There’s something to be said for a game that’s been around for 8 years and can still claim the title of most subscribed game in the world. There’s a good reason for that, World of Warcraft provides one of the most polished gaming experiences around and continues to provide fresh content on a very regular basis. It’s for that reason that many people like me find themselves coming back for every expansion, even if we don’t end up staying for long after we finish the main quest line. I’ve been a little late to the party on this one, mostly because I didn’t have much incentive to go back, but when my friends told me they had reactivated the accounts I figured it was a good time to give it a playthrough and I’m very glad I did.
Mists of Pandaria takes place after the events of Cataclysm and the defeat of Deathwing. The young prince Anduin Wrynn (I played on Alliance side for this one) was travelling between the continents when his ship came into contact with the horde. During the ensuing battle an as of yet unknown landmass was discovered and both the ships were wrecked there. One of the crew managed to get a message out prior to this happening and you, along with a crack team of alliance soldiers are sent to rescue him. However what you discover is the long hidden land of Pandaria, inhabited by a race of humanoid Pandas who have embraced a monkish life, favouring balance over all things. The Horde and Alliance presence there has had the unfortunate effect of awakening an old evil, one that must be defeated lest Pandaria fall.
As always Blizzard has done an amazing job with the graphical improvements in Mists of Pandaria. The draw distance has been increased dramatically, allowing you to take in massive vistas that seem to sprawl out forever in front of you. The modelling and texturing in the new areas also appears to be vastly improved over its predecessors which does unfortunately highlight how dated some other aspects are (like when you’re browsing faces in the character creator). Still it says a lot that my screenshot folder was filled with all sorts of wonderful landscapes as they really were quite impressive.
Whilst a lot has changed since I last played World of Warcraft (around a year or so) the core of it still remains largely the same. You start off in one location, head off to do some quests and once you’re finished in that area you’ll head off to the next one to repeat the process. How you go about that has changed rather dramatically with the ideas introduced in Cataclysm, quest hubs and the like, improved upon considerably. There’s also been vast changes to the skill and talent systems which meant that character classes I was once familiar with suddenly feel very different. All of this adds up to a game that has the same overall feel as previous expansions did but plays very differently.
Probably my favourite among the improvements in Mists of Pandaria is the much smarter rewards system that takes into account your current class and specialization, offering you gear that is quite likely to be useful to you. I can’t tell you how many of the rewards in previous expansions just went straight to the vendor but in Mists the vast majority of them were useful upgrades. Even better was the fact the rewards kept scaling upwards with each new area I’d go to, ensuring that I always had enough gear to complete quests there rather than me having to hunt through the Auction House in order to make the cut. Couple this with a few dungeons here and there and I never felt like struggling, unless the encounter was specifically design to test me.
I think that feeds into the larger overall feeling that the whole World of Warcraft experience has just been streamlined, almost to the point of perfection. After I had blasted through 80 to 85 (as I got a Scroll of Resurrection from a friend) I was surprised just how well the quest chains seemed to line up. It was pretty much spot on for me gaining a new level and then a quest would send me onto the next area, ensuring that I didn’t waste my time in an area that would slow down my levelling pace. Couple this with other things like the in built quest tracker, better designed quests and dungeons that don’t require Deadly Boss Mods and 10 minutes on Wowhead to understand means that you’ll rarely find yourself wanting for anything, bar possibly the occasional Google search.
I unfortunately failed to get to 90 before deadline so I didn’t get a look into some of the endgame content but my friends who have been playing for a while before me say its top notch. The addition of raids to the dungeon finder has apparently made the whole experience much more enjoyable. Gearing up for current raid tiers has also been made a lot easier by significantly upping the drop rates of items in previous raids, saving people a lot of time by not requiring them to run old content constantly (something that was a real drag in the past). There’s also a whole host of other things I didn’t bother trying like crafting or pet battles but I highly doubt I was missing out on anything amazing there.
What really impressed me though was the huge amount of work Blizzard has put into the quests and the storylines behind them. All of the storyline quests, of which there are many, are fully voice acted, something that was limited to in game cutscenes and cinematics previously. This would be cool on its own but every quest hub also has its own little story line behind it, giving you an insight into why they’re there and how it all fits into the larger picture. It says a lot when you actually start caring about the NPCs as they just felt like part of the environment before. Now they’re actual characters, integral to the overall story.
This goes hand in hand with the brilliant music direction care of Russell Brower who’s been behind the music of all the expansions since The Burning Crusade. Whilst many games can get music right in pre-rendered scenes and scripted in game events rarely does the music feel like its meant to be there during the regular parts of the game. In Mists of Pandaria it’s far more than background noise, adding that extra element that complements everything else. If you’re interested it’s available on iTunes, if you don’t want to play the game that is.
I’ve been a long time fan of the World of Warcraft series having followed it from closed beta all the way up to the game that it is today. The way I’ve played it has changed dramatically over the past 8 years and the changes they’ve made are the reason I’ve kept coming back time and time again. Whilst I don’t believe I will ever get back to the same insane, near addiction levels that I did all the way back when I first started playing I don’t believe that’s a bad thing. Instead World of Warcraft has become that co-operative RPG that I play with friends every year or so and I’ll be damned if I don’t have fun every time.
World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria is available on PC right now for $69.99. Total play time on a new level 80 character was 32 hours, reaching level 89 (and maybe 1/3rd of the way through that).
If we spin back the clock a couple decades we find ourselves in a time when games fit quite easily into all of their genres. If you were told that a game was a Real Time Strategy you could be pretty sure it’d contain units, resources and buildings that you needed to build up in a strategic way in order to win. First Person Shooters were just that, you holding a gun and running from one end of a level to another ensuring that anything that got in your way didn’t stay that way for very long. Role playing games would have multiple character classes, pages of statistics and long running stories that would carry you through from the start right up until the end. Today however those kinds of boundaries aren’t so well defined with many games blending elements from several different genres which calls into question the use of these broad genres when classifying current generation titles.
