing for new players to pay attention to.
Of course the melee mage seems like a “silly” example, but it just shows how you couldn’t do anything out of the box without instantly going to extremes.
Now the only customization features of the game are entirely cosmetic. I do like transmogrification to a certain extent, but of course it has no effect on the gameplay.
World of Warcraft, especially during leveling, is essentially a single player game…a very linear single player game filled with cutscenes, scripted sequences and quicktime events.
You don’t have any choices in the story, you don’t have any actual choices in gameplay (gear and spec) and there is nothing at all to discover. The exploration aspect doesn’t exist anymore and it was already pretty small in WoW classic. If a player who started after Cataclysm chooses to go for the loremaster achievement and just rushes through the zone’s questlines, he’ll get the achievement and he’ll have experienced everything the zones have to offer.
I always thought I knew the old zones pretty well, but working on the old loremaster achievement was a blast. Now you just need to rack up zone achievements, but before that you needed a huge amount of quests finished. The current zone achievements don’t even require you to finish the entire questline, you’ll get the achievement at ~85-90% of the zone. Before that, you needed a much higher completion percentage and that was after the achievement got nerfed. Working on the pre-nerf pre-cataclysm loremaster took a lot of effort and I discovered so many well hidden quests I never found before, even after I had played through all the zones multiple times on various characters.
Blizzard tried something different with the Mists of Pandaria expansion, they claimed the expansion would bring back the classic WoW spirit of exploration and adventure, but it didn’t really work. While there are some minor things to discover every now and then, it’s usually just a text to read. The only good thing about the MoP changes are the rare mobs, but I’ll talk about the expansions in detail later. Still, actual customization and unique gameplay experiences can’t be found in Mists of Pandaria either.
To mention Ultima Online again: The game didn’t have any quests, classes or talent trees. There were no character levels or “zones” with enemies of adequate strength. Each time you logged in you made your own experience and based on your own preferences and character build that experience was completely unique.
Here’s a picture of a two headed mutant racoon sheep. I hope it’ll keep you entertained until tomorrow’s entry.
Oh and I’m totally aware of the fact that I just want to promote my awesome melee mage that isn’t even playable anymore…maybe I’ll make a whole article about that 😉