Wednesday, 30 June 2010

World of Weirdos

There are certain things you can't say in civilized company.

You can't admit that you pick your nose and eat it, for example, or that you find Justin Bieber very sexy. These things make you look like some sort of strange, unsocialised half-breed. Believe me, I have personal experience of both.

When it comes to computer games there is an equivalent. And that is to admit that you play World of Warcraft.

World of Warcraft (WoW to its adherents) is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, or MMORPG, or Muhmorpuhguh based in the fantasy world of Azeroth. Players choose to become a member of one of two rival factions, the Horde and the Alliance. The Horde are, predictably, not fluffy bunnykins, consisting of your usual Tolkien-esque bad guys, Orcs, Trolls, Undeads and...erm...cow people. On the flip side, the Alliance consist of humans, elves and that sort of shit.

Players pick a class which will follow one of three archetypes, healer, tank or damage-dealer and enter a massive world filled with wonderment and dragons and other types of beasts.

It would be worth mentioning that WoW is the most successful Muhmorpuhguh of all time. It had 11.5 million active subscriptions as of December 2008 which had no doubt dipped now, but will increase upon release of the next expansion.

11.5 MILLION PEOPLE. That's almost twice the population of Ireland and 11, 499, 999 more people than live on the Moon! Elvis, in case you're wondering.

Let's look at this in terms of money.

11.5M people bought the game, paying between £10 and £25 for the privilege. So assuming a median cost of  £17.50, sales of the client alone has generated over £200 million for the developers Blizzard, and their corporate overlords, Activision.

Not only that, but WoW has a subscription payment model, meaning every single player pays, on average, £9 a month to play the game. 

That's £103,500,000 a month. Which is about £40 a second.

To quote Eminem, wowzers, I just made a mess in my trousers.

I started playing WoW not too long after it's release in 2004, after reading a magazine article proclaiming its awesomeness. And awesome it was. I made a Night Elf Hunter called Neowyngor (don't have a fucking clue why) and set about shooting things with my bow, doing quests and chatting idly to my fellow gamers. It was a truly unique gaming experience and, to be honest, I have never experienced anything like it since.

WoW, to me, was like crack that had been dipped in toffee and then rolled into a fat cigarette of addictiveness.

I played it pretty much every hour I could. My girlfriend at the time hated it, but to be honest, I didn't really care. All I wanted was to gain one more level, kill one more mob, complete one more quest. This situation only got worse when I started working at Emectronic Farts and met a bunch of other geeks who played it too. I started an Undead Rogue called Springheel and joined my workmates in their guild. I can't remember the name now, so let's call it Anus of Thunder.

In retrospect, my behaviour was quite destructive. My friendships suffered as I spent more and more time isolated and I increasingly became withdrawn, favouring spending my time alone and inside.

I'm not blaming WoW for all of this as there were other factors in my life that contributed to that behaviour. However, WoW was the perfect crutch, a great form of escapism that I was wholly invested in. It was an odd situation. There I was, paying a monthly subscription for a game that would never end, that I could never win, the paradigm of time-wasting and utterly inconsequential, and yet I was treating it as if it was the sole concern of my existence. You may think I am being overly dramatic. Sadly, I am not.

The break for me came when I moved back home from London, and had no internet connection. No internet, no WoW, and I finally got a handle on real life again.

But my story doesn't end there.

World of Warcraft is kinda like an unattractive ex-girlfriend you keep hooking up with when times are tough. And every time you go back you notice that her ass has gotten kinda fat, or the mole on her neck has started to sprout hair, and after every liaison you sort of feel disgustedwith yourself and vow never again.

But then the time rolls around where you decide to have another go.

I've gone back to playing Warcraft too many times to mention. Normally it coincides with the release of an expansion, but I've also gone back after trying out other Muhmorpuhguhs and need to be reminded of how a well-rounded MMO plays. I've never experienced anything close to the level of addiction that I had previously, and that's because two things have changed.

First off, I have changed. I like to play games for escapism, sure, but not as a second life. I have too much wicked awesome things in my life that rank higher. Sure, I can still geek out and get completely absorbed in games, much to the irritation of my other half, but I thoroughly understand that real life comes before pixels.

Secondly, WoW has changed, and in a big way. When I started playing it, there was a huge gulf between certain types of players. There were those who, through personal circumstance, could devote 8 hours a day to the game. Then there were those who had a job, kids, seventeen cats, whatever and could only manage a couple of hours. I fell into the latter catergory. The former would be the players with the best gear, the most money, the furthest progress. The rest of us would just be running around, trying desperately to get a piece of epic gear.

When Activision, headed by The Devil Bobby Kotick, bought a substantial share of Blizzard, things began to change and WoW started to follow a new design direction.

Retaining subscriptions and generating revenue became a much greater priority, and it was simply bad business to have huge sections of WoW only obtainable to a fraction of the playerbase. So things were made easier, and the gulf that had once existed between the 'casual' and the 'hardcore' players lessened with good gear and end-game progression made available to all. This has been the source of endless debate on the official forums, but when the shareholders are in control, profit becomes the driving force behind design. This is further emphasised by the fact that Blizzard have recently begun selling in-game items for real money, something they said they would never do, a position which changed to 'we won't sell anything that offers an in-game advantage for real money'. With Activision pulling the strings, it's very possible that we will see a reversal of that policy in future.

I'm not complaining about that situation at all. Companies like to make money, and there is no reason on earth why a subscriber who pays the same money as the next guy should be deprived of progress just because he has a job, wife and kids. I much prefer the WoW that is more accessible.

I just don't think it's as fun.

And that's why, when I periodically return to WoW, I don't stay. It doesn't have the same pulling power it once did. Its expanded playerbase has meant that an awful lot of Call Of Duty kiddies have begun playing it and you can only be told 'HAHAHA UR A FUKIN NOOB, U NED TO FCKIN LERN 2 PLAY, I FUKED UR MOTHR!' so many times before you tire of it completely.

This all isn't to say I think WoW sucks or I hate it or that. In my most recent venture into Azeroth to check out the latest expansion, I joined a guild which reinforced one of my favourites aspects of the Muhmorpuhguh genre. Our guild leader was a woman who lived in London, our main tank was a British guy living in Dubai and one of our most vocal members was a bloke in his late 50s who needed constant reassurance in everything he did. And this is aside from the drunk Scandinavians and nose-biting Toons I encountered. I've always enjoyed the variety of people you encounter and with WoWs playerbase, variety is guaranteed.

Still, for those in the know, admitting you play World of Warcraft in public is tantamount to admitting you've soiled yourself. Other gamers immediately imagine you to be the sort of person who dresses up as a Night Elf and reads Warcraft fan fiction. For people who don't play it, it's unfathomable. And God help you if you try to explain it. It's name doesn't even make sense.

Warcraft. War-craft. It is about the crafting of war? Papier-mache tanks? A sundial made out of shell casings? Why is there a world of it? It's just one of those things that you say and it sounds bad. Like ghonorrea.

Just tell people that WoW is an online game where you kill Nazis. It's the sort of answer that makes everyone happy, because everyone likes to kill Nazis.

Anyhow, I hope you've enjoyed this little rant.

All I know is that the World of Warcraft: Cataclysm expansion will be released fairly soon, and Azeroth will be redesigned and unreconizable. Players will be encouraged to create a new character and level-up all over again, visiting the same zones they have been to dozens of times before, wasting more time and money in the pursuit of the intangible.

I'll be buying it on launch day.

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