Jonathan Holmes of Destructoid fame then asks if its time for us to retire the term RPG as it no longer seems to be a good fit for the games that fall under that genre. He makes a good point too, many games that include rudimentary aspects of RPG titles like levels, classes or statistics often get categorized as RPGs alongside other titles that seem far more deserving of the classification. Now that games are garnering bigger budgets and technology has advanced exponentially since the term was first used in the video games industry I’d have to agree with him that the use of the general RPG term is probably outmoded but we’re a long way away from retiring it completely.
For me personally if a game is to have the RPG moniker applied to it there has to be a couple attributes for it to qualify. Primarily it comes from being able to customize your playstyle to a fairly high level which is usually achieved through the use of classes or talent tree specializations. This, in effect, is what allows you to define your role in the game whether it be from a fire slinging mage to a half cyborg engineer who uses all manner of machines to do his bidding. Stat building, levels and all the other means to this end are really ancillary to the goal of being able to craft a role that you want to play within that game universe and that, in my mind, is the loophole that allows other games to have aspects of a RPG yet not fall into that genre.
However I feel that the term RPG is too broad to encompass everything that now fits under its original definition and that’s where the liberal use of prefixes is warranted. Whilst saying a game is a RPG might conjure a particular image for some and not others you’d be hard pressed to misunderstand what I mean when I said a game was a FPS RPG, action RPG or MMORPG. Each of these sub-genres each has a much more distinct set of guidelines for a game to fall under its umbrella and I feel is the proper way to identify games that blur the traditional definition of a RPG. In essence this means that the term RPG becomes a broad category that encompasses all of these sub-genres and can no longer be used to refer to a single category of games based on its original definition.
The redefinition of the RPG term is a sign that the games industry has grown beyond its traditional roots where everything fell neatly into the categories as we had defined them. I think that’s a wonderful thing as it shows that game developers are experimenting with game ideas that cross genres, blending elements from both in order to create game experiences that are truly unique. Indeed with all my reviews there have been many times when I’ve struggle to pin games down to one genre and that’s not just limited to RPGs. We may no longer be able to use the term to refer to a specific type of game but that doesn’t mean we should abandon the term entirely as the RPG ideals are still valid in today’s gaming industry.
I’m something of a collector of failed MMORPGs. Every since my addiction began with World of Warcraft it seemed I was forever doomed to roam the genre in search of that same feeling that World of Warcraft inspired in me. Let’s just say that in my travels I’ve seen nearly everything, from inventive PvP systems to epic grinds that required almost more time than I had invested in World of Warcraft just to reach the end game content. Over time I’ve started to notice the patterns of what causes some MMORPGs to carry on whilst others struggle to keep their users just months after release. The answer is quite simple but it seems some academics might have a different idea.
Take Ramin Shokrizade, a self proclaimed virtual economy expert who’s latest piece takes aim at Star Wars: The Old Republic’s decision to convert their MMORPG into a free to play model in order to try and get people back into the game. Whilst he does make some good points regarding how TOR felt like a massively single player game (as the campaign was arguably the best thing about it, even though it was a lot more fun to do with friends) the main point of his article, that the monetization strategy was the primary cause for failure, is ultimately only a side issue to the bigger issues at hand.
Shokrizade makes the point that the value players generated, judged by looking at auction house prices and the cost of purchasing credits from real money trading sites, decreased rapidly over the first month. He lays the blame for this specific decline at an instance reset exploit that allowed users to generate quite a lot of credits and whilst this might be a factor in the decline his analysis also fails to include the fact that in any new MMORPG in game currency attracts a high premium at the beginning, usually due to the fact that there isn’t that much of it in circulation. Indeed if you tracked the same statistic for other virtual worlds you would see identical declines as the currency generating capacity of the wider player base and the gold farmers increased significantly. This is not a new phenomena as I’ve seen it happen in nearly every MMO that I’ve played to date.
He also makes the mistake of saying that “As combat in SWTOR was balanced for PvE, PvP combat balance was never attainable”. Nearly all MMORPGs tend to focus on one of these two aspects in order to attract players to the game. SW:TOR focused heavily on the PvE aspect as that’s where BioWare’s strengths are and indeed by all accounts they succeeded at doing so. Whilst the PvP wasn’t as balanced in the beginning saying that because of the PvE focus PvP balance was unattainable is laughable as balance is an ongoing process that evolves with the game. Indeed when I left the PvP balance was far better due to the 50 only arenas, more people having better gear and vast improvements in game code to make the world PvP areas much more playable. The items were comparable to their PvE counterparts however they had PvP stats on them which meant for guilds who were tackling high end content on the hardest difficulties they were unfortunately useless as you couldn’t achieve the stats required.
However Shokrizade’s biggest blunder is when he lays blame at SW:TOR’s monetization scheme for its current troubles. He posits that the unlimited model, the one where you pay a monthly fee and get access to the entire game, encourages people to pay through all the content as fast as possible before dropping it for the next game. Now whilst I won’t discount the fact that there were many a hardcore friend of mine who took time off work to reach level 50 in the space of 4 days or so this was by far not the norm with many players taking at least a month to reach max level (I would know this, I was among them). Even then those who did reach max level would usually roll another character straight afterwards to level with the others who were still catching up mostly because the single player lines for each archetype are unique. He then goes on to peddle his ideal solution and then decries that the monetization scheme is the ultimate factor in deciding a MMORPGs success.
This is as far from the truth I’ve seen anyone get. Anyone who’s played MMORPGs knows that there’s one thing and one thing only that decides whether a game in this genre will be successful or not. That thing is the content.
Of all the failed MMORPGs I’ve played over the years the reason that they struggled can always be tracked back to problems with content. Age of Conan is probably the best example I can think of as it promised a large world, shaped by your actions, with content all the way up to a staggering level 80. This would have been all well and good except the fact that once you hit level 50 there wasn’t any content to speak of until level 80. Warhammer Online had the same issue as people quickly tired of the warzones and many servers locked themselves in a stalemate for the end game PvP, leaving them to turn away. Indeed the biggest problem that SW:TOR had was the fact that the end game content was just so gosh darn accessible, meaning that within the first month or two anyone could see the entire game if they were so inclined.
