[WoW 8th Anniversary Special] World of Warcraft – Crafting a Phenomenon: Part II

Read Part I. World of Warcraft had no doubt crafted an incredibly solid foundation. Though talents, choices, and spells have changed over the years, the core concepts have remain unscathed. But for all the changes WoW has made to the MMOG genre; for all the well-timed implementations; and for all the quality that its core, choice-based combat system brought to the table such merely sated the appetite for the standard gamer. This alone a 10 million player (over 13 million at its peak) game does not make! Blizzard sought to encompass far more than a core PC gaming audience and peppered in a flair that catered to core and casual players alike.

Style is King!

StitchesThere is a difference between “good” and “great” in gaming, and that difference typically lies within the inclusion of style. Often overlooked by younger game studios, style is something that doesn’t necessarily add tangible value to the game. It doesn’t directly enhance a core game mechanic. It doesn’t make a boss fight more challenging. It isn’t needed to make objectives clear. The list goes on…. However, what style does do is add to the experience of a game.

For World of Warcraft, the style of the game can generally be summed up with one word: “Epic.” Granted, looking back at the original game, slaying 10 mangy wolves isn’t exactly a personification of the word. Nevertheless, as players worked their way through the realm of Azeroth, the sheer expansiveness of it all was staggering (a thought process considered for for most major cities and bosses as well). Each zone was enormous (especially on foot), and each contained different wonders to behold. Moreover, every zone was a new visual experience that ranged from the raging infernos of the Blasted Lands, the muck-laden terrain of Swamp of Sorrows. The scale of everything made exploration a key part of the WoW experience. Additionally, each zone has little extra perks to add to that memorability, be it cheering NPCs when players save Westfall or meeting the abomination Stitches on a Duskwood road (sadly he doesn’t walk around murdering players anymore). But it doesn’t stop here.

WoW Level UpThe style of WoW finds itself seeded throughout every minute detail of the game. Nearly every mechanic has some sort of extra – that isn’t really needed for it to function – that adds another level of flair. Here’s one every player has experienced: Leveling up. Think about that for a second. Every single person reading this knows that sound and effect. It’s a brilliant whoosh of light and the dominant sound effect when it happens. It’s a clear and epic way for Blizzard to say “Congratulations! You’ve gotten stronger!” There’s more to it than that though. That extra mile in making the level up effect gratifying is just as rewarding as the new spell or item you might acquire. Each time that whoosh bursts forth, players feel a tinge of satisfaction and accomplishment.

This level up design though is still relatively neutral in terms of who it appeals to. Blizzard still needed something to cater to more casual mindsets. As such, World of Warcraft is peppered with what can be dubbed “flavor” items and abilities. It might sound silly at first, but included extras like “/dance” or “/flirt” are more important than one might think. They added to the social experience of the game. How many times have you seen a “dance party” in the middle of Ironforge? How often have you laughed at your character jokes? These extra “emotes” are far from necessary to play the game, but with the core foundation in place, Blizzard was able to begin enhancing parts of the overall experience. Engaging is what it became as it added an extra level of social interaction with the people around. Whereas the timing of the game brought in a new crowd of MMO players, the core game play hooked them, and the style set that hook.

Reward & Accomplishment

Judgement Paladin SetWorld of Warcraft is addictive. The reason for this is it is one of the most gratifying and rewarding games on the market to play. Beyond the stylistic whoosh of leveling up, players cannot go for long without receiving some semblance of reward. Taking a page from Diablo II’s item collection design, Blizzard knew full well how to keep the proverbial hook in place.

When creating a new character, players have nothing but some worthless newbie gear. However, within the first five minutes of game play, they can end up getting something new and slightly better. This harkens back to the timing of WoW’s release slightly, as other MMOGs of the time never really gave players gear from doing quests. They always had to be bought, crafted, or found off monsters. It was a new experience for veteran MMO gamers, and a better one, because it now allowed more casual gamers to feel rewarded as well.

In past games, if you didn’t do the most difficult content, you really didn’t get much of anything. Heck, in Ultima Online, the best “standard” gear was plate-and-mail armor with no stats. That said, with WoW, there was always something new to get. Many an old player will remember getting their first helm or their first shoulder item. It was hugely gratifying and they weren’t even green! Eventually they would be though, and then they’d be blue, and then (eventually) purple. Where World of Warcraft succeeds more than any other game is in making the player feel stronger and more accomplished.