This was the exact reason why so many people decided to leave SW:TOR when they did. My guild mates and I managed to blast through all the end game raids in just under a week once we were all level 50 thanks to the normal level of difficulty which made the encounters quite easy by end game standards. After that point it’s hard to motivate people to redo content they’ve done before especially when the rewards are only incremental upgrades. Then the only thing left is to grind PvP or flash points in order to get better gear and only the hardcore will keep on doing that after a month or so.
So why does Shokrizade believe that monetization, above all else, is the key to MMORPG success? At the risk of stumbling into ad-hominem territory the reason seems pretty obvious: he’s a self proclaimed expert on virtual economies even though his only experience in economics comes from playing EVE Online (and I’m struggling to verify his claims of leading a 5000 strong corporation in there). It’s then prudent to take what he says with a grain of salt as he has a vested interest in saying things like this, even if they don’t gel so well with reality.
MMORPGs are hard things to create and maintain and it’s a testament to companies like Blizzard and BioWare who’ve managed to actually release one and not go bankrupt in the process. Whilst SW:TOR might be struggling to keep people going so are nearly all MMORPGs, even the mighty World of Warcraft is back to 2008 subscription numbers (is their monetization strategy the problem, Shokrizade?) and that shows just how hard it can be to get people coming back time and time again. The one secret though is the content and there is no doubt that Blizzard has mastered that art and for all it’s successes with the campaign missions BioWare unfortunately missed the mark and they’re paying the price for it now.
It’s scary just how much of my World of Warcraft life mirrored that of your run-of-the-mill addict. At the start everything was good: all my friends were playing and we were all having a blast, whiling away our youth in the fantastical land of Azeroth. Then people started to leave, the ones who couldn’t spare the time at first but as the month went on the nomenclature changed from “I just stopped to playing” to “I’m out” or “I’ve been clean for 2 weeks now!”. Indeed in the years that have followed since my hey days where I was spending 1 day (total play time) out of every 6 in World of Warcraft I’ve found myself relapsing and going back to it whenever an expansion comes out. Strangely enough though whilst the attraction to go back is strong it seems I’m becoming better at saying no.
I kind of missed everything in the Burning Crusade as that was when I found myself destitute, languishing without a guild and without a group of friends I wanted to play with. However Wrath of the Lich King saw me return with meteoric fury, flush with a new group of friends I made through work I lovingly plunged dozens of hours back into the game. It wasn’t the same as the height of my addiction days but then again I had much less time on my hands than I did before so on a relative scale it was probably pretty close. However the same cycle of people leaving and going clean happened again and eventually I found myself leaving the world once again.
I returned for the latest expansion, Cataclysm, for a while and even made my way into some of the high level raids thanks to having some contacts in the right places. However this time around I didn’t last that long before the magic wore off and I realised how long it would take for me to gear up a character to the level I wanted. I haven’t gone back since then as my dedication to reviewing one game per week (only 1 week missed so far!) has overridden any desire I might have had to while away my time in that familiar crack den.
This is a feeling that I believe is shared by many long time World of Warcraft players who have been with the franchise since day 1. It’s hard to believe it but release day was almost 8 years ago and those fresh faced teenagers who started out with this game are now adults with all the fun responsibilities that come along with it. Thus it is not surprising that for the first time in 4 years World of Warcraft’s subscriber base has declined to 9 million. Whilst this is very likely to see a major bump come Mists of Pandaria time they’ve been on the downward slope for a while and that makes you wonder what the future holds for this iconic game.
Ever since I first heard about the latest upcoming expansion I heard in tandem that it was slated to be the last expansion with World of Warcraft bowing out to the upcoming secret MMO dubbed Project Titan. It made sense as the writing appeared to be on the wall with subscriber counts but it seems that Blizzard intends to keep World of Warcraft going for much longer with the expansion pack to follow Mists of Pandaria already in production. Whilst that might seem crazy if you compare the numbers on other MMOs that are widely believed to be successful you can see that Blizzard could easily keep the franchise going with 10~20% of the numbers they have now. Depending on how well Mists of Pandaria does at stemming the attrition rate it may take the release of Project Titan to see the end to World of Warcraft. Even then it might take a year or two before the subscriber count hits danger territory for Blizzard.
I’ve long relegated myself to coming back and playing through each expansion that comes out mostly because the levelling experience, especially since Cataclysm, is one I very much enjoy. I’ll definitely be back for the expansion when it comes out late next month but as for me becoming a long time subscriber again? I can’t see that happening any time soon. In fact I’m not sure that any MMORPG will be able to captivate me in the same way as World of Warcraft did back in the day and from what I can tell I’m not alone in this feeling. Still the nostalgia feeling will be enough to swell their ranks for a time and that may be all Blizzard is looking for.
I’ve played my fair share of Star Wars games over the years. I can remember playing one on my trusty Nintendo Entertainment System which was just your basic platformer but was still enough to keep me captivated way back then (I was 6 at the time). More recently I indulged in the Jedi Knight Academy series of games which, to their credit, were actually quite fun and had a half decent story about them. I did not however get into Star Wars Galaxies, having heard how atrocious it was. Star Wars: The Old Republic however caught my attention from the get go mostly because BioWare was going to be the one developing it. I’ve always enjoyed their RPGs so it follows that their MMORPGs should be no different. Thus I pre-ordered my collector’s edition from Amazon months ago and I’ve been playing it ever since.
SW:TOR puts you 300 years after the events that occurred in the single player game Knights of the Old Republic which is still some 3,500 years prior to the events that take place in the original Star Wars movies. The Sith have returned in full force, retaking their old home of Korriban and re-establishing their Sith order. You then get to decide which faction to play for, The Republic or The Empire, and your choice will drastically change the story that unfolds before you. For reference I was a Jedi Knight base class and choose the Guardian specialization, putting me as a tank/dps. Your choice of advanced class doesn’t appear to influence the story however, just the archetype role you’ll fill.