WoW Dance PartyAlong with equipment rewards, WoW is known to have many a flavor reward too. These stylistic rewards just add a little extra fun and amusement to the game, be they fireworks for those “dance parties,” vanity clothing, or collectable companion pets. Each added something extra for players to do beyond leveling or running dungeons.

Sadly, it’s wasn’t all perfect for as players reached the end game, the rewards stalled quite a bit. For a time, players could run Stratholme, Scholomance, and Lower/Upper Blackrock Spire for new gear, but with the raid instances requiring 40 players, it was a tall order to try and attain the next level of reward. A large portion of the player base were unable to ever even see the raid instances of level 60 due to this logistical nightmare, and when combined with only a handful of item drops per boss, multiple competitors for the same items, and a seven-day lockout for each raid, new items suddenly became few and far between. There was some relief with the inclusion of Battlegrounds and the Honor System, but we’ll save that discussion for Part III.

“You are not prepared!”

NaxxramusBelieve it or not, it wasn’t until the level 60 version of Naxxramus was released (roughly two years after WoW’s launch) that Blizzard had said the game was where they had wanted it to be at release. Though it was still difficult for the majority of players to compose 40-man raid groups, those that could got to experience one of the greatest raid instances ever crafted. This statement holds true for two reasons. For starters, it contained some of the most unique boss mechanics of the time (using lessons learned from Ahn’Qiraj), but more than that, it finally brought World of Warcraft back to what attracted many players in the first place: The original Warcraft storylines.

The Shadow of the Necropolis patch brought about the return of Warcraft’s most popular story arc, the fall of Prince Arthas and the scourge. Unfortunately, it didn’t include the Lich King himself, but it did herald the return of his lieutenant Kel’Thuzad as his undead hordes assaulted the city gates of several major Alliance and Horde capitals. The inclusion of Kel’Thuzad reignited the wonder that had originally drawn in many a fan, formulating a perfect segue, into the rest of the Warcraft III story, that was punctuated with one booming quote: “You are not prepared!”

With the announcement of The Burning Crusade expansion, the flairs of excitement surged again; excitement that had dulled during the lull of 40-man raid content. Fact of the matter is that this resurgence is do wholly to the topic in which World of Warcraft is based upon – the history and lore of Azeroth. Without this well of story to draw from, the excitement for the fan base would not have been what it was, and the launch would not have shattered the sales records of the original WoW.

IllidanWarcraft III was left quite open-ended for many a favored character, and Illidan was no exception. The prospect of seeing those major villains in WoW was immensely exciting, but such wasn’t the most important change that Burning Crusade brought about. Part of World of Warcraft’s continued success is Blizzard’s attention to what players are doing and how. That in mind, the developer not only upped the ante on quest rewards, but lowered the required number of players for most instances from 40 to 25 (learning from the popularity of the vanilla 20-man raids of Ruins of Ahn’Qiraj and Zul’Gurub). There were even a few 10-man raids. Additionally, many level 70 5-man dungeons included epic-level equipment.

These inclusions allowed for a greater volume of players to experience the end-game world that Azeroth had to offer, and while troves more users got to see such, The Burning Crusade’s first round of raid dungeons are not remembered too fondly. For anyone that completed these instances pre-nerf, that pain is probably still lingering. For those that didn’t, here’s a brief idea: Serpentshrine Cavern had about an hour, or more, of trash before the first boss and it had a 40 minute respawn timer. Pulls in Tempest Keep required constant crowd control. The original Gruul had so much health that even with top gear of the tier, raids could barely defeat him before his stacking damage buff one-shot the tanks.

All that being said, we circle back to why World of Warcraft is still the top MMOG in the world. Blizzard watched, iterated, and improved its game with no compunction against changing the way things worked. It is that willingness to adapt and change a game, based on user feedback, that makes an online game a success. As the phenomenon evolved, players gained access to incredible moments in player versus player, new end-game options, and greater storytelling. While some of these grew during the era of level 60, even more dramatic changes were yet come with a tide of undeath.

Read Part I. Read Part III.


Posted on November 22, 2012, in Casual Games, Core Games, Crafting, Design, MMO, World of Warcraft and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.