Character customization is definitely a step above what I’m normally used to seeing in a MMORPG but is still somewhat lower than what you usually find in traditional RPGs. Most of the choices are from pre-set options so whilst it’s unlikely that you’ll find 2 characters that are completely identical there’s a very good chance you’ll notice someone running around with your face at one point, leading to some rather awkward moments. Still there’s enough variation in both your base character model as well as armour types to ensure that you won’t feel like you’re playing in a clone army.
On first impression the graphics of SW:TOR are nothing to write home about, especially when compared to the stunning visuals of some recent RPGs. Still much like World of Warcraft the stylization that has been used throughout the game means that it doesn’t detract from the experience. Of course, as with any MMORPG, graphics usually have to be stepped down in order to cope with the potential for huge numbers of players to be on screen at any one time. Indeed I’ve experienced some slowdown in the more populated areas (<30 people) but for the most part the graphics are the right balance of pretty and performance.
All that being said however some of the environments that are set up within SW:TOR did trigger my sense of awe. The screenshot above was just the first such example of where I stopped in my tracks and just took in the world for a while. It really did make me feel like I was part of something much greater than myself, something where the scale was far beyond just what was being presented to me at the time. However it would all be just simple eye candy if it weren’t for the story that underpins your entire reason for existing in this vast universe.
Now for most traditional MMORPGs the idea of an over-arching story line usually only goes as far as one particular level bracket. I can remember this quite clearly from my time with World of Warcraft where each area would have its own unique story but the connections between them were either tenuous or non-existent. SW:TOR on the other hand has a series of class quests that are in essence the driver for you to go from one planet to another. They’re far from a simple advancement device though as there are many times when you’ll be whisked away from the known planets on your map to other locations, sometimes for hours at a time.
Indeed SW:TOR could very easily be played as a single player RPG for those who’d like another fix of Star Wars goodness but were turned off by the MMORPG title. Sure there’s no escaping the fact that there’s countless “Kill X enemies” or “Gather Y of Z item” kinds of mission in there but should you not be too concerned with levelling as fast as you can they can be, for the most part, skipped entirely. A good chunk of the missions have some kind of unique mechanic or are broken up by enough cut scenes to make them feel a lot less grindy than their counterparts in other MMORPGs. Indeed there were times when I was playing simply because the story was driving me to, not the urge to get to max level and start gearing my character. I can honestly say I’ve never had that in a MMORPG before.
Levelling is actually quite enjoyable and doesn’t feel like a barrier to the real meat of SW:TOR. Unlike most MMORPGs where getting max level takes months of herculean effort you can easily reach max level in around 3 to 4 days played if you put your mind to it. My trip to max level was decidedly more leisurely but even I was able to knock out a max level character in under a month of play. This again reinforces the idea that SW:TOR would in fact make a great single player game that you could play through and be done with afterwards. That is, of course, how they’ll hook you in but I’ll be damned if it isn’t true.
The space missions also serve as a nice break from the usual tedium of questing. They’re something of a point and click adventure with the camera running along a set path with you being free to move around inside it. Initially they’re a walk in the park, especially for experienced gamers, but as you progress there will be ones that will challenge you. Like most things though you’ll eventually overcome the challenge and you’ll have to wait until you pass a certain level before you get another challenging one, but they’re still refreshing if you’ve been questing endlessly for a couple hours.
Your space ship also functions as a melting pot for you and your companions as well as being your transport between questing areas. I think this is probably why the questing in SW:TOR felt so fluid as each planet has a specific level bracket and could be travelled to with very little hassle. It also meant there weren’t any strange transition areas like there are in other MMORPGs when the designers tried to meld say a vast desert with a dense jungle (think Desolace to Feralas in WoW). It’s also quite nice to have the external camp to interact with your companions as their story lines (and potential romances) are quite interesting in themselves.
The experience however is not exactly trouble free. Shown above are two common glitches that I would routinely encounter, the one on the left moreseo than the right. There are quite a few graphical glitches that crop up from time to time but thankfully none of them too severe and are usually temporary. The second one shown above is a more extreme (but hilarious) example of the camera angles for cut scenes going all whacky and sometimes glitching out you or your NPCs armour. Mostly it would be my cape being stuck in my torso, but there’s also been people missing, voice overs not playing and characters not moving their mouths when talking.
There’s also some issues with lag, but not the ones you’d think. Even though BioWare didn’t release SW:TOR in Australia because of lag concerns I routinely get sub 200ms pings to the server, better even than I got in World of Warcraft (before I started using a tunnel, though). However there were still a few occasions when the server and my client would get out of sync, sending my character into a flurry of stepping forward only to be slingshot back. This would continue for up to 30 seconds at a time making for some rather frustrating moments.
PVP is something of a mixed bag at the moment thanks to the end game version of it still being a work in progress. You can participate in PVP from level 10 and currently everyone is thrown into the same bracket together. Everyone’s stats are boosted up to the highest level participant however so you can be somewhat competitive even when you’re just starting out. There are 3 different scenarios (capture and hold, timed race to the end and, in essence, football) so there’s not a whole lot of variety and it does start to feel repetitive after an hour or so. Still you’ll receive credits, experience and tokens towards PVP gear for participating so it’s well worth doing them, even if PVP doesn’t interest you at all.
The end game PVP appears to be an attempt to copy the ideas that Warhammer: Age of Reckoning brought to the table with Realm vs Realm PVP. There’s one world called Illum that’s basically up for grabs for either side should they want to have it. You can capture it by holding objectives although it’s not entirely clear what you get for doing so. This would be great except that currently open world PVP doesn’t award valor (PVP rank points) and there doesn’t appear to be any kind of bonus for holding Illum. Thus the end game PVP is reduced to people sitting at the objectives long enough to complete their dailies and then leaving, usually not even attempting to engage each other. I won’t complain about the free loot but it does feel somewhat pointless as there’s no reason to be there than for the dailies.
Compared to other recent MMORPG launches Star Wars: The Old Republic really stands out as one where the developers did their homework and worked hard to deliver an experience that was on par with those that were currently on offer. Sure its not as complete or as polished as others are now but for a first release it’s actually quite phenomenal, easily beating the initial release experience I’ve had with nearly all other MMORPGs. There’s still a lot of things where they could improve but overall the current game is more than enough to cement their position as a solid contender and I can see myself continuing to play it for a good couple months after this review.
The question many people ask is though, will this take the crown as MMORPG king away from World of Warcraft? I don’t think it will, but not because of any fault with the game itself. All the other WoW killers out there were fundamentally flawed at launch, usually lacking content or sufficient polish. World of Warcraft is the opiate for the MMORPG masses and the only ones capable of taking it down are Blizzard themselves and indeed it looks like they will with Diablo III and the mysterious Project Titan. SW:TOR however is a strong contender to be second place to them, and not just the distant second that many have been before it.
Star Wars: The Old Republic managed to re-ignite that same sense of passion, wonder and fulfilment that I first felt all those years ago when I made my first tenuous steps into the world of MMORPGs. It really is a wonderful feeling going through a new world for the first time, especially one that’s as rich as SW:TOR. I can’t see myself getting as addicted as I did back in my MMORPG heydays but that’s probably just me getting older more than it is the game being any less addictive. For Star Wars fans, MMORPGers and RPG fans alike SW:TOR is definitely worth checking out, even if you ignore that whole online part.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is available right on exclusively on PC for $62 which includes 1 month of game time. Game was played entirely on PC with around 5 days (120 hours) of total play time and reaching the level cap, 50.
It might surprise you to know that I have a pretty keen interest in the realms of psychology. I’m not exactly sure where the interest comes from but I think it has something to do with me viewing the human mind as an incredibly complex machine, one that we’re only just beginning to decipher the inner workings of. Primarily I’m interested in what motivates people to do certain things so I can understand where they’re coming from. Thinking back to my university years I can see that this interest probably stemmed from my obsession with trying to understand the everyman, figuring that I was so far removed from normalcy that I had to undertake such tasks. That interest has of course lead me to try and figure out why people keep coming back here to read my writing and I recently uncovered some interesting facts that might shed some light on that.
I’ve known for quite a while that I’m not particularly good at judging what articles of mine will be popular and ones that won’t. I’ve tried to crack that secret formula of writing something that will be an instant success but realistically the most popular articles I’ve written have always been slow burners, coming into fame a long time after I wrote them. Still I noticed an interesting trend after each of those hits took off on their own accord: more people would start visiting. Not just from random searches but also returning visitors and each new hit would build on the last one. I put it down to simple network effects (I.E. one new reader usually entails more readers as they share the posts around) for the most part, but something I read yesterday changed my view on this.
B.F Skinner was an American behaviourist who’s research into cognitive processes spans a good 5 decades from 1938 to 1989. He was also somewhat of an inventor, building several contraptions to test his various theories. One such device was the Operant Conditioning Chamber (or Skinner Box) a simple device designed to test the link between behaviours and their link to rewards both positive (reinforcement) and negative (disincentive). They’re usually quite simple devices consisting of some kind of operandum (say a lever or button) that the subject has to activate in order to receive a reward. Despite being so simple they can be used to study a wide range of behavioural mechanisms and one of them is particularly intriguing.
Given a direct relationship between the operandum and the reward (press button, receive bacon) subjects in the box will make the association and would operate it when they wanted said reward. However should the relationship be indirect, say the reward only comes randomly, then the subjects began to develop behaviours that they believed were consistent with the reward. Examples of this were birds performing such unusual behaviours as bowing or dancing before pressing a button as they associated that behaviour with the completely random reward. With that in mind I started thinking about where I’d seen this behaviour elsewhere and pennies started dropping.
Games, especially casual and MMORPGs, are heavily based around this concept of random rewards. MMORPGs are probably the best example of this when they follow the usual formula of “kill baddies, they drop loot” but the best rewards don’t drop often. Indeed back in the beginning days of World of Warcraft one of the end raid bosses, Onyxia, had an ability called Deep Breath that, from a scientific point of view, was triggered completely at random. However guilds attempting this boss would employ crazy strategy after crazy strategy to stop her from using said ability, with some swearing by its effectiveness. It got to the point where it became a meme for each new patch that players would observe “Onyxia deep breathes more often” or someone would discover yet another mechanic that apparently affected the frequency.
For bloggers the effect is somewhat similar, although it usually takes a slightly different form. I know for myself that if I find a blog post that I really like I’ll usually end up subscribing to the author’s RSS feed, hoping to get more of the same. Of course not everything they put out will be gold but day after day I’ll find myself coming back hoping to see the writing that captured me in the first place. Every so often they’ll hit on it again and I’ll be hooked again for however long, but usually long enough that they’ll strike gold again.
And that, my readers, is probably why you keep coming back. I don’t know what post brought you here or what may have made you subscribe to me but undoubtedly the reason you keep coming back is that you’re hoping to see something along those lines again. I hope I can deliver on that often enough to be worth your while and indeed, since so many of you do come back I get the feeling I do that often enough to keep reinforcing that behaviour. Not that I’m actively trying to condition you though, although now that I think of it the prospect of doing so is rather tempting…
I’m a long time MMORPG player, coming up to almost 7 years if I count correctly. I haven’t been playing any recently since I’ve had so many other games to play (and 3 still awaiting their turn) but whenever there’s a drought of good game releases I’ll usually find myself back in World of Warcraft or the new MMO of the day. During that time I believe I’ve got a good feel for the general MMORPG community as I’ve been involved in nearly every aspect of those games, from the lowly casual just looking for an hour of fun to the 3AM hardcore raider who’s friends question his sanity.
One of the bugbears of the MMORPG community has always been that of players with more in real life (IRL) cash buying their way past parts of the game that less financially well off people have had to slog through. It’s a genuine gripe as it serves to lessen the value of their in game achievements if someone can just slap down their credit card and get the same thing. Most MMORPGs strictly forbid any form of real money trading because of this, usually banning people from selling in game items and currency and shutting down accounts that are caught doing so. There are a few that condone it in a limited sense, like EVE Online that allows users to sell game time (keeping all the money in CCP’s pockets), but they are in the minority.
You’d think being a long time MMORPG player that I’d be with the community on this one but I’ll have to admit to using a real money trading (RMT) service in the past. You see back when I was just starting out in EVE Online I wasn’t terribly familiar with the games rather ruthless take on death. For the most part I had stayed in high sec space, running PVE missions and slowly building my way up to one of the sexier battleships. I eventually got it and started running missions with it and that’s when I was introduced to the world of high sec piracy. Not long after getting my shiny Megathron I lost it, along with all the cash I had plunged into it. Angry and frustrated I turned to the online ISK sellers in order to get myself back to where I was, shelling out $25 real dollars to get myself back on my feet. I went back there once more in order to get myself ahead again, but I haven’t used any RMT services since then.
To me the fact that a player can pay a token amount to get ahead doesn’t lessen the achievement any more for me, mostly because I know that despite the game developer’s best efforts it still goes on in every MMORPG. No matter how many characters they ban or currency they remove from the world there will always be a legion in waiting, ready to service those who’s credit card is more readily accessible than their free time. The best thing game developers can do in this instance then is to make sure that there are approved channels for doing so within the game so that players can easily tell who’s bought their way into success. Driving it underground just ensures that the game developers are missing out on some potential revenue, whilst the players still suffer in the same way.
You can imagine then how disappointed I was when I read how naive the World of Warcraft community was being when the release of a new pet, the Guardian Cub, that was tradeable in game sparked widespread concern that RMT was coming:
The other, major, thing which sets the Guardian Cub apart? It’s tradable. Once you’ve purchased it, you can on-sell the little guy to other characters, in exchange for in-game gold or items – and you can set the price. Sticking with the “one-time-only” theme, once you’ve handed the Guardian Cub over, he will be added to the recipient’s Companions list and cannot be re-traded again later. “Be sure to choose a master wisely,” warns Blizzard.
Costing the now-standard US$10, but tradable for almost anything you’d like, the big-eyed Guardian Cub is being heralded as the Beginning of the End – opening the door to real money trading in World of Warcraft.
Realistically you can say that RMT is already here for World of Warcraft as a quick Google search for “WoW gold” will net you dozens of sites ready, willing and able to switch out your cold hard cash for in game currency. The only difference this new pet makes to that equation is there’s now a semi-legitimate way of doing it even though most people who want the pet will just go straight to the Blizzard store to get it. Really if you’re worried about Blizzard bringing an official RMT system to World of Warcraft you should really open your eyes to the reality of the situation, it’s already happening, it’s just not Blizzard who’s doing it.
I’m not saying that RMT doesn’t have any effect at all on MMORPGs but their overall impact is realistically quite low. RMT has been around for as long as MMORPGs have been and many players will go their entire in-game lives without even noticing the impact that it has on their game of choice. Officially sanctioned methods are far and away better than their black market alternatives and opposing them is akin to sticking your fingers in your ears and pretending it doesn’t happen already. It does happen, it will continue to happen and you’d be best served by a supported method, whether you believe that or not.
I’ve played my fair share of MMORPGs since my first introduction to this genre way back in 2004. After falling from the dizzying heights that I scaled within World of Warcraft I set about playing my way through several similar games only to either find them half done, unplayable or have their community boil down to just the hardcore in little over a month. There are only two MMORPGs that I’ve ever gone back to after an extended period of absence: World of Warcraft and EVE online. Both had characteristics that begged me to come back after I had left them for good and both have continued to reinvent themselves over the course of their long lifetimes. Today I want to take you through World of Warcraft’s latest revision, the Cataclysm expansion.
This expansion signals the return of Deathwing, one of the dragon aspects of Azeroth who’s first appearance in Blizzard’s Warcraft line of games dates all the way back to Warcraft 2: Beyond the Dark Portal. His emergence from the depths of Deepholm have torn the world asunder, laying waste to much of the original world and changing the landscape of Azeroth permanently. This expansion differs significantly from the previous 2 in that it did not add a whole new world, it reinvented the old whilst adding a few new zones. This allowed the developers the opportunity to redo the entire old world in order to make the 0-60 levelling experience more fluid as well as allowing everyone the opportunity to use their flying mounts in the old world. This is in addition to the complete overhaul of every class, 2 new races, a dozen new dungeons, 4 new raid encounters, a new secondary profession, rework of the stat system and an overhaul of the badge based reward system.
I had a few choices when it came to exploring this new old world that Blizzard had set before me. Reports from friends told me the levelling experience was quite nice and the new starting zones were of similar quality to that of the Death Knight area, long praised for its intensely immersive experience. Still I had 2 level 80 characters ready, willing and able to experience the new content right away and logging onto one of them I was instantly greeted by some of my long time World of Warcraft buddies. The decision to level my 80 Shaman had been made for me before I knew it and I set about blasting my way to 85.
The first thing I noticed was the vast improvements to the game experience that Blizzard have added since the last time I played. First there’s a quest helper that not only tracks all your quests it also points you in the right direction and marks out an area for you to find the mobs or items required to complete it. Additionally the character panel has seen a significant revamp with many of the stats now providing insight into what they mean, like the amount of hit required to not miss a certain level target. There’s also lots of tiny little additions that make the game experience just that much better, like the little icon that hovers above your head when you get 5 stacks of Maelstrom Weapon as a shaman something which required a whole other mod to achieve. The revamped raid/party bar is also quite good and a testament to how necessary the Grid mod was before Blizzard rolled their own. There are still a few things missing that I still consider necessary like a damage meter and a loot browser but overall Blizzard has shown just how closely they watch the community and listen to what their needs are so that they can include those things into the main game.
The levelling experience from 80 to 85 was incredibly enjoyable, probably the best experience I’ve had out of any of the previous releases. I was never lost for somewhere to quest as part of my usual trips back to Ogrimmar there would always be a quest on the Warchief’s board that would send me to a level appropriate area. Whilst this has left me with a couple areas left uncompleted (like Vashj’ir and Uldum) it did mean that I didn’t spend time on lower level quests that yield significantly lower experience. The usual line is that the levelling time from 80 to 85 was supposed to be the same as 70 to 80 but I found that it was significantly less, probably about half or so. I think this can be attributed to the random dungeon system they added in a while back with the added bonus that instead of having to do long quest chains to get those juicy dungeon quests nearly all dungeons have quest givers right at the start.
Like any of the Blizzard titles what really got me was the depth and breadth of the lore behind each of the areas. Whilst many of the quests are you’re standard kill X of those, gather Y of these type of encounters there are quite a few that really bring you into the world that Blizzard has created. The screenshot above is from one such encounter where after leading a band of goblins up the hill I’ve finally met with Alexstrasza who soon after takes me on a direct assault against Deathwing himself. There’s also extensive use of the phasing¹ technique giving you that feeling of being the hero of the world, even though you’re in a world of heroes. This lead me to follow many long quest chains to their completion as I just had to know what happened next, spending hours battling various foes and gobbling up the quest text at every opportunity.
The end game has improved significantly as well. Back in Ulduar Blizzard began experimenting with teleporters that would take you a fair way to the part of the instance you wanted to be at. They continued this in Icecrown Citadel and they have made their way into every instance I’ve played thus far. The instances themselves are also quite entertaining with new boss mechanics and some instances even having in game cinematics. Sure you’re over them once you’ve seen them for the 5th time but it’s a nice touch and goes a long way to revamp the old dungeon grind.
I’ve spent the last month playing through the level 80 to 85 content and I’m still not lost for new things to do in Cataclysm. It seems every other day I find myself in a new dungeon I hadn’t yet done or a new section of a quest area I hadn’t yet discovered and that’s just what keeps me coming back day after day. I’ve still yet to dive into the revamped old world in the form of levelling a new character but from reports I’m hearing from both long time veterans and first time players the experience is as enjoyable as my level 80 to 85 experience. So for those of you thinking about reactivating your old account or for anyone who’s had the slightest inclination to play World of Warcraft you won’t go wrong by starting now in the new world that was torn asunder in Cataclysm.
World of Warcraft: Cataclysm is available right now on PC for$39.95. Game was played over the course of the last month on the Oceanic Dreadmaul server as a Enhancement Shaman.
¹Phasing, in World of Warcraft, is when part of a world is in a sense instanced. This allows them to show a different world to different players which is usually used to show the effect of a quest on the world around you. The example given is that if you get 10 wooden planks to repair someone’s house it will in fact be repaired. However anyone who hasn’t yet done that quest will see that house as still damaged.
Over the course of this blog’s life I’ve made references to the fact that I’m a long time World of Warcraft player. For the past 6 years I’ve been an on again, off again player frequently returning to Blizzard’s flagship MMORPG for a fix of their latest offerings. Having spent the last month or so playing through the latest Cataclysm expansion I was drafting up a review in my head when I realised that in order to do a proper review of the current content I needed to give a little background on my experience with this game. Today I want to take you through the last 6 years of my life with Blizzard’s iconic game in anticipation for tomorrow’s review of the Cataclysm expansion.
Going back 6 years puts me as a young university student who’s been keenly devouring any and every detail he could find about Blizzard’s upcoming game release. Although I was still at home out in the country with my only connection to the Internet being a share 56k dial-up I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the game. As luck would have it I managed to win myself a spot in the coveted close beta and managed to convince my boss to download all the client patches for me. I spent a few good weeks smashing my way through the beta as a paladin called Arathar before it was closed down in preparation for the full release.
The day of the release was quite torturous for my friends and I as we’d been out quite late the night before and only managed to sneak in about 4 hours sleep before we hit up the local games store for our copies of the game. We hadn’t pre-ordered the game so getting in early was imperative and thankfully we were able to score a copy each before we all went our separate ways to begin playing. The experience that awaited us was, to put it bluntly, quite tragic as the servers caved under the load of thousands of people trying to login especially on the chosen Australian server Blackrock. We resigned ourselves to switch to another server (Gorgonnash) and began levelling in earnest, most of us hitting level 10 before calling it a night. This is where Nalafang was born and still resides today.
The next few months were an interesting time for our rag-tag bunch of MMORPGers. We spent many hours questing together, running what dungeons we could and basically just soaking up the world that Blizzard had created for us. Along the way many of my friends started dropping out, usually around the level 40~50 area where it really started to get a bit heavy on the time investment. I continued on and started gathering a group of friends with whom I’d run dungeons with almost daily. After a month or so of this my small team of dungeoneers reformed into a bigger and better guild, Aureus Dawn. A couple weeks later saw our GM drop out and had me assume the position giving me my first taste of what it meant to lead a group of people through a virtual world.
Things just kept getting better as my runs got a reputation for actually finishing content and magically dropping one world epic at least once a week. I started talking with other guild leaders and eventually managed to find another 3 to group with for our first attempt at the first ever raid in WoW: Molten Core. Our first run didn’t see any bosses down but it wasn’t long until we were smashing our way through content and our 4 guild tag team had to split into 2 separate raids to continue on. As time passed the lines between the two separate guilds blurred significantly and I was called into an IM meeting between my officers and the other guild. They proposed that we should merge under a single banner and go ahead with running our raid completely independently. The idea was met with resounding support and they then surprised me by nominating me as the guilds new GM, placing me at the top of the food chain in a 40 man strong raid team. I was elated and soon after Ascendance was formed and we began hitting Molten Core in earnest.
Soon after the new raid instance, Blackwing Lair, was released and our guild decided to have a crack at it. From memory we did end up making it past the first boss after a couple attempts but progress stalled after that. The same fate also hit us in Molten Core as we struggled to down the final boss, stymying our progress in other raids. Inevitably this began to wear on people and personality clashes began to escalate from small fights into guild sized dramas that threatened to tear the guild apart. Thanks to the piecemeal nature by which the guild was formed there were several loyal factions and once one of the faction leaders decided to go the rest of them would follow. This lead to the demise of Ascendance as a guild who ultimately merged in with another bigger guild to continue running. Times were good there until I developed a large amount of contempt for the leadership and ended up causing dramas of my own, eventually leaving them for one of my long time friends (and previous 4 guild raiding buddy) guild, Dark Ronin.
I found a good place there for the longest time, finding my niche as the Rogue class leader and spending many hours pouring over my DPS logs figuring out how to be the best I could be. Eventually however the same traits that made those people elect me to the position of leadership previously caused me to develop the same level of contempt for the leadership as I had previously. I hadn’t been enjoying the game and decided that I needed a fresh start on another server. I found myself a top raiding guild, repsecced my paladin to holy and transferred servers. This lasted for all of a month before I quit entirely, vowing to leave WoW behind forever and never giving it a second glance.
About a year passed before I even thought about WoW again when I saw that the first ever expansion was due to be released soon. Remembering the fond times I had had levelling I thought that it couldn’t hurt to give the game a go again. I spent a little time levelling my rogue in the new areas and enjoyed it for the most part. I even managed to meet up with an old friend, Scottdasmall, who was a long time guild member of mine. I eventually joined his guild and played casually for a couple months, getting both my characters to 70. After that however I just couldn’t get hooked like I did last time and resigned to put the game down again but not with the same disdain as I did before. It wasn’t long however until the next expansion was released and I started looking at WoW again.
This time however I had friends I had met outside of work to play with. Problem was they were Horde players and this was long before faction transfers were available. If I wanted to play with them I’d have to level another character. Thankfully this was just after the Refer-a-Friend scheme came out, making the journey to 60 much quicker. I rolled myself another toon and levelled up with them so that I could play alongside them. Wrath of the Lich King made it extremely easy to get into raids with almost anyone allowing me to gear up my character just like I had in days gone by. Eventually my new found guildies wanted to start raiding in earnest and I joined them, spending countless hours in Ulduar and eventually making it up to the final boss before the raid fell apart.
I dropped the game again at that point for a good 6 months although I kept a much closer eye on what was happening whilst I was away. I eventually came back for a few months to play through the Icecrown Citadel instance, even gearing myself up with an exceptional amount of loot from there, but when I saw that Catalcysm was on the horizon I gave it up once again figuring that anymore effort would be almost for naught very soon. About a month ago I reactivated my account after purchasing the collector’s edition of Cataclysm and have been playing it ever since.
There is of course so much more to this story but in the interests of berevity I’ll spare you the details, at least for now. Needless to say that World of Warcarft has been a very big part of my life for the better part of a decade and will continue to be as long as it’s around. This post was more to show you how I’ve been through almost every aspect of the game, from the high points of end game raiding, to the darkest times of guild dramas and finally ending up here today where I enjoy the game in a way that I’d never envisioned when I first set foot in this virtual world. I’ve tried nearly every other MMORPG out there but none of them has kept me coming back in the way that World of Warcraft does, and that’s a testament to just how good Blizzard is at creating a captivating and engaging world.
It seems that the Australian Classification Board doesn’t mind serving me up with blog fodder every couple weeks so I can harp on about how the mature Australian gaming community needs a R18+ rating. Whilst I won’t re-iterate the point I’ve made time and time again about how having different standards for one single type of media is just silly it does seem that there might be another side to this whole R18+ debacle that no one has considered. It’s an exceedingly good way to get press for your otherwise unknown game:
The Classification Board has stated that “drug use related to incentives or rewards” is the reason why gangster-themed MMO Crimecraft has been refused classification in Australia.According to the Board’s report obtained by Kotaku this afternoon, Crimecraft “contains the option to manufacture, trade and self-administer legal “medicines” and illegal “boosts”… Boosts are sometimes referred to as “drugs” both in the game and in the Applicant’s submissions to the Board.”
One type of boost is called Anabolics, which the Board notes “is named after a class of proscribed drugs and that the Applicant describes boosts as “like real-life steroids”. In addition, the names of boosts mimic the chemical and colloquial names of proscribed drugs.”
I’d never heard of this game until it got refused classification from the ACB and a quick Internet rundown on them gives only 5 articles on Kotaku and an extremely sparse Wikipedia article. This is a woeful amount of press for what is supposed to be a MMORPG even one with such niche appeal as this. What makes this interesting is that the refusal for classification is scaringly similar to the one that hit Fallout 3 almost 18 months ago and one they subsequently got around without too much hassle. So why would you submit a game with the potential to hit the classification tripwire when you know the workaround? You can see why I’m smelling a PR stunt here.
Granted this is a bit of a stretch and it is entirely possible that they thought there was no issue with the names they used. Still when Fallout had to change the name of morphine to Med-X you can be guaranteed that using any real world names for drugs that are used in a game is a sure fire way to rile up the ACB. I’m sure that they’re going to resubmit with the modifications required but the fact remains, they managed to generate quite a bit of hype for their game which would’ve probably gone unnoticed in Australia otherwise. It is a rather niche game so they were probably relying on the open beta to generate most of the buzz for them (which coincidentally was not open and only available to the US and Canada) and you’d have to do a bit of digging to find any original reports of people actually playing the game.
Making and marketing a game, especially in a genre dominated by Blizzard, is no easy feat and I can easily see the developers agreeing to such a stunt in the hopes it would generate a bit more buzz. There’s no real ethical issues to speak of here but I still can’t help but feel that employing such a tactic is a bit, well cheap. Simple things like a fully fleshed out Wikipedia article, a YouTube channel and a corporate Twitter account do wonders for promoting a game that would otherwise slip under the radar. CrimeWars doesn’t appear to have any of these so its far more likely that this was a genuine submission rather than an attempt at free PR.
After all this though I’m still not interested in the game but I’ve got a feeling I’m not really in their demographic. Still I have to wonder just what their demographic is with such a game because traditionally people who are playing games like that (GTA, Saints Row) aren’t the MMO or PC game type. Its still quite possible that they’ll find their niche but when giants like WAR and AOC managed to fall flat in the MMO market I must say, I have my doubts.
Still, they gave me something to write about and that’s well….something I guess